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

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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.

Hello

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:

Robert:
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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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An MA in Fine Art: There’s something about difference

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Sometimes I find the only way to get over something is to write about it or at least find some way of expressing it. The ‘something’ in this case was a group exercise that took place on a Tuesday afternoon in late October. The sun was shining brightly outside. That had made me feel optimistic about what was in store. We were convened to begin an exercise in establishing how four of us, as a small group of MA students, were going to communicate the essence of the theory of ‘deconstruction’ to our fellow larger group of MA students. Each of the separate smaller groups had been given a theoretical perspective (such as Psychoanalysis, Marxism, structuralism and so on) upon which to focus their attention. The idea was that we would then, when we all came together, be familiarised with a luxurious collection of perspectives through which to view art and works of art. I was looking forward to the process.

One week in advance of the exercise our small group had been given to read a paper on ‘Deconstructive criticism’. The paper was relatively clear and outlined (more or less) what ‘Deconstruction’ was and how to ‘deconstruct’ a piece of literary text. The paper succeeded in showing that Deconstruction was not what ill-informed people think it is: it does not mean breaking a text down into its component parts as if conducting a kind of anatomical study. Part of the goal of Deconstruction is to show that there can never be a once-and-for-all settled meaning of a text. Any text is nested in network of associations and linked meanings in an endless ‘chain of signifiers’. Another central aspect and aim is to reveal the hidden play of ideology in any textual material. This applies to any work of art because works of art are really a type of ‘text’.

 

An MA in Fine Art: It’s certainly not easy

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We had our first project group show on 14 October 2019. The group in question comprised four MA student artists and their work was organised under the heading, ‘Very little.’

As usual, it’s a great title. Everyone in the world can connect at some time or other with the idea of ‘very little.’ For example, once upon a time we were very little. Some of us have had very little on our plates. All of us have seen pictures of people who have very little …

Before the exhibition I had thought about the appeal of miniaturisation. Roland Barthes in his book ‘Mythologies’ wrote an essay about the seduction of creating a little world. He thought it gave us a sense of being in control – perhaps being in absolute control. I understand that. So, what, though, would the artists have made for us to see?

The first artist, J. had made what immediately struck me as appealing – something that was nice to look at. It featured a kind of light box upon which were placed little transparent lego figues. Below them were enlargements of blood cells, whilst above them, floated a helium-filled ballon in a heart shape. It was a neat and seemingly resolved work and succeeded very well for me at an aesthetic level. (Is this enough?) However, I had to get beyond the pleasure of the senses to try and ‘work out what it might be seeking to communicate. (The photograph at the end of this text gives some idea of the artist’s work.)

The next piece of work by M. was a relatively simple painting executed in a contemporary rough-edged style. It featured a lego figure floating or semi-standing on the surface of the sea. Where was the location? Well, the lego-figure obscured most of the landmass of the UK and showed some of the western edges of the continent of Europe. The figure had a rather despondent expression and was wearing a jacket that was made up of half the Union flag and half the flag of the European Union. What was it about? it seemed to be saying, obviously, that we are split as a nation roughly half way down the middle but there was something far more disturbing than this. It suggested powerlessness – as if one were rendered immobile and immobilised. I thought it was a good bleak relatively crude image. I suggested it might be extended into an art-as-documentary.

The third piece by L. was exactly the kind of thing anyone (my wife and I) would see in a contemporary museum of art. it featured the top portion of a woman – with a strangely obscured face – a face almost melting away (but not.) The figure inhaled and exhaled and continued this kind of breathing. We coud hear her in-breath and out-breath. There seemed to be a rhythm to the breathing that was going on – but I wondered if a kind of shudder was also occurring. If I were to see such a work in an art museum I would want to sit down in front of it and take it in. I thought the work had something to do with the whole future of being human.

The final piece by L. was an eye-level line – or rather a collection – of fragments from the past. They included photo-booth photos, pieces from a diary, missing pieces – with only the old sellotape surrounds showing. There were several scraps of paper and other ‘small’ pieces. I liked the work. It was like pages from an old notebook. I thought it was very well-conceived. Strangely enough the horizontal display of the items looked rather like the skyline of a city in the distance.

But the really tough thing about the fascinating small group show was that each one of us in the class was invited to respond, in turn, to the work. I found this hugely testing and nerve-wracking.

How on earth does one sum up complex responses to works of art when the artist is actually present in the same room? There is absolutely no point in upsetting the artist. Somehow the ‘feedback’ or response has to be enabling and at the same time, authentic. And yet, we are thrown into a situation that implicitly contains at least some element of evaluation. (Our basic primal response is always something faintly binary like: ’Oh, I like this’ or ‘Oh, I’m put off by this,’ or worse!)

I really do not mind responding to the work I see. But I have no clear idea as to the conventions of the art world. Although it may claim that it has no rules this is certainly not the case. Bourdieu’s ‘sketch of a theory of practice’ dispels any such myth. On the MA programme we have to identity at least some of these rules of the art game and acquire some of the cultural etiquette. We have to be anthropologically sensitive and, ultimately, more than participant observers.

Overall I much prefer ‘taking in’ a work and taking time before responding. I also have quite complex responses to art and these are at different levels of abstraction and certainly reflect different modes of being; for example, sometimes I’m in the personal-emotional mode and this is contrasted with the cool-analytical etc.

It was a rigorous and gruelling experience. The MA group show was good and some of the ‘feedback’ was remarkably sensitive.

My show will take place on October 21. God knows how it will go. My partner in the show is a beautiful young Chinese woman. She’s a brilliant painter. It’s been delightful to have had her company for the last 2 weeks. However, I must get myself in the mood to be shot down in those proverbial flames! And, we’ve even rehearsed being severely criticised. We don’t quite know what will, happen – but I will post the result once we’ve recovered from the ordeal.

 

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An MA in Fine Art: Kitsch ‘n sink

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We’ve started our MA in Fine Art. Our first set piece of work was on ‘Generations and Nations’.

In choosing these capacious areas the course leader had made it rather easy to come up with virtually anything under the sun. Whatever we chose to do – well, each individual’s work would culminate in a group exhibition. Plainly it wasn’t going to be any old exhibition because the actual consummatory event was billed as ‘curatorial play.’ What did that entail? Never-mind – we’d find out soon enough.

The tutor, A. knows exactly how to make helpful interventions and kick-start the process: she formed us into small groups, asked us to write down ‘one of two thoughts’ that came to mind in relation to the ‘generations and nations’ theme and then, having ‘shared’ these thoughts we were told to go into town and find or buy an object or artefact that had something to do with those first thoughts.

And this we did.

I found a Minnie Mouse stuffed toy in a charity shop, duly photographed it, printed my photo off over lunch and then we all reconvened as a group. We were invited to say something, anything, about our choice of object – and then we were off: ‘OK,‘ said A. ‘Well back to your studio space and I’ll be coming around to see how you’re doing.’

I thought Minnie Mouse was a cross-generational cross-national figure so there was a lot going for her. I decided that since Minnie had been rather in the shadow of Mickey Mouse she was an ideological figure and I would explore toys as ideological figures. I found a large square-shaped piece of wood that could be used to support a canvas and duly got to work thinking about what each quadrant in my canvas could represent. Polemics, Play, Excess and Lack, and finally ‘Blankness’ came to mind.

Then, out of the blue, the tutor convened the group and everyone piled down to my studio space and I was asked to describe what I was up to. This was not a moment I had expected nor something I welcomed. So, noblesse oblige, I chatted away about what was going on – and the tutor A. obviously felt the thing was overly complex and advised me to simplify the whole thing.

So, I reduced my focus to toys-as-kitsch – reflecting our absurd world of excess, surplus and super-saturation.

And I made my first piece the next day. It looked good. But it troubled me. I did not think it was conceptually strong enough. So, over the next two days I made a conceptually stronger piece that was entitled ‘a brief and very selective history of toys and playthings up until 1989.’ (It was Jonathon Meades’ style that I was reflecting in my work. Except, of course, he is brilliant and I am not.)

I created the idea of three eras in the life and times of the toy; The first I condensed as ‘Do it yourself.’ The second was when the toy began to play a far more psychological role as toys took on a social engineering function (toys are to educate, toys are to manifest societal ideals (Barbie, Action man – along with the soft toy as ‘transitional object’ etc.) and finally I thought that our contemporary times are suffused with excess, surplus and an awful lot of kitsch. Well, this might have sounded good but my attempt to make a work of art out of these ideas was not successful. So, whilst it was conceptually quite strong, artistically it was mediocre at best, woeful at worst.

My third ‘iteration’ of the piece was to zoom in on the idea of a ‘Kiddorama’ – a kind of fantasy place where toy figures looked at toy figures. Mickey Mouse was ‘underneath it all; he had displaced Minnie. Batman flew around in the skies above. In principle it all went quite well. It looked very strange – and ultimately a bit alienated. Anyway, I did not really mind what anyone thought of it because it was simply a work-in-progress. It was going somewhere but it was a long way away from being resolved, conceptually strong, clear and artistic – or at least worthy of being called ‘art’.

Over the weekend, with ‘toys as excess, throwaway and kitsch’ in mind I created a small tight installation that featured found objects – including an awful card pointing out that the Gods had invented the kebab. The whole thing was entitled ‘You’re kidding’ and featured a stupid piece of writing that declared, ‘if you buy a ticket you get in free’ (which was essentially a piece of Orwellian double think). In fact, making the work was really funny and I spent ages dreaming up absurd marketing slogans: Funeral parlours could announce that ‘when we die we’ll be dead’; retirement homes could advertise the fact that ‘you will die smoothly and in the best possible taste’ or self-improvement tripe could tell us that ‘the heart is a many-chambered piece of music.’ What???? And, that’s where Kitsch ’n sink came in.

My installation was beginning to make sense! By conceiving it as ‘Kitsch ’n sink’ I was reflecting the fact that there really is a lot of toy-laden rubbish in the world and much of it needs to be flushed away (hopefully for re-cycling.)

The really demanding bit, though, was next to come: We all assembled on a Monday morning in what looked, at first glance, like a hopelessly small exhibition space. I know this was all part of the learning process but it was all hugely nerve-wracking. Some people got really cheesed off because their pieces were being walked over or dislodged yet as a whole the group did amazingly well. After a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, of patient jostling and cart-loads of anxiety a wide variety of work found itself on display And some of the art works were excellent. The three I liked most were things that I could easily see on show in edgy London or Berlin galleries.

C. had a large print alluding to male and female stereotypes – and featuring the ongoing and unfair pressures on both women and girls to manage their appearance in very strict and ultimately entirely arational ways. It was a great image – in pink and blue; it was confronting, challenging, brave and effective.

J. had built a strange lego-based transparent wall containing hair and blood. I thought of the walls that separate us – then, the Berlin wall – and then the wrecked and dying bodies of so many escapees. It was really good work. J and I get on well. She’s hugely cultured but somehow does not know anything about Pink Floyd. (Oh well: Shine on you crazy diamond.)

S. had created an apparently everyday soft-toy that was placed centrally on a make-shift canvas. It was beguiling in its simplicity and poignancy. I liked the contrast between her work which was very human and mine which was verging on the inhuman. I had a brief conversation with S.; she’s a generous person and somehow she radiates graciousness.

And then we all had to re-arrange our work – and comment on why we had re-positioned it and then we had to say what we thought of our next manifestation. Well, my piece now resembled, as one person, M. put it, something ‘sterile’ that you’d find ‘labelled and fenced-off’ from the world – and somewhere in a museum. Actually, I thought it looked worse and was now something horribly alienated. But there you go: Context is everything. Shift the context and change the meaning. But if I were to take close-up photos of my juxtaposed objects – well, they would look quite something!

It’s a good course: I hadn’t really made an installation before nor had I exhibited anything in a show. So this was a first, and I felt unexpectedly ‘OK’ about doing something that was more a work-in-progress and not an all-singing all-dancing finished piece. I learned, too, that making an installation is not dissimilar to composing a painting. However, the psychology of making an installation is rather different from that accompanying my usual figurative studies: in an instillation it is less clear about ‘where one is going.’

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Beginning an MA in Fine Art

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I was about to begin my MA in Fine Art.

I had prepared for the induction week which was about to take place at the local university. I had been asked, by the course tutor, to bring along, on the first day, a pice of art that I had made that had to be presented in the form of an A4 digital print. I had duly identified such a piece of art which I was looking forward to showing and to discussing if the need arose. My piece featured a kind of ‘case study’ relating to the issue of culture and identity. (It consisted of a black-and-white copy of an original birth certificate of someone born in 1956 in Paris, a carved inscription from a church (also in black-and-white), and, a display of devotional candles that I had seen in Notre Dame Cathedral prior to its roof catching fire – so there was plenty of information about culture and the individual.)

Of course I was a bit nervous about the first meeting that was to begin the MA programme. Things like, what to wear and how most sensibly to present myself had occupied me. I had decided to be understated and quiet.

On setting off, on foot, for the University I was caught in a downpour. (I had not fore-seen this and, although I had an umbrella, the wind was ferocious; in consequence my umbrella was only moderately successful – and my jacket and trousers were soon soaked. I also forgot to bring my piece of art with me so I had to dash back home to get it!) Not a good start.

The group met below a sign in a quadrangle. The lead tutor for the course – a woman I liked – recognised me. I thanked her for giving me a place on the course and, as I did, she introduced me to two women who were also about to start the MA process. The woman may have been aged about 50. They were pleasant and I rather enjoyed meeting them.

Episode 1
We then set off for a particular room and the course leader began to brief us on what to expect and what was in store. The seating arrangement was rather like being  stuffed into the fuselage of a plane. I could not see the faces of most of the new students. I could vaguely see the woman next to me. Actually she seemed rather cryptic and spiky and responsive and good fun.

Anyway, the course leader’s briefing began by emphasising three things at the heart of the programme. They were: friendship, ambition and community.

On top of this she aimed for us each to be ‘a sustainable artist’ and added: ‘It’s about being confident as a sustainable artist.’ This meant accessing and becoming part of the Fine Art community. We were then told about the forthcoming and various formal educational experiences (tutorials, seminars, lectures and symposia – as well as group criticisms). Research, too, was named as a ‘really important’ part of our work output. Trips to galleries were emphasised and the need to collaborate was important because we would soon be showing our work in galleries.

At this point the course leader turned to focus upon the final degree shows of previous students. As far as I could tell the huge majority of the work was in the form of installations. I had seen a number of them because I had visited the MA degree shows in previous years. I saw, again, as one example, an ironic take on the whole trend of telling people to ‘be themselves’ and perhaps ‘go beyond their limits’ and to ‘believe that if they believed enough they could do anything’ (which, of course, is empty, bogus and ludicrous.) This installation also exhorted people to ‘follow the course’. Obviously, I thought, it all depends on which course one follows: Perdition awaits the unwise. Lots of other installations were shown. But, if the truth be told, I am slightly dubious about the fashion for this form of art. There is a simple reason for this: I think most installations are too abstruse, obscure and abstracted to help the viewer grasp what the thing is about. They do not provide sufficient clues as to how to read the work. This means that the viewer has to work hard at ‘getting’ the work. There is nothing wrong with having to work hard to ‘get’ something but sometimes it’s just like hearing a Martian speak something unintelligible.

In the course of looking at the presentation on the slides of these installations I wrote down: ‘I am feeling a bit like an alien.’

The person sitting next to me (who, I realised, had strangely-coloured hair) asked me if I was a ‘traditional type’ of artist.

Not really,” I replied, “It’s just that I do not want to be blackmailed by fashion.

That’s great,” she said.

I liked her easy-going responsiveness. She seemed straightforward, natural and unaffected.

Episode 2
The second episode unfolded in a lecture theatre. The whole of the new intake of students in both Fine Art, Photography and something else (possibly Digital Screen Art?)  was to convene in the lecture theatre. Various of the groups arrived in dribs and drabs. I found myself separated from the relatively small number of MA Fine Art students and, on entering the theatre, I noticed an empty row quite near to the  front. Then a few members of my same group began to fill up the same row – but did not place themselves next to me. I wondered if they simply thought I was irrelevant because I was old – or whatever.

Once everyone was now in the lecture theatre the Head of Department – a sprightly-looking man, bald and perky and obviously quite animated – began his address. I did not particularly like his address. (I think this is because it was mainly pitched to an audience much younger than me!)

He began by emphasising that this was now our ‘new community’ and then requested us, group by group, to say ‘Hello’. It was an odd sort of ‘Hello’ experience. He made some light-hearted comments after each ‘Hello’. The ‘Hello’ was a kind of non-directional event that was not like any usual ‘Hello’, and when our group dutifully said ‘Hello’ he commented on the fact that we were the ‘rich’ ones. (This was a rather injudicious thing to say because some people in the MA group are not at all rich.)

His address consisted of him showing a) how to get to his office and b) the fact that he had an open-door policy and that a draw in his desk contained tea, coffee and biscuits – and perhaps some tissues. After this he repeatedly made reference to the fact that everything was going to be ‘exciting’ or ‘amazing’ for us – and that we would all have or be guaranteed ‘exciting and amazing experiences.’ I had a vague sense that we were being infantilised. We heard about a trip that most of us could make to the Venice Biennale which was ‘the world cup’ of the art world. I suppose his approach had some ‘chummy’ value but, as a form of communication, it did seem overly ‘pop’ (and surely we are better than this.) But the most uncomfortable thing for me was when he looked at us all – and recognised that some amongst us would be shy or reticent or withdrawn or an introverted type of person and he underlined the fact that we need, instead, to be ‘loud’ and ‘shouty’. (In fact, he may not have said ‘shouty’ but he did say something about the need to make a noise about our work.) As I sat in the lecture theatre I realised that I was on the edges of the art-world culture. BUT I did not want to be ‘loud’ or have to ‘shout’ about my work. There is enough noise in the world as it is. Actually, I left the lecture theatre with a number of misgivings.

It all seemed such a shame. I had made many preparations for the programme. I had begun to clarify my ideas about the role of sensibilities in art. And more: I had grappled with the brilliant text, ‘Painting as model’ by Bois and begun to understand painting and the place of thinking in painting. I coud see how ‘models’ and how we deploy them in and over time are central to our art.

But would I be able to adjust to the wider art world culture and would I be enhanced as a practitioner or would I end up being corralled into making work in order to conform? I wanted to make a special case for myself: I wanted to say, ‘ I will meet all the criteria necessary to obtain a Masters in Fine Art. But I cannot guarantee that I will always have something constructive to say about the abstruse production of installations and their obscure, elusive and unreadable content.’

That night I felt most unwell. In the morning I decided that I might have to withdraw from the course.

However, I decided against this. With a bit of luck things will go well.

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