John Bird: Art for art’s sake. And for everyone

We all need something to help us forget, and then help us re-engage

Visiting the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square is my idea of a great holiday, a great escape, a recuperation, for rest and relaxation. A place for me to forget Brexit, happening half a mile away in Parliament, and whatever else I want to forget.

Without forgetting, we cannot survive as people. We cannot always remember the troubling things because that’s where health and wellbeing goes out the window. Anxiety, among other things, is not being able to forget the grim and troubling; and forever always living the worst bits of life – which is the crap.

I’ve known the National Gallery as a place to use since 1961, aged 15. Back then I used it as a place to have a wash in the lavatories after sleeping rough around Trafalgar Square, whilst doing my best to avoid the police.

After I got put away and had decided I wanted to be the greatest of all great artists, I used the National Gallery for its intended purpose: a place to view art. We had 10 days holiday from incarceration each summer and at Christmas, and I’d spend my time in the National Gallery, or its sister gallery the Tate (down on the Thames beyond Parliament, and now called Tate Britain).

I could smell the paints of the Trecento, Quattrocento and Cinquecento periods, the Early Renaissance in Italy and Northern Europe, and I soaked up the art. I took small sketchbooks and made drawings. This was my attempt to break out of chasing after girls, pop music and beer. And it worked.

Last Monday I spent the afternoon in the National Gallery and would have stayed all night, if it stayed open. Just wandering through the altarpieces, and the great works of Michelangelo, Titian, Rembrandt, Veronese, all still on display from the days of my young manhood and boyhood.

I think I needed it. I needed to get lost. I have so much energy and drive for life (thankfully), and I love, absolutely love, my work with the homeless, the poorest and the ignored. But sometimes I feel as if I’ve raided the responsibility shelves too much and I can’t carry it all. So I drop out of society, and forget responsibility. I shift into another gear. I talk to strangers about art. Or I remain silent before a Tuscan altarpiece.

And it’s all free! Whether you’re an Argentine shoe-seller, a Moldovan sheep farmer, or a retired miner from Doncaster, we can all meet in this temple to the arts for nothing. All we need is to be in the vicinity and have the will to explore beyond the countless blandishments to buy, eat and window shop that London offers.

I’m ready for the next dollop of responsibility having gone AWOL from life for an afternoon.

A few weeks before, I had caught, for free, an edition of Front Row on Radio 4. It’s a great arts programme that follows The Archers, just after 7pm. I’d recommend it because it’s always full of useful stuff about spreading the arts and creativity out among us.


The Big Issue magazine is read by an estimated 379,195 people across the UK and circulates 82,294 copies every week.

The edition I caught was all about how you use art to bring people a sense of wellbeing, and the idea of art on prescription, given by the doctor. Arts and Minds, based in Cambridge, does just that. They see art as I see it; as refreshing the mind and body, and strengthening your mental wellbeing.

Whether you’re an Argentine shoe-seller, a Moldovan sheep farmer, or a retired miner from Doncaster, we can all meet in this temple to the arts for nothing

What a fascinating programme. And (as I keep promoting) free to us all. All we have to do is use it.

I’ll be returning again and again to the role of the arts in not only my own personal struggle to control some very self-destructive tendencies, but how art can aid all of the community.

Of course, artists themselves have a tendency to throw themselves out of windows, like Nicolas de Staël, or cut off their ear, like Vincent van Gogh, or drink themselves into fatal car accidents, like Jackson Pollock. But their creativity seems to bring us greater peace than it did them.

I’m one of those people who believes in what’s often called ‘elite’ art. Art that’s allocated as being too difficult to give to people without first acquiring some deep, specialist knowledge. Some see it as snobs’ art.

If we’re going to call this art ‘elite’, then let’s have it art for everyone. Let’s teach about art at school. Yes, including the Trecento, Quattrocento, and the Cinquecento; those centuries of incredible achievement in the putting paint on wood and plaster. But teach it so that all of us can absorb some of the highest achievements of this tradition.

Deepen us. For so much today that goes on is as shallow as a puddle of rainwater.

We all need something to help us forget, and then help us re-engage. We need those pit stops. I use painting to fall, to drift, and I recommend it. But arts and our minds need not always be about galleries. It can be picking up brushes and producing some stains, some images, some colour.

Or it can be just going for a long walk and counting the different birds you see. Whatever rocks your emotional and mental boat.