You want every article you write to mean something: to be, in some way, important. So you prepare a shortlist of exhibitions that have caught your interest; you get it all arranged – times, addresses – and you look out for a sturdy notebook. At least… that’s the plan. It certainly was mine. I had an abundance of ideas about what I was going to do and exactly where I was meant to go.
But it seems the slightest of distractions can throw off those intended actions – the ones that were meant to mean something. In my case, it involved one of the most British of practices: the making of a cup of tea.
Last night I discovered a neglected cup in my room which was badly in need of a thorough cleaning. It was while I was scouring it in the downstairs kitchen that I was struck by its majestic resemblance. There was something, unmistakable for me, about the way that the bristles of the washing brush came into contact with the residual staining on the inner curvature of the cup that reminded me of Turner. Not the man himself (this was not some secular, creative version of Christ’s face appearing in a pancake) but what he was capable of, what he left us: a career of idiosyncratic stainings.
All of a sudden I was looking down into scenes familiar to me from having gawped at them in a more ‘artful’ environment. Wisps of sun-stroked shores, misty battles, scratched skies of some calming storm all came racing toward me in a single moment of staring into this cup. Of course, by now viewed as a new fantastical portal, this cup was no longer a cup to me. It was now gone – its former life, function and image swept away by the Romantic winds that were whipping up some ethereal matter into a Turneresque frenzy.
Plenty of people might point out the suitability of this article’s title, as they may think that a storm in a teacup is exactly what this all sounds like. They would refer to the phrase’s idiomatic use, to denote something small exaggerated out of all proportion, and I would be inclined to agree with them. In this instance, however, exaggeration is not a dirty word. In fact, it firmly and frequently belongs in the domain of art. When other structures in society do their utmost to remain reasonable and responsible, it is often liberating to consider something which is as free as art.
Turner was an artist of exaggeration. His stormy skies and deserted beaches have enough realism about them for us to recognise what they are, but they also have… something else, something much more difficult to pin down. It is that something else which ensures that the distinctive atmospherics of Turner will be remembered into the future. So then, if certain art is exaggerated – in, say, its depiction of nature – it is possible that the interpretation of this art can also be rightfully prone to exaggeration.
Which is why there is no shame in my saying that I saw a storm in a teacup. Art is not captive behind the walls of a gallery or, indeed, anyone’s walls. It is a thing more flowing than water and, occasionally, just as difficult to hold in your hands. The importance lies not always where something is placed but where it is that you yourself are standing – where your mind is at the time of the encounter. You can visit the most prestigious centres of art in the whole world and not be moved one jot; you can witness something passed-by by thousands and be halted dead in your tracks.
Take the current acclaimed exhibition of Turner’s work alongside that of Claude Monet and Cy Twombly at Tate Liverpool. Now, this show is at a fixed address, one that is by all accounts a steadfast, agreed-upon home of art. And yet this does not prohibit Turner’s visions from escaping the confines of the gallery and working their way into the most peculiar of happenings. By all means go and see the show – and be amazed! – but don’t switch off your eyes when you leave the gallery, or as you ride the bus home. You’d be surprised when you might just see great art again. If anything, the misplaced peculiarity of it will enhance its greatness. A greatness that – depending on where your mind is and what you’re looking at – might be found under your shoe, inside an envelope, over someone’s shoulder, or, as it was for me last night, at the bottom of a teacup.