Novels and the meaning of things

Ever since I had read some of the great works of world literature I increasingly came to the view that it was through such reading that I learned most about human psychology. Later my basic understanding of the motivations, values and conduct of people was enhanced through the unique courses of study offered by the Human Potential Research Project at the University of Surrey. But without such courses I still continue to be educated through the provision and presence of the often acute insights and characterisations of people that are intrinsic to good literature.

In the last few months I have been developing a particularly personal museum which features 20 objects all of which, in various ways, have special meaning and significance for me. As I developed my ‘museum’ project I noticed that a basic aspect of what I was trying to do was expressed through the genius of the writer Elena Ferrante. Ferrante pinpoints the way intelligence and the use of language combine to heighten our engagement with the materials and phenomena of the world – including the actions of people. Thus,  in her now famous novel, ‘My brilliant friend’ (the novel that I happened to be reading) she tell us that her protagonist the young Elena Greco comes to a realisation about her similarly young friend Raffaella Cerullo; the two girls had just experienced, as Elena puts it, ‘wonderful conversations’ and, as a result, Elena ‘looked’ at Raffaella, thought about their friendship and the special intellectual powers of Raffaella and concluded:

It seemed to me … that … she was developing a gift I was already familiar with; more effectively than she had as a child, she took the facts, and in a natural way, charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy. But I also realised, with pleasure, that as soon as she began to do this, I felt able to do the same …” (Ferrante, E. 2020: 130) 

The first time I read this part of the text I did what I usually do when a piece of writing appears to speak directly to me and at the same time seems to herald something basic to enhancing my (our) consciousness. I stopped, I closed the book, I found a quiet space and thought about what she had written. I applied her observation to my own work and experience:

‘Yes,’ I thought: ‘It’s true; reality  – the things, the objects of the world can be readily and easily passed over or, by contrast, intensified and injected with energy. It’s this latter process that makes the world an endlessly fascinating ‘place’ in which to live.’ 

And then in relation to my project I could see more clearly that, in a similar way, my museum of seemingly disparate entities had taken a number of objects, objects already charged with meaning, had focused upon them a narrative – and, as a result, they have also, as in Elena Ferrante’s acute observation, had taken on a kind of tension and an injection of energy. 

The tension has been a kind of vibration between the personal-and-emotional and issues of philosophical reflection.  

Reference: Ferrante, E. (2020) ‘My brilliant friend’ London, Europa editions

How things are shown: In memoriam

My research trip studying the various ways the things and objects made by our cultures are shown or presented to the world included a visit to the beauty of Lake Como in northern Italy. I think this must surely be one of the most perfect and aesthetically complete environments in the world.

I had chosen to stay in an Italian ‘Agriturismo’ place situated on the outskirts of the small town of Schignano, a town with just over 850 inhabitants. The view from my bedroom window looked down upon the lake, a view made even better from the balcony adjoining the room. Nearby church bells sounded their hourly reminder to the faithful. The lovely informal buildings of the town presented themselves in those beautiful Italian shades of ochre, sienna, a pale dusky pink, and burnt orange.

One morning, under a sky that was turning from early morning yellow to crystal-blue and then a sun-dazzled white, it had become very warm and so I decided to take a walk along the shaded tracks of the nearby woods. I had been told that I could find edible mushrooms there but I simply wanted to enjoy the slow rhythms of nature and enjoy the presence of the many legend-graced trees. It was a long walk and, at its end, the track joined a narrow road upon which a few vehicles of various descriptions would pass by. Away from the cities I have often noticed how the inhabitants of small rural and mountain settlements keep their cars ‘alive’ for as long as they can. Here was no exception: a delightful old Fiat and then a decades-old Lancia drove past me! I stayed close to the mossy banks that edged the road itself and then, after a while, I saw beside me the reminder of a tragedy: it was a memorial to the life of a young man. His name was Guido Peduzzi. He was aged 18 when he had died in 1973. I recognised the distinctive look – the style – we, the young men of those days, used to adopt.

If there were details as to how Guido Peduzzi had died, they were obscured by a pretty bunch of flowers. And, through this, his family and friends showed how they would never abandon him. The memorial included a candle – and I noticed how the inscribed marble was protected by two flat stones which adjoined, directly, the exposed rock of the bank. It seemed as if this gesture was underlining his enduring connection to the locality – to the place of Schignano.

Two days later, whilst I was doing the shopping in the single small supermarket of Schignano, I walked past the modest war memorial that was situated in a small square – an open space – in the centre of the town. Amongst the many names of those who had perished in the war were several with the surname ‘Peduzzi.’ As I tried to imagine the awful tragedy of still more young lives lost, of the tragedies which lie at the heart of Schignano, the church bells sounded one again. They continued to do their best to hold out both hope and consolation.

A portrait of Jo


Although for the past two and a half months I have been developing a work of conceptual art I occasionally begin or re-address an oil painting. I returned recently to look again at a painting I had begun of Jo. One way I had resolved the problem of grappling with infinity in relation to making art was to focus on the things I know (with at least some certainty)  and with which I have direct experience.

I know Jo well. I know that she appreciates a whole range of types and styles of art and that she also respects the traditions of art. She likes fashion, as well as interior design and she also does very practical things including upholstery. She also likes colour – in all its hues and tints. Finally, she has a ready smile.

So I decided to invite her to adopt a rather formal (almost classical) pose and to be seated on a particular chair that she had carefully restored and then re-upholstered. By intention there is a ‘retro’ feel to the painting. It deliberately sets out to look back into the past but there are some obvious signs of an idiosyncratic contemporary mood. The angles lend a strangeness to the composition. Overall I am confident that the painting reflects something of her nature.

In fact, I am fairly pleased with the result because I think the painting expresses some of her qualities and values.

A walk on Sunday


Just south of Farnham in Surrey there are number of distinct and beautiful places to visit for walks and for re-gaining ‘perspective’. There are the magical woods near Tilford and the serene ponds both great and small at Frensham …

On the evening of Sunday 12 July I drove to Frensham. I parked the car in a rough-hewn space and set off for a walk. I climbed a hill that I had never climbed before and, at its summit, I looked through the clear air towards the distant hills. I had the strange sense that I was on holiday even though I was less than 6 miles from my home. The heather was beginning to shade the land in mauve and purple. Pine cones were everywhere. A few Birch and Rowan trees edged along the grey-white sandy paths. I noticed, to my surprise, a tiny wren flitting – dancing even – in the undergrowth.

Through the tress I could look down and see the silver-blue waters of the lake. A few graceful terns twisted in the air and a great-crested grebe glided proudly across the water.

I was reminded of Monet’s remark that a painter has all that he or she ever needs within just a few kilometres from where they live.

Ideology, ways of seeing and the American dream

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The capacity to give a Marxist reading of the mass media, literature and the arts is a necessary part of art criticism; after first outlining some basic aspects of Marxism I shall touch on one aspect of such a critical reading, namely ‘ideology’.

Two authoritative discussions on the philosophy of Marxism underlined certain core aspects of the theory including the recognition that it is essentially a theory of liberation. In the first discussion between Bryan Magee and Charles Taylor, Magee (1978) provides a thumbnail sketch of the basic tenets of Marxism; he stresses the centrality of the arrangements which keep a society in existence – which are, in fact, the means of production. It is these economic conditions and the associated political dimension that form the very basis of a society – upon which all else is constructed. Taylor adds to Magee’s sketch by noting that the appeal and excitement of Marxism lies in the fact that it promises a liberation from the trials and tribulations of an oppressed existence. Marcuse, in a subsequent discussion with Magee, endorses the ongoing critique of capitalist society by highlighting its failures and the positive alternative held out by revised Marxist theory.

A Marxist perspective pinpoints, in addition to the material and historical factors that structure a society, the role of ideology. Ideologies – understood as belief systems – are the product of cultural conditioning. They come in many guises and whilst some are liberating others are oppressive. The most serious Marxist critics attribute many of the failings of western capitalist societies to the role of ideology. They do this by showing that an ideology can be both hidden and can serve to mask actual realities. One such ideology is that of the ‘American dream’ (and something not dissimilar prevails in the UK). The American writer Tyson – a cultural critic – outlines this ideology by articulating three of the more obvious features of the mind-set and belief that is ‘the American dream.’ They are: a) Getting ahead – through initiative, will-power and effort b) Bettering oneself – and being better than others (hence, competitiveness) and c) Rugged individualism.

Tyson (2017) then moves on to provide a devastating description of the way the ideology of the ‘American dream’ functions as an oppressive ideology:

‘… like all ideologies that support the socio-economic inequities of capitalist countries like ours – that is countries in which the means of production (natural, financial and human resources) are privately owned and in which those who own them inevitably become the dominant class – the American dream blinds us to the enormities of its failure – both past and present: the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of Africans, the virtual enslavement of indentured servants, the abuse suffered by immigrant populations, the widening gulf between America’s rich and poor, the growing ranks of the homeless and hungry, the enduring socio-economic barriers against women and people of colour – and the like.

In other words, the success of the American dream – the acquisition of a wealthy life-style for a few – rests on the misery of the many. And it is the power of ideology, of our belief in the naturalness and fairness of this dream, that has blinded us to the harsh realities it masks.’ (Tyson, 2017: 55,56)

The key point is that the American dream has come to occupy such a deeply entrenched position in a shared American psyche that it is not fully recognised as a product of cultural conditioning but, instead, as something natural. It seems so normal and taken-for-granted that it is difficult to ‘haul it out’ of the unconscious and see it as a constructed rather than a natural and inevitable mode of seeing.

Marcuse also understands the role of ideology in similar terms. He even thinks that it must have created a deep psychological cast of mind because the realities of advanced capitalist life in America are not at all commendable. In his conversation with Magee (1978) he observes of America (and other advanced capitalist countries) that, as a society it ‘daily revealed its inequality, injustice, cruelty and general destructiveness’ and that whilst he noted that although ‘Fascism had been defeated militarily, a potential for its revival continued to exist.’ He then continues by saying that he could also mention’ racism, sexism, general insecurity, pollution of the environment, the degradation of education, the degradation of work and so on – and on …

Marxist critics analyse how ideology is brought into being and amongst its sources is both the mass media and its cultural manifestations in the arts. In the light of their analysis a key question for any work of art is the extent to which it supports, promotes or sustains an oppressive ideology. And it may do this in any number of subtle and indirect ways.

When Margaret Atwood speaks …

Screenshot 2020-04-23 at 08.03.33Actually I read this extraordinary book a long time ago. It was back in those days when I realised that my knowledge was so impoverished I had to do something about it; so, I read the classics; the trouble is I have forgotten everything I once knew about ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. However, I happened to see a short programme in which esteemed authors were mentioning books that they might read during these restricted times. Margaret Atwood had never read Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’ She rather relished the fact that, by all accounts, it featured ‘bad behaviour’!

I decided, therefore, that I had better re-read this great novel. Today, I retrieved it from one of my bookshelves. I dusted it off and looked at the cover. I opened the book. I began reading.

(The painting featured on the cover of the book shows a detail from, ‘The rejected confession’ by Ilya Repin.)

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Site-specific art: a brief engagement with the campus of an art college


I had been given the opportunity to make and install a ‘series’ of site-specific works of art. Fortunately, ‘works of art’ nowadays is a very inclusive category and whatever I chose to do would more-or-less count as art!

The brief included an excellent reading list amongst which was Clifford Geertz’s (1988) ‘Works and lives: the anthropologist as author’, the wonderfully titled ‘Non-places: introduction to an anthropology of super-modernity’ by Marc Auge (1992) and Merlin Coverley’s (2010) ‘Psycho-geography’.

These texts provided a backdrop of ideas for my project. I identified the campus of UCA as an anthropological site which included an admixture of buildings and structures that reflected both a psycho-geography and something culturally specific. I had also been reading Iris Murdoch’s views of the intentions of art in which, among other things, she had said that ‘art is fun and for fun’.

In consequence, I resolved to enjoy myself ‘playing’ with a few episodes of a personal psycho-geography located in an anthropological context. And I did have some fun.

Throughout the time allocated to the project I made a total of 7 interventions. I used books (one of which was Freud’s ‘The future of an illusion‘), record covers, a photograph of a work of art, a small brass sculpture of the Buddha and a fanciful model of a hunter/woodsman. (The complete set of interventions was later presented in a slide show to the MA students.)

The photograph above shows one of the interventions I made; underneath it all I intended it to be a really serious warning:  Freud’s account of ‘The future of an illusion’ can be read as a text concerned to draw our attention to any ‘ready-made’ belief system manifested in a culture. Correctly, he points out that, unless we are very careful, we can uncritically accept the limiting perspective that the belief system provides. We can extend his idea and ask a question about the meaning of buildings – along with their function: the UCA site enjoys a shiny new place in which, as far as I can tell, the new arts of performance are explored. (The building itself seems to be a kind of performance.) But these new arts may well simply serve as seductive distractions – and continue to beguile people with the hope and fantasy that they will ‘be someone’. The problem is that they are already ‘someone’ – and I think  that they might well feel happier if, rather than seeking the approval and attention of others, they were to place more trust in their own powers and obvious abilities.

In its own modest way I hoped that my site-specific intervention (by making explicit the connection between illusion and the function of the building) alluded to the possibility of this further alienation of the self.

Disruption and a ‘master idea’


As part of our MA in Fine Art we had to complete a short project entitled ‘Disruption’. The brief was very clear: we were first to locate one piece of art that we had made and which, for whatever reason, we felt was unsatisfactory. We then had to ‘ruin’ the work in one way of another. Second, we had to retrieve some sort of ‘found’ object and ‘ruin’ it too – but in a different way to the first act of ruination. Third we had to put the two separate pieces together and make some sort of re-configured – and hopefully successful – work of art.

I liked the brief. I immediately thought of the words ‘slash and burn.’ I decided to take a watercolour study I had done (of a face) that was only minimally successful and, after heating a candle and allowing the wax to spill over its surface, I then set fire to the painting.

Next, I dismantled an already-broken child’s watch that I had found abandoned on the pavement outside my house. I added bits of the watch to the half-burnt semi-destroyed watercolour. Initially I thought the ensemble looked good, but then I thought it looked ugly and finally I decided that it looked horrible. I did not like seeing it. (It is, I discovered, actually difficult for me to make things that are really rather ugly.)

But the ‘Disruption’ project led me to retrieve different unused bits and pieces that I had collected over the years and then create mini-assemblages or mini-structures mainly themed in relation to terrific books that I had read.

Amongst these old unused items was something related to Susan Sontag’s brilliant text, ‘On photography’: some years ago I had taken a single photograph of a page of her book. The photograph had been developed before the advent of digital photography; it looked bright and shiny, graced as it was with a glossy sheen.

As I played around making the assemblage (connected with ongoing problems I feel about the seductions of photography) I could still read the text of the page that I had photographed; I realised just how prescient she was. In the 1970s she had written:

China offers the model of one kind of dictatorship whose master idea is “the good” in which the most unsparing limits are placed on all forms of expression including images. The future may offer another kind of dictatorship whose master idea is “the interesting” in which images of all sorts, stereotyped and eccentric, proliferate …

She continued: And there seems to be no way of limiting the proliferation of photographic images. The only question is whether the function of the image world as created by cameras could be other than it is. The present function is clear enough if one considers in what contexts photographic images are seen, what dependencies they create, what antagonisms they pacify – that is, what institutions they buttress, whose needs they really serve.

A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anaesthetise the injuries of class, race and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, make war, give jobs to businesses …

As I re-read these words from the photograph about the photograph I could not help but think that for a number of years we have been living in an ‘image-world’ given over to the master idea of ‘the interesting’. It coincides with and re-inforces that other master idea that we must ‘be someone’. But, quite frankly, I feel that I have overdosed on images. I also have the sense that many people now have a compulsion to repeat the act of taking and publishing their photographs. Sigmund Freud has a lot to say about this! But, what is more, I am in danger of being drawn into this obsessive ‘look at me’ culture. It is as if we are all, collectively, lured into secondary narcissism.

Some notes on the duty of the artist


Over Christmas I really enjoyed a BBC television production of Charles Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’. It was merciless, confrontational and ‘of our times’. Then, just the other day, I had the good fortune to see another BBC production of a work by Dickens. This time it was his ‘Great Expectations’ and it was brilliant: pure and devastating tragedy was exquisitely mixed with the fundamental idea that people  – all of us – are ‘made’ through chance and circumstance.

The next day or two came and went and then the work of Dickens resurfaced in a rather unexpected place. I was reading a masterful discussion on ‘philosophy and literature’ featuring the philosopher and author Iris Murdoch and she happened to underline her deep respect for the writing of Charles Dickens. In the course of the overall discussion Murdoch had examined the important contrasts between the endeavours of philosophy as compared with the nature of expression in the arts; she then explored the attitude of philosophy to art and, during this, she began to identify the responsibilities of the artist. (Since I am supposed to be ‘en route’ to becoming an artist I took her assertions particularly seriously.) This is what she said:

‘I certainly do not believe that it is the artist’s task to serve society.’ And she adds: ‘As soon as a writer says to him or herself, ‘I must try to change society in such and such ways by my writing’ he or she is likely to damage their work.’

In the unfolding discussion she is then asked about Dickens – who had genuinely social aims and who also had considerable social influence – to which she replies:

‘… Dickens manages to do everything, to be a great imaginative writer and a persistent and explicit social critic. I think the scandals of his society were closely connected with the kind of ferment and social change which engaged his imagination most deeply. He is able to embrace all these things in his genius and you rarely feel he is ‘getting at you’ with some alien social point. His most effective social criticisms are made through live and touching characters such as the sweeper boy Joe in Bleak House. Dickens is a great writer because of his ability to create character, and also because of deep frightful imaginative visions which have little to do with social reform.’

The BBC’s productions of ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘Great Expectations’ surely endorse Murdoch’s view. But then she returns to outline her thinking about the ‘duty’ of the artist:

She notes: ‘I do not think that the artist qua-artist has a duty to society. A citizen has a duty to society’ and she adds that, ‘the artist’s duty is to art, to truth-telling in his or her chosen medium.’ She immediately goes on to say that the writer’s duty, like that demonstrated by Charles Dickens, is ‘to produce the best literary work of which he or she is capable, and he or she must find out how this can be done.’

By extension, in Fine Art (where I am primarily located) the artist’s duty is to truth-telling in his or her chosen domain or specialisation. Murdoch urges the artist not to lurch into propaganda and she recognises that ‘a good society contains many artists doing many different things’ whilst a bad society coerces artists because it knows they can reveal all kinds of truths.’

On this last point, I think that’s why I take so much pleasure seeing the great variety of artistic expression and the explorations of the height, breadth and depth of human being in the place where I am studying for my MA in Fine Art. And I wish that Iris Murdoch’s deeply knowledgeable discussion was part of the required reading list on our course. If it were then we would quickly recognise that there is an often unbridgeable gap between the rarefied specialist discussions of the theorist with the imaginative play of the artist.