Culture Column: Jonny Singer

JONNY SINGER doesn’t speak ‘art’ and doesn’t want to learn.

Last week I almost went to an art exhibition.

It would have been my first since arriving at Cambridge, put on by two friends, on a theme I’m interested in. But I didn’t go. You see my problem is that Art doesn’t interest me – because I don’t understand it.

This, it turns out, is not a fashionable thing to say around Cambridge. But I simply cannot relate to ‘high culture’, because I don’t have the time or interest to understand it. I see a Rembrandt landscape and it looks pretty. But it’s rarely any prettier than the same scene painted by someone else of reasonable skill. I just can’t tell the difference.

Both kinda nice – but which is Rembrandt?

It’s similar with Classical Music. Debussy is pretty nice to have in the background. Some of the quiet piano music is really rather pleasant. But ask me to tell the difference between him and someone similar, say Ravel, or express a preference based on one listening, and I’d just take a wild guess.

That isn’t to say I haven’t tried. I spent a decade and a half learning the piano, 12 years on the violin, ten years on the viola and even (yes, I’m a wanker) two years playing the harpsichord. I’ve been to (or been dragged to) plenty of art galleries to see great works of art. I’ve studied poetry and been to museums. But very little of it has really stuck.

You see the problem is that I find the only way to truly enjoy ‘high culture’ (which I accept is a loose and imperfect term) is to truly understand it, which means cultivating a passion.

A case in point: One of my favourite pieces of music is Schumann’s piano concerto in A minor. I couldn’t play it for you but I could take you through it in pretty minute detail – I studied it at GCSE music and really got to know it.


But it was only by really getting to know it that I could really get to love it. And that took weeks, weeks that I just don’t have, or frankly, want to invest. The first time I heard it, it made almost no impression on me.

I don’t see this as limited to the arts. I do care about sport, in a way I never have for art or music. People sometimes tell me that they find football boring, to which my immediate response is that they probably haven’t tried to understand its complexities yet. I can’t see how you could understand sport to the level a true enthusiast does and not find it interesting. But if the passion didn’t grip you in the first place, why would you want to spend thousands of hours watching, listening to, playing and reading about the game in order to truly understand it?

So whilst I claimed I had too much work (not untrue) and that I would try and make it later, I knew I would never turn up to my friend’s exhibition. Because what I would see would be some pictures, rather lovely pictures I suspect, but pictures supposed to convey meaning. And I don’t speak the right language, nor do I have the enthusiasm to start learning it.