In the end, I was more than pleased to leave the great city – the ‘city of light’. After a while, the taut compression of time and space, the overwhelming and unremitting presence of stone and concrete and tarmac – it had all become oppressive. And perhaps it was the simple fact of seeing the falling autumn leaves that spoke silently of nature and her seasons, of landscapes and those places where the sky meets the land: yes, perhaps it was these that served as outriders to my departure.
During my stay, though, I had seen a partial re-construction of Marcel Proust’s bedroom; near to the almost lugubrious and decidedly sombre room that they had re-created, the museum curators had thoughtfully placed a bench upon which visitors could sit; it was there, contemplating the blue bed-cover and the writer’s furniture, that I was able to listen to a few extracts from his continuous novel, ‘In search of lost time.’ As I listened to the readings, I was reminded of my past – a past that seemed to be marked by or condemned to the endless pressure of the march of time; by contrast, Proust’s writing showed how delightful it is to ‘take time’ and to explore the character and quality of our conscious ‘being-in-the-world’. The effect upon me was plain and simple: I resolved to leave the city, return to the quietude of my home town in England, and re-read Proust’s writing. And this I did.
At the same time – and whilst I was back in England – I was alerted to some sensitive discussions on travel writing and of our engagement with the particular phenomena of place. In the course of this I encountered William L. Heat-Moon’s book, ‘Blue highways: a journey into America’: whilst big cities such as New York, Paris and London attract the majority of tourists, smaller towns, as Heat-Moon shows, have just as much to offer; through his writing, he restores to us the magic and mystery of small ordinary towns. These are the places that are overlooked, passed over – or worse, ridiculed and derogated because, on the surface, they have none of the obvious glamour of those great cities. But pause for a moment and look carefully at the detail of these ‘ordinary’ places – and in no time at all they unveil themselves: they are full of the exceptional and extraordinary. And, like the undramatic town in which I live, there is in each to be found a gem on main-street, a jewel in the backstreets – and a tale, like no other, to be told in the most modest of dwellings.
Proust too – in certain respects – focuses on the ordinary – and he works a very special kind of magic on the objects and scenes and encounters with the almost ‘ordinary’. And, as I read him, I tried to identify exactly what it is about his writing that is so special; it seems to me that he explores the data of all our senses, the bouquets of rose, the sight of amber, the feel of lace, then, the film of consciousness through which we experience the world about us – then, too, he expresses psychological insights as well as his acute perceptions of the character of human beings. He delights in the foibles and irrationalities of the people around him. His writing strikes me as ‘complete’. On top of this, his engagement with and disclosures about his childhood memories and experiences in the small Norman town of ‘Combray’ even seem to serve as proto-theories that anticipate the work of any number of major French intellectual figures; And, by way of outcome, he invites his reader to extend Heat-Moon’s appreciation of the charms of the ‘ordinary.’
Farnham is where I live; in its way it is unremarkable – ordinary. People retire to Farnham or leave the pressures of the city for Farnham. It is not quite Proust’s Combray nor somewhere along a ‘blue American highway’. It is, I think, despite the deformations caused by over-development, despite its wholly unimaginative local politics, a successful town. It has a long – a very long and auspicious history; in its time, it has enjoyed the presence of a variety of notable figures; there are plaques, on a wall in the heart of the town, that name many of these; some written histories of the town exist – but, like all histories, they never quite ‘get on the inside’ of people’s experiences.
I walk through, and in, and around Farnham. I walk in the afternoons, I walk at night.
Today, in the serene shadow of Proust, it is the end of November. Night has fallen. The earlier moments of twilight have silently shrouded themselves in the first misty darks of the night. Alone, I am walking the long straight path on the southern edge of the park, Farnham park. All about me are the fallen leaves of autumn. Palmate, or ovoid – or the heart-shaped leaves of the elegant limes – or in shapes I could not give a name to – they lay, quite still, in their softly, slowly dying colours: the autumn colours of transparent gold-ochre or fading burnt sienna. Chrome yellow too. Yes, these leaves have learned the art of dying. There is a stillness, and everywhere a stillness: a hymn to the silence; but this silence … it seems to portend something – a calm before … but there is no storm. All is at rest. Tranquil, reposeful – not even the stirring of a zephyr. Then, a rustle in the shadows and for a moment my heart quickens; someone – a shroud – a spectre – a man, passes by; a lone dog barks somewhere in the distance – and I remember the words of a long-ago song that keeps me company in the sleepless hours: I remember the line: ‘One too many mornings and a thousand miles behind‘.
From the path I can look across the town. dimly lit, docile, tamed – a town settled, now in the restorative hours. It rests in a confidence born of the sediments of history and its untroubled aesthetics. Wealth too.
Yes: Perhaps, in its way, it is a successful town. Perhaps it is a model for how things might work. Not a city – nor the limiting ethos of the village – but a town with a history and buildings to match and those many lives – now happy in the beautiful soft amber-and-gold lights of their living rooms and kitchens. The mood of those lights reminded me of a moment yesterday: in the afternoon, under a bright cool sky, a soft mist was hanging over the town – like a mood of such sweet sorrow. It seemed as if a painter had glazed the dry (or almost dry) shades of the trees he had formed on his canvas with the faintest of cool greys – and blended the whole with the gentlest of brushstrokes – the one in the other.
Again, the song – and the line from the song. And how much I regret the loss of that past, my past: now, I am more than ‘one too many mornings’ and a far far greater distance – I am far more than a thousand miles behind …
In fact, a warning not just from Anthropology: Scholars in various disciplines including philosophy as well as anthropology have reprised Walter Benjamin’s concern that ‘cultures’ – along with their ideas and manifestations of progress – are built on the ‘rubble’ of the past. For example, one ageing political philosopher reported that he had ‘already’ lived through six philosophical fashions each of which proposed the fatal shortcomings of any that had preceded them. The anthropologists warn us not to be quite so ready to find fault with past achievements; one obvious example is the doctrine of human rights which lies at the heart of humanism.
I was reminded of all this when I saw the riveting film, ‘Barbara Rubin and the NY (New York) underground explosion‘. In effect, the film demonstrated the experimental ‘no-holds barred’ extraordinary achievements of the young film maker during her relatively brief moments of film-making in New York City (and New York state) during the 1960s. In a way Rubin conformed to Benjamin’s observation in the sense that she was committed to breaking the established conventions in which art might have found itself – but, at the same time, the film also shows us how a rather more diffident art-making culture has now come to displace the sheer brazen inventiveness of the alternative or ‘counter-culture’ that once held sway more than 50 years ago. I was re-invigorated by the film and my first response was to buy an old vintage copy of International Times. I would like to re-present some of that older style of communicating. It certainly would make for a great deal of fun and the delights of expressing a more genuine creative freedom.
The art show in the James Hockey Gallery of the University for the Creative Arts, (UCA Farnham), was entitled ‘Coming up for air – responding to climate and sustainability’. A text accompanying the exhibition situated it against the backdrop of an enduring concern with ‘climate change’ – as well as the challenge of finding ways to engage, sustainably, with our local contexts. However, and perhaps wisely (given the idiosyncrasies and apparent individuality of contemporary artists) we were also told that ‘the works on show do not seek to illustrate this subject’; instead we, the visitor, were invited, through the stimulus of whatever it was we would encounter, to ‘wrestle with these contexts and ideas, their contradictions or paradoxes.’ The onus was on us to make some sort of intellectual effort if we were fully to appreciate the distinct meanings of the show.
I am not at all sure that I would have been able to grasp the fact that this was an exhibition taking as its aim a collection of works of art that would surface pressing problems to do with the global and local issues intrinsic to climate-change and sustainability. I say that from the outset because my first impression was contingent upon the presentation of the work: overall, it had an immediate, obvious and alluring aesthetic appeal. It was almost spectacular. In short, it looked pleasing to the eye – and had about it the seductive bouquet redolent of a quiet hyper-reality; it conformed beautifully to the conventions of ‘advanced’ or ‘elite’ art and reflected the ‘dematerialisation’ of such art that has been so confidently and normatively established since the mid-1960s. However, if it was radical and focused on the intimacies of the local this was not immediately apparent: the exhibition was placed in an institutional context that is, at the very least, somewhat detached from the local; the gallery itself is, de facto, rather exclusionary: and Pierre Bourdieu was almost certainly correct when he contended that the ethos and preserve of contemporary art is mysteriously esoteric – and more than a little estranged from the hard-pressed practical concerns of ‘ordinary’ people; the spaces and places of advanced art – such as the gallery in which ‘Coming up for air’ found itself – remain charming but more or less mystifying.
Nevermind: I took the staging of the work in good faith and, after my initial perceptions, I began to engage with the questions that the various works raised. Some were amusing and ironic, some were redolent of a distant mythology, some were formal and so ‘unnatural’ as to make me wonder whether the artist was playing with the whole idea of his or her alienation from the way our cultural world is configured. But for me the work that surfaced, most effectively, the big ecological, environmental and existential questions of our day was a short film; it showed some of the things resulting from the detonation of nuclear bombs. On seeing the film I was once again struck by the fact that a strange kind of beauty finds itself attached to the actual flash of the explosion and the rising cloud of chemical dust. Here though, is a profound warning: the visual obscures the real. And so this film (rather like the famous film,‘Threads’) got to the heart of the matter – and related directly to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and the subsequent paradigmatic work of the artist Joseph Beuys. Heidegger’s philosophy came to grapple with the problem of our ‘technical being’, its culmination in weapons of mass destruction and, thereby, the possibility that this enduring aspect of our being had the potential to destroy humanity itself. Beuy’s successfully re-framed the height, breadth and depth of art by expanding its identity, its reach and its transformative potentials.
Since the aim of the exhibition was to provoke a serious response to both global and local environmental and quality-of-life issues I thought it sensible to surface those aspects of Heidegger’s philosophy that, for me, were catalysed by the short black-and-white film and which confront us with the ‘deep’ ecological problems of our time. So, for Heidegger, anxiety, alienation and the problem of authenticity permeate our modern ‘being in the world’. He argued that we are part and parcel of the world of nature, or, put more generally, the cosmos. However, we have become alienated from this ‘interconnectedness’. He thought that the overall problem with modern culture is precisely that we have lost our cosmic roots and become detached from the whole. Increasingly, we have come, especially with and through the advance of science and an allied way of ‘thinking (a mind-set), to set ourselves in some sort of ‘apartness’ to ‘the world’: on the one hand, there is the ‘human’, and, on the other, everything else. This alienation is particularly apparent in modern culture – and one of the reasons it happens is that we have, compared with heretofore, built up a much more intricate technical society.
As the Heideggerian scholar William Barrett puts it: ‘We’re more encased in the sheer human [especially technical] framework of things compared with earlier times.’
Barrett goes on to say that:
‘The later Heidegger is centrally concerned with … the problem of technology. He feels that one of the tasks of philosophers in our period is to try to think through what technology involves. Modern thinking is too superficial, too inauthentic, with regard to the subject of technology … It makes no sense, Heidegger said, for humans at this particular juncture of history, to be for or against technology. We’re committed to technology. If you removed it the whole civilisation would collapse … On the other hand, there is the fact, which the atomic bomb has brought before human consciousness generally, that technology has drastic possibilities. Hitherto people protested against technology as a cause of local nuisance – unemployment, pollution and so on – but the notion that humanity could self-destruct showed us the fearful possibilities within the technical complex.’
And he continues:
‘ … Heidegger was concerned with thinking through to where, in the historical destiny of humanity, the roots of our technical being lie, and where it may be carrying [us]’; he felt that the dominant metaphor which could be used to describe our time was that of mining: everything was (and is) to be ‘set upon’ for that which it might yield. Underneath it all ‘we’ have found ourselves in the grip of obvious or less obvious forms of exploitation.
Plainly, then, Heidegger was worried: he was worried about where our ‘technical being’ was headed …
The philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, extends Barrett’s discussion and finds that, indeed, the roots of our technical being lie in ‘efficiency’ – which is tightly linked to the understanding of ourselves as ‘separate’; we are locked into a predominant mode of being that is wedded to ‘efficiency’ -and the examples are obvious: a more efficient way of threatening people with obliteration, (the atom bomb), of killing enemies (the machine gun), of controlling water (dams and water courses), a more efficient way of communicating (Facebook), ‘InDesign’ as a more efficient way of producing highly attractive publications, applied psychology as the means to developing ever more efficient way of disciplining people, the promise of ‘AI’ as a more efficient way of solving problems, and more and more ‘apps’ to make health and wealth and pleasure readily available etc. etc. To this we ought to add the idea of ‘effectiveness’: our technologies emerge from a seemingly endless push for efficiency and effectiveness; this lies at the very heart of that form of our human being that has progressively dislodged itself from nature and the cosmos. Efficiency links to the ‘will to power’ and the mastery of, in principle, everything: the beauty of nature, as Jackson Browne put it, has been ‘tortured into power’.
The black-and-white film of the nuclear explosion therefore pinpoints, in principle, the apotheosis of technical thinking; by extension, it reveals how the underlying quest for efficiency has brought us to where we are – at both global and local levels. And it was the late Joseph Beuys who grasped the devastating implications of technical thinking; in response, he launched a focus and practice of art as a therapeutic ‘reconnection’ – a form of ‘de-alienation’ from our disrupted and unsettled being-in-the-world. In1982, against the background of his environmental and political activism, he began what was a perhaps his most celebrated work – the planting of 7,000 oak trees around the city of Kassel in central Germany. Beuys hoped that his ‘7000 Eichen’ would serve as a conduit for re-connecting the citizens of the heavily bombed city with their natural environment. But perhaps more profoundly he wanted to offer them alternatives to the cultural and societal zeitgeist that had taken them into the lunatic and catastrophic war in the first place. As each tree was planted, it was paired with a pillar of basalt – a strategy designed to symbolise the destruction that had befallen the bombed city. Forty years later it appears to have worked: Stay close to the rhythms of nature; feel the earth in your hands, watch the mini-ecologies of the riverbank, listen to the music of the spheres …
Beuy’s pioneering work and his challenge to our ways of engaging with the world inevitably raises a question about the very staging of ‘Coming up for air’ in a well-lit rectangular gallery situated within a modern university for the creative arts: I cannot but ask of the show: Does the actual setting really connect with anything local, with anything close to home? Does the work – in its various and distinct forms – have much to do with local issues – except in an oblique and relatively abstract way? Worse, does the work essentially highlight the embeddedness of the artists in the advanced capitalist neo-liberal ethos of prizing sheer individuality – and does it serve to amplify their profiles in the highly mediated world of ‘look at me’ and of ‘Please, I do so want to be somebody?’ It inevitably raises questions about integrity and authenticity. It raises questions about what game is really being played.
In the face of these questions, I had to make an effort to ‘see’ the local but the effort was rewarded: it was discernible in representations of strange excavations or in a bizarre ironical dysfunctional mini wind turbine; it did ‘show up’ in many (conceivably all) of the separate works. It showed up in intricate patternings and moments of intimate delicacy. To the extent that there were some direct references to the ‘local’ – that is, to the actual town in which the exhibition took place – it reminded me of the town’s diminished sensitivity to any form of eco-consciousness and its failure to take proper care of its environment: Over time, the town (a place that the estate agents enthusiastically proclaim ‘has it all’) has manifestly suffered from ‘over-development’; it has degraded itself. The streets in the heart of the town are crammed with cars (often big fat cars) with the inevitable result that the air is suffused with noxious and toxic substances. ‘Coming up for air’, then, is pointedly ironical. But perhaps the most ironic and dismal part of this is the way the town has allowed a site of ‘strategic visual importance’ (an open field adjacent to and abutting the University for the Creative Arts itself) to become a housing estate. The estate is virtually without any architectural or aesthetic merit. Worse, there is little if any evidence that the design of the overall environment embodies the restorative sensibility that Joseph Beuys pioneered. I think this is perfectly emblematic of the problem intrinsic to capitalism that Rosa Luxembourg identified more than a century ago: it is founded on the need for continual growth – and the importunate necessity of more production and more consumption. Sadly, the trajectory of the town itself serves as a case study – a micro-study – highlighting the wider global problem of the neo-liberal (or even the state-controlled) models of political economy.
However, and notwithstanding, ‘Coming up for air’ may well highlight a crisis in contemporary art; It is this: Since we are in a world saturated with images – and since we have become so used to art-images as surprising, or interesting, or unexpected or original – that any message, anything really worth saying, is trumped by the ‘presentation’ and thereby effectively negated. I get the impression that we are more and more the children of Susan Sontag and oblivious to her serious reservations about the vast repository of pure image that we cannot but consume. In consequence, we systematically sleepwalk into a kind of de-sensitisation. And, on top of this, isn’t there something odd about an art institution that profiles and prides itself as the efficient provider and producer of large numbers of people who will come to service the ‘creative industries’ – and, thereby, promote the seductions of the object-fetish? If we take the issues of global and local sustainability seriously then surely a radical questioning of the basic ethos of art and the cultures of the art institution is absolutely essential. We have to ask: How well do they model the moral and ecological values that they espouse? What role do they actually play in the ruination or preservation of our ecosystems?
There is, though, a counter-argument to my concerns that the art on display is more a way of conforming to the norms and blandishments of ‘advanced’ art than of ‘really’ dealing seriously with the global and/or local concerns with sustainability. The argument has been well put by Iris Murdoch: writing as both a philosopher and a literary artist she stated, flatly and sententiously, that the artist has no ‘duty to society’. Instead, the artist has ‘a duty to art ‘- to ‘truth-telling in his or her chosen medium’. In other words, quietly or subtly, loudly or spectacularly, insouciantly or soberly, the artist has to find a way of communicating the truth as he or she sees it. And Murdoch adds: ‘If serious art is a primary aim then some sort of justice is a primary aim.’ It follows that the art of any lasting value is ultimately concerned with the good in opposition to evil, the worthwhile instead of the meretricious – and, enticingly, always enjoys and expresses some sort of erotic charge. Murdoch’s is a reassuring voice. For her, art ‘goes deeper’ than philosophy – and, provided the artist counters the seductions of narcissism and has a go at truth-telling and truth-revealing, then his or her art is destined to be a precious thing. ‘Coming up for air’ may be a moment for clear critical reflection or a polished masquerade in which the art ‘show’ is a performance which nicely conceals an ideology of self-interest.
I spent three weeks in Paris. I walked the city. The style, the elegance – it’s still there. During my time in the ‘city of light’ I visited the ‘Musee Carnavalet’ on two separate occasions. This particular museum is devoted to the history of Paris. Admission is free and the exhibits are often breathtaking. Quite why I find them so mesmerising I do not really know – but the reconstructions of the 18th century drawing rooms that were once enjoyed by the nobility and the cultural elite of the city are sublime.
I looked at window displays and sometimes I felt as if I were a child from a novel by Dickens or perhaps more appropriately, a spectre from the writings of Victor Hugo, a child looking at the things, all just out of reach, the things he can never have. I saw the most gorgeous confections and some of the most desirable objects imaginable. And then I saw a wonderful poster for a famous film. It reminded me of the birth of the ‘cool’ …
As a preliminary to a first consideration, I must first establish the background to this very recent work: I had begun to paint portraits of my wife and two daughters a few years ago. One of the main reasons I decided to do this was because I wanted to avoid contrivance or inauthenticity: in particular, I wanted to focus on that which I knew from direct experience and not an ‘idea’ (such as ‘absence’ or ‘tension’ or ‘place’ or ‘angst’) or anything particularly metaphysical; I had also become more and more alerted to the way art seemed to be functioning in a neo-liberal world that appears to exploit every resource for material gain and/or the pursuit of pleasure. In relation to this, I had been persuaded by the observations of writers such as Lippard (1973) that even the most subversive works of art were likely to be ‘captured’ and domesticated by the exclusive locales of economic and cultural power; art had become a part of a febrile global ‘society of the spectacle’ – a distraction, a curiosity and an entertainment. In a way it, art (or at least much art) seemed to reflect a strange admixture of exploitation and pleasure. In addition to this, my early engagement with art during my foundational years at the University for the Creative Arts had exposed me to the basic problem of infinity: there is, as a matter of fact, an infinite number of ways of ‘making’ art. In the face of all this, what was I to do?
The answer lay in one of the things in which I still have confidence. It is this:
A part of my earlier education had been a long engagement with the Human Potential Research Project in the Department of Education at the University of Surrey; a core principle of its remarkable approach to the theory and practice of ‘being human’ and of ‘human being’ was the emphasis upon the reality of personal experience. If there was anything we could trust in the world then it was, provided we did not deceive ourselves, the reality of our ongoing and felt experience. In fact, the nature and character of our feelings and their connection to our thoughts and imaginings was the foundational ‘place’ in which to ‘be’ and ultimately to ‘come from’ in relation to the ways in which we might engage with others; in consequence, I had learned to be wary of my apparent and socially-constructed values and beliefs simply because they may have been ‘one-step removed’ from my direct experience; and, on top of this, I had become increasingly aware that I tended to revise my beliefs the more I lived and learned.
Against this backdrop, the way I solved the problem (of what I was to manifest in art) was to decide on painting the people I knew best. This I did. But after a while I was obliged to ask: what sort of painting was I actually bringing into being? Because I was uncertain as to how, in truth, to answer this, I only painted two or three canvasses in the second year of my MA. But then I happened to see a programme on the television about Lucian Freud and it rekindled my desire to paint: I immediately painted a study of my wife that, notionally, concerned serenity and repose, reflection and mystery; in short, it concerned ‘subjectivity’. I think it was partly influenced by Ocie Elliot’s song ‘Slow tide’ and probably by the inevitable and remorseless slowing down of my own life. (I like to spend time in a kind of contemplative dreaminess!) It was also a reflection of my sense that other people always remain unknowable and that, at best, we meet each other in the liminal space between the constellations of our separate being. Overall, it was at this point (that is, in the immediate aftermath of completing the first full draft of the painting) that I found myself re-visiting John Berger’s (1972) ‘Ways of seeing’. I wanted, first, to make sure that I had fully grasped Berger’s points of view, and secondly to apply his theoretical concepts to my own ‘ways of seeing’. I wanted to uncover exactly what I was doing in the making of the portraits of my wife and daughters. I wanted to consider whether or not I was beyond the typical expressions of the ‘male gaze’.
However, whatever it is that I discover about what might really be going on in this painting I hope it might feature in my final degree show … because it is something which pleases me …
End note: I also happened, very recently, to encounter the following remark by the potter, Gareth Mason, which nicely coincides with my interest in expressions of ‘subjectivity’. He wrote:
‘Some aspect of humanity has always needed the dark inner regions, the cave, the veiled, the liminal space between worlds, between states, between known and unknown. Our need for mystery is as potent today as it ever has been and this primitivity of suggestion is important to me; I believe in it. Consequently the interior (of the pot) remains as important to me as the exterior; it is a twilight space, reminiscent of other intimacies, where one feels one should not look but which fascinates nonetheless. Loaded with potential the interior is a conduit to what Gaston Bachelard described as “Cellar of dreams”‘ (Gareth Mason, 2020: 112)
Reference: Mason, G. (2020) ‘A decade in cahoots’, New York: Jason Jacques Gallery Press
This is a special photograph; it casts me into a particular and somewhat indescribable mood. The photograph stills the soul. It, the photograph, was taken in a church in Paris. Its subject must surely be that of Joan of Arc. It has the profound aura of religious or spiritual transcendence. How do I ‘see’ it? How does it ‘work’ on me? These are the questions I want to begin to answer. It presents itself as a phantom – a phantom from history now in the present. But when I look at this photograph and think of its subject I also think of something outside the statue – outside the photograph: I think of the song ‘Joan of Arc’. It was first released as a single in 1971. I first heard it on Leonard Cohen’s LP which was entitled ‘Songs of love and hate’. The years have gone by and I still listen to that LP and I still hear the spectral echoes of ‘Joan of Arc’. The song last for 6 minutes and 29 seconds. Here are the words of the first two stanzas which take the form of a dialogue between Joan and the fire that will consume her as she burns at the stake:
‘Now the flames they followed Joan of Arc – As she came riding through the dark
No moon to keep her armour bright – No man to get her through this darkest very smoky night
She said, “I’m tired of the war – I want the kind of work I had before
A wedding dress or something white – To wear upon my swollen appetite”
Well, I’m glad to to hear you talk this way – You see I’ve watched you riding almost every single day
And there’s something in me, that yearns to win – Such a very cold, such a very lonesome heroine
“Well then, who are you?” she sternly spoke – To the one beneath the smoke
“Why, I’m fire” he replied – “And I love your solitude, how I love your sense of pride”
Our MA in Fine Art has been obliged to resort entirely to communications through the often uncomfortable processes of Zoom. I haven’t actually been in the presence of most of my fellow students (in person) for almost a year. It has been a very difficult time but it became even more difficult when I had the task of opening a recent symposium with a 30 minute presentation on my ‘research’ into a self-chosen domain or subject within the broad category that is ‘contemporary’ or ‘advanced’ Fine Art. In fact, I knew my subject well since I had been focusing upon it in terms of both theory and practice since the beginning of June 2020. For various reasons I had investigated a sub-category of Conceptual art and I had even had the temerity to propose a distinct and as yet unnamed sub-category – which I called ‘psycho-philosophical’.
During January 2021 I had duly prepared my presentation and had wondered about the wisdom of referring to it as a ‘theory-led’ project. (I anticipated an audience that would not necessarily wish to dwell too much on ‘theory’.) But, as I rehearsed it – a process rendered bizarre and alienating because it consisted of me having to speak emphatically and with no little animation to an inanimate computer screen – I suddenly wondered if the forthcoming audience would be familiar with the very origins of the ‘thing’ that is a ‘symposium.’ On top of this I had more or less forgotten the text of the early forerunner of the modern symposium: and that text is Plato’s ‘The Symposium‘. It occurred to me that a good way of concluding my presentation would be a ‘return to the beginning’ by way of reminding ourselves of what a good symposium might achieve. So, I reached up to a particular book-shelf – a book-shelf that contains some classic works of literature – found what I was looking for – and re-read Plato’s ‘The Symposium‘.
It’s a great work of art. It’s a great read too. In a nutshell, Plato describes a dinner party (or rather a drinking party) convened to celebrate the recent success of the playwright Agathon. The party is attended by the elite literati of Athens; and, instead of enjoying an after-dinner entertainment of music and carousing, the guests decide to hear, from each of the participants, a discourse on love.
However, despite thoroughly enjoying the text and of being taught how to think clearly about ‘love’ this re-reading yielded an unexpected result; and, the unexpected result of re-reading the whole of Plato’s ‘Symposium‘ was the realisation that the work could be understood as an expression of the very sub-category of art, a ‘psycho-philosophical ‘art, that I was proposing I had so recently ‘discovered’! It would have been impossible for me to arrive at this way of looking at Plato’s achievement if I had not benefited from studies in the ‘philosophy of art’ and notably Goldie and Schellekens’ (2009) collection of papers in their ‘The philosophy of conceptual art‘. This is because the contributors such as Lamarque (2009) determined that the identity conditions of conceptual art (i.e the conditions that need to be met for something to claim the identity of conceptual art) are:
That, experientially, it is a kind of hybrid which has parallels with:
a) the cerebral reflections that overlap with the philosophical
b) thematic concerns – similar to those which give a work of literature or music coherence – and
c) the perceptual and often sensual experiences yielded by painting and sculpture or music and dance
And Plato’s ‘Symposium’ reflects these conditions, How so? Well, it has a mise en scene which, in its description creates a distinct and fascinating ‘situation’ (this is the vivid sensory aspect), it reproduces discourses on the theme of love (i.e. it has a coherent thematic content) and in the course of doing this it introduces, through the reported conversation between Diotima and Socrates, Plato’s philosophy and his theory of the Forms. It provokes really serious philosophical reflection. And, it includes allusions to the character of the participants such as Aristophanes and Alcibiades. However, its core focus, in this respect, is on the person – the character and psychology of Socrates. It is a remarkable text and it also suggests a certain philosophy of art – if in place of the subject of ‘love’ we introduce the ‘realities’ of art. In so doing it raises the question about gradations of art – from the rather basic representations of the aesthetic to an art that enables the viewer to transcend the limits of the sensible world.
I should also note that after the speeches of Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristohanes and Agathon, Socrates perhaps surprises us by first clarifying the concept of love and then referring to the person who taught him how to think about it: And she was the woman Diotima. It would be a mistake to underestimate the power and insights of women even in such distant times.
Klingsor was an artist: 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 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 a 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 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 quenchless hunger for life, his relations with a handful of friends, his swings of mood, his moral freedom and his veniality. But we are alert 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 mighty 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.’
Ever since my Latin teacher gave me a copy of Carl Jung’s ‘Memories, dreams, reflections’ the study of our different modes of consciousness has intrigued me. That same Latin master sometimes used the term ‘a brown study’ to refer to that state of being in which one or more of his pupils had seemingly departed from any obvious sensory contact with the world and had entered a mood of rather vague contemplation. On the other hand, he highlighted those moments when his same pupils evidenced something of a poet’s sensibility during which they marvelled and even extolled the beauties of the world around them.
There is, I think, an enjoyable difference between a form of deep contemplation and a kind of spiritual openness and its allied fulfilment. The former is determined by an almost mysterious stillness of thought; it is not a rumination, nor an activation of logic; it is more like a kind of quiet dreamy wonderment in which idea and image reside on the very edges of consciousness; it is as if the soul temporarily leaves the body. By contrast, the mood of spiritual openness (the poet’s sensibility) remains touched by the phenomena of the world itself; to that extent it is image-laden and more or less connected to sense experience.
The mood of deep contemplation is highlighted by Dostoyevsky in his ‘The Brothers Karamazov’; he provides us with its description in relation to an enigmatic character named Smerdyakov; we learn that ‘on occasion’ Smerdyakov, notwithstanding whatever he had hitherto been engaged upon, would come to a halt and remain standing ‘quite still’ for a few minutes. A study of his features would suggest that he was engaged in ‘some form of contemplation’ and Dostoyevsky continues:
‘There is by the artist Kramskoy a certain remarkable painting that goes under the title, ‘The contemplator’: depicted is a forest in winter, and there, all alone, on a roadway, in a ragged old kaftan and bast shoes, stands a wretched little muzhik (a Russian peasant ) who has wandered there in deepest solitude, who stands seemingly in reflection, yet is not thinking but is apparently ‘contemplating.’ Were you to jog his elbow he would start and look at you as though he had just awoken … To be sure he would at once recover his wits, but were you to ask him what he had been standing there thinking about, he would doubtless be unable to remember any of it …’
However, it is not a state without ‘content’: some residue of this experience would remain for Dostoyevsky adds that whatever it is that has taken place, the ‘impressions’ that may have arisen during this mood of contemplation ‘are dear to him’ and may re-surface at some point in the future.
There is an almost perfect description of spiritual openness and a kind of accompanying ecstasy – that is partly associated with the beauty of the world as it presents itself – in Dostoyevsky’s same novel: The young Aloysha Karamazov has just paid his last respects to his guide and mentor, the revered head of a monastery, and has suddenly left the dead man’s monastic cell; we are told that:
‘He did not even stop in the porch-way but swiftly went down the steps. His soul, filled with ecstasy, thirsted for freedom, space, latitude. Above him wide and boundless, keeled the cupola of the heavens, full of quiet brilliant stars. Doubled from zenith to horizon ran the Milky Way, as yet unclear. The cool night, quiet to the point of fixity, enveloped the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the cathedral sparkled in the sapphire sky. In the flowerbeds the luxuriant autumn flowers had fallen asleep until morning. The earth’s silence seemed to fuse with that of the heavens, the earth’s mystery came into contact with that of the stars …’
These beautiful descriptions nicely exemplify the pleasures that might freely be yielded through such contrasting aspects of our mental lives. They appear on pages 144 and 417 respectively of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Penguin Classic edition of ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, a novel first published in 1880.
Michel de Montaigne begins a relatively long essay entitled, ‘To philosophise is to learn how to die’ by adhering closely to Cicero’s ‘Tuscan Disputations’ and observes without further delay that: ‘… philosophising is nothing other than getting ready to die.’ (Montaigne 1991: 89) Immediately he develops his subject by conjecturing 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.’
He then proceeds to discuss the inevitability of death and, somewhat in the tradition of Cicero, to propose that we should face up to this inevitability and prepare ourselves for a life in which death is omnipresent. Montaigne though is never depressing nor gloomy. He studied carefully the great classical writers (both Greek and Roman) and applied their counsel to understanding more fully both those around him and himself; he based his self-understanding on the unswerving details of his own lived experience.
He recognises that the ‘end’ to which a life aims is that of happiness or pleasure – and that it would be faintly absurd to imagine that this was not the case; for example, our ‘reason’ would scarcely tell us to aim towards pain and misery – and if it did, then we would surely wish to reject this ‘mood’ or expression of reason itself! Montaigne then reflects on the nature of virtue – which is not something oppressive and life-constraining: it, too, takes as its ultimate aim, ‘pleasure’. He has a vigorous and life-enhancing concept of virtue and adds that one of its ‘main gifts is contempt for death’.
However, he finds that, by and large people, are afraid of death, fail to accommodate it in their lives and are more inclined to deny it than to bring into full consciousness the fact that ‘the end of our course is death’. Montaigne, in the light of his acquired knowledge and the inescapable data of his personal experience, acknowledges that since we do not know ‘where death awaits us, let us wait for death everywhere’. And he thinks that if we do this, if we prepare ourselves in this way, we liberate our mind and body: he asserts that:
‘To practice death is to practice freedom.’
In essence, he means that we should not constrain ourselves and avoid the fullness of living because we fear death but should embrace life to the full – precisely because we have, as it were, made ‘friends’ with death – and, co-extensive with this, we should not allow our psychology to deny death and therefore to feel overwhelmed when someone close to us dies.
In this way, Montaigne finds a close relationship between the practical philosophy of the ancients, who advocated a life orientated towards happiness, the practice of virtue (as the expression of vigour for and in life), and freedom, a state which would truly emerge once a person had fully integrated the fact that death was intrinsic to their very being:
‘Your death,’ he notes ‘is a part of the order of the universe, it is part of the life of the world’ and he adds that ‘From the day you were born your path leads to death as well as to life.’
He concludes his essay with a series of reflections on various aspects of a life in which death is an existential given and advises his readers not to resist the approach of death but to prepare to leave this life since ‘all days lead to death’ but ‘the last one gets you there.’
Montaigne was a great liberal humanist who preferred to base his practical philosophy of life on the foundations established by Plato and Aristotle as well as the great Roman thinkers – such as Seneca and the happy eclecticism of Cicero. He applied their precepts to his own experience and is sometimes credited as a forerunner of the enlightenment. I certainly have enjoyed, through reading his wonderful essays, some very good and sympathetic and insightful company.