‘Our coffins are really luxury homes for the spirit. Each comes with a fully modifiable interior – and a lifetime guarantee.’
More than 70 years ago George Orwell wrote his essay ‘Politics and the English language.’ He wrote it because he had become very critical of the way English was being used – especially in relation to Politics. But his criticism was not simply confined to the use of English in political writing and speech-making. He disliked, for example, any deceptive or misleading types of communication. There’s no doubt he would have been appalled at the false claims made by advertisers and the absurd simplifications that are now part of media culture and which are even typical of the BBC’s news broadcasts. Orwell was worried that since there is a relation between language and thinking then the poor use of English would lead to poor habits of thought. He realised that all sorts of euphemisms were being used in politics to disguise awful truths. He also identified the fact that the ready availability of phrases, metaphors and expressions such as ‘in the cold light of day’, ‘when all is said and done‘ or ‘the acid test’ was beginning to supplant both careful thought and fresh, clear, truthful communications. Orwell came to the conclusion that people were becoming almost robotic in the way they expressed themselves. [In this context, he even railed against the use of the expression ‘we stand shoulder to shoulder with you…’ yet we still hear this worn-out unimaginative phrase today.]
He proposed that we stop the decline of the English language by first thinking clearly and then deciding what we wish to say. We should avoid pretentiousness and slovenliness. We should avoid pompousness; we should try to speak and write clearly and simply – and certainly not in those terms which tend to mystify the reader or the listener.
I was reminded of Orwell’s essay (and of similar classic texts such as ‘The hidden persuaders’ by Vance Packard) when I visited the annual MA degree shows held at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey. I always enjoy going to the exhibitions because the work shown is stimulating, often unexpected and distinctly contemporary. The work reflects a dominant ethos in the arts whereby the artist expresses their engagement with the world as they find it; more specifically, there is usually a very serious aspect to the work. It often deals with the hard questions to do with love, death, identity, estrangement, alienation and suffering. It also deals with the burden of culture.
My overall experience at the degree show was to enjoy a momentary transformation: I was transported from the ordinary everyday world to that of the extraordinary and novel. As usual, I admired the care, skill and artistry of the makers of glass and textiles and illustration. As usual, I was intrigued by the short films and the animations. But, partly because I produce work in the field of ‘fine art’ I always look to this group of artists for the most provocative, or surprising or bizarre works. I look to this domain of work to ‘wake me up.’ And I was not disappointed.
Six students were exhibiting in the Fine Art section of the show. Accompanying their work were texts. I read them in the free catalogue provided by the University. (Actually the texts were often rather too obscure or too convoluted or simply strained the language too far for much of it to be particularly clear! That is a shame; the art world seems overly wedded to the esoteric. In so doing it continues to practice exclusiveness.)
The ‘loudest’ work of the six was, in its way, the most straightforward. It aimed, in a post-Orwellian way, to lampoon and ridicule the vacuous slogans that we find ourselves reading in newspapers, on television screens, in emails, on advertising posters, through computer-mediated communications – in fact, everywhere we look. Hilary Champion, the artist and activist who had made the work, told us in no uncertain terms to ‘Breathe responsibly.’ (!) She had covered a large wall with several posters each containing the slogan ‘67% of your concerns are unwarranted ‘, a slogan that, at first glance, might have seemed plausible, but was in fact, a complete invention. She wanted to confront the ‘ludicrous’ claims that various interest groups make about life, or their politics, or other people’s politics, their products, their points of view etc. etc. and to do this she had created The Office for Global Improvement. But this Office for Global Improvement is a fiction. It doesn’t exist – yet in a way it does: it’s curious – we are, in reality, immersed in the messages conjured up by the non-existent Office for Global Improvement …
We had, too, the opportunity to engage directly with her work: we were invited to contribute our own completely meaningless and fake slogans or messages as we participated in the Office for Global Improvement. She underlined the fact that we are in a ‘post-truth’ world.
I thought this was terrific. I immediately dashed off a couple of slogans but then I had to take my wife to an airport so I did not spend more than five minutes on the task. I wrote, for example, ‘Our new streamlined aerodynamic digitised thinking guarantees super-plus success.’ (Stupid nonsense.) Then, and later, I ended up laughing out loud on the way back from the airport as I dreamed up a whole range of almost-believable pieces of similar non-sense.
Here are a three:
‘Blue sky thinking is O.K. but when it clouds over try indigo thinking.’
‘Without you the biosphere would be incomplete. Stay with us and help to keep things whole.’
‘Each journey begins with the first step and ends on the edge of infinity. So just walk.’
I could go on and on. But I rather liked the one I created about coffins. It’s the one at the beginning of this text. (Up there.)
I loved this piece of work partly because it lies in the broad tradition of radical psychology and it resonates with some of the great critical literature such as Koestler’s ‘Darkness at noon‘ or Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’; it also emphasis the role of the artist-as-critic and therefore resists the idea that ‘anything goes.’ Hilary Champion has seen how ludicrous the corporate world and the communications that characterise our culture – from top to bottom – have become. Oh dear: There’s almost no escape … (But of course there is …)
Conclusion: Some essential reading might re-inforce the idea of the Office for Global Improvement: Herman and Chomsky’s ‘Manufacturing consent: the political economy of the mass media‘ might be a good place to start.
P.S. I had the chance to have a short discussion with Ms. Champion and, although I am getting worse and worse at having a normal conversation, I enjoyed our short encounter and respected her integrity.
Footnote: The photograph shows an elusive figure on some stairs at the Office for Global Improvement.
Footnote 2. I would have liked to include a more extensive reference to Orwell’s essay. I think that his remarks on the use of ‘meaningless’ words – amongst which he included the word ‘democracy’ – are particularly relevant today. He thought that in certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning and he then also emphasised how many political words were being ‘abused’; for example:
“The word ‘fascism’ has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something undesirable”. The words – democracy, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice – have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country ‘democratic’ we are praising it : consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way.”
And they are. There’s no doubt about that.
But so are the ridiculous percentages that are attached to statements about who and what we are. These statements pass things off as objective and scientific but omit any reference as to how they were arrived at and the degree of confidence we might feel in them. (See: Hilary Champion’s ‘67% of your concerns are unwarranted.’)
I would also have liked to include some references to the appraisal of Orwell by George Bott, an appraisal that was written in 1956 and published in his introduction to a volume of Orwell’s ‘selected writings.’ Bott notes that:
“Political action for Orwell had to be judged by its effect on people; he did not ask, “has production gone up?” or “have we maintained our international prestige?”; instead the old-fashioned question, “has this action made people any happier?” The morality of politics was his concern and he realised only too well how many crimes are committed in the name of political expediency.”
Bott continues by saying:
“Clear writing and clear thinking are impossible in a totalitarian state and Orwell constantly pleaded for people to recognize that there was a connexion, a very close connexion, between the decay of language and the stifling of freedom, that the immediate enemies of truthfulness are the Press Lords, the film magnates and the bureaucrats.”
Nowadays we would have to supplement the list of ‘the enemies of truthfulness ‘ by adding any person, corporation or institution concerned with ‘image-management’ as well as just about anyone involved in selling their goods or services. This is truly the age of seduction, truth-shaving and manipulation.