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Lady Gaga: a study in transformational aesthetics

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By chance I happened to see a rather new manifestation of Lady Gaga when she was beautifully dressed for the premiere of her latest film in Venice. And then, unexpectedly, I happened to read about Lady Gaga and her song ‘Poker Face‘ in a serious discussion of art and ontology in T. Gracyk’s ‘The philosophy of art.’ The discussion sought to identify exactly what form (or categories) of existence a musical composition and its performance ‘possessed.’

I like Lady Gaga because I admire the way she copes with and masters the world of popular, mass and spectacular culture. Am I a fan of her? Not really – but I cannot but like her. I painted this picture and then dressed it up for display during Christmas 2019. If I were to exhibit it I would suggest (for fun) that it’s best to view the ensemble through the regulation ‘cool’ sunglasses. As Iris Murdoch said, ‘Art is more fun than philosophy‘ – which it is – but obviously we need them both.

Less is more: a response to two remarks

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More than a decade ago I spent two relatively happy years as a student in an art college. I was doing my Foundation studies. These studies lasted from 2005 – 2007. I became so engaged, challenged and intrigued by the unfolding experience that I treated the course as a full-time process. It was a serious business. During the second year I was even asked by the Course Director, a woman in her early middle-age, to act as a tutor on an accompanying course – with the special role of helping the young men studying for their Foundation in Art and Design to discuss the existential issues and concerns that featured prominently in their current lives. (I felt honoured to be so considered.)

I enjoyed the course – in large part because there was no teaching and almost minimal staff contact. This meant that I was not interfered with! I had a free hand to respond in ways of my own choosing and I had to take full responsibility for the choices that I made. Despite the fact that the staff left me to my own devices I was particularly struck by two remarks that were made by different tutors.

The first occurred when, late in the second year, a young woman tutor addressed the class as a whole and told everyone on the course that each of us ‘should have or develop a theory of art’. Her remark was met with what seems the usual resentment and some hostility (there was an anti-academic mood) and yet I thought she was right. I was forced to ask myself: ‘Well, do you, Robert Adlam, really have a well-grounded theory of art?‘ I was not certain that I did have an adequate theory of art. I took her seriously and instead of running around gawping at more and more art I started the difficult process of elaborating such a theory. (I first turned to philosophers who had something to say about art – beginning with Book Ten of Plato’s ‘The Republic’. To understand Plato, here in Book Ten, requires a proper grasp of his overall philosophy. Unfortunately these things can’t be rushed! )

On another occasion in our obligatory drawing class I was using a pencil to draw a still-life composition. I had made the mistake of positioning myself in relation to the displayed objects such that I disliked the arrangement facing me. I did not fully realise this until someway into the drawing. But worse, I ended up condemning myself to pencilling in the intricate details of a finely woven piece of basket-work. This was utterly tedious. What a trial! The member of staff looked at my work and simply said: ‘Not bad, Robert – but you’ve got to make it interesting. Art has to be interesting.’ She was quite right. My drawing was mind-numbingly boring.

Since those remarks by the tutors two things have happened. First, I have, little by little, edged towards at least a definition of art. (In fact, I have not so much a definition but a way of understanding how something – even something relatively intangible – gets to be categorised as art. (It is closely associated with the notion of a cluster concept (see: Wittgenstein; see: Gracyk) ) On top of that I have examined certain concepts that are deployed in discourse about art – such as ‘ontology’ and ‘authenticity’ ‘meaning and interpretation’ ‘mass art’ and ‘popular culture’. These are subjects that cannot be treated superficially. For example, Lady Gaga is a serious cultural phenomenon and, in certain respects, an authentic and elaborate work of art.

Second, I have realised that much of art really does need to be ‘interesting.’ I think that this is both a good thing and a bad thing. It means that whatever it is I and others might be doing the spectre of ‘interestingness’ hangs over it! We cannot just achieve technical excellence. We have to ‘spice things up’, be unusual, display originality, offer up surprises, make a spectacle, deliver a shock, say the unsayable. Sometimes, though, I think people try too hard and strain the work to the point that it is either so obscure that it is meaningless or it hides behind the cloak of ‘shock and awe.’ (Robert Hughes once remarked about collapsing upon ‘the vulgar expedient of size.’) And there is an awful lot of indulgent asinine posturing in the exclusive confines of the art world. Will Gompertz is quite explicit about this!

It is also a problem because the ‘interesting’ rather reflects a quasi-departure from reality. Most of the time, life is banal and plainly, for lots of people, just boring. I wonder if art-as-something-interesting is, in part, an anthropological design to ‘distract’ people generally and shift them into the realm of ‘surprise’. Perhaps it has taken on a ‘well, who’d have though that?’ kind of ethos. On the other hand something has struck me about this imperative – this ‘it, art, must be interesting’ phenomenon. It is to do with the unconscious: anything off-beat, surprising, bizarre, or unexpected has a kind of riveting effect: and it is perfectly possible that unconscious desires are temporally met – as the psyche experiences a sudden freedom from the reality principle and the constraints of the super-ego. (See: Rosemary Jackson)

On a different note, I also realise that I work far better independently of the presence of other people. For example, the three-week break in the long MA semester process has been wonderful. I have been able to produce and study in an uninterrupted way. Life is disturbing enough; I simply am not that good at interacting with other people if I want to get anything done. For this, and other reasons, I am not at all well-equipped to participate in the art world!

A second conversation with Celia

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Celia had been at a lecture; its subject was ‘The frontiers of fashion.’ Once it was over, she met me in the richly-resourced library at UCA. We decided that we would go to my home and, free from distractions, our conversation could begin.

I asked her what had led her to become so interested in fashion. She began by immediately describing the influence of her grandmother for whom she has a deep affection. From a young age her grand-mother would dress her in beautiful clothes. And so it was she who enabled Celia to have that indescribable pleasure of imagining herself as a magical fairy or a mythical princess. Her grand-mother also taught her to be ‘graceful’, ‘elegant’ and ‘polite’. In fact, Celia is unusually well-mannered. I had noticed this throughout the time we had known each other. She is also remarkably composed.

Her favourite fashion designers are Gianni Versace and Jean-Paul Gaultier: Versace – the superlative excess of richly gorgeous style; Jean-Paul Gaultier – radical, outlandish and brilliant. And she told me that she is currently working on a project concerned with ‘body-shaming.’

She acknowledged how hard her parents had worked whilst she was growing up and how it fell to her grandparents to look after her. She told me that she loves all of them – but in different ways.

Good conversations are non-linear things; they take off, twist and turn – and trace patterns like super-fluid electrons – as images pulse and shine – and memories glint anew: We talked about her life in Taiwan, her original loneliness on the long flight to the United Kingdom, her first trip to Bournemouth where she went clubbing and did karaoke and flitted into casinos – and how she is a ‘fearless’ person:

I don’t feel fear,’ she said. ‘I don’t know why but nothing frightens me. Sometimes I think that I ought to feel fear but I do not.’

Twice that evening her boyfriend phoned her from Taiwan. (I even spoke to him.) The boyfriend was in a very merry mood: ‘He’s been celebrating with a client,’ she said. ‘They’ve had a bit to drink.

She likes the culture and the creative atmosphere in the UK. She finds it relatively free of constraints. Life in Taiwan is more formal. She might even choose to stay much longer in the UK.

By now my wife had spent quite a long time in the kitchen and it was time to eat. The three of us had dinner together. We never stopped taking. I was amazed at how willing Celia was to sustain such a long conversation in English. We learned about the pressures that now befall young women in Korea and China, Taiwan and even Japan. They want, she said, ‘to look westernised.’ They are prepared to undergo plastic surgery even in their teens as they search for their ideal ‘look.’ (I was shocked to learn this.)

Right at the end of our long conversation, I asked Celia to describe herself in three words. (Why I did so I am not sure. Anyway, I did.)

She paused. We sat in silence for quite a long time. Celia looked down towards the deep red Persian carpet. She still said nothing: Then:

Yes, I’m independent. And I’m … can you say: ‘varied’?

I replied: ‘You mean ‘complex’ – in the sense that there are different sides to you?’

Yes.’

She then consulted a translation on her iPhone and showed the answer to me:

It said, ‘wilful.’

Yes I can see that. You are single-minded – and I imagine that you are strong-willed. Yes, I think that ‘wilful’ might be one way of describing you!

By now it was late in the evening. It was time for her to leave.

We said ‘goodbye’ and although it was against my better judgement she had resolved to walk home on her own.

In the old days we would think me very ungentlemanly,’ I said.

Don’t worry. It’s not far,’ she replied.

And Celia set off into the night.

Later my wife insisted that I contact her to make sure that she had arrived home safely.
I did – and she had.

And, later, I thought that if I were a Human Resources Manager in a fashion house such as Versace or Chanel or Dior then she would be exactly the kind of person who, through personality, social skill and sheer grace, would be a great asset to the business.

Thinking about portraits and self-portraits

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I have been reading a long essay that takes as its subject an overview of 50 years of Lucian Freud’s paintings. It’s written by someone who knew him well: The author is William Feaver and his essay ‘Freud at the Correr: Fifty years’ was published in 2007.

Ages ago (nearly 70 years in fact) Lucian Freud published ‘Some notes on painting’ in the journal ‘Encounter’. William Feaver intersperses his commentary with selections from Freud’s text. Amongst these assertive, aphoristic and sometimes metaphysical ‘notes’ he, Freud, wrote something that has been puzzling me for some time. It is this:

The picture in order to move us must never merely remind us of life but must acquire a life of its own.

I have sometimes tried to quote this remark. Often, though, I find myself trying to remember the exact wording. I make a start – and then misquote the words. Why is that?

Perhaps more importantly I have wondered if any of my ‘pictures’ do more than merely remind one of life. Have any acquired a life of their own?

Post script:

Everything is, in some sense or other, autobiographical. The still-life in the photo above is, in part, about someone’s life. (A portrait even). I’d like to paint like that because it’s something that endures and something that is a little bit ‘out’ of time. It is as if it tries to escape time. And, although it places me in a tradition of art history (goodness, I’m hopelessly lost in the past), Cezanne said something that appeals to me:

The goal of all art is the human face.’

So,  I paint the faces of people – people like the age-ing honey-seller in the Atlas mountains, or the old ferry-man in Upper Egypt –  or my daughters and my wife  – because I find, in their faces, an awareness, as well as the mystery of being.

The photo below shows my wife Jo – perhaps unfinished … perhaps something more than merely reminding us of life … perhaps not!

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The borders of our lives: Conversations with Celia

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The light in the room had gradually softened until every shape and every form had begun to merge into the surroundings. Soon we were sitting in something less than twilight. Celia remained almost as still as a crystal. She spoke in a voice so melodic, so delicate that I felt as if I had been transported into a dusky mist-laden land of enchantment. We had been talking about art and fashion and beauty. Music had been playing – almost unnoticed – in the background: sometimes we could just discern a piano sonata; sometimes a muted symphony; largo, adagio and then adagietto …

In a moment of silence I recalled a song that I had first heard a long long time ago. A singer proposed the line: ‘And you read your Emily Dickinson – and I my Robert Frost.’ I had always imagined the two people, a young man and a young woman, both sitting in the fading grandeur of a high-ceilinged room; a room made for poets; and, both were reading, when each would occasionally look up to remark on something that had occurred to them, each separated by mood, and then, by time. The same singer reflects on their ‘dangling conversation’ before that moment in which he identifies the couple now on ‘the borders of their lives.’

Celia and I were meeting at the borders of our lives – on the border of hers and on the border of mine.

By now the light had been silently taken, spirited-away by the God of night. We were sitting in a deep blue-grey darkness. Celia, the sofa upon which she was sitting, and the room – with all its books and glass ornaments and its bright green curtains – had become one.

I wanted to move across those borders. I wanted to discover, and get to know and sense so much more about the depth and the qualities of this beautiful person.

A month went by. Celia had been ill. She had a great deal of work to do if she were to make up all the lost ground that had befallen her during her course in Fashion and Fashion Design.

At last we were able to meet. I had found a pamphlet featuring an exhibition of Cecil Beaton’s exquisite fashion photographs, photographs of that exclusive elegance once belonging to high society. I was so pleased to be able to give this to Celia. I was sure that she would like the style (and even the opulence) of that world, a world that has gradually disappeared as our cultures have moved into the age of bright and shiny surfaces that now surrounds us all.

In our second conversation, Celia would come to tell me about her life, her identity and why she felt as if the United Kingdom was now becoming her second home. And, in return, I would paint a portrait of her. I would set out to express something that is remarkable about her graceful presence.

Celia is 27 years old and is from Taiwan; even the relentless rain of the last month or so in England has not diminished her appreciation of its culture. In the next conversation Celia would disclose more about herself, her love of fashion, her values and her sensibilities. Soon we would cross the borders of our lives.

Footnote: Celia is studying Fashion and Fashion Design at the University for the Creative Arts. She has a degree in English and, in addition to her first language Chinese, she speaks English, French and Spanish.

The title of the song I recalled is: ‘The Dangling conversation‘ by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. It was released in September 1966 on their album, ‘Parsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme.’

The photographs above and below show Celia in different contexts. The one below features the setting for our second conversation. The one above could be on a fashion shoot somewhere …

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Working with Meng – the hyacinth as symbol

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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.

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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.