Spitfires and the art of the passing moment

Smell can be the most potent sense, bringing forgotten moments instantly back to mind, and few things from my childhood seem as vivid as the antiseptic reek of polystyrene cement. It transports me to a table spread with newspaper, the tube of glue poised at one edge, bulbous at the nozzle with the thick liquid pushed by some mysterious residual pressure to ooze onto the paper or the scattered plastic parts of whatever Airfix kit I might have been painstakingly putting together, the instructions laid out at another corner, the exploded parts with their numbers and the inexorable directive: “locate and cement”. Not being particularly deft I would simply accept the disappointment when the glue seeped out from the joints as I pressed them together, and despite my best efforts to wipe it away would leave smears of slightly melted plastic, like sheep wool on a fence, along the lines of the once-separate parts.

It seems strange now to reflect that I could leave so engrossing a pleasure behind me, and yet it happened, early in my adolescence. I kept some of the models for a while in my bedroom, those I had not set on fire or tried to blow up, stuffed with newspaper soaked in weedkiller (the explosions had been disappointing) until they seemed something past me, something gone.

In my enthusiastic years I put together many types of kit, with shifting attention to detail, but one of the first I ever made, and one I bought and remade several times, something which always took a modest pride of place, was the Supermarine Spitfire. This after all was the plane that had won the Battle of Britain, unmatched among its fighter peers for its grace and agility, something the curving lines of its wings seemed to speak of directly. I had a couple of Hurricanes too, and I knew my great uncle had flown Hurricanes, been shot down and survived, making his way across France, aided by nuns. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been to live through such times, such experiences, though I knew him only in later life as an habitual joker.

Despite the family connection to Hurricanes the Spitfire remained paramount in my imagination. I could only dream of how good it would be to have the materials and the patience to paint one of the models properly, but I had neither, so with the kit fully assembled I would just slip the transfer decals from their slimy backing paper, soaked in water, directly onto the unpainted plastic of the wings and fuselage, the tailplane, pushing them carefully with one finger into place. There was always the difficult decision about whether to fix the wheels in the wings for flight or down for landing. I usually chose the flight option: it was a little easier, and the result looked more elegant, more dynamic. I don’t know how many versions I constructed, how many times I put it together, with a late coda as my eldest son reached his Airfix moment.

On Sunday afternoon I was standing by the water’s edge on one of the beaches here in Folkestone, looking out over the sea, the air softened and glowing with a gorgeous early autumn sunlight, when a real Spitfire and its escort slipped out into the sky from the rim of the white cliffs, its Merlin engine grinding through the air. I’ve seen it often before when sitting along this coast, out for a spin, and imagine it must be some hobbyist who takes the antique plane up with his friends or co-owners.

There’s an obvious poignancy seeing it here, where once it would have flown in earnest and in the face of likely destruction, perhaps from Hawkinge airfield on top of the Downs above the town, the closest fighter base to France. The airfield was still there when I first moved back to Kent, more of a field than an airfield with a little museum attached, but it’s all been sold off now for millions of pounds and turned into a dispiriting sprawl of compressed mock-country houses, the worst of English anti-design. The antique plane in its turn has gone from the last ditch guardian of decency and freedom to become a rich man’s toy, flashing its wings over the harbour where in an earlier war thousands of young men embarked on the journey which would take them to their deaths. It’s irony on irony in this anniversary year of the First World War’s outbreak, where the insensitivity and dimness of our local burghers turned what should have been a solemn commemoration of that great and arguably pointless sacrifice into a vanity project for living egos.

Everyday experience offers us these moments all the time, moments of conjunction loaded with irony or other kinds of accentuated meaning. These heightened moments, these accidents of significance however fleeting, are part of what it is to be alive and alert to our thoughts.

Standing on the beach, separated by a sea wall from the harbour beach where Folkestone’s now infamous Triennial gold rush had its own passing moment, it was hard not to reflect on what difference we might discern if we could speak of this Spitfire flight as an “intervention” by an internationally acclaimed artist.

After all the random event of the Spitfire’s appearance has all the usual attributes of an intervention. It seems to be playing on the boundaries between location, history, personal memory and public symbolism. If an artist was involved we would probably have to say that s/he was interrogating or investigating those boundaries, but without such magisterial presence we just have to notice for ourselves the permeability of what might otherwise seem so solid in our experience.

Since the necessary answer to the question of any difference made is “not much”, and certainly nothing worth speaking of, this little accident of history only highlights the dismal intellectual slackness of the art-world’s notion of an “intervention”.

It is apparent that artworks often “intervene” in experience; it’s a way of beginning to describe the effect of art, the way it works, but it’s a way which stands in need of heavy qualification, and if all the intervention offers us is a renewed self-consciousness around what we already have, then in truth it offers us nothing.

Like so much about conceptual art, this idea of intervention seems to depend on a basic syllogism: the observation that art intervenes, and therefore intervention must be a sufficient characteristic of art. This has led us to a place where the “artist” merely has to offer a show of conscious presence in any situation for that presence to be deemed a Work. But this is mad, a risible loss of perspective. In reality pretty much everything in the built environment has to one extent or another been designed. There is conscious intervention everywhere if we care to notice it, and it’s true I suppose that most creative work starts with noticing. But it is only the beginning, can only be the beginning, and art until recently always then involved some development of whatever it was you had noticed, some transforming work in a medium to take the perception forward, to give people drawn into the work something more than the reflex of self-consciousness.

I can’t see why I should be interested in something which only offers a featureless frame for my own reflections. Nor am I fooled by a claim to “interrogate” the boundaries between this and that, when that interrogation is essentially uninterested in possible answers to its queries, when it has no means to do anything else with those answers.

I am honestly baffled that anyone should take these claims seriously. It seems to spring from a kind of cultural narcissism, which is a good epithet for conceptual art itself, an art interested in nothing but itself and determined to live in a self-constructed world where its assumptions cannot be challenged. There’s a paradox here, though one that’s more apparent then real, because much conceptual art practice would claim to be engaging with the ordinary world, and would hold this engagement in contrast to the more rarefied visual vocabulary of much previous practice.

But that’s where it misses the point, because even rarefied elements in earlier art must place themselves in relation to ordinary life and that’s where the interest begins to develop, where things go beyond whatever we already have. And by arguing implicitly that art is no more than whatever we already have, conceptual art falsely demeans what we have already found to be quite different, and better worth our attention.

It can’t be so radical or reactionary to demand an art which is more ambitious than this, a visual art which by whatever means, to whatever end, has at least been touched by the maker’s hand, with more distinguished skill than ever showed in my plastic Spitfires.

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