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Friday 29 June 2007

An Instinctive Follower of Fashion

It could be that I am at serious risk of mentioning Grayson Perry on a regular basis. He does seem to me to offer a rare (among art commentators) mixture of the interesting and eminently sensible. This last week he was commenting on the unlikely subject of art and sport. Or, more usually, sport and art. As he rightly (some might say, obviously) pointed out, sporting art, like any other art, can only rise to greatness when done for art's sake.

As a young boy I would stand, fascinated, before a large reproduction of a Victorian painting that hung in my grandparents' hallway. Its title was: "An Evening at the National Sporting Club". The subject: boxing. It depicted the ring, the contestants, the officials and the great and the good who had assembled to watch the sport. But what fascinated me was not the painting itself, but the full sized key hanging beside it which identified those depicted there. As far as I remember, every individual in that crowded arena was given his or her name, rank and number. The painting itself was a typical piece of Victoriana - and definitely done for the sake of neither sport nor art, but for the sake of a certain social snobbery. Nevertheless, it fascinated me; without even knowing it, I was instinctively in tune with the fashion, the zeitgeist even.

Wind on a few years and I have made it to grammar school by the plaque on the skin of my teeth. There I came into contact with an art teacher who was inspirational - as most of the others were not. Furthermore, he had a passion for cycle (road) racing, as did I. Road racing as we know it today was not permitted by law, back then. It was confined to time trialling, and in order to follow or take part in it, one had to be up and about in the (very) wee hours of the morning when the roads were empty of other users. How different today, with The Tour de France about to bring its life and colour to London and the South East for a couple of days. Nearly 200 riders on our roads, bringing with them a bonus of over a £1,000,000! But to return: it came to pass that one afternoon this inspirational art teacher painted for us a brilliant word picture of an attempt on the London to Brighton record, at the conclusion of which account he told us to paint whatever his words had suggested to us. I remember that I painted a yellow circle on a wholly black background. When asked what it was, I explained that the event had taken place at night, so all you could see was his headlight coming towards you. In my defence I would point out that I had used the golden mean to calculate the size and position of the disc of light. The ghosts of Neo-plasticism applauded, I am sure. I was actually very proud of my work. I had not heard of Neo-plasticism back then, though I was about to be introduced to it by that same inspirational teacher. Once again, I was instinctively in step with the prevailing fashion (albeit one slightly on the wane), and still all unaware. Weird. Very worrying! Could this really be the future, I ask myself?

Friday 22 June 2007

Only God and Eliot

An anecdote featuring Seamus Heaney sparked a lengthy train of thought and recall in me recently. It was a retelling by Martha Kapos in the summer edition of Poetry London of Heaney's own account in "Finders Keepers". Seamus Heaney, the story goes, received a copy of T.S. Eliot's "Collected" as a lad away at boarding school. It was "wrapped like a food parcel". This was in the fifties, at a time when Elliot was the main man, the guiding light of poetry, so you might think he (Heaney) would have regarded it as manna from heaven, seen the poems as a revelation even. Not so: they made him ill. He suffered something akin to a panic attack, complete with all the psycho-somatic symptoms that are the well-known associates of such attacks. The cause: he simply could not understand the poems, make any sense of Eliot's words. He prayed (in some sort of way) for a "paraphrasable meaning" to come to him, but none did. Repeated re-readings took him no further: the lines would not release their secrets.

Pausing there for a moment, I find the story reassuring on at least two counts. Initially, because if Heaney could make no sense of Eliot's lines, then there is no need for us to feel inadequate, hopeless or inferior (except perhaps by Heaney's standards) when we fail to unravel some obscurity or fail to find "the paraphrasable meaning" of something by Eliot, Pound, Stevens et al. Reassuring also, because the implication is that the quest for such a meaning is a search for the non-existent. I remember fondly when that thought, or something very like it, first occurred to me, what a difference it made to me, and has done ever since. But if I recall fondly, it is not with any great clarity, alas. I do remember that I was reading a book (or essay) on the writings and association of Pound and Fenellosa. In it there was an image of the poet as one fishing in troubled waters. Reading the editorial by Kapos has brought it all back: my thoughts and my excitement at the time. She quotes Stevens's remark that "A poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully." Obscurity in poetry, she points out, is not an encounter with a stretch of muddy water which repeated (and, no doubt, intelligent) reading will make transparent. No, my own analogy would be with the white water thrown up by the words thrashing about below the surface as the poet stretches their natural meaning to take the language beyond itself in order to express the inexpressible. The meaning lies at a level beyond or below (you choose) the intelligence - which is why it is possible to respond to a poem before it has been understood - and go on enjoying it even if it is never completely "understood". Unlike muddy water, white water can be read. It takes time, knowledge and experience, but in the meantime intuition can be doing a passable job.

My title, "Only God and Eliot", is taken from something a colleague said to me years back in the staff room, one of those apparently insignificant remarks that for some reason decided to hang around in the memory: "The Waste Land, only God and Eliot know what that's about - and I wouldn't go betting on God!"

Monday 18 June 2007

Dirty Linen

Something rather strange has happened: a review of an artist whose work I have not seen has caused me to re-examine my response(s) to an artist with whose work I though I had come to terms.

The stereotypical response to modern art ("My five year old could do as well!"), has long since suffered modification in the face of artifacts from the likes of Damien Hirst (the shark in formaldehyde is technically beyond the range of most five year olds) and Tracey Emin (You wouldn't want your five year old to tackle her subject matter) to the slightly more accommodating, "But it's not really art is it?".

I must confess to having been unsure of my own response(s) to Emin. Was she merely out to shock? The thing about that infamous bed, for example, is that it only shocks because it is her bed. The same bed exhibited as a statement about some aspect of, for want of better expression, the seamy side of life, would have been acceptable to many who were offended by the knowledge that it was hers.But hers it is. In fact everything is hers, or has been so far. So what's behind it all? Is it therapy? But if it is therapy, should it not be more private? Less in our faces? Much art is therapeutic, of course. Some would say all art, but I might have a problem with that "all". Certainly there is a line between art and therapy, which some art straddles and some does not. I might concede that in Aristotelian phrase all great art purges the soul of the negative passions with which it conjures. Certainly, too, Emin's work is there on the front line of that great divide, sometimes straddling it, sometimes not quite managing to do so - in my opinion.

This year Emin has been our representative at the Venice Biennale. The various reviews that I have read of her exhibits have been less extreme than we have become used to over the years: less laudatory, less condemnatory. Kinder, certainly. But at the same time they have tended to compare her unfavourably with an artist in a nearby pavilion, Sophie Calle. Calle is in many ways, it seems, the French Tracey Emin, the High Priestess of what my mother would have called "dirty linen being washed in public". A while back, Calle was the recipient of a dumping text message from her boy friend. It seems to have had a profound effect on her. After a couple of days she showed it to a friend, seeking suggestions as to how best to reply. Then she showed another friend. In fact, she ended up sending copies to a hundred and seven friends and acquaintances, asking them to analyse the text in the sort of terms they would habitually use in their professions. So an editor considered it in terms of its use of grammar and style, an etiquette consultant for manners, and so forth. But what began as therapy (successful therapy, as it happened, for "the project replaced the person"), became art. The resulting hundred and seven texts constitute her exhibit at the Venice Biennale.

When I first read of this (not having read the texts, of course), I thought what a brilliant idea! It was an idea that seemed to suggest all manner of possibilities to me - even if a philistine or a pedant might have been forgiven for suggesting that the work was verging ever so slightly, towards the literary rather than the visual arts, but that is another story. My next thought was: How Tracey Emin-like! And then: What if it had been Emin who had "produced" (collated?) these texts? Would the critics and commentators have bestowed the same compliments upon them?

Tuesday 12 June 2007

A Walk in the Woods

I pinched this poem from my website. I had intended to include it with yesterday's image, which is where it really belongs, but then thought that I didn't want to take the focus from the Ghazals.

The leaves move in the wind -
or moving leaves create the wind.
Mysterious, the wood through which I walk,
and hung with possibilities I thought
we had resolved in childhood.

A greenness, as of ocean,
overwhelms; its weight makes
dizzy, twangs the brambles round the feet, entwined
like broken cello strings. If trees were people
we would call them bullies, yet they wait,

patient as the mist above the pond
and like a million fibres hung
with stars, as though a million
spiders had a million thoughts
and could not stay with one.

We look for stasis, but the spiders know
the world is built on motion, they are one
with it, their webs are sexual, are moments
of completion, their only absolutes -
in moments torn to pieces.

Each ecstasy brings forth another
like itself. Beyond life hangs life's image
in another web. Between the roots
and canopy the trunks impose
their discipline, a regularity

of space and form. Things follow things,
there are no final moments, final states.
Mysterious the wood, and hung
with possibilities. And yet, and yet
we cannot move without the web is torn.

Sunday 10 June 2007

Magic Realism or Parallel Subject Matter

Recently a friend sent me some interesting texts on, and links to, the work of Rob Gonsalves. Totally new to me. "Magic realism" painting of a kind I find intriguing. At the time, it just so happened, I was digitally doodling, playing with ideas that I at once saw reflected in Gonsalves's work. As if that was not enough to stop me in my stride, whilst surfing on the web I then came by accident upon a new (to me) poetic form, The Ghazal (pronounced "guzzle"). It seemed to embody some of the same attributes. Since when I have been largely researching the Ghazal, though what I have unearthed to date is fairly elementary.

The Ghazal comes to us from ancient Persia (a few sources I have found, mention India). It derives from a pre-Islamic, conversational form and consists of a series (no more than a dozen or so, usually) of couplets, mostly end-stopped, strung together by a common rhythm and rhyme scheme, but unconnected by any form of narrative or logical association. Initially, they struck me as being related in the way that a young child at the autistic stage of development relates things and incidents; pointing perhaps to a steaming kettle and saying "Puff, puff mummy!" - though not these days, of course! This freedom from the restraints of subject matter opens up realms of possibilities in love and mystical poetry - and in much more, not least in magic realism and surrealism.

The first couplet (the matla) has a rhyme pattern (kaffiyaa) followed by a short refrain (a word or a phrase, the radij) at the end of each line. Thereafter, in each couplet we find that the first line is free, while the following one ends in the kaffiyaa and the radij. The two lines of a couplet may not even have the same number of feet and may themselves be unrelated. Each couplet may be a compete poem in itself, but thought and/or feeling should leap from one to the next. Connections may be sensed, but are usually not expressable in words.

There is something here that I was experimenting with, trying to capture with my digital doodling, what I have called parallel subject matter. The image reproduced here is the first - and so far only - one to have made it to a presentable stage of development. From it came the idea that was beginning to fascinate me when I encountered, first Gonsalves and then the Ghazal. If all goes well, these will appear, no doubt in some future posting(s). But who knows. Meanwhile, should any reader have, or encounter, any knowledge that would add to or correct anything I have included here, a word to the wise (myself) would be much appreciated.

It has been said that it is easy to write a Ghazal, but exceedingly difficult to write one well - I know, you could say that about, well, almost anything, but whereas free verse, for example, may hide a poet's mediocrity, a ghazal will highlight it. It is perhaps the Bedouin equivalent of the Western World's sonnet.

link to Gonsalves

link to Gonsalves

The Ghazal

Sunday 3 June 2007

Wordsworth in Rap?

Our culture has something of a problem with fun. We pay lip service to it: if asked about an event or activity we have recently been engaged in, we are as like as not to say: "Oh, it was fun!", but scratch the surface and the record sticks, the inappropriateness or the insincerity shows through. The remark did not say what it said.

Radio 4 attempted the nigh-impossible just recently: they ran a programme in their Ha Ha series, called Ha Ha Art. It was, of course, all Ha Ha and no art, though it did make one telling point: that when the subject (humour, fun, whatever...) begins to get "serious" we approach it as outsiders.

Think of two or three works of art that have meant something to you... go on, say "The Ring"! No? Okay, you don't really have to get that serious... Got them? Can you honestly say that you think them fun? Any of them? All of them? If you can manage one yes, I congratulate you, but now there's a supplementary: can you imagine any of our worthy critics confessing to having found them "fun" - as part of a "serious" critical appraisal of the work concerned? I have heard such confessions on occasion, but it's very unusual and mostly confined to certain genres.

In a previous life I was, for my sins, a Methodist lay preacher. I always felt extremely uncomfortable when some kind soul would say to me after a service that she (It nearly always was a she.) had enjoyed the sermon. The Protestant ethic, as I was taught it, did not allow for sermons to be enjoyed. They were supposed to make the good worshipper uncomfortable in the presence of the Almighty. After all, if the flesh is enjoying something, it can't be doing the soul much good. Or can it? (I suspect that we have two souls, incidentally, an aesthetic soul and an eternal soul - maybe the first, with a little T.L.C., can develop into the second, but neither of them can find room for fun, that would seem a rum do.) The idea sticks, that medicine, to do you good, must not have a pleasant taste.

A few days ago I overheard some mothers talking about the staff at their children's school. They (the staff) had "taken themselves off" to some comfortable, not to say luxurious, watering hole for a few days for a conference. Ha! Ha! was the response of the mothers to that! - and they may have been right, for after all, they know the staff concerned! What concerns me, though, is their assumption, stated forcibly by several, that whatever the motives of the teachers, nothing of any practical value was going to come out of the jaunt because they were all having fun! The two just do not mix.

I'm not advocating Wordsworth in rap, or anything for that matter in terms of creating art. Simply that we try to look at, or listen to, art free from the usual spin and assumptions. For example, I have always found Brueghel's "Icarus" amusing, fun, humorous - I don't really mind which tag you apply. Yes, there's a trth being illustrated here, but surely I can't be alone in thinking there's a bit of fun going on as well. Or can I? I first saw a reproduction of it when I was quite young, and found it amusing before anyone told me how serious it was - as though the two were mutually exclusive - and now that Auden's poem has imbued it with another layer of seriousness, you can be looked at askance if you own to finding it fun.

Another question: how many works can you think of (without too much effort) that might be thought fun? Or how many artists whose name is associated in your mind with fun. I would think of Brueghel's Icarus (naturally!), Beardsley and Hogarth and, for poetry, Under Milk Wood (An obvious choice? But wait for my next - and last - question.), then almost any Mira, Dali, Toulouse-Lautrec, Matta, Koons, Lowry, de Kooning or Tinguely's sculptures. (I have purposely avoided some areas, eg Shakespeare plays, but you will think of many that I could have included.) You have your list? How many in that list could you also deem to be serious? I will have a bet that this last question is easier than was my first.