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Time and meaning

From a long time ago …

I was recently given the task of responding creatively to the phrase ‘Time sinking‘. I would have far preferred to address a different topic because I have never spent much time dwelling on the concept of time. And the idea of ‘time sinking’ seemed to raise the particular problem of what I imagined was a kind of ‘directed’ or ‘directional’ time. In the end I began to resolve this by imagining how my times have, in a sense, been sinking. (Fading away) In this respect I thought, for example, of the time past that I had experienced in Paris in 1960, then Venice in 1970 and finally New York during the year 2000. But whilst I was puzzling over how to give creative expression to the idea that my times were and are sinking I was also reading Elena Ferrante’s novel, ‘The story of a new name‘. Her striking and acutely perceptive text noted some of the different ways in which we experience ourselves in time: sometimes, for example, it is fluid, sometimes it is glue-like … some of us live in a linear and sequential unfolding of time, whilst other lives are characterised by ruptures, schisms, retrogressions and so on …

However, at the very end of the novel, Ferrante – quite possibly in an autobiographical moment – makes an observation about time and meaning. She does this as we follow the life trajectory of her central character, Lenu Greco, who has returned, from the north of Italy, in order to visit her family in Naples.

During this visit, Lenu, who is fresh from enjoying singular and brilliant academic success and who, in her early 20s, is about to have her first novel published, decides to go to see her long-standing childhood friend, the fascinating and mesmerising Lila Cerullo. Lila, by contrast, is working in the dreadful conditions of a sausage factory.

They meet in the factory and Lenu notices that Lila is ‘bundled up, dirty and scarred’ whilst she has ‘dressed herself’ as if ‘disguised as a young lady of a good family.’ They are now, as it were, inhabitants of different worlds. Their exchanges are both affectionate but always testing and sometimes harsh. On leaving the beautiful Lila, and after their brief meeting, Lenu, in a moment of terrible insight says to herself:

I had made the journey [to see her] mainly to show her what she had lost and I had won … But … she was explaining to me that I had won nothing – that in this world there is nothing to win … and that time simply slipped away without any meaning …

On reading this paragraph I put the book down and thought, for a long time, about the implications of that almost chilling closing remark: Time sinking – or time slipping away – ‘without any meaning’ …

If on a winter’s night a traveller – and more …

The cover of a book

Titles? Titles make a difference; often, they can help make sense of a work of art or they can simply evoke a fascinating or enticing image – a prelude to an unknown ‘something’; they can be delightfully memorable: amongst the titles I have particularly liked are ‘Those who leave and those who stay’, ‘Darkness at noon’, ‘The waste land’, ‘Famous blue raincoat’, and ‘After the gold-rush’.

By chance I have to hand a copy of Italo Calvino’s ‘novel’ or text which has one of the best titles I could ever imagine: It is: ‘If, on a winter’s night, a traveller.’ It’s a great title because I can actually imagine ‘a winter’s night’ and ‘a traveller’. And the title leaves me in a mood of anticipation: What is going to happen?

But then, as I began to read his text I realised that his introduction to the book applies to me! Directly to me! As Calvino prepares a reader for the experience of reading his new novel he tells us about a person (who is now a version of me, myself) and their (my) anticipation of his text:

As if speaking for me, he writes:

It’s not that you expect anything in particular from this particular book. You’re the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything from anything.

There are plenty younger than you or less young, who live in the expectation of extraordinary experiences: from books, from people, from journeys, from events, from what tomorrow has in store. But not you. You know that the best you can expect is to avoid the worst. This is the general conclusion you have reached, in your personal life and also in general matters, even international affairs.

What about books? Well, precisely because you have denied it in every other field, you believe you may still grant yourself legitimately this youthful pleasure of expectation in a carefully circumscribed area like the field of books where you can be lucky or unlucky, but the risk of disappointment isn’t serious.

Yes – this is more or less how I look at things; just as Italo Calvino’s subject (me), despite his habitual but albeit limited pessimism or stoicism, still has the pleasure of expectation vis-a-vis a new book, so I, too, have a certain pleasure of expectation at the prospect of opening a book and getting stuck in.

At the moment I am reading two astonishingly good books. The first is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. The second is Elena Ferrante’s ‘The story of a new name’ – which is the second volume in her ‘Naples quartet’.

Dostoyevsky’s work tells us the story of the three Brothers Karamazov, namely, Dmitry, Ivan and Aleksey; his characterisations of the brothers – as well as the many other persons who feature in the book – are virtually unsurpassed. In addition he furnishes us with an image of an old and strangely enduring Russian culture as well as a lesson in applied theology. Iris Murdoch observed of this genre of literature that ‘we don’t write like this anymore’ – and she is correct: The Brothers Karamazov requires patient engagement and a willingness to grapple with the often complex debates that are threaded throughout the text. Some pages have not one paragraph and this makes for demanding reading. And, on top of this, people don’t seem to conduct themselves like his characters anymore. They are often portrayed in the grip of intense emotion – the like of which are not so commonplace in our modern world.

At the same time I find it a relief and a pure form of enlightenment to read Elena Ferrante’s extraordinary portrayal of Neapolitan culture and relationships – as it is experienced by children and young adults. In her ‘The story of a new name‘ she also manages to underline why it is that ‘we’, wherever we are, benefit from an education that cultivates the mind and shapes perception accordingly.

So, I too, continue to share Calvino’s reader’s optimism – and positive expectation – when it comes to reading a new novel or an old and critically-acclaimed one.

A tiny gnome-like reflection on kitsch.

A choir of gnomes – somewhere in the south of England

Kitsch remains to me something of a mystery; I have the sense that it increasingly permeates reality and, the oddest thing of all is that I even begin to ‘see’ that the art that is supposed to be serious overlaps with or looks like Kitsch.

By chance I came across a short note on Kitsch that helped me grasp more clearly its identity: written by the conservative and traditionalist philosopher, the late Roger Scruton, it neatly summarised the reaction against all-things kitsch that was part of the modernist agenda. The modernists of the early 20th century devalued any art that beautified or prettified the world; Instead, art was to eschew sentimentalism (and all those big dewy eyes) and show ‘things as they are’; in the course of this a new sensibility emerged, a sensibility that expressed derangement, horror, disfigurement, angst and cruelty. (In other words, lots of artists made things that looked horrible.) And this modernist agenda was shared across the arts: So, as the high-priests of culture such as T.S. Eliot insisted, ‘The task of the poet was not to provide nostalgic dreams but to wake us up to reality.’

Scruton finds that in their quest to reject the old ways of doing things the artist had, at all costs, to avoid kitsch and this ‘became the first precept of the modernist artist in every medium’; Kitsch was reviled, tabooed and made abject. It follows that the fear of kitsch is one reason why so much contemporary art is deliberately offensive or disturbing. In doing this it satisfies the requirement not to be kitsch. Scruton goes on to claim that despite the fact we cannot easily define kitsch we recognise it when we come face-to-face with its manifestations. He provides the following examples:

The Barbie doll, Walt Disney’s Bambi, Santa Claus in the supermarket, Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, pictures of poodles with ribbons in their hair. And, unsurprisingly, he mentions that at Christmas we are surrounded by kitsch. And we are! (I will underline this shortly.)

What, though is going on as ‘we’ engage with the kitsch-ridden things, objects, places and kitch-laden moments of this world. In a key passage in the text Scruton writes:

‘Kitsch … is not about the thing observed but about the observer. It does not invite you to feel moved by the doll you are dressing so tenderly, but by yourself dressing the doll. All sentimentality is like this – it redirects emotion from the object to the subject, so as to create a fantasy of emotion without the real cost of feeling it. The kitsch object encourages you to think, ‘Look at me feeling this – how nice I am and how lovable.’

His analysis continues with his observation that this transfer of emotion from object to subject – of the loss of precise and real emotion and its replacement by a ‘vague and self-satisfied substitute’ is why modernist artists had such a horror of kitsch. (The real had given way to a curious hybrid.) And Scruton drives a stake further into the heart of kitsch-dom by declaring that:

‘Kitsch is fake art, expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking he feels something deep and serious, when in fact he feels nothing at all.’

Nonetheless it turns out that it is difficult to avoid kitsch because the very business of trying to avoid it – by being ‘truthful’ (perhaps in the style of Nietzsche) or subversive (in the mood of Warhol) – can, itself, easily lead to another version of fakery: fake significance, fake originality, fake sincerity and a kind of loud ‘look at me’ advertising. None of this, as Scruton observes ‘touches the deepest regions of the human heart.’

Another strategy adopted by contemporary artists is the genre of ‘pre-emptive kitsch’ – a kitsch that is so obvious that it isn’t real kitsch but a meta-kitsch – kitsch commenting on kitsch. This can earn you a lot of money and cultural cachet – and that’s where it’s all gone pear or gnome-shaped. On this I agree with Scruton.

So, what are we to do? I really don’t know. I find myself watching TV shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and marvelling at the sheer spectacle, the over-the-top-ness of it all. Is it real kitsch, or is it just pure aesthetic spectacle? And are all those Father Christmases and gnomes on sale for Christmas a way of poking fun at ourselves. After all they are, as objects, rather fetching – faintly ludicrous and relatively harmless. I wonder: is it the case that if we simply get so used to a phenomenon over time it becomes part of the reassuring furniture of our lives. And perhaps that is a good thing.

International kitsch – from somewhere in China

Time Past and Time Present

Church of St. John the Baptist, Varenna – interior (2020)

The church of St. John the Baptist (Chiesa di San Giovanni Battista) is a very small, simple building situated in the Piazza S.Giorgio at the heart of the beautiful town of Varenna on the eastern shores of Lake Como. It is so undemonstrative – so nondescript – that it can easily pass unnoticed; indeed, even should it be noticed it is not obviously a church. Most visitors to Varenna do not ‘register’ the building because, from the outside it is constructed out of grey stone with no adornments. It could, I imagine be taken as an old workshop, a place for carpentry and wood-turning, perhaps a pottery or or even a garage.

However the Romanesque building dates back to the eleventh century and, despite its modest retiring self-effacing exterior, the interior tells a different story. The inside walls are graced by fourteenth century frescoes and although they are in an advanced state of deterioration they have come to reflect a far more contemporary aesthetic of beauty-in-decay. Sixteenth century frescoes in the apse are in a somewhat better condition.

When I visited the church in the late summer of 2020 (in the course of exploring how objects are displayed or presented for whasotever their purposes might be) I was lucky enough, soon after entering, and glancing at the frescoes, to come face to face with a sacred text. It was placed before the altar. I was immediately struck by the dignity, simplicity and sheer presence of the book itself. It was not specially illuminated nor was there any supporting text to explain or enhance its presence. The book was simply there, resting on a lectern and directly in front of me.

As I contemplated the book, the altar behind, the subtleties of light and shadow and the history-suffused environing walls of the church, I felt a quiet delight at the way time-past and time-present can be combined in a perfect synthesis.

Church of St. John the Baptist, Varenna (2019)

Novels and the meaning of things

Ever since I had read some of the great works of world literature I increasingly came to the view that it was through such reading that I learned most about human psychology. Later my basic understanding of the motivations, values and conduct of people was enhanced through the unique courses of study offered by the Human Potential Research Project at the University of Surrey. But without such courses I still continue to be educated through the provision and presence of the often acute insights and characterisations of people that are intrinsic to good literature.

In the last few months I have been developing a particularly personal museum which features 20 objects all of which, in various ways, have special meaning and significance for me. As I developed my ‘museum’ project I noticed that a basic aspect of what I was trying to do was expressed through the genius of the writer Elena Ferrante. Ferrante pinpoints the way intelligence and the use of language combine to heighten our engagement with the materials and phenomena of the world – including the actions of people. Thus,  in her now famous novel, ‘My brilliant friend’ (the novel that I happened to be reading) she tell us that her protagonist the young Elena Greco comes to a realisation about her similarly young friend Raffaella Cerullo; the two girls had just experienced, as Elena puts it, ‘wonderful conversations’ and, as a result, Elena ‘looked’ at Raffaella, thought about their friendship and the special intellectual powers of Raffaella and concluded:

It seemed to me … that … she was developing a gift I was already familiar with; more effectively than she had as a child, she took the facts, and in a natural way, charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy. But I also realised, with pleasure, that as soon as she began to do this, I felt able to do the same …” (Ferrante, E. 2020: 130) 

The first time I read this part of the text I did what I usually do when a piece of writing appears to speak directly to me and at the same time seems to herald something basic to enhancing my (our) consciousness. I stopped, I closed the book, I found a quiet space and thought about what she had written. I applied her observation to my own work and experience:

‘Yes,’ I thought: ‘It’s true; reality  – the things, the objects of the world can be readily and easily passed over or, by contrast, intensified and injected with energy. It’s this latter process that makes the world an endlessly fascinating ‘place’ in which to live.’ 

And then in relation to my project I could see more clearly that, in a similar way, my museum of seemingly disparate entities had taken a number of objects, objects already charged with meaning, had focused upon them a narrative – and, as a result, they have also, as in Elena Ferrante’s acute observation, had taken on a kind of tension and an injection of energy. 

The tension has been a kind of vibration between the personal-and-emotional and issues of philosophical reflection.  

Reference: Ferrante, E. (2020) ‘My brilliant friend’ London, Europa editions

How things are shown: In memoriam

My research trip studying the various ways the things and objects made by our cultures are shown or presented to the world included a visit to the beauty of Lake Como in northern Italy. I think this must surely be one of the most perfect and aesthetically complete environments in the world.

I had chosen to stay in an Italian ‘Agriturismo’ place situated on the outskirts of the small town of Schignano, a town with just over 850 inhabitants. The view from my bedroom window looked down upon the lake, a view made even better from the balcony adjoining the room. Nearby church bells sounded their hourly reminder to the faithful. The lovely informal buildings of the town presented themselves in those beautiful Italian shades of ochre, sienna, a pale dusky pink, and burnt orange.

One morning, under a sky that was turning from early morning yellow to crystal-blue and then a sun-dazzled white, it had become very warm and so I decided to take a walk along the shaded tracks of the nearby woods. I had been told that I could find edible mushrooms there but I simply wanted to enjoy the slow rhythms of nature and enjoy the presence of the many legend-graced trees. It was a long walk and, at its end, the track joined a narrow road upon which a few vehicles of various descriptions would pass by. Away from the cities I have often noticed how the inhabitants of small rural and mountain settlements keep their cars ‘alive’ for as long as they can. Here was no exception: a delightful old Fiat and then a decades-old Lancia drove past me! I stayed close to the mossy banks that edged the road itself and then, after a while, I saw beside me the reminder of a tragedy: it was a memorial to the life of a young man. His name was Guido Peduzzi. He was aged 18 when he had died in 1973. I recognised the distinctive look – the style – we, the young men of those days, used to adopt.

If there were details as to how Guido Peduzzi had died, they were obscured by a pretty bunch of flowers. And, through this, his family and friends showed how they would never abandon him. The memorial included a candle – and I noticed how the inscribed marble was protected by two flat stones which adjoined, directly, the exposed rock of the bank. It seemed as if this gesture was underlining his enduring connection to the locality – to the place of Schignano.

Two days later, whilst I was doing the shopping in the single small supermarket of Schignano, I walked past the modest war memorial that was situated in a small square – an open space – in the centre of the town. Amongst the many names of those who had perished in the war were several with the surname ‘Peduzzi.’ As I tried to imagine the awful tragedy of still more young lives lost, of the tragedies which lie at the heart of Schignano, the church bells sounded one again. They continued to do their best to hold out both hope and consolation.

A portrait of Jo

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Although for the past two and a half months I have been developing a work of conceptual art I occasionally begin or re-address an oil painting. I returned recently to look again at a painting I had begun of Jo. One way I had resolved the problem of grappling with infinity in relation to making art was to focus on the things I know (with at least some certainty)  and with which I have direct experience.

I know Jo well. I know that she appreciates a whole range of types and styles of art and that she also respects the traditions of art. She likes fashion, as well as interior design and she also does very practical things including upholstery. She also likes colour – in all its hues and tints. Finally, she has a ready smile.

So I decided to invite her to adopt a rather formal (almost classical) pose and to be seated on a particular chair that she had carefully restored and then re-upholstered. By intention there is a ‘retro’ feel to the painting. It deliberately sets out to look back into the past but there are some obvious signs of an idiosyncratic contemporary mood. The angles lend a strangeness to the composition. Overall I am confident that the painting reflects something of her nature.

In fact, I am fairly pleased with the result because I think the painting expresses some of her qualities and values.

A walk on Sunday

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Just south of Farnham in Surrey there are number of distinct and beautiful places to visit for walks and for re-gaining ‘perspective’. There are the magical woods near Tilford and the serene ponds both great and small at Frensham …

On the evening of Sunday 12 July I drove to Frensham. I parked the car in a rough-hewn space and set off for a walk. I climbed a hill that I had never climbed before and, at its summit, I looked through the clear air towards the distant hills. I had the strange sense that I was on holiday even though I was less than 6 miles from my home. The heather was beginning to shade the land in mauve and purple. Pine cones were everywhere. A few Birch and Rowan trees edged along the grey-white sandy paths. I noticed, to my surprise, a tiny wren flitting – dancing even – in the undergrowth.

Through the tress I could look down and see the silver-blue waters of the lake. A few graceful terns twisted in the air and a great-crested grebe glided proudly across the water.

I was reminded of Monet’s remark that a painter has all that he or she ever needs within just a few kilometres from where they live.

Ideology, ways of seeing and the American dream

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The capacity to give a Marxist reading of the mass media, literature and the arts is a necessary part of art criticism; after first outlining some basic aspects of Marxism I shall touch on one aspect of such a critical reading, namely ‘ideology’.

Two authoritative discussions on the philosophy of Marxism underlined certain core aspects of the theory including the recognition that it is essentially a theory of liberation. In the first discussion between Bryan Magee and Charles Taylor, Magee (1978) provides a thumbnail sketch of the basic tenets of Marxism; he stresses the centrality of the arrangements which keep a society in existence – which are, in fact, the means of production. It is these economic conditions and the associated political dimension that form the very basis of a society – upon which all else is constructed. Taylor adds to Magee’s sketch by noting that the appeal and excitement of Marxism lies in the fact that it promises a liberation from the trials and tribulations of an oppressed existence. Marcuse, in a subsequent discussion with Magee, endorses the ongoing critique of capitalist society by highlighting its failures and the positive alternative held out by revised Marxist theory.

A Marxist perspective pinpoints, in addition to the material and historical factors that structure a society, the role of ideology. Ideologies – understood as belief systems – are the product of cultural conditioning. They come in many guises and whilst some are liberating others are oppressive. The most serious Marxist critics attribute many of the failings of western capitalist societies to the role of ideology. They do this by showing that an ideology can be both hidden and can serve to mask actual realities. One such ideology is that of the ‘American dream’ (and something not dissimilar prevails in the UK). The American writer Tyson – a cultural critic – outlines this ideology by articulating three of the more obvious features of the mind-set and belief that is ‘the American dream.’ They are: a) Getting ahead – through initiative, will-power and effort b) Bettering oneself – and being better than others (hence, competitiveness) and c) Rugged individualism.

Tyson (2017) then moves on to provide a devastating description of the way the ideology of the ‘American dream’ functions as an oppressive ideology:

‘… like all ideologies that support the socio-economic inequities of capitalist countries like ours – that is countries in which the means of production (natural, financial and human resources) are privately owned and in which those who own them inevitably become the dominant class – the American dream blinds us to the enormities of its failure – both past and present: the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, the virtual enslavement of indentured servants, the abuse suffered by immigrant populations, the widening gulf between America’s rich and poor, the growing ranks of the homeless and hungry, the enduring socio-economic barriers against women and people of colour – and the like.

In other words, the success of the American dream – the acquisition of a wealthy life-style for a few – rests on the misery of the many. And it is the power of ideology, of our belief in the naturalness and fairness of this dream, that has blinded us to the harsh realities it masks.’ (Tyson, 2017: 55,56)

The key point is that the American dream has come to occupy such a deeply entrenched position in a shared American psyche that it is not fully recognised as a product of cultural conditioning but, instead, as something natural. It seems so normal and taken-for-granted that it is difficult to ‘haul it out’ of the unconscious and see it as a constructed rather than a natural and inevitable mode of seeing.

Marcuse also understands the role of ideology in similar terms. He even thinks that it must have created a deep psychological cast of mind because the realities of advanced capitalist life in America are not at all commendable. In his conversation with Magee (1978) he observes of America (and other advanced capitalist countries) that, as a society it ‘daily revealed its inequality, injustice, cruelty and general destructiveness’ and that whilst he noted that although ‘Fascism had been defeated militarily, a potential for its revival continued to exist.’ He then continues by saying that he could also mention’ racism, sexism, general insecurity, pollution of the environment, the degradation of education, the degradation of work and so on – and on …

Marxist critics analyse how ideology is brought into being and amongst its sources is both the mass media and its cultural manifestations in the arts. In the light of their analysis a key question for any work of art is the extent to which it supports, promotes or sustains an oppressive ideology. And it may do this in any number of subtle and indirect ways.

When Margaret Atwood speaks …

Screenshot 2020-04-23 at 08.03.33Actually I read this extraordinary book a long time ago. It was back in those days when I realised that my knowledge was so impoverished I had to do something about it; so, I read the classics; the trouble is I have forgotten everything I once knew about ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. However, I happened to see a short programme in which esteemed authors were mentioning books that they might read during these restricted times. Margaret Atwood had never read Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’ She rather relished the fact that, by all accounts, it featured ‘bad behaviour’!

I decided, therefore, that I had better re-read this great novel. Today, I retrieved it from one of my bookshelves. I dusted it off and looked at the cover. I opened the book. I began reading.

(The painting featured on the cover of the book shows a detail from, ‘The rejected confession’ by Ilya Repin.)

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