Sometimes, a child says it best.
As the Emperor found out to his cost: you know how the tale goes.
The day the tailors bowled up to the castle gates, he should have sent them packing: but he let them do their sales blurb and was hopelessly taken in.
The thing was, he was an impossibly vain fellow with a love of good clothes. He had, it is said, a new coat for every hour of the day: and Hans Christian Anderson relates that when the great cry went up “where is the Emperor?” instead of saying he was with his counsel, his courtiers would confess sheepishly that he was in his dressing room.
So tailors were, for the Emperor, the stuff of life, and these particular seamsters seemed to have cornered the market in a new kind of fabric: fine and sheer, it would feel like a second – nay, a first skin, the epitome of grace and sartorial elegance.
And, they added: it would sort the sheep from the goats. The suit would be invisible to anyone who was not fit for office: or who was just unusually stupid.
That’d be handy, thought the Emperor: I could see which of my ministers was rubbish.
So the deal was struck and the tailors began a charade worthy of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, weaving invisible material with infinite care.
The Emperor came to inspect the suit. But he couldn’t see anything. Which was he: unfit for office, or unusually stupid, he panicked internally? Whichever it was, his subjects must not know. He praised the weave lavishly and rewarded the tailors with titles and medals. The night before the big parade they sat up burning six candles to show how hard they were working. At last they announced: “The Emperor’s Clothes are ready!”
He put them on, and wore them proudly, right up until a little boy piped up: “But he hasn’t anything on!”
It only took one person, albeit a small one. Before long the whole town was shouting “The Emperor hasn’t got anything on!”
And the Emperor suspected they were right, says Anderson: but he thought to himself, this procession has got to go on. And so he stood proudly buck-naked as the day he was born, and allowed his courtiers to hold high the train which wasn’t there at all.
Childhood should be a time before politics, dissembling, and vanity and intrigue. It is the prologue to lives which may use all four. But at the tender age of three or four, there are few children who have any motivation to gainsay the evidence of their eyes.
As we grow, do we simply forget how open life should be? What an incisive jewel truth is? Or does life become so complex that pretending is a bare essential for a grown up?
My husband has a disconcerting habit of being childlike: stripping away pretence, and saying it how it is.
On Friday evening he found himself at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in Piccadilly.
He was unimpressed. There was little to take one’s breath away, he reported. He happened upon the Tracey Emin rooms and in particular a work entitled “Me too – glad to hear I’m a happy girl“. It was a piece of paper with “Glad your a happy girl” written on it. And it was reasonably priced at £18,000. Phil saw the price tag attached to five words: and he was off.
He wandered round with his friend, becoming ever more incredulous at the works which hung on the wall, until he came to Alex Calinescu’s 2011 – 6674 – 2.
He stood beside a man and his wife who were appraising the black canvas with white shadows. Phil began to talk about just how unimpressive he thought the picture was. “It looks as though someone’s been painting with a black roller and missed a bit!” he informed the assembled onlookers.
One woman chimed in.”But don’t you think”, she said, “it looks for all the world like dappled shade in woodland?”
Phil was warming to his subject nicely now. “I live next to a forest,”he replied. “If I want to see dappled shade I go over there and look at it. This isn’t the same at all….”
Another room of expensive masterpieces, then another. Phil was scanning for allies now. In one room a lady in her mid sixties was walking around, frowning and tutting. He caught her eyes. “It’s rubbish, isn’t it?” he ventured. The lady nodded and grinned.
Finally, Phil found a work he loved. It’s called Dog In A Bin, by a man called Simon Brundret. It’s a silicone rubber dog rummaging in a bin. The bin moves gently as the dog probes. It was genius, Phil pronounced.
There was never a whisper of whether he had the right level of knowledge to appreciate such art; whether he was qualified to make such pronouncements; or any other prerequisite. As far as Phil was concerned, he was the Academy’s audience for the day, and its only redeeming feature was a model of a dog with its head in a bin.
Sometimes, a child – or at the very least, someone childlike – says it best.