A feminist reading of two famous paintings

The moral philosopher with whom I worked for many years considered that the two most important cultural achievements in the last 100 years were quite simply, feminism on the one hand and cultural anthropology on the other. It is difficult to disagree. Not long ago I was given the opportunity to explore a wide range of critical perspectives in relation to ‘reading’ works of art. I was also invited to present those readings on certain specially-convened occasions when a group of artists met to reflect upon their practice. In this post I shall provide a very short extract taken from a longer account concerning feminism, its history and ways of giving a feminist reading to works of art. The short examples in which two famous paintings are considered under the aspect of feminism can be understood as an example of ‘feminism in practice’ which is increasingly concerned to uncover and challenge patriarchy. It may be preferable and more attractive for the reader to begin with the paintings in question in part 2.

Part 1: First, though, Schneir (1995) provides a brief overview of the theory and practice of contemporary feminism by outlining its history. She does this because, as she points out, the ‘momentous’ post-war changes in the lives and consciousness of women did not ‘spring from unprepared ground’. In fact the beginnings of the women’s movement (in the USA) began nearly 150 years earlier with the 1848 speech-making of Elizabeth Stanton who, in a public meeting declared that ‘the question of women’s wrongs must be laid before the public’ and that the work for change must be done by women – because only ‘woman alone can understand the height, the depth, the length and the breadth of her own degradation.’ Despite the fact that the campaign waged by Stanton and her co-workers – such as Susan Anthony – was subjected to ridicule and intimidation the gains eventually made by women were significant; they began to acquire legal and property rights, better employment opportunities and some access to higher education; they also secured, both in the USA and in Western Europe, the right to vote.

However, Schneir (1995) underlines the fact that, from the 1920s onwards, the women’s movement entered a period of stasis; serious discussion about feminism as theory and practice all by disappeared. Then, in 1949 a landmark work, ‘The second sex’ by Simone de Beauvoir was published; translated into English in 1953 it eventually established its position as absolutely basic to the feminist canon of written texts. De Beauvoir’s work helped to re-ignite the feminist movement. It certainly enabled the women of the 1960s, as Schneir (1995) puts it, ‘to rediscover truths about their oppression’ – and to do it by and for themselves.

Two contrasting emphases of the feminist struggle emerged: business and professional women sought to address inequalities in, for example, the work-place, employment opportunities, law, education and politics. The under-representation of women was obvious and unjust. Other women (who were influenced by the anti-war and civil rights movements) ‘adopted the goal of liberating women from sex-role stereotypes’ – as well as confronting the ethos and mores of sexist institutions. Schneir thinks that this latter group, through its ‘vitality, daring and creativity’, gave to 1990s feminism ‘its distinctive style and character – as well as its media image.’ She goes on to compare and contrast the early with the recent feminism and pinpoints a fundamental difference in the fact that the early feminists did not examine, in depth, the psychological consequences of gender discrimination. The second-wave feminists of the 1960s onwards realised that a necessary if not sufficient condition of and for female liberation was the analysis of women’s consciousness; feminists, such as Ernst and Goodison (1981) and Grabrucker (1990) exemplify this and premised their radical self-help practices on the raising of women’s consciousness; they illustrated how women needed help from each other to overcome negative feelings about themselves and their place in the world.

Patriarchy generates patriarchal programming which, as Tyson (2015) illustrates, continues to manifest itself in the totality of the cultural world. It infiltrates every space: for example, Warner (2014), for example, shows it overtly and subtly embedded in the texts and images of children’s fairy tales; in so doing feminist thinkers assert that it undermines women – and that their subsequent lack of confidence etc. is taken as ‘proof’ that they are ‘naturally’ submissive. Feminism (or feminisms), according to Tyson (2017), shares a number of basic premises; they include the core assumption that women are oppressed by patriarchy – which is achieved through patriarchal ideology; that wherever patriarchy dominates women are ‘other’ – and find themselves objectified and marginalised; moreover all of Western Europe (and essentially, with rare exception, the rest of the world) is imbued with patriarchal ideology (and, plainly, myths and religious narratives exemplify this). Tyson also contends that: ‘Gender issues play a part in every aspect of production and experience including the production and experience of literature [and by extension Fine Art], whether we are consciously aware of the issues or not.’ (Tyson 2015: 88)

The fundamental problem can therefore be posed as ‘patriarchal ideology and its effects’. Feminists have, as Schneir’s (1995) anthology has convincingly shown, revealed how patriarchy installs values and beliefs, underlines political economy, law and institutions, socially constructs persons, writes history selectively, is reflected in narrative and organises language such that the world and its beings are seen through its oppressive and restrictive eyes. In consequence the feminist agenda for ‘moving beyond patriarchy’ has taken on a variety of forms. French feminists exemplify this; they have been in the vanguard of women’s studies and have provided a wealth of evidence for the critical analysis both of society and its cultural products. Their work can be divided into that of materialist feminists such as Delphy (1984) and Guillaumin (1996) – who demonstrate how the social and economic institutions of society are deeply patriarchal in nature – and the psychoanalytic or ‘depth-psychology’ feminists such as Cixous (1997), Irigaray (1985) and Kristeva (1980) – who uncover how patriarchy serves oppressively to shape the very consciousness of women.

The paradigm-breaking work of feminist thinkers and activists provides an almost unrivalled richness of resource – ranging from the micro-behavioural and the subtleties of language and its use – to global histories, political practices, and, social and economic structures and institutions as well as law and morality – with which to critique works of art. Works of art, too, are bearers of ideology.

Part 2: With this in mind I now outline a very brief critical feminist reading of 2 paintings. First, though, I must add a cautionary note: one of the major contributions of feminist theory has been the inclusion of ‘subjectivity’ in our ways of seeing and interpreting. From a feminist perspective, when we interpret texts (or anything else – including works of art) the way to deal with our intrinsic subjectivity is not to conceal it but to disclose it as far as might be appropriate in order to assist others in the evaluation of our points of view. The analyses which follow acknowledge this; they have been conducted by myself, an ageing man, who is somewhat aware of the way patriarchal ideology has shaped his points of view.

The first painting: ‘The image as burden’ by Marlene Dumas

This painting, viewed through the perspective of feminist theory, is readily seen as a feminist work. As Matravers (2014) points out, there are some approaches to ‘seeing’ a painting not so much in terms of what identifiable form is at first glance ‘there’ but, instead, as made up of symbols within a symbol system – and that the symbols appear in a hierarchy of representations. In somewhat in the same vein as Berger, he adds that:

… such hierarchies of representation are indicative of certain ways of conceiving the world (in short they are ideological). That is a picture can be interpreted as a hierarchy of symbols to show how the artist – or the society served by the artist – views the world.’ (Matravers 2013: 48)

His observations set the scene for examining the painting in terms of just such an hierarchy of symbols which ultimately reveal their ideological foundations.

The title of Dumas’s painting, i.e ‘The image as burden’ and her assertion that it re-states or re-visions an image associated with the film ‘Camille’ demonstrates, from the outset, that it is concerned to foreground and critique patriarchal ideology. The original film-poster image (see below) upon which the painting is based plainly represents gender stereotypes. In that poster the woman is carried by the man; she is presented as passive, submissive and powerless; she typifies, as Greer (1970) notes, that in the imagery of femininity the signs of independence and vigour in her body are suppressed; in addition, the poster image renders her as a conventionally beautiful object and, as such, she is hugely burdened by the demands of social conditioning.

Greer (1970) thinks that although men and women are not very different in most respects the social programme forces women to behave in ways that emphasise and amplify these differences. On top of this she finds that the stereotypical female is a ‘sexual object .. a doll’ and that ideally her facial expression must betray no humour or intelligence but wear a continuous smile; in addition she ‘absolutely must be young, her body hairless, her flesh buoyant and she must not have a sexual organ.’ (Greer, in Schneir 1995) The patriarchal social programme operates through the symbol systems of both language and visual image and, as Greer points out, it functions in a remarkably oppressive way as it constructs the image of the ideal woman. Dumas acknowledges this explicitly in terms of the title of her painting; but she also does this by blurring and simultaneously masking the woman. It’s a very clever, sensitive and perceptive move. It is easy to see that Dumas is essentially declaring that patriarchal society is killing woman. But she does this subtly and carefully by renouncing the sharp edges of ‘life’ and repositioning it as ill-defined and elusive.

This mode of representation also aligns itself with Cixous’ concept of ‘ecriture feminine’; thus, the washes of pale colour and the lack of definition symbolise a resistance to the traditional patriarchal geometries; in ‘The Image as Burden’ Dumas proposes an alternative in which outer and inner overlap and meld in inextricable complexities. As noted above, Cixous proposes that patriarchal form and content will be subverted and negated and that through the expression of an ‘ecriture feminine’ there will be a reconnection with the vitality and life-giving power of the female body. Similarly, the lack of definition in Dumas’ painting also suggests an approach to that which is repressed in the unconscious: the painting can function as a vague intimation of a buried semiotic totality that was (and is) according to Kristeva, denied by the hegemony of a language embedded in what is patriarchal ideology.

Overall, the painting can also be seen to reflect the existence of a long-standing error – an error succinctly stated in Aristotle’s Nichomachean ethics. This, as Heron 1988 observes:

… is the view that it is the intellect which supremely differentiates ‘man’ from the other animals’ and that to cultivate the excellence of the theoretical intellect is the highest goal of life. This belief permeates our educational system; and is the preserve of (still mostly) male aristocrats of the universities.‘ (Heron 1988: 6)

Dumas shows her viewers the pathos of life – and underlines the simple fact that an oppressive ideology which denies women the validity of their life-potentials and their authentic feelings is something urgently to get beyond.

The second painting: ‘Painter working: reflection‘ by Lucian Freud.

The second painting – a very large painting – looks rather different: Lucian Freud’s (1993) ‘Painter working: reflection’ easily lends itself to a feminist critical analysis. Under the gaze of feminist theory it reveals an unsettling expression of patriarchal ideology and its attendant sexism. This affords the painting a paradoxical value: on the one hand there are certain grounds (after Matravers, 2014) upon which positive evaluations can be based whilst on the other it reflects ideological content that is oppressive.

A first and very basic clue to its unsettling patriarchal credentials stems from the title itself: one of the most interesting aspects of feminist research (e.g. Guillaumin, 1996) finds that in patriarchal societies everyday discourse casually and unawarely casts female human beings, primarily and fundamentally, as ‘women.’ This means that, in contrast, to men they are not defined in terms of what they do. Theorists, such as Guillaumin, think that this facilitates the way women are appropriated as objects. However, in Freud’s self-portrait he explicitly shows himself ‘working’; this is something in sharp contrast to the way he portrays his numerous female sitters – many of whom lie naked and on their backs; they are rendered supine and passive. It immediately suggests an alignment with (or expression of) patriarchal ideology. It reinforces the traditional gender-stereotype of men as ‘naturally’ active and women as ‘passive’.

A further gendered difference is discernible in Freud’s self-rendition: his gaze seems relentless, forensic and almost bloodless. It approximates the gaze of detached observation; it approaches that of scientific apprehension from which feeling has been excluded. Again, this expresses a point of view or way of seeing expressive of gender stereotyping in which the male is understood to have the power of observation and through this, of truth.

Patriarchal ideology and gender stereotyping is further compounded by the pose, as well as certain micro-details and the use of paint; thus, the figure stands firmly on the ground and the whole alludes to earthiness, materiality and solidity. Freud’s posture and gesture are similarly lodged in a tradition of gender stereotypes. He is alert, he is ‘working’ and actively ‘reflecting’. He is not ‘sensing’ or ‘feeling’ but is here engaged in some form of cognition. His self-portrait embodies the kind of binary thinking (and seeing) that Cixous (1997) discerned in patriarchal language; masculine ‘thinking’ is typically opposed to feminine ‘feeling’; in this way, according to Cixous ‘woman’ is traditionally assigned lesser value. Freud’s self-portrait is emblematic of the self-assurance of men.

Significantly Freud does not render himself vulnerable in his nakedness. His posture and gesture are masculinised; what though may his gesture signify? From what patriarchal myths and iconography might it be drawn? It can be seen as a gesture of defiance or even as one symbolising his power not only to bring things into being but also to threaten people. An aspect of Freud’s hostility (which may be a kind of generalised anger) has been noted by Searle (2019) who, after engaging with Freud’s self-portraits included a quote from the artist himself with regard to other artists:

When I see photographs of painters staring into the distance I always think, ‘What complete c***s. I don’t want to be one of those,Freud once remarked’ and Searle continues: ‘I don’t think he wanted to be one of those painters who portray themselves all constipated and brow-furrowing, smug and supercilious, either. Even when he is at the centre of things, he’s unknowable.

Painter-working: Reflection’ certainly suggests something unknowable: What is it that Lucian Freud is reflecting upon? His own reflection? The meaning of his art? The contrast between his public persona and his private self? The allure of the primal? In truth we do not know. But we do know that which is rendered unknowable is another means of securing power: the unknowable is a site upon which we project our fears and hopes and our sheer curiosity. We are ‘hooked’ by it. It is another means through which Lucien Freud expresses his power over others.

Moreover a certain confident ego-centricity is evident in the way he ‘reflects’. Balestrieri’s (2020) locates the painting in some of the biographical details of Lucian Freud’s life and draws attention to themes central in feminist thinking; for example, he thinks that:

The self-portrait is always an exercise in ego. It assumes that we are keenly interested in the artist … Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits convey vulnerability. We like that. Lucien Freud’s self-portraits, increasingly as he ages and finds fame and celebrity, convey mastery. They dominate, insist on distance, look down, disdain. We do not like that. And he does not care.’ (Balestrieri, 2020)

Dominance, mastery and a lack of care are again reflections of the way the male becomes masculinised; and Balestrieri finds that the apparent outcomes of Freud’s sexual encounters with women ‘might, in another age, have made an interesting sultan or emperor, a despot who also painted.’

Overall I think Freud’s self-portrait can be read as a clear illustration of that feature of the male gaze identified by Irigaray in which she points out that the patriarchal man is primarily interested in impressing other men. Freud’s bold ‘look at me’ self-portrait cannot but impress other men through its audacity and its capacity to say: ‘I am not bound by the constraints and norms that have befallen the rest of you.’

A final but major area of analysis concerns the economic and institutional supports in which the history and actual production of the painting is situated. It is made in Freud’s own studio; it is his property. In drawing attention to this we cannot but be reminded of the unequal distribution of wealth and property in patriarchal societies. On top of this, Freud’s biographers (such as Greig, 2014) have documented how Freud enjoyed a privileged private education and the benefits of contacts with the monied and cultural elites. He was the beneficiary of a long-established male-dominated network and this network was, in large part, based on class, class exploitation and, inevitably, the exploitation of the class of the most exploited of all, i.e. women. There is good reason to conclude that the painting ‘Painter working: reflection’ may ultimately be seen as a symbol of patriarchal programming and patriarchal language manifested in art.

A film, a painting and a light show.

Often in films it’s not just the characters and the story that are sources of pleasure for me but also the appearance of objects or emblems which support the narrative. And sometimes in works of art it’s the aura, mystery and intrigue that I enjoy because they have the power to transform the ’thing’ – and make me think hard about what I have encountered.

A few days ago I happened to see two quite different examples of what has become known as ‘the moving image’. Both, in quite different ways, were worth seeing. The first, a film, told a sophisticated story. The second was presented in the large gallery of the local University for the Creative Arts. This work, though, did not appear to tell a specific story. It was a categorically different form of moving image from the film – and might perhaps best be described as an ‘artist installation work’.

Taken together the two examples of the moving image revealed something which fascinated me about the nature of art and the way we become used to its modes of expression.

The first film, about espionage and politics, included some beautiful visual moments that added great charm and significance to the characters and the context. These included the impeccable evening dress worn by a number of men at a prestigious and very English formal event, the sight of Pembroke College, Cambridge, an excerpt from a short film of the lovely Billie Holliday singing ‘Fine and mellow’ – and a painting by the artist Christopher Woods. It was the painting and some references to the artist himself that struck me as particular interesting.

The second ‘artist installation work’ featured two large projection screens onto which were beamed highly colourful rapidly changing images; these images were partly created by a strange structure set a few feet away from each of the screens, a structure that sparkled and revolved and which was intrinsic to – and a necessary part of – the overall experience. I visited the gallery with my two grand-daughters who were not yet two years old. They had a wonderful time running around the gallery spaces and watching their shadows appear and, of course move, on the surface of the projection screens. No one else was present.

The two examples – the painting and the spectacle – shown in the two different types of moving image underlined the way the arts continue to evolve and to distinguish themselves as highly differentiated forms of consciousness. The painting by Christopher Wood (which featured in the film) is known as ‘The card players’. The artist’s style and figurative content dates it to the first half of the twentieth century. From 1921 onwards Woods trained as a painter at the Académie Julian in Paris, where he met, among others Picasso and Jean Cocteau and where, against the background of post-Impressionism, he developed a style that some critics have described as ‘primitive expressionism’. I imagine that most people who might set eyes on the painting would immediately have the feeling that they were looking at the work of an excellent artist whilst recognising that it reflects the conventions of its time some 100 years ago. In short what was once new now looks terrific but dated.

The second work happened to be called ‘Thrum’; a single sheet of A4 paper summed it up as ‘a spectacle of colour, light, sound and movement created by time – encoded in pattern’. We also learned that ‘Thrum’ was ‘a series of kinetic sculptures producing moving images.’ Apparently we were seeing the ‘first and only showing of ‘Thrum V and VI’; but it was down to us – to anyone who saw the two Thrums – to make sense of and give meaning to the work. Plainly Thrum met the three core criteria of Conceptual art: it provoked some sort of cerebral almost philosophic reflection; it had an inner and coherent thematic content; and it looked ‘good’ – it ‘looked the part.’ On top of this, in broad terms, the work could only be ‘completed’ by the viewer him or herself. In a way, it demonstrated that the acts of perception preceded the acts of thinking.

What, though, might we make of such a work? Well, it struck me that, in striking contrast to the painting by Christopher Wood, ‘Thrum’ locates itself, unquestionably, in the ethos and mood of contemporary advanced art. It just had the right kind of look! The concepts that the artist, Will Bishop Stevens, used in order to outline ‘what’ we might see made reference to ‘creating contemporary forms of animation’.

But I would not have grasped that it referenced ‘animation’ if I had not been told that it did. I was only made aware of this a week after seeing the exhibition when I read the piece of paper about ‘Thrum’; instead, and before I had read the text, I came up with the following possible meanings by which I could make sense of what I had experienced.

First, I thought that the work expressed a feeling of super-natural weird elusiveness as if hinting at something ungraspable and actually beyond culture. I enjoyed thinking about this as a possibility.

Second, since everything on the large screens was moving so quickly I wondered if I was seeing a rendition of Baudrillard’s ‘Pataphysics of the year 2000’; in this essay he suggests that the speeded-up nature of our lives – of our perceptions and the relentless blasts of information – means that nothing ever has the chance to settle and crystallise – and, therefore, we cannot slow things down enough for history to be possible. The idea of history becoming impossible is extraordinary and yet rather implausible.

Third, I wondered if the experience of Thrum was an allusion to the hyper-realities of the city – to Tokyo or Milan or London at night – with those flickering percepts of faceless faces and a blending of the real and the dream. It may even have been hinting at Umberto Eco’s famous notion of a world in which the fake has become more real than the real.

I was perfectly happy to think about the work in these kinds of inter-related ways and to imagine what it might be referring to in the wider culture whilst not having the slightest idea that it was more closely tied to animation. It may even be the case that I never really needed to read the text and never needed to know that it was about ‘animation’; but when I discovered its link to animation I realised that I need to understand more about how to distinguish animation from anything else.

However, I think that the two examples of the moving image that I saw underline a demanding truth about art, its inter-subjective conventions and knowledge. The philosopher Richard Peters has indicated that our specific modes of thought and awareness (such as art, science, history, philosophy, mathematics, politics and so on) entail distinct forms of thought which all have a history, a content, concepts and methods of validation that are specific to them. In other words they are highly specialised and inevitably characterised by a kind of shared internal language that is more or less restricted to the initiated. And, at the same time, the concepts and meanings are likely to be continually revised and developed – as new forms of understanding, ways of ‘seeing’ and specific modes of cultural convention emerge. Art, in this sense, is always caged. And then it gets uncaged and then re-caged.

Christopher Wood’s wonderful work reflected the concepts, the style(s) and modes of perception specific to his time. ‘Thrum’ – by Will Bishop Stevens – reflects a moment in advanced contemporary art – a moment that expresses the techno-spectacle, a work which self-consciously explores itself, and which, at the same time is marked by a search to include much more than actually meets the eye. It serves as a rendition of the current vogue for entanglement. By this I mean that each element in the work of art is understood to be connected to a diffuse network of associations and meanings. (See note below) To that extent it reveals its inseparability from the early 21st century specific ‘advanced’ art conventions of taste and validity.

Post script: The film in which the painting by Christopher Wood appears is entitled, ‘Page Eight’. The photograph shows part of the Thrum exhibition in the large gallery space at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham.

Note: Thrum, for example, simultaneously embraces and exploits both a culture of extraordinary technical sophistication as well as reflecting care for the environment; it highlights the value of uniqueness as well as the society of the spectacle. It may even serve as a metaphor for – or way of thinking about – the ‘mind/body’ problem. And so on.

A moment of re-enchantment

Introduction: In this relatively lengthy post I first provide an account of certain experiences I encountered whilst engaged with my development as an artist. I then move on to make reference to the influential work of Richard Peters in the ‘philosophy of education’ in order to suggest how tutors of art might enhance the effectiveness of their practice.

Part One: Experiences in Art

Many years ago I was working in a relatively specific academic capacity in a unique institution that had been originally constituted to help people become ‘more fully human’. After a while I was asked by a learned colleague to contribute to a society – the ‘Henry Fielding society’ – that introduced various cultural topics to individuals attending courses in that institution. I agreed and subsequently, during the 1980s, gave evening lectures on the history and legacy of French Impressionism. It was a demanding task but I was able to make good use of the many texts by art historians including Rewald (1973) and Crespelle (1981) as well as the socio-cultural studies of Barthes, Foucault, Benjamin and Berger. I supplemented these with references to the various Impressionist works that I had studied in the museums and galleries of Paris and London. To the extent that various art historians had identified new cultural developments and ways of seeing, including the excitement and promise of science as well as the impact of new technological advances that had all influenced the Impressionist artists and their work, I underlined the fact that this style of painting should not be seen merely as a type of purely aesthetic ‘pretty picture’. I was pleased that this point was forcibly made not so long ago by Januszczak in his television series, ‘Impressionists Painting and Revolution.’

When I finally left that special Institution to begin a form of retirement I enrolled at the local art college in order to supplement my theoretical knowledge by learning more about the practice of art – and I began a two-year foundation course that was designed to expose the student to the many genre of art. I was in my mid-fifties and the majority of the students were much younger than me. The course went well. One of the most notable features of the overall experience was the almost complete absence of any direction or guidance on the part of the tutors. We were regularly given various tasks and assignments to do with a wide variety of forms of art – from, for example, graphic design to print making, textile art to three dimensional manifestations, photography to digital art etc. – and we had complete freedom to respond creatively to whatever domain of art we found ourselves addressing. The tutors occasionally made a supportive intervention and on very rare occasions prescribed the knowledge that we, as students, should cultivate. In this latter respect, we were once told that we ‘really’ needed to develop a theory of art – although this was made more as a suggestion – a recommendation – and was certainly not an absolute requirement. (And I was to discover, increasingly, that theories of art are about as varied and esoteric as those that try to come to terms with making sense of being human.)

The work that I produced during the two years I spent on that course was often very inventive, seemingly radical and informed by artists such as Beuys, Kiefer, Tapies and Broodthaers. It drew more from that distinct sensibility which the brilliant Susan Sontag believed had characterised most of the leading art of the first half of the 20th century. However, I remained disquieted with my achievements on the course: I was unsettled because I had the sense that I was, in essence, creating work that was not entirely authentic. I was not convinced that I was doing much more than imitating an established mode of perception (a sensibility) and a certain convention in art – i.e. the tradition of expressing gloom and darkness, weirdness and misery and horror. It was inauthentic in the sense that I was conforming to the canons of an established ‘taste’ rather than expressing the truth of my experience in the world about me.

At the end of the course I had to go away and think about this. And this I did.

I resolved not to be overly influenced by any single ‘movement’ or fashion in art. Instead, I decided that I would restrict myself to painting – and I would paint that which I knew and with which I had direct experience. This meant painting portraits and full-length studies of my wife and daughters and occasionally people who I had seen in the media. I also spent more than three years in a post-graduate philosophy class, in which, among other things, I had the chance to dwell upon and explore the theories of art such as those of the Frankfurt school and, separately, those of Martin Heidegger. I also had the good fortune to enjoy and discuss Iris Murdoch’s beautifully conceived ‘philosophy and literature’ which, but for the course, I might never have encountered.

More than a decade passed and so, with what seemed to be adequate foundations in place, I decided to enrol once again in the local art college and this time pursue a two year MA in Fine Art. Strangely, whilst my presence had been greeted with enthusiasm by the course leader on the original foundation course I felt an enduring sense of unease on the Masters ‘programme’. This feeling of unease was amplified whenever we assembled as a group and found ourselves participating in the critical appreciations of our work. I was astonished at the reluctance of a large majority of the class (there were nineteen of us) to engage overtly in any sustained way with the creative output that they were seeing. The level of inhibition was remarkable. It was almost bewildering. In the first place very little was ever said and very rarely was any sophisticated reference made to the form, the content – or any of the critical perspectives that might have been ‘alive’ in the work itself. The one exception to this was a woman who was a serious and committed artist and who not only made consistently ‘good’ work but who also drew selectively from the history of feminism and the tragic ghost of Miss Havisham. I did try to express my thoughts and feelings about what I was seeing and made explicit the wider cultural references to which it might allude or reference – but I felt as if this was unwanted. After a while I even began to wonder if people like me were in some undisclosed way ‘unwelcome’ in the field of contemporary Fine Art. (My ‘otherness’ was not the full blown and nowadays more interesting ‘otherness’ of others!) Finally, when a new head of Fine Art was appointed I wrote to her asking if she would outline the underlying theory and practice of education in the field of Fine Art. I really wanted to know what was guiding the minimum use of interventions (and their manner) that was expressed by the tutors within the institution. Her reply was intriguing because it implied that the ‘criticism’ – the weekly sessions when the group of artists and their tutors came together – was, apart from any self-managed learning and development, the single predominant method of actually helping an artist to develop. But my experience of the criticisms was that they were almost disabling because no discernible rigour was apparent nor was any sustained focus given to any judgements about the form and content of the work. They were simply unhelpful.

Something else, though, had struck me about my work on the MA course in Fine Art: it never really achieved anything like the mood or originality of the works that I had made so many years earlier during my Foundation course. It was distant, composed and somehow ‘heavy’ in tone and mood. It could have been so much better – and I could not help but feel that it had suffered from a dominant movement in contemporary Fine Art that is studiedly obscure: meaning is deferred; nothing is certain; abstract concept is piled on abstract concept in a discourse that approaches meaninglessness; a search for novelty amounts to little more than an idiosyncratic extension of the already abstract. Words and the thing disconnect …

So, I returned to study, once again, works in the philosophy of education to consider what educational and training emphases could, in principle, be deployed on MA courses in Fine Art. At the same time I reflected on the various learning structures that I had developed in that original and unique institution in which I had the good fortune to give those lectures on the history and legacy of French Impressionism. Back then I had come to focus more and more on police professional ethics and the question of how best to provide a valued ‘ethics education’ for police leaders and managers. This had pre-occupied me for most of the 1990s and, in truth, my learning designs were only partially successful.

Part Two: Ethics and Education

In that institution, my colleague, the philosopher Neil Richards had, in 1981, begun to introduce, for the first time, an ‘applied ethics’ (as a named subject) for senior police officers. I had contributed to this project – initially with a set of research findings on the development of – and patterns within – police culture and with various observations about the moral system of many police officers. Richards had successfully completed a thorough study of the philosophy of education in the company of Robin Barrow – and some of the most important foundations of the first appearance of an ethics for police were actually provided by Richard Peters’ (1966) remarkable work, ‘Ethics and education’. I was moved to revisit Peters’ text because I had a sense that the framework he provided could offer a rather more thorough way of ‘delivering’ MA programmes in Fine Art – and more. In his book Peters successfully melded philosophical analysis with psychological insights and the realities of professional practice within educational settings. He achieves what is, if a reader has the time and patience to attend to the profundity of his writing, nothing short of a ‘re-enchantment’ for teachers, tutors and lecturers – but also for any person working in public service – including the police. This is because he understands the fact that education is ultimately about the development of mind and that the different subject domains such as history, science, literature, mathematics, economics and aesthetics – including art – reflect highly differentiated forms of consciousness; and he is surely correct: it is far better to think of the different ‘academic’ subjects in terms of the distinct, remarkable and highly differentiated forms of consciousness that they have evolved and that they achieve – rather than as collections of facts and theories.

It follows that the essential task of the teacher – in the first instance – is to initiate pupils and students into these different forms of consciousness. As Peters notes, students have to ‘get on the inside’ of a field of knowledge – and this means understanding the distinct principles and conventions by which it makes progress and calls itself to account. He famously recognises that through the various experiences of education a person, if it is successful, is transformed and comes to look at the world in a new and different way.

As his text unfolds he explores the ethical dimensions of teaching and educating until he finally comes to the last part of his book in which he confronts the problem of social control in schools and colleges. In fact, as we developed the content of applied ethics for police leaders and managers throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s my colleague Peter Villiers, who was especially sensitive to the political dimensions of policing, paid particular attention to the problem of the ‘retreat’ from authority that has emerged and compromised the provision of public services including the police service of the United Kingdom. It is in this section (and perhaps surprisingly) that Peters presents a chapter which transcends any narrow appreciation of ‘authority’ and in which he elevates the practice and experience of education to something of the highest value. Whilst teachers and educators might have hoped to concentrate on the joys of transmitting their subject knowledge to pupils and students, it is the case that a high degree of social control must be ‘in place’ for the performance of teaching to occur. In consequence, in this last section of the book, Peters devotes an analysis to the indispensable concept of ‘authority’; after clarifying its nature and meaning, he then moves onto its justification, before finally focussing on the formal and actual authority of the teacher. And this is where his book provides an inspirational way of thinking about teachers everywhere and those in colleges or universities of art in particular. Peters outline of the formal ‘authority’ of the teacher serves as a reminder of what the incarnation of the role of a teacher should be. He writes:

‘Schools [and colleges] are institutions whose over-riding aim should be that of education, which … involves the initiation of the young [or not so young] into a worthwhile form of life. This involves activities and forms of thought and awareness [such as history, literature, mathematics, science and aesthetics] which are regarded as intrinsically valuable; it involves modes of conduct that are morally justifiable – not only the general and specific virtues – but commitments to liberty and equality – together with their political derivatives, i.e behaviour associated with good citizenship; it involves manners, [and a level of decency] ….which are part and parcel of a [socially acceptable] form of life. It also involves skills … which are necessary conditions for such a form of life.’

And he continues with a striking reminder of why, in the first place, we have brought educational establishments into being:

‘Thus, schools and colleges share with churches, research institutions and various voluntary organisations the function of preserving and transmitting the ultimate values of a society.’

He then makes an observation about one aspect concerning the nature of those ultimate values in an open society:

‘ … in an open society such as the United Kingdom the values reside not simply in a content or body of knowledge and skills which are transmitted; they reside also in the principles of procedure and forms of thought [e.g. the practice of ‘critical thinking’, the provision of reasons and the adherence to criteria and standards of validation] that enable such a body of knowledge to develop and be adapted to new circumstances.’

In fact, what Peters has to say is plain to see and exemplified if we pay attention to the discourse that its used by any of the informed and expert people on television who discuss and appraise any of the practices of interior design, garden design, photography, architecture, pottery, or the study of the natural world: they all use concepts particular and more or less internal to their field of practice. They also make explicit the standards by which a work is judged and evaluated. This as Peters underlines, is also characteristic of any developed subject domain that has ever come into being.

As I was re-familiarised with Peters’ adumbration of the role responsibilities of a teacher or tutor, I could not help feel that nothing quite like this appears to inform the ethos governing the interventions, the atmosphere in the criticisms, or the learning structures – as well as a discernible ethos – that I experienced on my MA Fine Art course. There seemed to be an emphasis on producing things that might be shown ‘out there’ and which seemed to be unconcerned or disconnected with the development of the ‘educated’ artist. In other words, the course was aiming at ends extrinsic to itself. However, as I read Peters’ opening remarks in relation to what it meant to be ‘in a position of authority’ in a school or college, it struck me that he was offering a profound moment of re-enchantment in what it was (and is) to be a teacher. And one could go further: he reminds his readers that any public servant, including the police officers with whom I worked, are the custodians and transmitters of society’s ultimate values. Surely, it is inspirational and enchanting to think of oneself as the custodian of the highest values of a society such as the one that has been developed in the United Kingdom.

But superadded to this was Peters discussion which bears less on the formal outline of the role-responsibilities of a teacher but more focused on the manner in which a teacher or tutor can incarnate his or her role and achieve at least an adequate expression of the fact that they are also ‘an authority’, and, ideally, an expert in some specialist domain of knowledge. In his characterisation of the actual authority of the teacher he insists that an:

‘ … appropriate approach for a teacher is to behave as becomes a person who is an authority on something, to be true to his or her calling. A person who is genuinely an authority about something invests it with an aura. His or her enthusiasm for their chosen activity or form of awareness and mastery of its intricacies lures others to be initiated into its mysteries. A teacher must therefore convey the notion that he or she is engaged in an enterprise of the human spirit – which is not a matter just of transient titillation. Behind all such spheres of knowledge and skill stands the notion that there is a right and a wrong way of doing thing, that some things are true and others are false, and that it desperately matters what is done or said.’

In other words the teacher or tutor opens the doors of perception and animates their field of knowledge with something that quite simply enthuses the student. Knowledge and understanding, in whatever the field of study, becomes exciting, illuminating and enlightening. People get ‘drawn in’ and begin to identify with the outlook and commitments of the teacher. And key, in part, to this process is the psychology of identification in the sense that pupils or students take into themselves some or all of the values of the teacher or tutor.

He continues:

‘A sense of curiosity and wonderment must by conveyed about questions which give the activity its point, together with a passion for precision in accepting or rejecting answers to them. In other words what is intrinsic to the activities and forms of awareness must be vividly intimated without arrogance. As soon as pupils or learners begin to be overtaken with the excitement, to identify themselves with the quest, question and answer and other forms of encouragement can help to lead them on. The methods used will depend upon what is being taught’ – and to this he immediately notes that, ‘art requires different techniques from history.’

On top of this, an effective teacher or tutor needs a knowledge of psychology and sociology if he or she is able to appreciate and work effectively with different levels of cognitive and intellectual development – as well as the phenomena associated with the different life stages through which a person passes. Ultimately, though, the teacher or tutor has to find ways which ‘set activities going in the minds of others that will eventually transform their interests and their view of the world.’

In essence, although it may appear old-fashioned, Peters successfully underlines how a well informed teacher or tutor, who is in the dual position of being ‘in authority’ as well as being ‘an authority’ in a subject domain can conduct themselves accordingly.

It was sobering for me to have the chance to dwell upon the complete text of ‘Ethics and education’. I realised that if, so many years ago, I had been more familiar with the depth of his thinking I would have done a better job when I was working for the government in the field of police leadership development. But beyond this, I cannot but conclude that tutors of art could do more than rely on the inhibited mood of the group criticism (the so-called ‘crit’) and could intervene in a far more extensive and enabling way. Various models detailing the range of intervention skills available to people in the different kinds of ‘people work’ (including teachers) have been carefully elaborated by, for example, John Heron and Gerard Egan and they complement the richness of Peters’ account.

But in saying this I may have mistakenly assumed that certain of our institutions are genuinely committed to ‘education’ and not to something else. And, on reflection, I am not really convinced that what is called a ‘Masters’ degree that is offered by many institutions has much, if anything, to do with being genuinely educated in a subject field that is defined by specialist knowledge and understanding.

A story about an artist

Today, I found a tiny pygmy shrew lying in a large empty clay flowerpot. Last summer the pot was graced with a host of cheerful scarlet and crimson trailing geraniums. The flower pot was still filled with a small amount of earth and the recent dry sunny weather in early April had succeed in drying it; and, it was upon this earth that the pygmy shrew lay. The shrew was dead. It looked almost sweet – poignantly and tragically sweet – as it lay, quite still – shrouded in a velvet covering of fur. I had not expected to find the shrew; the sight saddened me; I was reminded, once again, that something so perfect could meet, too soon, its death. The little shrew and the memories of those once beautiful geraniums reminded me that nothing lasts forever – and reminded me, too, of a work of art – an art book – that I had, not so long ago, made.

As part of an inquiry into what I had come to call a ‘psycho-philosophical’ art I had developed the particular art book that took, as its starting point, an essay by Michel de Montaigne. The famous essay encouraged his readers to take the view that ‘all the wisdom and argument in the world eventually come down to one conclusion which is teach us not to be afraid of dying.’ I supplemented Montaigne’s writings with readings from various sources – each of which had something interesting or profound to ‘say’ about death. And one of the entries I made in the art book was an extract from a short essay by Hermann Hesse entitled ‘Klingsor’. I did not, in truth, identify with Klingsor – who was an impassioned artist – nor did I feel his sublime levels of commitment – but I could feel certain affinities with him. Hesse’s text tells us of the last summer that Klingsor lived before his death. It is ‘Klingsor’s last summer’. Klingsor was a painter – a painter enthralled by beauty, a painter of vivid colour, passionately, fervently, endlessly seeking to express his love of everything the world could reveal. No day could ever be reclaimed; life was precious – every moment was precious, irrevocable, a gift and a glory and, in its passing, a tragedy …

One evening in that last year of his life he left his studio; and, from a balcony he looked, through his artist’s eyes, into the cool darkness of the night: It is then that the narrator tells us:

‘In a year perhaps or sooner, these eyes would be blind and the fires in his heart extinct. No: no human being could endure his flaming life for long. Not even he could, not even Klingsor … Nobody could go on for such a long time having all his candles burning day and night, working feverishly for many hours everyday, spending many hours every night in feverish thoughts … forever creating, forever with all his senses and nerves wide awake and alert, like a palace behind whose every window music rings out day after day, while night after night a thousand candles twinkle. It would come to an end …’

The narrator continues by tracing out some of the details of Klingsor’s last year: we learn about his intense experiences, his unceasing hunger for life, his relations with a handful of friends, his swings of mood, his moral freedom and his veniality. But we have been alerted to the fact that his days are numbered.

Then, in September of that year Klingsor painted his last self-portrait, and, of this painting, the narrator tell us that:

‘This frightening, yet so magically beautiful painting, the last of his works to be entirely finished, came at the end of that summer’s labours, at the end of an incredibly fervid tempestuous period of work, and was its crowning glory.’ And how did he paint this work?

‘He painted seated and from memory; only now and then, and almost always during pauses in his work, would he go to the large, old-fashioned mirror on the north wall, its frame painted with climbing roses. Standing before the mirror he would stretch his head forward, open his eyes wide … he saw many many faces behind the Klingsor face in the big mirror … and he painted many faces into his picture; sweet and wondering children’s faces, young manhood’s brow and temples full of dreams and ardour, scoffing drinker’s eyes, lips a’thirsting, persecuted, suffering, the seeking libertine of an enfant perdu. But he built up the head majestically brutally, made it into a jungle idol, a jealous infatuated Jehovah, a totem to whom new born babes and virgins might be sacrificed. Those were a few of his faces. Another was the face of a doomed and denying man who accepted his fate: moss grew on his skull, the old teeth stood askew, cracks ran through the white skin, and scales and mould grew in the cracks. These are the features his friends particularly love in the painting: They say: this is the man, ecce homo, here is the weary, greedy, wild, childlike, and sophisticated man of our late dying European age who wants to die, overstrung by every longing, sick from every vice, enraptured by the knowledge of his doom, ready for any kind of progress, ripe for any kind retrogression … at once Faust and Karamazov, beast and sage, wholly exposed, wholly without ambition, wholly naked, filled with childish dread of death and filled with weary readiness to die.’

And finally the same narrator continues:

‘And it was not only his face, or his thousand faces that he painted into this picture, not only his eyes and lips, the pained ravine of his mouth, the cleft cliffs of his forehead, his rootlike hands, his twitching fingers, the mockery of reason, the death in his eyes. In his idiosyncratic, overcrowded, concise, and jagged brush script he painted his life along with it, his love, his faith, his despair. … and he painted a youth with a suicide’s face, also temples and woods, an old bearded god, mighty and stupid, a woman’s breasts split open by a dagger, butterflies with faces on their wings, and at the back of the picture, on the brink of chaos, Death, a grey ghost driving the spear of a small needle into the brain of Klingsor.’

We do not know how he dies. But I do know that, in his intensely vivid depiction of Klingsor, Hesse was describing what was once seen as the image of the ‘true’ artist. And the particular sensibility to which he was referring characterised much of early twentieth century art – expressive, as it was, of angst, dread, alienation, suffering and insanity. Things are different now.

Ways of seeing

Cordelia Dvorak’s (2016) sensitive and deceptively informal film on the ‘art of looking’ featured a study of the ageing art-critic John Berger; it served to raise serious questions about our individual and shared ‘ways of seeing’.

I had, for some time, been writing accounts of my experiences in relation to various people and places in England – as well as my responses to certain of its cultural manifestations – and, as a direct result of watching Dvorak’s film, I decided to confront and make explicit, probably for the first time, my own ways of seeing. As Berger originally pointed out, there is a great difference between simply ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ – and that our acts of seeing are informed by values, belief systems, tradition and ideology. (He famously exemplified this by drawing attention to the materialist and aspirational form and content that is characteristic of traditional oil painting – as well as the often oppressive nature of the ‘male gaze’.) It necessarily follows from Berger’s account that unless we conduct a kind of personal archaeology – unless we ‘go’ underground and make our unconscious conscious – we will never really grasp or appreciate how we construct reality and how we end up seeing as we do.

My inquiry was particularly provoked and then focused because of the experiences that emerged for me as I was walking in a distinct landscape (a heathland) close to the town in which I live. The place is known locally as ‘The Bourne Woods’; I found that I was ‘seeing’ my surroundings in terms of a nostalgic recollection of the early years of my life; I realised that phantasy and play are ways in which I habitual engage with the phenomena of the world. On top of this, I was alerted to the role of my personal history in the way I ‘see’ things: for example, the light grey sandy path along which I was walking was now where Christopher Robin and his teddy bear, Winnie-the-Pooh set off for their special ‘enchanted’ place; And the hill to my left was a perfect place to act out the heroic romantic myth in which the noble sheriff, Pat Garrett, is on the trail of the outlaw Billy-the-Kid. I can never escape those enduring and treasured imaginative moments of my childhood.

On my visits to the heathland, I became aware of two other features of my ‘ways of seeing’: first, I also have a detached and semi-objective way of ‘seeing’: I can easily find myself in an ‘observational’ mode which is essentially scientific; in part, this was due to my early schooling: I had, in my final two years of secondary school, the good fortune, to be left almost completely alone by my teachers; I studied Zoology, Botany and Chemistry – along with Human Biology. Whilst I became more interested in the study of Philosophy at University I was, nonetheless, able to consolidate and extend my early grounding in the sciences: in consequence, I can ‘see’ the ecology of the landscape (any landscape) with which I am familiar – as well as aspects of its history; second, I certainly engage with the world about me in terms of a ‘film’ or ‘veil’ of concepts and ideas; so, for me, reality easily shifts into a dream world – a dreamscape – and lends itself to forms of writing – especially short, and often ironic or sardonic, stories. Literature continues to inform and enhance this way of seeing: like everyone, I live in and through language – through the many forms of literature and story-telling – including those that my parents originally commended; and amongst these were certain classics of world literature …

But there is another and often unwelcome side to my habitual ways of seeing: it is, at least from time to time, decidedly ‘critical’; one indicator of a successful education – of being educated – is surely the ability and disposition to ‘think critically’ – to analyse facts, opinions, evidence and argument – to search for their validity – with a view to forming a reasoned judgement or conclusion. In a way, it means a readiness to adopt a kind of distance from whatever is being presented as ‘the case.’ The problem with this way of seeing is that it often annoys people; it is disruptive and unsettling. In many, if not most, contexts of social being, it is unwelcome: for example, not so long ago I spent some time in an institution devoted to the Creative Arts. This was not a place in which critical thinking was the norm; it meant that I was essentially ‘out of place.’ However, it’s no bad thing to discover that one is out of place: it implies a degree of freedom and consolidates one’s identity. Happily, through this experience, I was reminded of a couple of lines from the song, ‘I dreamed I saw St Augustine’, which note that:

… the moral of this story, the moral of this song
is simply that one should never be where one does not belong

This brief outline of my overlapping ways of seeing is not exhaustive; it omits two or three other modes: these include everything related to specific aspects of my unconscious such as my ‘ego-defence mechanisms’ and, separately, to the delights of a culturally-formed perception that is unerringly aesthetic; beauty makes a great difference to me – and, as a person in a film once said, ‘it’s just nice looking at someone who is pretty.’ They also do not elaborate on certain of the contrasts between the ‘seeing’ of different categories of object – such as the ‘object’ which is human and those that are not. Finally, this reflection is based on the assumption that I can provide an accurate and rationale account of the modes in which I apprehend the world about me – an assumption that is increasingly being tested by advances in neuroscience and neurophysiology.

Guildford to Farnham: what have they done to the rain?

It was a late afternoon. It was the beginning of January. A new year had begun. The rain was streaming down. The sky and the land had dissolved – one into the other. It might have been a ‘watercolour’ England; or a watercolour signifying the English psyche – with all those strange geometries – those blurred edges – so deceptive and so elusive. But it wasn’t.

I was driving, through the rain, from Guildford to Farnham. Far to the west, I could see that the vengeful coal-black clouds were gradually clearing; a blood-red glow was beginning to kiss the horizon. The kiss grew more and more intense. It was firework red; it was a moment in strontium red. I was listening to a famous song on the car stereo system. It was a song that was first played on the radio in 1962. Back then it was called ‘The rain song’. It was sung by Malvina Reynolds. Then the song went away as the world took over. But I heard the song once again – in 1964. This time, though, the same song had a different title: now it was called, ‘What have they done to the rain?’ And here was the graceful Malvina singing it again. I always thought that it was a beautiful song. It begins with the words:

Just a little rain, falling all around
The grass lifts its head to the heavenly sound.

Here was the enchantment that is everywhere. I love those lines: I think of the light summer rain that cools the land; I think of grass bathed in the morning dew; I think of the freshet stirred – and then the brook – and the river; I think of kingfishers and herons …

The song continues:

Just a little rain, just a little rain,
what have they done to the rain

So, then I remembered the idea of the protest song: in the early sixties there were lots of this type of song. Back then, Malvina was singing about the atmosphere. She was singing about the air that we breathe – and how it was being poisoned by nuclear fall-out – the radioactive fall-out from the testing of nuclear bombs. She wanted us to know about the nuclear rain.

The words of the song continue:

Just a little boy standing in the rain
The gentle rain that falls for years
And the grass is gone
The boy disappears
And rain keeps falling like helpless tears
And what have they done to the rain?

Her voice is haunting, simple and pure. It isn’t like the rain. Perhaps she promises an art that could make a difference. Then she sings the next verse:

Just a little breeze out of the sky
The leaves pat their hands as the breeze blows by
Just a little breeze with some smoke in its eye
What have they done to the rain?

The grass disappears because it is being killed. It goes brown – then black – and then it turns to dust. Don’t touch it. The boy, too, disappears; he’s died a nuclear death. And the gentle breeze with smoke in its eye? The smoke is the deadly strontium-90 …

Outside, as the song ends, the rain is still lashing down. And I’m driving through the rain towards a blood-red strontium sky.

Note: Two strontium compounds, strontium carbonate and strontium nitrate, burn with a bright red flame and they are used in fireworks and signal flares.
Strontium-90 is a radioactive isotope of strontium produced by nuclear fission. It has a half life of 28.8 years and is a ‘radioactivity hazard.’

UK Culture: What’s it like now?

Some of the best popular songs include phrases or references that capture key aspects of the way life is being lived in the surrounding – the overarching – culture. In the 1960s the Rolling Stones in their famous ‘Satisfaction’ highlighted the way people were subject to the relentless intrusions of marketing; Dylan’s ‘Highway 61’ told us about the culture of surplus that was unfolding around us whilst his ‘Times they are a’changing’ and ‘Ballad of a thin man’ defined the shock of the new and the erosion of old certainties. Later, Sinead O’Connor’s brilliant ‘Three babies’ and ‘Black boys on mopeds’ pinpointed the divisions, racism and fault-lines in Thatcher’s Britain whilst Pulp’s ‘Common people’ spoke of the emergence of a new, almost inverted form of democracy. Even the poetic Leonard Cohen identified the sense of resignation that people had come to feel about systemic inequality in his ‘Everybody knows’. If artists and writers are supposed to engage with the nature of their times and confront, as Cynthia Ozick insists, the ‘truth’, then it’s worth trying to discover what it is they are engaging with: So, what’s life like for us now? How’s it being experienced by song-writers, poets, artists, essayists, photographers and documentary film-makers? What’s going on in the social arena? How are relationships unfolding in the late modern UK? And what’s it like for me as I grow older and become increasingly irrelevant?

Some years ago the sociologist Jean Baudrillard had raised a number of trends in our culture that seemed to illuminate some of the possible contours of our condition. Baudrillard pointed out that there has been an acceleration of ‘all exchanges’ including the economic, political, social and sexual. (Quick quick! Here today and then there’s even more ‘here’ tomorrow!) This acceleration has even made it difficult to sustain a sense of history; we can’t slow things down enough to determine which event has led to the next. It has meant, almost inevitably, that our relationships are likely to be unstable: the more contacts you have the more chance there is to make relationships and inevitably to have relationships broken – as more attractive opportunities come along for one (or for both) of the partners.

The acceleration of exchanges has been facilitated by widespread and ever-present hi-tech communications; as a result he already noted that relationships were more fractured, interrupted and simultaneous. And there were are two consequences. First, people feared not being informed, not being ‘in the loop’, not knowing what was going on and of ‘missing out’. Second, ands perhaps paradoxically the level of freedom was diminished as people were caught up in a network of requests and agreements, meetings, encounters and appointments. As people rushed and lurched from one apparently social situation to another the chance for intimacy was diminished. Breathless, we scampered from one set of interactions to another: it all seemed faintly maniacal but now it’s second nature.

A second phenomenon characterising our culture concerned the genesis of a silent majority (or majorities). In a sense this is unremarkable: no one usually gets very excited about a silent majority. But what was remarkable was the fact that the silent majority existed as a force of inertia and displayed a seemingly ‘immense indifference’ when it was, in principle, better informed, better educated and better able to access the locales of power. The silent majorities shrugged their shoulders in resignation. Baudrillard thought that ‘this inert matter of the social’ was not produced by a lack of exchanges but by the multiplication and saturation of exchanges which, in effect, cancelled each other out. After all, if there is always an equal and opposite view it’s difficult to take action. If there are several views and no way in which to establish the superiority of one over the other – then – well – all we can do is throw our hands up in despair and turn our attentions to that small part of the world over which we do have some control. In a way we had more or less reached a state of stupefaction.

And a third social development was connected with the extremes of high-fidelity – and the end of the real. Baudrillard asked us to consider what happens in a high-fidelity culture: essentially music ends and the electronic wizardry of high-fidelity takes over in such a way that ‘music disappears as such’. What is provided as ‘music’ is something that has vanished into a model of perfection. And just as high fidelity cast radical doubt on music so human performances were themselves moving beyond the real, moving beyond the authentic. We simulated the real, the authentic. We had moved beyond truth. And it raised the question: Do I feel love (a complex tangle of emotions) or a ‘high-fidelity’ love modelled on what the ideal thing is supposed to be like? This is a love that has gone beyond the real. (And there is even a kind of high-fidelity of the authentic – which casts doubt on the authentic itself.) In principle, we could get quite indignant about being thought of as a kind of ‘fake’. But as we engage socially or fill in forms for jobs or manage customers and clients, and, as we tell our stories, isn’t the version we script of ourselves a bit too good to be true?

Baudrillard’s analysis is cast at the level of macro-sociology and cultural anthropology. Overall, it may well be the case that we live in a realm where there is less intimacy, more resignation and less authenticity (or honesty) than we originally hoped we would experience …

But here’s a seemingly inconsequential sign of the times: As I walk on the pavement and down the street someone, perhaps more than one person, is coming towards me. It may be almost anyone – singly, in twos or threes, perhaps a group. They show no sign of making way. I feel obliged to step aside; I step off the pavement. I tip-toe in the gutter. There’s no apparent reciprocity. It doesn’t seem to occur to people to signal an arrangement where we both share the pavement. And it’s like that when I’m driving. Even if I have the right of way it’s by no means certain that a long-established highway code will be upheld.

‘It’s something to do with the pursuit of ego,’ I was told. ‘It may even have come over from America.’

Wherever ‘it’ has come from is intriguing but whatever the answer is, Baudrillard’s plausible observations raise the question about the nature of the underlying messages through and by which we are now being socialised – the deep and powerful psychological nuclei (or ideology) against which the many surface aspects of our lives are organised and expressed. It seems that we are on the road to being inhumanly human: Certainly I have become rather disenchanted and unsettled because, in the era of the ‘fake’, I have basically lost trust in just about everything. (And almost everyone.)

BUT sometimes, on the pavement or along the pathways, when I stand aside, I hear someone say, ‘thank you’. Or sometimes, in the town or city, a mother asks her children to make sure that there is a space in which I may walk. It’s as if I’m hearing the silent majority. And that reminds me: I have to be careful not to get a distorted picture of life in the UK now. Nearly everything the media shows isn’t real. I’ve got to try and stay in touch with the facts and not the illusion. The illusion is beguiling – it’s spectacular, dramatic. Everyday life isn’t like that. Everyday life is people struggling along, getting to work, making the best of things.

So, I bet the silent majority is doing its best to spend the time following a huge range of worthwhile activities. I bet that, overall, it’s really got a generous heart and is warmly charitable and pretty sympathetic. And I’m sure that it’s laced with practical virtues and solving the problems of living with more-or-less good humour. That’s another enduring part of UK culture’s deep structure: we’ll have a big laugh and it helps keep us sane.

However, it does seem as if the silent majority has allowed a certain ethos to take precedence over something more obviously ‘ethical’: happiness and pleasure are pursued rather than justice and equality; the freedom of the individual and special interest communities have priority over the collective and the search to realise inspirational ideals. That is not good.

Against this, however, I have noticed a quiet and almost indiscernible counter trend. Three examples will do: the trend I am referring to was featured in a film recently screened at the Berlin film festival. The film is called, ‘Here’, and is by the Belgian director Bas Devos; he presents a fictional case study of two people who by chance meet, and who in their different ways, find a serenity in the modest and intimate micro-aspects of their lives. Devos is interested in counterposing the relationship between the one, a PhD student, a bryologist, who studies mosses, and the other, a construction worker, who loves to make delicious soups, with the modern world where progress increasingly deprives people of worthwhile human contact. In other words, the film profiles a modest trend of caring for the delicacy and beauty and good taste that is all around us.

The second example is a reminder of how to live well that has been outlined both by John Heider and Tove Jansson. Heider, in a book on leadership, encourages people to turn away from the bright lights and live a simpler life which would include ‘reading the classics.’ He doesn’t specify which classics but he doesn’t have to; the classics help to transform the way we look at the world, life and ourselves. Jansson’s ‘The summer book’ reprises an observation made by the Impressionist painters: it notes that you don’t have to venture far from your home to find beauty (below your feet or in the heavens above) and the pleasure of ‘leaving’ your self behind.

The third example was something I discovered on the above-ground platform of Kilburn High Road station in North West London. Kilburn High Road station is served by the Jubilee line of the London Underground. As the platform stretches away from passengers’ entry and exit points, someone or some group has created small rectangular herb gardens and something called a ‘forage’ garden. It’s an obvious and simple idea and whoever has initiated and supported this has exemplified what we could all do – albeit differently – wherever we are.

After Montaigne: ‘Death’ and a fourteen year old Nigerian girl.

The celebrated and often critically acclaimed debut novel, ‘The girl with the louding voice’ was published in 2020. Authored by Abu Daré, it tells the inspirational story of a teenage Nigerian girl called Adunni who has to endure the trauma of becoming the third wife of an old man in a poverty-stricken rural village household – and who then escapes and becomes a maid in an exploitative, rich and frankly deplorable household in Lagos; throughout the book she struggles, above all else, to find her freedom through some form of education and, in so doing, to honour the memory and wise counsel of her dead mother. Despite the unrelenting suffering that Adunni experiences, the novel is often very funny and its frequent use of Adunni’s caustic similes is priceless. (Her evocation of vile smells and physical ugliness is superb.) It also presents a devastating critique of social customs and practices in Nigeria itself.

The novel begins with some graphic and unsparing descriptions of family life in Ikati village many miles from the urban centres of the country. Overall the writing deploys the version of English which Adunni has picked up from both her mother, the television and a smattering of books. For example, of her father she says: ‘Papa is one hard man, always stronging his face and fighting the whole everybody in the house … when my father is in the house, everybody must be doing as a dead person.’ She tells us that the first wife of her husband, Lanbake, ‘always be painting her face with white powder like a ghost.’ Another woman, Tola, has the ‘face of a agama lizard.’ When she sees her older brother at a well she remarks: ‘The well it was belonging to my grandfather-father. He builded it with mud and steel and sweat … my mama she was telling me story of how my grandfather father kill hisself inside the well. He just fall inside one day … for three days, nobody knows where he was … until the well was starting to give foul odour of rotten egg and somebody mess. The day they find my grandfather father’s body, it swell up as if leg, nose, stomach, teeths and buttocks is all pregnants at the same time.

As the book progresses, Adunni, does her level best to help her very sick friend, a young mother called Khadija. We, the reader, begin to sense that something is so seriously wrong with Khadija that she is about to die. After a long bus journey with Adunni, Khadija finds herself beside a river and falls asleep; as she does Adunni imagines that she, Khadija ‘is warring with God for her soul.’ Adunni tries to alleviate her friend’s suffering and so she begins to talk to her about everything that comes to mind. But now, so ill, Khadija remains scarcely responsive.

Adunni then asks her, ‘You still here? Khadija? You are still here?’ Kahdija can only moan in reply. At this point the fourteen year old Adunni begins to disclose her reflections and beliefs about Death. These reflections reveal a distinct perspective and way of thinking about the forms that our inevitable death may take. She relates her thoughts in the following way:

I think of Death, how he come and take my mama and kill her dead. Death, he is tall like the Iroko tree, with no body, no flesh, no eyes, only mouth and teeths. Plenty teeths, the thin pencil and the sharp blade for biting and killing. Death is not having legs. But it have two wings of nails and arrows. Death can fly, and kill the bird in the air, strike them from the sky and fall them to the ground, scatter their brain. It can be swimming too, swallow the fishes inside the river. When it is wanting to kill a person, it will fly, keeping hisself over their head, sailing like a boat on top of the water of the soul, waiting for when it will just snatch the person from the earth. Death can take form of anything. It clever like that. Today it take form of a car, cause a accident, tomorrow it can shape hisself a gun, a bullet, a knife, a coughing blood sickness. It can take form of a dry palm frond and flog a person until the person is dying. Like Lamidi the farmer. Or as a rope to squeeze all the life from a person, like Tafa, Asabi’s lover. Is Death following Khadija now? And if Khadija die, will it begin to be following me too?

A short time later Adunni declares: ‘Just then a thunder scatter boom the sky. It is Death making a announcement, giving us big big warning.’ And soon Khadija does die – tragically abandoned by the man who was her one true love.

I enjoyed reading ‘The girl with the louding voice’ and becoming acquainted with one cultural way of thinking about Death. More significantly, the novel stands as a timely feminist and liberationist work. (On occasion I somehow felt that it ‘tried too hard’ to make its unrelenting major point about gender discrimination in Nigeria.) I also thought that Abu Daré’s comment (through Adunni) about the speaking of English can never afford to be overlooked: so, from the perspective of someone who has had to struggle to learn anything like what passes for ‘correct’ English, Adunni remarks that: ‘Now I know that speaking good English is not the measure of the intelligent mind and sharp brain.

End note:

The book became a New York Times Bestseller and, among other successes, a BBC Radio 4 ‘Book at Bedtime’ choice. Published by Sceptre it was shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize for ‘first time novelists’ and Abu Daré was included in The Observer’s list of 10 Best Debut Novelists of 2020.

A rock with tiny garnets – a first reflection on ‘The Summer Book’

Tove Jansson’s ‘The Summer Book’ is a salutary and straightforward reminder of how to live a good life. It can be read from several distinct or simultaneously overlapping points of view – and always impresses as a particular and beautiful form of hybrid writing. Beneath the almost crystalline simplicity of expression lies a complex, insightful and meaning-laden account that regularly provokes a mood of thoughtful contemplation. ‘The Summer Book’ relates, in its 22 short chapters, a series of contrasting episodes that, over the course of a summer, befall its two central characters – a grandmother and her six year-old grand-daughter who live together on certain small islands located in the gulf of Finland. Overall, her book evokes the possibility of enjoying a mode of being in which people make the most of whatever is to hand; it details the wonderful phenomena that are endlessly revealed if we attend carefully to the world of earth, sea and sky and deploy the creative powers of imagination. It resonates with both the poetic vision and story-telling of Antoine St Exupery’s ‘Wind, sand and stars’ and the beguiling anthropology profiled in Anna Tsing’s studies of the world of the Matsutake mushrooms. Here, then, is a book which intimates an alternative to the noise, overload, stress and sheer insanity of our times.

Jansson’s work reflects what I can only describe as a particular ‘psycho-ecology’ of people and place. Perhaps all literature is variously touched by an intermingling of history, geography and culture – but this is writ large throughout her text: we learn of the inter-relationship between personalities, climate and weather, the geology of the islands, the microscopic details of plants and flowers, the impact and presence (often symbolic) of birds and mammals, of ants and worms and midges – and their effects on the psychologies of the main characters. We ‘see’ tiny garnets embedded in black-grey rocks, or thin veins of yellow etched in granite and we see a bent, knotted, twisted contorted thicket of wind-lashed trees. The signs of nature – its colours and moods – and the inevitable changes – define a leitmotif throughout the book. It is a wonderful study of how to make best use of our perceptual faculties – of awareness, of noticing the finest of detail – and of observation: thus, ‘In July the moss would adorn itself with a kind of long, light grass. Tiny clusters of flowers would open at exactly the same height above the ground and sway together in the wind, like inland meadows.

In addition to the psycho-ecology expressed in her particular literature of ‘place’, Jansson also presents her readers with a case study in anthropology. Here, then, is a small family that is interconnected with a wider community of Finns located on the coast and coastal islands of the gulf of Finland. Overall, we can sense something of the deep psyche of the people: austere, often taciturn, unfussy, blunt, practical, self-reliant and laced with a particular and often recondite sea-faring knowledge. No one is sentimentalised. And, thankfully, everyone is flawed; everyone has a fault or two. (In many ways her work gives substance to the concept of the ‘habitus’ – the deeply formed way of cultural being – that is so central to the work of Pierre Bourdieu).

Little by little the short chapters reveal more and more about the main characters and their idiosyncrasies; six-year old Sophia is capricious, volatile and vivacious – and her grandmother is tetchy, cantankerous, imperfect, wise, witty, faithful and loving. She represents a micro-study in ageing and, despite her ingenuity and capacity to find ways of replying to Sophia’s questions about Death and God and Hell, she has reached that point in life when each day is wearily piled onto that which preceded it. She has come to terms with the approach of death. Grandmother touches upon and makes explicit some basic anthropological truths: she acknowledges, for example, that island people are ‘different’ and how outsiders can never quite traverse the invisible psychological wall which binds the islanders together; we are reminded by her that sooner or later people will learn what is possible and what is foolish; and through her we are told that a young person needs to learn how to be adroitly sociable if they are to fare well in the ‘real’ world.

On top of this Tove Jansson shows how (wherever we may be) the sometimes transparent and sometimes opaque film of imagination glazes the world. In consequence, ‘The Summer Book’ can be read as a study in and of the flights of creative fancy that makes the world so enchanting and which underline that strange enduring freedom intrinsic to our very being: we meet in one chapter some ‘crooks’ (that aren’t); in another the grandmother fashions from balsa wood a new version of Venice; there’s a magic forest – and there is the arrival of an intrusive, resented and discordant house that despoils the view but can be morphed into a lane-marker; we discover how the almost tragic figure of Berenice (a young visitor to the island) learns to express her fears, horrors and insecurities through a startlingly good work of art …

In fact, each of the 22 chapters has the power to stimulate hard thinking, dreamy mediation and plainly raises critical questions about the way we live now. I think the book can work as a harbinger warning us that we really do already have all that we need. It implicitly recalls Claude Monet’s remark that, within a few miles of wherever we may be, we will find whatever is sufficient to paint a masterpiece. The world that Tove Jansson shows us is almost devoid of any digitally mediated technology and suggests that our lives might be made better without it.

Her writing style is excellent; her evocative similes are perfect: a colourful plastic contraption that lies just beneath the surface of the water is ‘like an apricot from Paradise’; lights reflecting in the water from a visiting yacht are ‘like dancing snakes of fire’; swallows swooping and gliding overhead look ‘like knives in the sky.’ She makes use of compelling adverbs; people act ‘defiantly’ or ‘angrily’ or ‘vindictively’ and ‘The Summer Book’ is replete with subtle allegories, pithy insights and beautiful lapidary description. It is a literature of realistic escapism; a resourceful otherness and a disciplined difference.

Footnote: Tove Jansson situated her book in the not too distant past. Her emphasis on the close contact with nature recalls some of the inspirations that energised the counter-cultural movement of the 1960s. But for me, perhaps the most significant theme upon which she touches is the process of ageing and the approach of Death. To that extent her book provides one appealing answer to something Hubert Dreyfus considered as one of the central features of Heidegger’s philosophy Put most simply, it is this: ‘Since there is death, what meaning does my life have?

What is Education for?

What is education for? is the title of a chapter by Roger Marples in Richard Bailey’s ‘The philosophy of education’. In this chapter Marples discusses, briefly, a number of different emphasis that the practices of education might take. In this short note I shall focus on only a part of the first section of Marples’ chapter and refer more specifically to the concept of education elaborated by the influential philosopher Richard Peters. I shall then quote the summary of Peters’ concept of what it is to be educated that has been sketched by the distinguished philosopher of education, Robin Barrow.

Marples introduces his readers to the question, ‘What is education for? with a sobering reminder: he notes that the UK government spends a huge amount of taxpayers money on education and children are expected to (and usually do) spend a minimum of 11 years at school. However, if one were to ask the taxpayer or virtually any member of the public what schools were for the answers would vary considerably. Since everyone in the country is affected by the behaviour, attitudes and values of school leavers and since schools and schooling actually have (or should have) a ‘profound influence’ on the belief systems and dispositions (the habitus) of those same young people it follows that everyone engaged in the ‘delivery’ of the curriculum might ‘do their best’ to ensure that pupils are equipped with the appropriate knowledge, understanding, skills (both practical and social) such that they can make a valued contribution to a late-modern industrial and service-oriented society within the fundamental context of a liberal democracy. Given such an investment Marples considers that we have a ‘right to expect’ such a valuable contribution. With this as background, and in contrast to the educational systems and structures of previous eras, Marples invites his readers to dwell on the question: what, today, should schools be concerned to achieve? And more generally, he asks, ‘Towards what should education aim?’ He begins his consideration of the aims of education in a section that asks two questions: What is ‘education? and, ‘Must an educator have an aim?

Marples immediately remarks that these two questions engaged the attention of the hugely significant philosopher of education, Richard Peters, who thought that ‘to be educated was an end in itself’. It is not a means to something else and cannot be compared to the acquisition of ‘know how’ and/or the kind of knowledge that enables a person to do specific things. (This includes whatever it is that furnishes us with the wherewithal to make money. ) Education, for Peters, is logically connected to that which is intrinsically worthwhile. On this account, the most important thing towards which our school and educational systems should aim is the genesis of educated persons. The question which is automatically raised is, ‘What is it to be an educated person?’

Marples quickly moves on to provide an outline of Peters’ criteria for ‘being educated’ – a summary similar to that noted by Barrow (2011). However, as is so often the case, I think that studying the original source is really indispensable if one is to gain a thorough understanding of the argument or meaning embedded in the text; and it is certainly worth pausing and referring to Peters’ (1966) original work, ‘Ethics and education’ in which he carefully explores the idea or concept of education itself. Reference to this original work is particularly valuable because not only does Peters help his reader to grasp more clearly what education entails but also because he grounds the concept in the moral framework of a liberal democracy. Moreover, at the level of conceptual analysis, Peters provides what might at first sight be a somewhat counter-intuitive account of ‘education’ in virtue of the fact that he resists giving too much concrete detail about the content or processes of ‘education’. However, as his argument unfolds he provides a number of illustrative examples concerning how an educated person may be transformed by whatever it is that he or she is learning and how an interest in something specific (such as ‘boats’) may lead on to ‘avenues of exploration and appreciation well beyond the object itself. It is also valuable because Peters depiction of the educated person confronts his readership with the unsettling question: Am I really that well-educated?

Of education itself, Peters highlights the fact that it does not aim towards anything extrinsic to itself and that being educated implies something worthwhile; whatever is done in the name of education should be pursued in a morally acceptable manner. Embedded in the concept of ‘education’ is the idea of developing one’s potentials as well as one’s intellect and character. He particularly emphasises a clear distinction between education and training – and points out that ‘we’ would ‘normally use the word ‘train’ when we had … a specifiable objective in mind.’ By contrast, education cannot be tied to any such specifiable objective. If education has aims then they are cast in a very different form to those of training; the concept of education entails a process concerned with the development of individual potentialities and/or the development of intellect and character. In a sense, it is plausible to say that ‘education aims at itself.’ There is, in Peters’ opening chapter devoted to the idea of education and being educated, a specification of the criteria that define what it is to be educated and this includes the need for both knowledge and understanding, the idea of ‘looking at things differently’ as a result of the genuinely educational experience and a consideration of how an educated person integrates their knowledge such that they ‘see’ its relationship to the wider world.

After his close scrutiny of Peters’ texts Barrow summarises the formal criteria for ‘being educated’ as follows: ‘Peters suggests that an educated person is to be distinguished from a trained, skilled, or a socialised person by four characteristics. All have some kind of knowledge or understanding but [first] the educated person has not merely facts or information but also ‘some understanding of the principles for the organisation of facts’; s/he is, secondly, not merely unthinkingly able to regurgitate facts such as historical dates, but is to some degree in some way affected or ‘transformed’ by this knowledge. He or she sees the world differently than s/he would otherwise have done as a result of this understanding. Thirdly, the educated man must care about the standards imminent in (to) his field of interest. An educated person takes seriously the standards and procedures of science, for example, and is not merely cognisant of them. Finally the educated person does not simply have a field of knowledge but what Peters calls a ‘cognitive perspective’, meaning a wider framework such that, for example his scientific knowledge co-exists with historical and cultural understanding.‘ (Barrow 2011: 13)

This is a good summary – but it remains just a summary. In Peters’ original text ‘Ethics and education’ some of the fine detail of the various criteria are described and this illuminates and clarifies the kind of sketch that both Barrow and Marples provide. Overall, I think that any close reading of Peters’ work, is challenging and unsettling because he obliges his reader to consider the level and type of knowledge that they have in relation to any particular subject. He forces one to become conscious of the conceptual schemes one may (or may not) have in relation to organising and making sense of the facts and information that have been accumulated. He confronts us with respect both to the achievements of our intellect and the desirability of our character. He also finds that ‘to be educated’ is to have achieved an intrinsically worthwhile state of being – rich or poor. But, I cannot help feeling that his concept of ‘being educated’ now seems to run up against some of the countervailing norms and values of our wider cultural emphases. I have the impression that although schools do their best to inculcate desirable states of mind as well as the various intellectual powers and the virtues of good character (i.e. they try to ‘educate’) a wider societal ethos of ‘get what you can’ counters and subverts their best endeavours.