Recently, she took/dragged me to the Royal Academy Summer show. This is an exhibition that I loathe and enjoy in equal measure: loathe because many of the established artists have clearly sent in the dross that they couldn’t sell elsewhere; enjoy because once in a while you see a painting that simply charms you. This year, it was mostly hateful. There are some Royal Academicians who really ought to be ashamed of themselves.
At one moment I was standing in front of a particularly poor painting of a couple dancing, thinking about how I would phrase my feedback to one of my wife’s A level students if they had dared submit a painting that shabby and unoriginal. My wife came up to me, her voice filled with concern, asking ‘Do you like that painting?’ I could tell it would have been a crushing blow to her had I admitted to her that I did. She would have been right to question whether I had learned anything.
I replied that I thought that that particular piece’s inclusion in the summer show demeaned both the artist and the whole exhibition. That seemed to work.
But afterwards, it occurred to me that my wife thought that I must like the painting, because I paused to look at it. And this got me thinking about the impressions we create, both consciously and subconsciously on people around us.
I have been hearing the expression the ‘hidden curriculum’ recently, which talks about non-intended educational benefits. In medicine, for example, students and junior doctors may be influenced by good and bad role modelling from consultants or more senior doctors, which may influence their future practice. However, the learning that an individual takes home may not the learning that we would consciously intend them to take on board. A good example might be the consultant who says something rude about a colleague which makes his team think it’s OK to do that kind of thing.
The hidden curriculum, and my posturing in front of a bad painting helped me realised a personal shift, in that gradually I am changing from someone who spends much of his time thinking about the impact others have on me, to someone who spends much of his time thinking about the impact that he has on others. This is no doubt a function of maturity, and a little bit of professional seniority, but the real learning is that it was ever thus.
The realisation that we go through life exerting an impact on other people is a fun and interesting one. It reminds me of Newton’s law of gravitation: the idea that every mass exerts gravity, which is related to mass and distance. The social truth is that when we start out, our impact on others is limited amount of role modelling that we do, but the further we progress, the more apparent our impact becomes.
It’s rather scary and exhilarating to think that we are always on show, but it’s important to understand how it happens, otherwise people might begin to think that you have terrible taste in art.