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Here is a painting

Here is a painting; what, though, is it about?

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

First notes on a phantasmology

Movie star – heroine – icon – legend – as well as a symbol of another time

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”

A very recent ‘Symposium’ in Fine Art

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.

A painter and a painting

Hiroshima roses # 12

It was Klingsor’s last summer. 

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.

We do not know how he dies. 

States of mind

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.

Montaigne – on living and dying

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.

The cherry blossom and the rose – On reading Dostoyevsky

Individuals and collectives – words and pictures

Little by little, bit by bit, I have been patiently reading Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’; the book was published in 1880 and certain critics and academics refer to it as his ‘major accomplishment’. As I have been reading this very long work I have been reminded of Iris Murdoch’s remark that authors no longer write in this style. There is a feverish, pyretic, and sometimes delirious tone which often distinguishes the mood and conduct of the various people we meet in his absorbing text. Heightened passion and moments of hysteria are not uncommon as the narrative unfolds. After a while, and once one has become accustomed to this, the effect is compelling! (I think she, Iris Murdoch, also suggested that no one now can really achieve the kind of literary and intellectual heights that writers such as Dostoyevsky once attained.)

Apart from elucidating the existential challenges facing his characters, treating us to the brilliance with which which he depicts their personalities, and, the detailed discourses he elaborates on the meaning of the Christian religion, he also identifies a ‘spirit of the age’ that he discerns in Russia and beyond; his observations are particular interesting because they appear to foreshadow, by way of contrast, the mood and hopes of the subsequent revolution in Russia – but they also, in certain respects, apply to our own times. I have selected a particular passage which appears on page 349 of my ‘Penguin classics’ edition. The remarks are made by Zosima, the elder of a monastery; the discourse he gives occurs a few hours before he dies. As he speaks he refers to the words of a ‘mysterious and earnest man’ – a man who carries with him an unconscionable secret.

Zosima tells us that:

‘In order for the world to be transformed into a new mould it is necessary that human beings themselves shall psychically turn on to another path. Until you really make yourself the brother to all, brotherhood will not arrive. Never, prompted by science or self-interest alone, will human beings be able to share their property, their privileges in harmless fashion. None will consider that he has enough, and all will grumble, envying and destroying one another.

You ask when what I describe will come true. It will come true, but first there must be a period of human solitariness. ‘What kind of solitariness do you mean?’ I asked him. ‘The kind that reigns everywhere now, particularly in our own time, though it has not yet established itself universally, and its hour has not yet come. For each now strives to isolate his person as much as possible from the others, wishing to experience within himself life’s completeness, yet from all his efforts there result’s not life’s completeness, but a complete suicide, for instead of discovering the true nature of their being they lapse into total solitariness. For in our era all are isolated into individuals, each retires solitary within his burrow, each withdraws from the other, conceals himself and that which he possesses, and ends being rejected of men and by rejecting them. He amasses wealth in solitariness, thinking: how strong I am now and how secure, yet he does not know, the witless one, that the more he amasses, the further he will sink into suicidal impotence. For he has become accustomed to relying upon himself alone and has isolated himself from the whole as an individual, has trained his soul not to trust in help from others, in human beings and mankind, and is fearful only of losing his money and the privileges he has acquired.

In every place today the human mind is mockingly starting to lose its awareness of the fact that a person’s true security consists not in his personal, solitary effort but in the common integrity of human kind. But it will certainly be the case that this terrible solitariness will come to an end, and all will comprehend at once how unnaturally they have divided themselves one from the other. Such will be the spirit of the age, and they will be astonished that they have sat in darkness for so long without seeing the light.’

Well, I think it’s a striking piece of writing. Plainly it stands in contrast to what appears to be the prevailing spirit of our time. History also seems to tell us that the ‘common integrity’ of ‘human kind’ is a chimera. Or is it?

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