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11 Aug, 2010

Jet fighters mimic medieval art

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It was an honour to be menaced by the Red Arrows. Formation flying is a skill and an art

In Wales at the weekend we chanced on a display by the Red Arrows. I did wonder why so many people were sitting on camping chairs on top of Craig Fawr, when we scrambled up through the woods to the summit of the local National Trust property. But it was only after we’d scrambled back down again that perfectly calibrated plumes of smoke appeared over the sea as the sudden whoosh of jet engines divided the sky.

We guessed it must be the Red Arrows – there are not that many precision aerobatic jet fighter teams around – and by the time we got into the house an excited phone call from Auntie Viv had settled the issue. The team then proceeded to fly incredibly low over the back garden.

Usually, when your garden is buzzed by low-flying fighters, you feel irritated. But it was an honour to be menaced by the Red Arrows. Why is this? Perhaps the pleasure people take in this flying display, always a summer sensation in Britain’s coastal towns, can reveal something about art.

A harmless, elegant, daring display by a team of military jets is an extreme instance of the transformation of everyday reality into visual display. In reality, fighter planes are powerful, scary and lethal. But here are highly trained pilots displaying their skills as an art. No one is going to get hurt. There is no war. The formation flying is like seeing a pod of dolphins at play. In this, it resembles looking at early medieval decoration or the work of Richard Wright.

Much of what makes art is simply the pleasure of exercising a skill for its own sake. Since I saw the Red Arrows in Wales, perhaps it’s appropriate to compare the curling streaks of coloured smoke they made in the sky with the abstract patterns in ancient Welsh art, such as the carvings in the tomb of Barclodiad y Gawres. Art for art’s sake: the transfiguration of craft from useful technique to useless beauty.

Seeing the Red Arrows makes you feel free. And that is what art ought to do.

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