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Working with Meng – the hyacinth as symbol


In literature there are some poetic and sublime accounts of that special interaction which can sometimes unfold between an old man and a young woman. Recently I lived though such an encounter.

Meng Zhang is 24 and comes from China. I am far far older and I am European. We are separated not only by years but also by history, philosophy, space, culture and personality. For two weeks we worked together on an art project that became essentially an extended conversation between the two of us. It was one of the most delightful moments I have ever experienced. There was – and is – something enchanting about Meng.

She completed her B.A. in oil-painting in the Chinese city of Dalian. Imagine: A degree devoted entirely to the art of oil-painting. She’s artistically and technically very accomplished. I think she has had to work hard to adjust to the open-ended nature of studying and practising Fine Art in the UK. She’s resilient, audacious and sensitive.

During our work together she would oscillate between treating me with enormous respect and insouciant subversion. We always enjoyed each other’s company. We laughed a great deal. At the end of our project she gave me a gift: a parcel containing a special white tea. I recalled that beautiful line from one of my favourite songs: ‘… and she  feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China.’ I also gave her a gift: A 3D book featuring Peter Pan with the sounds of Big Ben chiming, a ticking clock, the melodic lapping of waves … (Time waits for no-one.)

For my birthday she had noticed that there was a hole in my gloves and, in response, she gave me a new pair of knitted woollen gloves. She looked at me as she gave me the present and I could ‘feel’ the ancient Chinese saying which tells us that ‘a bit of fragrance clings to the hand that gives flowers.’

In her next project, as far as I can tell, she will explore a personal sense of re-birth central to which is her chosen motif – a flower, the hyacinth.

Yes, sometimes we are lucky: there are perfect moments in a life.

Grace in Art: An email conversation with J.L.


This is a long post. Part One features the first part of the conversation; Part Two concerns a short continuation of that original conversation. Part Three contains an outline by J.L. of how she is framing, in more detail, her search for a theory of art in which Grace is a foundational principle.

Part One:

J.L. (an MA Fine Art student with a background in Art History and Philosophy) and I had worked together successfully on a process of self-and peer assessment. As a result of that we applied an approach called ‘Grounded theory’ to making sense of the process artists go through as they create their art. But something for J.L. seemed to be missing.

On 11. 11. 2019 she sent me an email message.


I think that one thing overlooked in our discussions about ‘grounded theory’ in relation to the process of making art is this: My addition (or perhaps it might be a different theory entirely) would be that the selection process as an artist proceeds in the making of their work is not always done on aesthetic merit. It may be done on the grounds of a spiritual resonance.

What I mean is that some items may be chosen because there is an internal pull towards them that is not describable; it could be emotional or spiritual ‘agreement’ and alignment – rather than an aesthetic one. Here I am talking about the wider context of artists rather than in relation to any specific people we know (although perhaps it might be applied to them).

Since I will not see you I will try and write what I meant to say about my theory and how it has been emerging from the ‘Critical perspectives’ module of the course. In the group we were discussing many things about ‘Feminism’, ‘Marxism’, ‘Racism’, ‘Post-colonialism’ etc. but what stood out for me was how all of these theories come from a place of judgement, from what seems like a single viewpoint pointing out problems with the world. I got fed up and cross with the attitude. I thought what [alternatives] might there be? … Well, an answer for me would be ‘Grace’ and so I stood and argued for ‘grace’. I was quickly told that it was not an ‘ism’ and therefore did not stand as a theory. In my disquiet I retorted with it being ‘Grace-ism’. I have spent the last week or so trying to figure out what grace-ism would be. It would be non-judgemental; it would give credit to the artist for having a reason for creating something. Essentially it would enable me to  have a lens through which I’d love to view the work. But I must admit I get a bit stuck here.

Any thoughts? J.

After an initial response earlier in the same week, I was able to reply in more detail on 17. 11. 2019.

Hello J.

Your email was a great pleasure to read and had a very positive effect on me. I think your proposition about a spiritual ‘pull’ and the attainment of states of grace is excellent and extremely well-made. I will reply now to the detail of what you proposed during the ‘Critical perspectives’ sessions of the course.

You wrote: ‘Since I will not see you I will try and write what I meant to say about my theory emerging from the ‘Critical perspectives’ module of the course. In the group we were discussing many things about Feminism, Marxism, Racism, post-colonialism etc’.

In fact, J., as you may have noticed, Michel Foucault emphasised how ‘theory’ had become a commodity and was being produced to serve the interests of the academy, the academics and the intellectual community. And, for quite some time in philosophy, people like the brilliant Martha Nussbaum had underlined the fact that there is no neutral point of view. (Plato thought he could walk to the rim of the universe and see it for what it was – but this is hardly feasible!) People adopt positions that serve their interests and, underneath it all, they do, as you say, make judgments. You continue by saying: ‘What stood out to me was how all of these theories come from a place of judgement’, from what seems like a single viewpoint pointing out problems with the world.’

I think you are correct; the theorists have either ethical or aesthetic values or they believe in rationality – and their theories (in principle) are designs to promote the realisation of those values. They are not specifically focused on art – or at least only indirectly so.

So, as a result, you ‘got fed up and cross with the attitude.’

You then took and expressed a view that is unusual but there have been many mystics and gnostics who have certainly tried to transcend the interest-laden perspectives. In essence you are challenging the straitjacket(s) of conventional mainstream theorising. Your alternative is to expose all (or most of it) as dogma and doctrine and you want to oppose it by suggesting that something deeper can be attained: You wrote: ‘What if it was an idea – what would it be then?’ Well, you said, it would be ‘Grace‘ – and so you stood and argued for grace. However, as you noted:

I was quickly told that it was not and ‘ism’ and therefore did not stand as a theory. In my disquiet I retorted with it being ‘grace-ism’.’

It is a shame that little time was spent exploring your proposition.

I think you are drawing from a rather marginalised point of view – although it has a relatively long tradition in psychology and is understood as the dwelling in the realm of the transpersonal. Theorists like Abraham Maslow took this very seriously – as did Carl Jung. So, I do not think you are being nuts at all. In fact, your view co-incides with some of the most thoughtful responses to art. Herbert Marcuse said that art is terribly important because it frees us from the constraints of the reality principle. It allows us to experience all sorts of alternatives including states of grace. It can allow us access to higher forms of consciousness. My first suggestion is that you could have look at Jung’s thoughts about art – and although you might not agree wholeheartedly with his theory of the archetypes etc. you might find some resonances with your thoughts. I spent two years in Surrey University in the Human Potential Research Project and there you would have had a very warm reception for your ideas. We had a strong emphasis on the transpersonal. Roberto Assagioli is another wonderful theorist who would ‘see’ things as you do.

I look forward to discussing all this with you.

with best wishes, Robert

Part Two:

On 20. 11. 2019 I sent J. a further note on aspects of spirituality in art.

Hello J. – in response to your ideas about spirituality and its role in art I noticed a very good response to a recent and serious exhibition entitled ‘Life Death Rebirth’ held at the Royal Academy earlier this year. It featured the work of Bill Viola and Michelangelo.

Here is an excerpt that was published online on 25 January 2019. It features an interview between the curator, Andrea Tarsia – and Daisy Bernard:

Daisy Bernard asks: ‘What do you feel are the main similarities, and differences, between the two artists?

The curator replies:

‘Both artists are interested in an exploration of the human condition. Particularly giving shape to states of being and the rather abstract domain of human spirituality, through depictions of the human figure. Their work develops out of deeply felt personal beliefs that sharpens for both artists later in life, acquiring mystical dimensions, as well as by a wide-ranging set of references. In places, the work of both artists also develops out of emotionally charged events in their own lives. Their contexts were of course completely different, not least in terms of the kinds of spaces and functions their work was created for, although both believe in art as a vehicle for contemplation. Michelangelo was of course rooted in Christian traditions and worked with largely religious iconography. However his thinking was also influenced by the humanist elements of Neoplatonic thought, and he was always interested in drawing out the very human elements of religion, the points of interplay between the human and the divine as symbolic of the human condition. Viola’s context is largely secular and he has never intended to create religious works, yet he explores metaphysical questions in a spiritual key. He is a product of his times in his ability to travel widely and draw on writings by Rumi, Chuang Tzu or St John of the Cross among many others.’

So, in fact, your perspective is given explicit reference here. Which raises the question: Why is it not profiled on our ‘Critical perspectives‘ sessions?

On 21. 11. 2019 J. replied:

Oh – I haven’t had a chance to see any of Bill Viola’s work and I had actually rather forgotten about him. That sounds a fascinating show.

And that exerpt is a good example of how to write about the ideas I want to deal with.

Thanks, J.

Part Three:

On 23. 11. 2019 after a family trip to Oxford J. sent me an email:

I have visited Oxford with my children – and now I have a moment of time: I will share with you some of my thoughts just now. What I understand is that a theory needs to be able to ask a series of questions and suggest (with reasons or even intuitions) some answers. The answers can be ‘put up’ for scrutiny. They may be revised or they may raise further questions. But before that I need to provide some initial definitions.

Grace – Is what is not deserved
Mercy – is not getting what is deserved

I think that in relation to the concept or principle of Grace at least some examples of the types of questions it may ask are:

Does Grace-ism ask what is good in the work?
What is encouraging in the work?
How does this work practice the use of tolerance and tolerances?
Does this work bring the viewer Peace?
Does this work convey a form of Love?
Is grace-ism finding the hope, love, tolerance, kindness, encouragement in a work?
How can this work encourage me in my personal journey?
How can this work provide insight into my personal struggles?

What are your thoughts on this?

(Well, my first thought is to relate what J. is considering to Heidegger’s exploration of Being. Last night I was returning to re-consider Heidegger’s theory of art and I will have to mention this in my response to J. – especially in relation to his discussion concerning that which art discloses and that which it also conceals.)

I never promised you a rose garden

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No, she certainly did not promise us a rose garden. Nor a picnic: she didn’t promise us anything except a certain discipline. This is all about the MA Fine Art group shows and the process of critical reflection

One of my daughters who had studied Fine Art at the Chelsea School of Art forewarned me that perhaps the very worst part of any Fine Art degree course was the experience of the ‘Group crits.’ Group criticism takes place when one or more artist presents his or her work and the tutors – as well as the peers on the degree course – respond to it. It is intrinsically ‘critical’ because various points of view are stated, questions are asked, suggestions for development are made and the discourse of Fine Art is mobilised; that discourse consists of description, and/or interpretation, and/or evaluation. It also consists of a kind of free-association and an impressive variety of personal responses. (The other profoundly negative feature for my daughter was the lack of any encouragement from the tutorial staff. Apparently, they relentlessly asked the question ‘why?’ of everything she did. After a while she found herself reduced to a sense of pointlessness and nihilism; ultimately she lost her morale and motivation.)

I can, now, begin to understand why the ‘group crits are, at the very least, a testing experience. Throughout the process I am certainly relatively uncomfortable. (And often very uncomfortable). I even have to get myself into a kind of ‘coping’ state in order to face them. I have tried to discover exactly why this is the case. Part of it relates to my usual performance anxiety: I really hate serving up comments in a group setting especially when I am not sure whether whatever I have to say is helpful or particularly appropriate. Nor am I sure whether to relate what I am seeing to the arts generally or to the work of esteemed individual artists (such as Otto Dix or Marlene Dumas) or to cultural theorists (such as Daniel Wickberg or Jonathon Meades). Another major part of the problem is simply that I much prefer a one-to-one discussion with an artist about their work and the experiences that they bring to the making of the work. In the one-to-one setting I can take my time to develop a conversation and gauge from their responses whether or not any real communication is taking place. For example, I had a very good exchange with an artist who is part Afghan and part Pakistani about a curious problem that his art posed for me. I sensed that I could ask him questions about his work in such a way that what I was saying was non-confrontational and pitched in such a way that I could learn more about what he was actually trying to do. But in the large ‘group crit ‘ I would have felt ill-at-ease if I were to ask the identical questions. (And because of my discomfort I would not necessarily end up saying what I really meant to say.)


The New Materialism and Leonard Cohen


Amongst his writings, the delightful Michel Foucault identified the hugely expanding market in ‘theory’. Theory, he realised, had become commodified and something traded for some sort of gain. What type of gain? Pierre Bourdieu would quickly reply: For cultural and social capital – and for economic capital too. The proliferation of theory offers us an embarras de choix – an esoteric chatter – a slightly dizzying labyrinth of concept piled on concept – a zone of pure concepts. The purveyors of theory accrue varieties of capital – as well as esteem, importance and a certain ‘authority’. Some even go on to enjoy the benefits of flunky culture and bask in the gaze of their admiring acolytes. (There’s plenty of that, as Gompertz notes, on show in the exclusive locales or the differing fields of the cultural world.)

One of the recent newcomers to the trade in theory is the so-called ‘new materialism’ and its related ‘posthumanism.’ These apparently new departures in theory hoover up an eclectic range of intellectual writings and propose a kind of synthesis of everything that we have learned in relation to social and natural science, technologies and more. They even claim a new conceptualisation of ontology (or ontologies) and a related epistemology. (Goodness!) I find all this very odd. It seems to me that the new materialism isn’t particularly new at all. I think it is perfectly possible to trace the first glimmerings of any such newness to the Pre-Socratic philosophers and more recently to Schopenhauer. I think the ‘new’ materialism is nuanced by Marx and it is almost impossible to read Nietzsche without finding a viscerality in his work – a viscerality that reflects his mind, body, animality, environing culture and technology. It is not possible to ignore the responsiveness of our body/mind complex to the biology, physics, chemistry and metaphysics of our world. And, surely one of the criticisms of deconstructionism is that it simply leaves out something that we all know is ‘there’ – that is, it ignores or overlooks our pre-articulate (pre-linguistic) stream of psycho-emotional being. A serious historian such as Daniel Wickberg (2007) would incline his reader to think more in terms of the development of ‘sensibility’ as a framework for contemporary cultural theorising rather than appealing to a ‘new’ materialism.

But nonetheless, what now matters in our cultural world is the marketing and branding of the ‘new’: it all has to be ‘exciting’ and ‘amazing’; journals proliferate, conferences and symposia shine brightly a’go go – and the internet splurges out everything in a great psychedelic melange – a bean feast of ‘sounding off.’ So, inevitably, amongst all this, we find ourselves served up with a deception: It isn’t really a new materialism at all. It’s an elaboration of ways of thinking and of experiential realities that have been going on for a very long time. Sontag said that many things exist without being named. She’s right – but surely we should be very careful with how we choose to deploy this actual ‘naming.’

Decades ago the philosopher Neil Richards once told me that there is far too much noise in the world. “What is the point of all this stuff?” he asked. He advised me not to add any more to the deluge of words by publishing anything, anything at all. (Every once in a while I did publish something – and even then some it was censored!) My family also underlined the fact that I should not take a view on anything until I had first read the Greeks. I agree. So, the rather worrying thing is that by writing – by taking a point of view and disseminating this post (and all the other posts) – I am just adding to the noise.

I’m reminded of Leonard Cohen’s song, ‘If it be your will.’ In this song he gives us the line: If it be your will, I should speak no more …  

But, what is one to do? It’s really difficult to remain silent!

Making Black Rose heaven: after the prelude


The ‘Open-cut’ project on the MA Fine Art course immediately surfaced, for me, strange visions and memories of psychiatric disturbance. I kept seeing, in recurring images, the wards of mental hospitals and I kept thinking about my mother’s nervous breakdown and how I had to take her to the psychiatric hospital in Basingstoke for her electro-convulsive therapy. I kept thinking about how awful her life had been because, from 1952 onwards and for so many years she suffered from a kind of deep depression. It was awful for my father, my brothers and myself. My father had to become both mother and father because my mother simply was not there. When she was suffering from her depression (and they lasted for three months on end) she possessed cold disinterested rational powers but they were freighted with nihilistic despair. I knew that my mother could do nothing about her mental state. That’s why I would defend her to the hilt. She could, as my great philosopher friend put it, ‘do no other.’ It’s strange how (even at the age of 4) I realised this. I was brought up as a boy – and ‘you never kick a person when they’re down.’ That would be dishonourable and honour mattered.

At my mother’s funeral I had to decide how to find a few last words to say about her. So I wrote out a version of the poem, ‘Black rose heaven.’ I spoke briefly and gave every one who was there a copy of a photograph of her when she was aged 5 – and her world had yet to be destroyed.

But destroyed it was by the insanities of Nazi Germany. (Nonetheless I still like reading Nietszche and I still like reading Heidegger.)

I was bought up in the idyllic early sunshine of life – and then – the crack -up. Her crack-up. I’ve fended off madness and despair but it has always been a struggle. I once did and even now still think of her bidding: she said: ’Go out and make a difference.’ (‘You must,’ as my colleague Peter said, ‘learn your lines well.’ I did learn my lines.  ‘Be on your guard,’ he said: ‘You are a strange attractor.’)

This is the background to ‘Black rose heaven.’ It is a work that tries to represent the fracture in my mother and me. I hope we are linked together through a network of image, artefact and paint. It is not an attempt at redemption. It is made, as the great Marcuse suggests, in the hope that, as art, it may work to reveal truths that are released from the constraints and propriety of the Freudian reality principle.

The photo above shows one element or rather a part of the beginning of the making of ‘Black rose heaven.’ It has a slightly conceptual graphic-design feel to it. It is a first accumulation of relevant material for the work. I may use it as part of a book that I hope I will make. I just hope I can secure the uninterrupted time to get on with the painting. And this proposed first attempt may only be a first attempt. I have a large white painted cardboard background ready for the action.


Black rose heaven


No more pussyfooting around; no more prevarication: no more caution. I simply have got to get on and produce some decent works of art.

Ideally, in a style that draws from Anselm Kiefer, I am doing my best to relate my mother’s experience to my own. But I need peace and quiet to get on with this. The painting is organised under the heading of ‘Black rose heaven’. (It is a heaven that my mother will have ‘all to herself.’) It is not an idyllic heaven. It is adorned, sparsely, with black-red roses. So far, I have prepared a background and assembled photos, two small paintings (that are self-portraits), some model soldiers and some dried red rose buds. The rose buds will be painted or sprayed black.

Yes: Black-rose heaven.

Post script: The idea of a black-rose heaven is taken from a poem by E E Cummins which begins:

if there are any heavens my mother will (all by herself) have
one. It will not be a pansy heaven nor
a fragile heaven of lilies-of-the-valley but
it will be a heaven of black-red roses …

Open Cut – Twilight of the idols


Open Cut. The brief was appealing: those of us on the MA Fine Art course were asked to imagine that our person (our body and/or mind) was a surface and a type of mining operation was to take place: We had to consider that this surface would be subject to a rather gentle open-cast type of mining. In the real world this kind of ‘open-cut’ mining unearths things of value that are hidden from view – but not far from the surface. Here though, in a rather poetic and charming piece of text, we were invited to search for whatever it was about us that lay somewhere beneath the surface. The task reminded me of a lovely chapter in Sheila Ernst and Lucy Goodison’s feminist book, ‘In our own hands’: their chapter focused on the ‘buried treasure’ that is ‘there’ within us – in every person – and which is waiting to be accessed and transmuted into a more integrated and flourishing way of being. (In so doing these writers touched on the allure of transpersonal psychology.)

In my case I thought rather less about any rubies or sapphires, of gold and jade, of ’buried treasure’ that might lie concealed within myself. Instead, I focused on something that has been troubling me for many years: if I dig a little below the surface I come face to face with my own psycho-disturbance – or ‘derangement.’ I come up against a kind of dark destructive energy – a kind of psycho-pathology. I am not mad in the obvious sense of being delusional but I certainly am susceptible to a kind of hallucinogenic de-stabilising play of the mind. My moods are volatile. Social interaction, for me, is something that is anxiety-laden. That is why I like some art, plenty of literature and certain kinds of songs. Underneath all this, I am aware of being a damaged person. And, in this regard, one of my long-standing professional work colleagues once flatly described me as ‘damaged goods.’ It’s an unsettling definition but in many respects it is accurate.

So, I began the project by thinking in these rather general terms. We had a week or so before we were due to show a work of art (even if it was incomplete) and this work was to reflect our personal search for that which lay ‘just below the surface’. However, whilst still at this early stage I was very engaged with thinking about my mother and what had happened to her – which inevitably had had a huge impact on me and which contributed to my damaged personality. She was made a refugee in 1939 when Hitler invaded the Sudetenland; when she arrived in the UK she basically had an awful time. Nonetheless during the war she became an officer in the WRNS and in its immediate aftermath found herself as a translator and interpreter in Germany.  A few years later when I was aged 4 and we were living in Singapore she had a catastrophic mental breakdown. It was my life-long response to this that, in truth, lies just below the surface.

I came to realise that she was traumatised by the savage disruption caused by the Second World War. She openly admired many aspects of German culture and I learned that she had close associations with the city of Dresden. By chance, when I visited Dresden in 2009 I came across a small archaeological dig that was uncovering and examining some smoke-blackened cellars in the heart of that city. As I looked at the wretched ruins I thought of my mother and the unspeakable cruelty that had befallen that once beautiful Dresden. I may even have been looking at the ashes of my dead relatives.

So, here, for me, was a literal ‘open cut.’ I could relate to it very directly. I therefore decided to paint a picture of the fire-bombing of Dresden. I did not have much time in which to do it. An oil painting in four days is not easy. But the painting did reach the stage of an almost completed first draft. In addition, since I was studying ‘Deconstruction’ I tried to embed some theoretical reference in the work. I drew from Heidegger’s term ‘Destruktion’ as well as the beguilingly evocative writing of Nietzsche and his ‘Twilight of the idols.’ Heidegger and Nietzsche are stunningly brilliant but their thought did play a role in helping Hitler forge his Nazi ideology.

Post script: The photograph below shows the painting I did for the ‘Open Cut‘ show. It depicts a tiny portion of the wreckage of Dresden after the incendiary bombs had rained down upon it. The painting remains unfinished.