News: Henry Dyson preaches at Cathedral Founders and Benefactors service

Henry Dyson, Fellow and alumnus of Grey College, preached at this year's Commemoration of Founders and Benefactors at Durham Cathedral on 25th November 2012. The full text of the sermon is included below, and the audio can be downloaded (MP3, 20Mb).

It is a great honour to speak here today but the task is both daunting and humbling following as I do in the footsteps of the great and the good. Indeed I feel rather like a donkey who has been asked to compete in the Grand National. My attempt to compete is sincere but my chances of achieving excellent results are slim.

The Founders and Benefactors of Durham City, Cathedral and University have provided a sure and lasting foundation for our lives here today. Their vision, imagination and generosity has brought possibilities into being which are way beyond what was initially envisaged. To lay foundations and to implement benefaction is a leap of faith in itself, for one never knows what they may engender and where they may eventually lead. After the initial impact a project often takes on a life of its own and brings new and unexpected results both in the present and the time to come. Laying foundations and performing benefactions are always acts of faith and a courageous endowment for the future.

In the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures we heard earlier, Moses exhorts our spiritual benefactors the Children of Israel to choose life and to act with justice. Choosing life means working to ‘mend the world’. This teaching is a sure guide when considering the life-changing choices necessary to implement such hope for the future.

In Durham we see all around us the results of such positive investment in life. We enjoy beautiful architecture both secular and sacred, ancient and modern, in a dramatic setting. This magnificent Romanesque Cathedral and the Castle is a work of art.

Ruskin said that the view from Wharton Park was one of the Seven Wonders of the World and Pevsner also acclaimed it as one of the greatest sights in Western Civilization.

The 19th Century Viaduct bears witness to the ingenuity and aesthetic values of the Victorians. Aarup’s Kingsgate Bridge and Dunelm House, along with Basil Spence’s St. Aidan’s College are masterpieces of 20th modernist architecture combining function and form.

We are blessed with beautiful riverside and woodland walks in a city that uniquely combines the majestic and the human on a manageable scale, making it a joy to live in.  

As Keeper of Fine Art I have been given the opportunity to bring the transforming power of art to interior and exterior spaces throughout the University, and by extension to the city.

Not always an easy task, I am often reminded of the story of the newly appointed man in charge of buildings at the Vatican. Who when he was shown the Sistine Chapel for the first time he was heard to say: “Well I can see that the art is interesting but I think a coat of magnolia would be less high maintenance and more user-friendly”.

Art is high maintenance in both presentation and conservation, and it makes challenging  demands of the viewer. Looking at art is hard work but as perception is refined and appreciation is cultivated the benefits are many and profound. Looking at Art can be a contemplative religious experience touching the soul on the path to Enlightenment.

What do I mean by art and why do I think it is so important?

Art is a product of the creative imagination at work in the human heart and mind. Art becomes actual when the emotion, intellect, eye and hand of the artist are inspired to fashion an object of beauty and bring it into existence.

I am mainly concerned with graphic art – the word ‘graphic’ comes from the Greek word meaning a scratch – and reminds us that the origin of art, as we understand it, started with human attempts to give pictorial form to activities and thought, as well as fulfilling a wish to preserve and communicate something of lasting value. Art is often a curious mirror in which humanity can see important aspects of itself reflected. Line and form, symmetry, shapes and textures, colours and hues, spacial relationships and symbols can offer meaning and pleasure when they are arranged in such a way that we recognise them as beautiful.

This form of creative activity is most successful when the spontaneity of imagination is combined with the discipline necessary to engage in producing aesthetic objects. For example the drawings of Raphael, the sculpture and paintings of Michelangelo, the portraits of Rembrandt, the work of the Impressionists, Picasso and Matisse, all have now stood the test of time and are widely appreciated as supreme achievements in art.

There are, of course, other points of view. In recent years many conventional ideas of painting and sculpture, and art in general, have been all but abandoned. Art nowadays can be anything, provided the creator declares: ‘I am an artist!’ The ephemera and gimmickry of much contemporary installation art, for example, has yet to stand the test of time and mavericks like me are regarded as traitors if we express concern that art is being trivialised and made ridiculous. I dissent when I am seriously expected to agree that coat hangers hanging in the breeze are on a par with a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Maybe the fault is mine, but I exercise the right to be discerning and honest when I encounter what I consider to be just another example of the story of the Emperor’s new clothes. I also disapprove of jargon and the often obscure language used in art criticism seemingly intended to intimidate, baffle and disguise what to common sense is bogus. Art appreciation should be within everyone’s comprehension and independent thought encouraged. It seems to me that much of contemporary art reflects a popular culture that is obsessed with style rather than substance and lacking in any real depth by presenting so-called art as a fairground attraction. For me it just doesn’t touch the soul.

The Victorians laid a sure foundation of art and education for the population as a whole and stood for improvement by investing in libraries of books and art to be shared by all and it is, in my opinion, to our lasting shame that some local councils are now systematically engaged in closing libraries and centres where people could gather for the fellowship and learning skills necessary to brighten and enrich lives in the community. We appear to live in an Alice-in-Wonderland-type world where nothing is quite what it seems and politicians use buzz words like ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘accessibility,’ whilst at the same time removing the very things that  successfully facilitate these important cultural services. Are we to be condemned to the isolation of virtual relationships through a computer screen without the warmth and contact necessary for genuine relationships and community? Similarly, in art there is no substitute for seeing the thing itself and the real physical contact this requires brings genuine appreciation and understanding.   

In Durham University we now have the Best Collection of 20th century Graphic Art of any British University. It is to our credit, at a time when most other universities are obsessed with vocational training, that we are developing and extending the visual arts and affirming their importance in enlightening the lives of our community, facilities which are also accessible to the general public. Here in Durham our Collegiate System attempts to educate the whole person by organising many extra-curricular activities within a residential scholarly community. The display of art in all our significant spaces is, hopefully, a major contribution towards this aim.

Our comprehensive collection ensures that every technique of modern graphic art is represented. We give opportunities to local artists to exhibit in our Colleges as well artists with international reputations and have deliberately collected work that reflects and encourages the creative output of the region. We are especially proud of our collection of northern mining art. There are sculptures in bronze and wood in particular by Fenwick Lawson, an artist whose physically powerful and thought provoking work is to be found in City public spaces, in the Cathedral and in the University.

Our main collection is housed in the newly built Palatine Centre, a building which is open to the general public. This features a large metal relief sculpture depicting mining activities to commemorate the importance of coal mining on that site and in the fortunes of this city. There is a very large mural painting of a re-imagining of John Tunnard’s work ‘Crystal Forms’ originally created for the Festival of Britain in 1951. There is also the Sphere of Redemption – a large painted fibreglass globe turning in every direction - by the visionary Jewish artist Fay Pomerance, along with works by many of the most important artists of the last hundred years. All of these works of art may be accessed and viewed by the general public as well as by any student or member of staff.

Our art is seen not stored.

The collection of over 5,000 items is, unusually, almost totally displayed on the walls of the Colleges, Departments and public spaces of the University. Most major collections of art have hundreds if not thousands of pictures stored and only a fraction of them are on view at any one time. It is the policy of this University that all our works of art should be displayed where they can be seen and enjoyed. They are there to challenge, to inspire, to educate and foster art appreciation. Presented in such a way art can become an agent of transformation and positive change.  Spaces are enlivened and made intimate by the presentation of art for they give character and add to a spirit of place.

It is hoped that the University is a place where vision and imagination are truly affirmed and exercised with integrity.

Picasso said: “Everything that can be imagined is real”.

This is true, in my view, although not every idea expressed as art is automatically a work of genius or an exquisite example of a given artistic medium. The mundanity of hard work has to be exercised to bring excellent art into reality and this distinguishes well-meaning ideas from the simple act of creation. When art in all its forms works well it can touch, inspire and thrill the soul. Good art seems to have a life of its own and often points to a deeper and more lasting reality than the transient surface of things as we experience them in our everyday lives. The finest art, art that has been refined until it is has fully realised its potential, can uplift the human spirit. I speak not only of graphic and plastic art but of music and literature too. I must also add that Mathematics, very much the tool of the scientific method, is both an art and a science and that this above all reveals the unity of all creative endeavour and the oneness of Truth. Science and Art are part of the same unified quest for knowledge and ultimately are not divided.

Our Founders and Benefactors have provided a generous inheritance for the City, Cathedral and University together forming a tripod on which the whole formidable and integrated work of art that is Durham may stand. The founding faculty of the University was Theology but the University has now expanded into the multi-disciplined Centre for Learning that it is today, a centre of teaching and research of global importance. Durham attracts pilgrims, both secular and sacred, for it is a place where Science, the Arts and Religion are presented  to encourage exploration, discovery and the understanding of our place in the universe.

“Art is a universal continuous activity with no separation between past and present”, said Henry Moore.

Art can act as a bridge between past, present and future.

It is my view that living itself is very much an art and that each person in his or her own way  can be an artist actively engaged in realising the best in the present and thereby contributing to the future. To put it in religious language, art can be a vehicle for the Grace of God, bringing the Divine Potential into human experience and inspiring us to engage in creative and adventurous living. I truly believe that we can all be agents of transformation, each in our own unique way for we can exercise vision and imagination when using our gifts to promote friendship, family life, giving time and effort to good causes, using even modest financial resources to help to make a positive difference, seeking to dispel ignorance and the prejudice this engenders, and most of all by demonstrating compassion in our daily lives.

We have been reminded of the primacy of Love in human affairs from the New Testament reading. St Paul’s words, so superbly expressed, are as true today as when he wrote them 2,000 years ago. He affirmed Love rather than hatred and despair. Moses exhorted us to choose the path of life rather than the way of destruction.

As we bless and give thanks for our Founders and Benefactors today may we resolve to follow our Masters on our individual and collective pilgrimages, as John Bunyan did, and by so doing build sure foundations for our successors.

If we strive to positively and tirelessly contribute to the common good in our own way, however small, we can be active participants in the work of art that is Durham and the greater work of art which is Life itself.

We honour and commemorate our Founders and Benefactors best when we faithfully follow their valiant example.

We must not fail them!

Added Monday 26th November 2012