Giles Fraser: Beyond two dimensions: fail better

07 March 2012

TWO artists are hard at work in my house. On the kitchen table, my eldest daughter is finishing off a portrait of her friend for her GCSE art exam. Upstairs, the artist Rebecca Cart­wight, who recently won the Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ Bulldog Bursary, is working on a painting of me.

Disaster strikes both at the same time. My daughter accidentally knocks her brush-cleaning water over the whole paper. She is seriously unhappy. The painting she had been working on for ages was neat and detailed. A cup of dirty water has now created a disorganised stain all over the beautiful face of her friend. All her hard work now seems lost. Indeed, trying to rectify the situation seems only to spread the smudge.

Upstairs, Rebecca decides that she also has to start again. Something about the way I have been sitting is not right. I have sat still for hours, which is not something I find easy. But out comes the cloth, and the old face is wiped away. Nothing is ever lost; nothing is ever wasted, she insists. But it does not feel that way to me. As I sit and look out of the win­dow for another seemingly endless hour, the starting again of the painting feels a little too much like the starting again that I now feel in the Church.

The past few months have been hard for everyone at St Paul’s. For me, resignation from this wonderful place has felt like a loss of identity, as if I had been wiped away. And the age of 47 seems late in the day to start again. Irrespective of our differing approaches to Occupy, I suspect that we all share a sense of loss at what used to be. Something feels ruined — covered in dirty water.

But is there comfort and wisdom to be had for all in Rebecca’s claim that nothing is ever lost or wasted? I suspect in my bones that she is right, however difficult it seems as we begin again. X-rays of Old Masters show that many of the most beautiful works of art have been changed and changed and changed again — often dramatically, and often in response to some unforeseen crisis.

Like a great painting, human life and faith itself seem layered by experiences — some of joy, some of pain and loss. This is what gives us a deeper three-dimensionality. The glare of the media spotlight, unlike the deeper and more sympathetic looking that is required by the painter, creates a two-dimensional effect, turning everything into a series of binaries. Now that St Paul’s is finding some welcome space beyond the harsh media gaze, a new picture will begin again.

We want to keep the perfect pic­ture perfect. But the perfect picture is a myth that can imprison us within what has already been achieved. Samuel Beckett surely had it right: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

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