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Wednesday 30 January 2008

"Does Britain need an Angel of the South?"

The Angel of the North.

Go to The Guardian Poll next week, and you will be able to add your vote to what will no doubt become a lively debate on the above question - always supposing, of course, that you are happy to reduce the issue to a straight forward yes or no. Either way, now is the time to get the thinking done, in order to make your contribution that much more valuable.

Personally, I think it all depends on what sort of angel. The brief tends to suggest an intention to upstage the Angel of the North. Is that why it has to be so much taller - taller, in fact "than any public statue in Britain bar the cockade on top of Nelson's hat"? At that sort of size, and taking into account its position overlooking the two motorways and railway bringing entrants into the country, it surely needs to be a welcoming angel and one that represents something appropriate. Something along the lines of America's Statue of Liberty, perhaps. Angels are supposed to be intermediaries, are they not? (Not that I would want to suggest a line of thought!) I just hope that we do not end up looking at a human thingy with wings. (No, you didn't hear me whisper "Angel of the North"!)

There remains one point that can be made on behalf of The Angel of the South: its would-be creators are engaged in a competitive tendering process to land the commission. That can only be good for the future of art - or would be if the process became more widely adopted. Mr Purnell, when minister for arts, talked about the possibility of a new renaissance. The last one was fuelled by commissions, not by public hand-outs. Patronage and/or competitive tendering must be preferable to the latter. With either of them, the public would at least be able to see what it was getting for its money - and register its approval or otherwise. It would indeed be getting something - and if the result proved unacceptable, it could always be sold on ebay!

Either way, have a look at The Guardian Poll next week, and meanwhile, why not debate the issue here?

In case you think it relevent:

  • The Angel will cost £2M

  • It will be sited at Ebbsfleet, Kent

  • It will rise 164ft above gravel workings, the two motorways and the Channel Tunnel rail link.

Saturday 26 January 2008

If poetry was a team sport...

One of the unfortunate, perhaps inevitable, consequences of Burns Night and all that jazz is the distinct impression it can leave that Scottish poetry began and ended with Burns, whereas the exact opposite is the case. Indeed, if poetry was a team sport I would wager any odds that Scotland would win the U.K championship hands down, and for all I know the European and World titles also. They would certainly clean up where the youth trophies were concerned. Who should be the national coach, might form an interesting topic for debate, though my unhesitating choice would be Edwin Morgan, surely the doyen of poets north of the border. How appropriate then that The Guardian should today, the day following Burns Night, have made him the subject of its Life in Poetry. Excellent timing! Sarah Crown credits him with having helped "shape Scotland's postwar identity and a generation of writers," but concludes that "he will be best remembered for his guarded love poetry".

And that is not the end of it, for today thousands of Morgan's books, including fifteen thousand copies of From Saturn to Glasgow - Fifty Favourite Poems will be given away across Glasgow via libraries, schools and bookshops as the city honours its poet laureate and the Scots Makar (National Poet). Furthermore, the heritage Lottery Fund has chipped in with £50,000 to acquire and house his extensive archive. These honours follow the shortlisting of his book Book of Lives for the T.S.Eliot Prize, 2007.

Go to The Poetry Archive to listen to recordings of his poems or to Lt Scotland for a choice between reading and listening. At Glasgow Arts you can read Christopher Whyte's essay on Morgan's love poetry.

Here, though, is the text of Strawberries. Is this not one of the finest love poems ever, do you not think?


There were never strawberries
like the ones we had
that sultry afternoon
sitting on the step
of the open french window
facing each other
your knees held in mine
the blue plates in our laps
the strawberries glistening
in the hot sunlight
we dipped them in sugar
looking at each other
not hurrying the feast
for one to come
the empty plates
laid on the stone together
with the two forks crossed
and I bent towards you
sweet in that air

in my arms
abandoned like a child
from your eager mouth
the taste of strawberries
in my memory
lean back again
let me love you

let the sun beat
on our forgetfulness
one hour of all
the heat intense
and summer lightning
on the Kilpatrick hills

let the storm wash the plates

Thursday 24 January 2008

Burns Night : 25th January

As with many another master poet (cannily avoiding invidious distinctions between great and good, you notice), Robert Burns's fate has been to be remembered for poems that are not among his best. That, at any rate, is true south of the border, the situation might be different in Scotland. As his special night approaches we remember him for Auld Lang Syne (of course) and A Red, Red Rose and maybe one or two others, and we may be tempted to compare him with Shakespeare, though I find the comparison better made with a poet such as John Clare. Like Clare, Burns was very much a man of the soil and a man of the people. Consider Burns's poem “To a Mouse”:

I give only the last three verses:-

That wee-bit heap o' leaves an' stibble,
Has cost thee monie a weary nibble!
Now thou's turn'd out, for a' thy trouble,
But house or hald.
To thole the Winter's sleety dribble,
An' cranreuch cauld!

But Mousie, thou are no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men,
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Still, thou art blest, compar'd wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!

It is easy to imagine John Clare turning up this mouse and his nest with his ploughshare and producing something like the Burns's poem as a result, though I suspect that Clare's would have been a poem on disturbing a mouse”, not one addressed to it. But all the same qualities would have been in place: the warmth; humanity; empathy: intimacy even; the delight in small things; Blake's ability to “See a world in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour”; and sheer good, common-sense. (But think what a big deal Shakespeare would have made of it! Burns avoids the temptations - if, indeed, he even felt them - of philosophising, finding sociological parallels or drawing theological conclusions until the last verse, and even then it is a very homely comparison that is drawn.) Armed with these qualities he could take on the world's injustices and be a match for cant and hypocrisy wherever he found them.

When I was growing up, I was profoundly affected by Albert Schweitzer's essay on Reverence for Life. One phrase - a mantra if you like - summed up his whole attitude to life: I am life that wills to live in the midst of life that wills to live. I find the same attitude in the poetry of Burns, so much so that he can find in the indignity suffered by a tiny creature such as a mouse, a political imperative - and can keep it at once both light and serious. (Appropriate, then, that he is celebrated each January 25th with the conviviality of a supper, don't you think?)

In slightly different vein, an apparent contradiction, though I happen to think not, a major poem, a satire, no less, Holy Willie's Prayer (story and full text) which I happen to consider one of the two all-time great humorous poems (the other being Hugh Macdiarmid's A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle - of which more later.)I could find no texts of A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle on the web, but four free MP3 downloads of Macdiarmid reading it, are available here...) I would argue that in Holy Willie's Prayer we have Burns doing what he does best: holding up a mirror to society and saying This is how it really is!.

Here,then, the first two verses:

O Thou, who in the heavens does dwell,
Who, as it pleases best Thysel',
Sends ane to heaven an' ten to hell,
A' for Thy glory,
And no for ony gude or ill
They've done afore Thee!

I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
When thousands Thou hast left in night,
That I am here afore Thy sight,
For gifts an' grace
A burning and a shining light
To a' this place.

Three more...

But yet, O Lord! confess I must,
At times I'm fash'd wi' fleshly lust:
An' sometimes, too, in wardly trust,
Vile self gets in:
But Thou remembers we are dust,
Defil'd wi' sin.

O Lord! yestreen, Thou kens, wi' Meg-
Thy pardon I sincerely beg,
O! may't ne'er be a livin plague
To my dishonour,
An' I'll ne'er lift a lawless leg
Again upon her.

Besides, I farther maun allow,
Wi' Leezie's lass, three times I trow-
But Lord, that Friday I was fou,
When I cam near her;
Or else, Thou kens, Thy servant true
Wad never steer her.

... and plenty more to follow.

To one or two readers, the remainder of this post may bring feelings of déjà vu, for it is largely material I posted a year ago. I make no excuse for this repetition, for I had then only just begun to blog and my post would have been seen by very few, if any - and anyway, are we not bidden to recycle everything possible? Say if you will, that I am reducing my carbon footprint by cutting down on the amount of fuel my brain burns (pun unintended).

Mention of Burns always conjures first in my mind a few verses from Hugh MacDiarmid's "A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle". This is a deep and complex poem in which the drunk man finds himself lying helplessly on a moonlit hillside, staring at a thistle and meditating on its jaggedness and its beauty. This becomes a metaphor for the divided state of Scotland - and much else, as the meditations become varied and far-ranging.

But here he is on Burns Night (and by implication, on Burns):

You canna gang to a Burns supper even
Wi-oot some wizened scrunt o' a knock-knee
Chinee turns roon to say, 'Him Haggis - velly goot!'
And ten to wan the piper is a Cockney.

No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote
But misapplied is a'body's property,
And gin there was his like alive the day
They'd be the last a kennin' haund to gie -

Croose London Scotties wi their braw shirt fronts
And a' their fancy freens rejoicin
That similah gatherings in Timbuctoo,
Bagdad - and Hell, nae doot - are voicin

Burns' sentiments o' universal love,
In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,
And toastin ane wha's nocht to them but an
Excuse for faitherin Genius wi their thochts.

A' they've to say was aften said afore,
A lad was born in Kyle to blaw aboot.
What unco fate maks him the dumpin-grun
For aa the sloppy rubbish they jaw oot?

Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name
Than in ony's barrin liberty and Christ.
If this keeps spreedin as the drink declines,
Syne turns to tea, wae's me for the Zietgeist!

If you do not know the poems of MacDiarmid, you should certainly see about putting that right.
You will not agree with all his sentiments, but you surely will enjoy disagreeing.

Here he is, for example, on the common folk:

And a' the names in History mean nocht
To maist folk but 'ideas o' their ain,'
The vera opposite o' onything
The Deid 'ud awn gin they cam' back again.

A greater Christ, a greater Burns, may come.
The maist they'll dae is to gi'e bigger pegs
To folly and conceit to hank their rubbish on.
They'll cheenge folks' talk but no their natures, fegs!

What Burns Night (and to a lesser extent Burns) conjures up in my mind are a few verses from Hugh MacDiarmid's "A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle". This is a deep and complex poem in which the drunk man finds himself lying helplessly on a moonlit hillside, staring at a thistle and meditating on its jaggedness and its beauty. This becomes a metaphor for the divided state of Scotland - and much else, as the meditations become varied and far-ranging.

But here he is on Burns Night (though not Burns):

"You canna gang to a Burns supper even
Wi-oot some wizened scrunt o' a knock-knee
Chinee turns roon to say, 'Him Haggis - velly goot!'
And ten to wan the piper is a Cockney.

"No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote
But misapplied is a'body's property,
And gin there was his like alive the day
They'd be the last a kennin' haund to gie -

"Croose London Scotties wi their braw shirt fronts
And a' their fancy freens rejoicin
That similah gatherings in Timbuctoo,
Bagdad - and Hell, nae doot - are voicin

"Burns' sentiments o' universal love,
In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,
And toastin ane wha's nocht to them but an
Excuse for faitherin Genius wi their thochts.

"A' they've to say was aften said afore,
A lad was born in Kyle to blaw aboot.
What unco fate maks him the dumpin-grun
For aa the sloppy rubbish they jaw oot?

"Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name
Than in ony's barrin liberty and Christ.
If this keeps spreedin as the drink declines,
Syne turns to tea, wae's me for the Zietgeist!"

If you do not know the poems of MacDiarmid, you should certainly see about putting that right.
You will not agree with all his sentiments, but you surely will enjoy disagreeing.

Here he is, for example, on the common folk:

"And a' the names in History mean nocht
To maist folk but 'ideas o' their ain,'
The vera opposite o' onything
The Deid 'ud awn gin they cam' back again.

"A greater Christ, a greater Burns, may come.
The maist they'll dae is to gi'e bigger pegs
To folly and conceit to hank their rubbish on.
They'll cheenge folks' talk but no their natures, fegs!"

Start at the link I have given - the poems have a glossary running alongside. Enjoy!

The two images are from Auld Lang Syne

Wednesday 23 January 2008

The Costa Book Award

Grab any random group of any size from street or mall, and providing only that they are all reasonably well-informed and reasonably intelligent people prepared to spend a moment or two in reflection (i.e. that they are not too random, but all a bit like yours truly), the chances are they will all agree that competitive comparisons in the arts are non-starters, generating more frustration than enlightenment. The finest painting (or painter), best poem of the century, and most beautiful sculpture are all meaningless because impossible to assess, though I have encountered them all at some time.

How much more impossible than just ordinarily impossible must it be then, to justify superlatives when judging between different genres? Yet The Costa Book Award purports to do just that, to choose which is best from between a slim volume of poetry, a novel, a first novel, a biography, and a children's book. How could they possibly do that. They couldn't, of course, but they attempt to get round the insurmountable difficulty by saying that they are looking for something "you could recommend to a friend". I guess that depends upon the friend. I am sure you could recommend all the contending volumes to a friend, though perhaps not all to the same friend. It seems its first sponsors were only too well aware of the difficulty when The Costa was established in 1971: its brief was to recognise the most enjoyable books of the past year. Mmmmm.... Does that take us any further? And does it not depend upon what you mean by "enjoyable". Some books are like some sermons: their prime task is not to provide enjoyment. The winner, A. L. Kennedy, for Day, has herself suggested that her book is harrowing - and that she would not recommend it to anyone suffering from depression. Just a thought.

She also made a plea in her acceptance speech for "libraries" with books in them. Mmmm again. Seems an eminently reasonable request on the face of it. But we all know where it's coming from.

Tuesday 22 January 2008


A story has been rumbling on in the media over the past few days concerning thousands of tons of timber that have been washed up on the beaches of southern England. This extraordinary timber slick, is now several feet thick along the tide line and stretches for between eight miles and three counties, depending upon the source of your news. It is the cargo of The Ice Prince which last week sank off the Dorset coast after a heavy storm.

Not so! I have it on the most reliable authority possible, that the timber was towed out to sea in barges hardly pondworthy for the express purpose of being first dumped and then washed ashore to form what is (and will soon be seen to be) a gigantic art installation. The artist behind the venture is as yet unknown, but will doubtless reveal him- or herself in the fullness of time. Meanwhile, the so-called scavangers whom you may have seen making off with huge planks, are in fact performance artists. All in the script and an integral part of the installation you understand. In due course the way in which the media swallowed the hoax, along with the media and public reactions to it when the hoax is revealed will also become part of the story. Word is that these narratives will "sell" the installation to the judges when it is nominated - as, apparently, it will be - for The Turner Prize. There are good precedents: Simon Starling's Shedboatshed for example.

Thursday 17 January 2008

A Hundred, thousand million sonnets

One Christmas, several years ago, I was given as a present a copy of the OULIPO COMPENDIUM. I take it down every once in a longish while, usually when I have just finished a piece of writing or a painting that proved particularly difficult. I relax with it and get a whole new concept of what difficult really means. But for the uninitiated, first some definitions:-

  • The name: Oulipo was initially Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle which was soon abbreviated to OU.LI.PO. anf finally to Oulipo.

  • It is the name of one of several groups established to renew a literature that its members consider has degenerated to an appallingly low level.

  • Their motto is: everything done prior to us is worthless; everything done after us can only exist because of us.

  • The dead continue to belong to the Oulio no less than the living. Marcel Duchamp and Italo Calvino are both members.

  • Oulipo is not confined to literature, but takes in the arts and mathematics.
  • It is neither a modern nor a postmodern movement, but claims to be traditional in its methods and intentions.

  • The Compendium is its "workshop for Potential Literature".

The compendium is described as a resource book. It is a survey of the group and contains analyses of their works, descriptions of their methods, biographies, bibliographies, overviews of groups working in art, comic strips, and even cuisine. Their (its) methods are based largely on ideas of restraint. Restraints can be liberating. For example, when designing compositions in the visual arts, I have found that being given an awkward shape to fill can be a source of inspiration, but the restraints in the Compendium are often too extreme and somewhat phoney, do not arise naturally from the task in hand. The Compendium has something of the character of a puzzle book. The question arises in my mind, as it does when I hear that someone belongs to MENSA, if so intelligent, why bother? Okay, so it's a bit of fun, and why not? Nothing wrong with that. See what you think:-

One of their proudest achievements seems to be the Lipogram, a procedure in which the writer undertakes to ban one vowel from a text. How difficult this is depends, of course, on the length of the text and upon which vowel is to be excluded. One of their members, George Perec, achieved, you would have thought, the ultimate accolade by writing a full length novel, La Disparition without using a single e. Incredibly, they claim that readers do not spot that a vowel is missing unless given some sort of clue beforehand. However, more latterly they have found a detective novel, L'a dans l'baba by Armand Vadlavant (who,presumably, is not a member) in which no vowels other than the letter a were used. This, indeed, is one of their more extreme procedures. They call it Univocalism (sometimes Monovocalism), though it is more typically to be found in short passages. Here, for example, is Shakespeare's To be or not to be: that is the question rendered in univocalism; no vowels but e:-

Be? Never be? Perplexed quest: seek the secret!

Incidentally, the chapter headings in Vadlavant's novel are univocal translations of famous proverbs
George Perec (again) has produced a novel, Les Revenentes, in univocalism, but it is considered a lax production as the title is not spelt correctly: it should be Les Revenantes.

Another Oulipian procedure is to take, say, 10 sonnets (ten are given in the book) and cut each into its 14 constituent lines. (The pages are conveniently arranged and marked with dotted lines.) The rhymes being same for each of the poems, it is possible to replace any line in any sonnet with the corresponding line from any of the others.
(That would make them nonsense rhymes, you say? Well, they've thought of that: they are surrealistic to begin with.) Therefore there are ten possible first lines, for each of which there are ten possible second lines. You will be ahead of me by now. Ditto for the lines 3 through to 14. So: 10 X 10 X 10 X10 X 10 X 10X 10 X 10 X10 X 10 X 10 X 10 X 10 X 10 = 100,000,000,000,000 = one hundred thousand million sonnets! To be honest, I find that remarkable on several count, none of them artistic, of course. Typically Oulipien!

Now something for the artists: plaited pictures. Take two pictures of equal size and preferably with subject matter in common - the example given if a grey figure and a black figure, both sitting. Cut one into strips horizontally and the other vertically. A better result is obtained if the strips are wavy- rather than straight-edged. Now weave them together by passing them over and under each other in the normal way. The results shown in the book look both simple and intriguing. I did try valiantly to produce a quick example (from magazine photographs) for this post. I did really, you would have been proud of me. It is not as fool-proof as it seems. I shall try again, and if successful, show it at a later date.

Tuesday 15 January 2008

Double Whammy!

I refer, of course, to the double whammy facing the arts just now: the reorganisation of The British Council on the one hand, and the Arts Council's changed criteria for the award of funding on the other. I blogged on this latter subject a few days ago and will not repeat myself now, but will add one further thought: James Purnell, minister for the arts, spoke glibly of a new Renaissance waiting in the wings, yet to the best of my knowledge the first one was not launched on the back of hand-outs but on commissions. For me this conjures up (pure fantasy, I know, but in the arts, fantasies have been known to inspire breakthroughs) the idea that commissions might be the democratic, transparent, safer way for a minister to go - not for all art forms, perhaps, but for some. Just consider: the public could see clearly where its money was going, and register its approval or disapproval accordingly; the government would get back something tangible for its cash and if it (or the public) did not like what it got, could always sell it on eBay! As I say, just a thought...

The case of The British Council is rather different. The British Council has an important role to play in the arts at an international level. Its most glamorous responsibility is the organization of the British Pavilion and display at The Venice Bienniale. It selects the artist to represent us, arranges insurance and all the necessary support systems, it smooths the way when exhibitions are arranged in "difficult" foreign climes. Its services are indispensable to those taking part and those services depend upon the expertise and knowledge of a few dedicated professionals.

Yet it is not a dedicated arts organization, it has a political role which, as I understand it, is now showing itself as its primary role. For reasons which have nothing to do with the arts and everything to do with politics, the various "wings" of the British Council are to be merged and those dedicated professionals will have to reapply for whatever jobs will be created by the reformed organization. The great fear is that the necessary expertise will be lost or diluted, and what is fuelling the great fear is a total lack of knowledge. Where now, the government's famed transparency?

Friday 11 January 2008

no sex please, we're artists

For the new year I composed a light-hearted post, a collection of overheard snatches of conversation from around the galleries. Here are some I kept back, for reasons which I hope will become apparent. Actually, they are the very reverse of those previous snippets which, unlike these, were positive if nothing else, whilst these are more honest and less pretentious, though not dialogue at all really, but fragments from a monologue delivered by a young man, possibly a student, to his long-suffering female companion:-

"Why you don't get nudes any more is because that's drawing, innit? And drawing's had the old heave-ho. Finally. Should have happened when they came up with the camera, but better late than never. Junked. Up there in the attic with the Brownie Box."

"I thought I told you: they binned the life-class, so they did. It's nothing now, a bit on the side, that's all. Like an art school travel brochure promising top-ups of escapism. Nudes are just not the business any more. Dead and buried, along with true-to-life an' all that malarkey."

"Now we're talking Bacon and his like. Naked figures, but not your history nudes. Art, not art history. What goes in real life is not what goes on the canvas, and what goes on the canvas the canvas changes."

"They rattle on about draughtsmanship, "the way that plane tucks under this and the shoulder thrusts forward," etc, etc, ad bloody infinitum. What's that all about, eh? Where's the big, big deal?"

"Painting should be sexy, but those life classes were so classy and so pissing spiritual, they turned yer pictures sour!"

At the time I was struck, first by what a good case he seemed to be making for drawing, for the life-class and for the study of the human frame generally. He obviously did not intend it as that, and I must admit that reading it now in cold print it does not read so, but that is what I thought at the time. Maybe, had my
speed-writing skills been less limited and had I been able to get it all down, it might be reading now as it sounded then. Who knows? But at the time it was as though he had produced, in spite of himself, the negative for a snapshot of a corner of art that he believed to have been killed-off. My next thought was that, had he been around at the time, he surely would have been declaring the nude dead and buried back in the sixteenth century, killed-off as a result of the deliberations of The Council of Trent, The Roman Catholic Church's fightback against The Renaissance. It resulted, in 1549, in the banning of books, the laying down of rules governing religious art and music, the reform of the liturgy and the denunciation of Michelangelo as "an inventor of filthiness who cared more for art than for devotion". Later, after Michelangelo's death, loin cloths were added to the nude figures on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and there were even moves to have the whole ceiling scraped clean.

Finally though, I was reminded of Wallace Stevens's poem, The Man With the Blue Guitar. Here are the opening lines:

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.
They said, "You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are."
The man replied, "Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."

It is a phenomenon not confined to music. Indeed, the guitar is Stevens's image for poetry, but could as easily stand for any of the arts, for if you draw anything, and draw it well enough (i.e. if you are a genius!) it will become an instrument and play your tune. (Make any graven image - my friend was quite right - and you change it for ever, so far as the perception of it goes. No wonder there are religions that do not allow graven images of their god(s) - or of their god's creation.) Sunflowers and yellow chairs did not look like that until van Gogh painted them. They do now. They play his tune.

So what, to quote my friend, is "the big, big deal"? What is so special about the nude figure in art or the life class in art training? If it is true, as I am here suggesting, that to draw anything well enough is to change for ever the way it is perceived, how is it that the nude figure manages to rise head and shoulders above all else and make itself so special? Why can we apparently not do without it, despite what my friendly art student says? Over the years, ever since I first put foot in art school, everyone has wanted to know the answer to that question. Every significant one that is: parents, grandparents, casual acquaintances, friends, aunts and uncles. No doubt about what was bugging them: sex. Trot out the "official" explanations (for which, see the bullet points at the end of this post) and I was likely to get the same sort of response that a stripper might when detailing her "artistic" reasons for divesting herself of her clothes. Try as they would, my nearest and dearest could never quite divorce the situation of a young man staring at a naked woman for three hours from the thought that sex must be in there somewhere. And perhaps it was, for there are those - I among them - who think that the ability to appreciate beauty in any of its forms must be derived, ultimately, from the sexual instinct, from our inborn instinct to see in the human form that which attracts us. It seems to me that the sex drive (or an off-shoot of it) is as active in our appreciation of a landscape or an oak tree as in our admiration of the human form. Of course, no one would ever believe that it wasn't more active in the life class than in most other places. Did they but know! I would not use my friend's word, spiritual, to describe the environment there, but whatever is a secular word or phrase meaning the opposite to a hot-bed of lewd fantasies would do very nicely.

Two life studies by a very underrated artist.
Above are: Titian's "Venus of Urbino" and Michelangelo's "Drunken Noah".

I have a vivid recollection of one of my fellow students, a small man, a bundle of energy, who believed fervently that to paint successfully it was necessary to be "sexually primed" - for which, of course, it was necessary to lead a life of celibacy. (In case you are wondering, he painted mostly tranquil landscapes and rather drab scenes of labouring men at work. Something akin to van Gogh's earliest canvases.) Whenever there was talk of boyfriends and girlfriends, he would excuse himself, saying: "I'm saving all my sex for my paintings". And he meant it. His enthusiasm for the life class (no threat to his chaste condition) was boundless.

So what then are (were?) the "official" reasons for the preeminence at art school of the life class?

  • Not, as many seem to believe, that the human form is more "difficult" to draw than other subjects. It is no more so than, say, a horse, a landscape or a lichen-covered rock. It is more challenging to draw, because we are human, we know what one of us should look like (within bounds), are sympathetic to our form and sensitive to variations in it. We know instinctively if something is not right, may not be able to analyze precisely what and may have to make do with "something funny about that arm", or some such vagueness. If Joe Average was to draw each of my four suggested subjects, he would likely finish with four paintings of roughly comparable quality - and be least satisfied with the nude (as would we be), for the human form would give the clearest feedback, would most clearly not be playing the artist's tune, and so would most clearly confirm the fact that genius level has not yet been reached. (Actually, the horse might be the most difficult of the four subjects, owing to its refusal to remain still!)

  • A good knowledge of anatomy is necessary to represent even clothed figures convincingly. The jacket will not look right unless it is painted with an understanding of the structure beneath, for it is that that gives it its form.

  • We are most readily motivated by, and engage with, the human form - back to sex again?

  • An understanding of the nude form, realistically portrayed, and in is various stylizations, is essential to an understanding of most of the great epochs and movements of art: Classical, Renaissance, Romantic, and not forgetting much primitive art. A hands-on approach is by far the best way to come to such an understanding. Certainly, any personal experience of the difficulties to be overcome, will contribute to a more rounded understanding of artistic achievement

Tuesday 8 January 2008

Coleridge and the man from Porlock : a thought

For as long as I can recall I have been fascinated by the nature of dream and the mechanisms of memory. I was reminded during the recent holiday period of the curious incident concerning Coleridge, his poem, Kubla Khan, (read the full text) and the person from Porlock, an incident in which these two interests of mine meet with my passion for poetry and the pull becomes almost irresistible. The reminder came in the form of a dream in which I was taken to a fancy dress ball where I was introduced to "Samuel Taylor Coleridge" and a faceless companion. I, with no hesitation at all, assumed this person to be the visitor from Porlock, though neither of them figured again in what was a lengthy and fairly involved dream, and no conversation passed between us beyond our very formal greetings.

Nether Stowey as it is today. Coleridge was staying at a farm nearby.

In a prefatory note to the first edition of his poem, Coleridge gives his account of the incident:- "In the summer of the year 1797, the author, then in ill health, had retired to a lonely farmhouse between Porlock and Lynton, on the Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devonshire. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne" (generally supposed to be two grains of opium) "had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same substance, in Purchas's Pilgrimage: 'Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were enclosed with a wall.' The author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external sense, during which time he has the most vivid confidence that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!"

Many scholars and others cannot accept this account. Robert Prinsk the American poet believes the story to be an invention. Coleridge, he suggests, 'like most writers', needed periods of procrastination and, like his fellow authors, was at pains to keep the fact a secret and not above constructing an untruth to cover it. Others think that Coleridge found his poem to be basically unsatisfactory and needed to excuse it in some way. On his own admission it is fragmentary and unfinished - possibly, some maintain, because he considered it flawed and wanted out. What better way than to have been interrupted whilst in the white heat of composition - for want of a better word?

I have some difficulty with these versions of events. On the one hand we have Coleridge waking from an (apparently) opium-induced dream with a complete poem remembered with such accuracy that no effort of composition was called for. We must suppose that, given no interruption, he would successfully have committed the whole two- to three-hundred lines to paper. The ability to recall a dream of that length in its entirety is, to say the least, exceptional. But to get it down on paper would have been more so. Had I got up in the early hours of the morning to jot down the details of my lengthy dream involving the fancy dress ball, I know what would have happened: the act of writing, as I recorded the early parts of the dream, would have caused the later parts to fade. It is only now, after I have carried the details around in my head for a while, that I would be able to transcribe it all - I think! But who am I to compare Coleridge's Rolls Royce of a memory with my old banger? Fair enough, but what I am saying is that the story does not work for me the way that dreams and memories normally work. And there is a further and more knotty problem: the intruder himself. Coleridge is generous with detail in his account, in everything except the matter of the key figure, the visitor, a person shrouded in mystery. I say 'himself', but the fact remains that we do not even know for sure that we are speaking of a man. The male gender has generally been assumed, but it could as easily have been a woman, or even a child. We do not know who or what this individual was to Coleridge or what was the business that detained them for so long. We know nothing about the intruder except that s/he was "a person from Porlock" - and why is that fact so important? The figure is blurred and does not seem to belong with the clarity of Coleridge's description of events leading up to its appearance. On the other hand, I can find no evidence to support the idea that Coleridge lied, and therefore, I do not think we should suggest that he did.

Where does that leave us? There does seem to me to be another possible scenario. It goes something like this :- With or without the agency of his "two grains of opium", Coleridge has some sort of day-dream or reverie, or he wakes from sleep with the dream (again, probably opium-induced though not necessarily so) still running in his mind, and as the vision unfolds he sits down to record the lines which appear like sub-titles to a film - or maybe they were spoken by a voice-over, for Coleridge's description would allow of either interpretation. Fifty lines or thereabouts into the manuscript there is a sound from outside; a horse and rider passing by, a drunken reveller making his merry way home (unlikely: the farmhouse is remote, remember) or there is a knock at the door, which Coleridge ignores. It is even possible that the vision was waning a bit at this point and that to refresh it Coleridge took another grain of opium. None of these conjectures are essential to the tale, though all are possible enough to make this version more likely. For whatever reason, which may or may not have been an extraneous one, this is the point at which the figure from Porlock makes its appearance, not in the flesh, but as a figment of the reverie, and we may suppose that it is this intrusion that pushes the vision off in a quite different direction, one that Coleridge cannot fit into the poem. It takes an hour or more to get rid of the intruder, i.e. for the reverie to run its course and for Coleridge to be free of it. At which point he again sits himself down and tries to recall the original vision, which he cannot, for it has been overlaid by the fresher, stronger one involving the mystery figure. Why "from Porlock"? We would have to know what significance Porlock held for Coleridge at this particular moment of time. And why no more information concerning the intruder? Because Coleridge knows no more; the dream tells the dreamer only what is relevant to its purposes.

Kubla Khan as it has come down to us is only 54 lines long. Because it was never completed, the phrases "Person from Porlock", "Man from Porlock", or just plain "Porlock", have become literary allusions to, or metaphors for, unwanted intruders or for anything that hinders or prevents an author from writing - including procrastination.

Sunday 6 January 2008

If it hasn't been reformed in the last fortnight, time for a change!

The overture seemed promising enough: in future, quality is to count for more than quantity, no longer will "they" be measuring how many people are involved in a project, but instead "they" will be feeling its shape, weighing its heft, judging its gravitas. Something like that, for now they are setting themselves to judge what is and what is not the genuine article. They are setting themselves to judge quality - and this from a government until now wedded to the notion that only those aspects which can be measured, put into tickable boxes or classified "right" or "wrong", have any true value, so forget the unquantifiable - and that not just in the arts, but, for example, in education, health, law and order also. Still, give them credit: the tunes coming out of the orchestra pit were delectable. Alas, the moment the curtain went back and the singers appeared on stage, the moment we could hear the words, the doubts crept in: in future arts funding will be going to those projects by which people might find "their meanings shaken up" or find themselves thinking "about the world in a different way." (The McMaster's criteria.) Mmmm. Would that be the same, I wondered, as Eliot's "blood shaking the heart"? Well, probably not; the meaning of such a phrase often lies, I have found, in the small matter of who said it. In this instance, James Purnell, minister for the arts is the speaker, so I would worry about who, exactly, is going to be the judge of whether the plays being staged at The Little Billingham Arts Centre are such that the good folk who frequent it are likely "to have their meanings shaken up and think about the world in a different way." I would also worry about The Arts Centre at Great Puffington where there hasn't been an avant-garde play in living memory, nor a concert of experimental music. Does that automatically mean that the offerings there are second rate? I am all for encouraging experiment and development in the arts, but I say again, who is to judge? Not politicians, I hope, for their C.Vs are loaded with evidence of philistinism. Nor QUANGOs, please! Is it just a coincidence that a reformist government wants to encourage reform in the arts, wants to shake people up? Could it not be the case that a very traditional piece might have qualities worth encouraging? Could it be that there are those abroad who would like to hijack the arts for their own political agendas? Or is that me being paranoid?

Picasso's Guernica

and The Baptism of Christ : Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci

To get an idea of the scale of the task they are setting themselves,
imagine that Verrocchio and Leonardo on the one hand, and Picasso on the other, are seeking funding. To decide, on the basis of these two paintings, which is the most deserving option, work out which painting most does it for you - i.e. shakes up the meanings! There you have it! Q.E.D.

Saturday 5 January 2008

Festive Hangover

This is one I had intended to post over Christmas and The New Year, but somehow didn't get around to doing so. Now it looks a bit like the Christmas decorations. Ah, well...

Those who have only known me in my more recent incarnations will not be able to imagine from what an impossible, not to say thoroughly unpleasant, youth this now charming senior citizen was sprung. Example: among my more vivid adolescent memories, schoolboy and art student, is one (a composite memory of many such occasions) in which I am mounting the steps to the hallowed portal of The Tate Gallery - now, of course, Tate Britain. Around me are couples and small groups of eager visitors, all enthusiastically (i.e. loudly) discussing the works they have come to see. But as we enter those august portals a hush descends. It is as if we had entered Westminster Abbey or St Paul's Cathedral. Inside, the couples and the small groups stand, often slightly bowed, before the graven images. Occasionally an individual will detach himself from his companion and step forward, point with a tiny circling motion of the forefinger to an insignificant brush mark in the bottom left-hand corner of a twenty-hectare canvas, look meaningfully back towards his companion, and then return, walking backwards (of course!), never turning his back upon the object of his veneration. Soon it becomes apparent that these high priests are mumbling before their deities. Prayers? Mantras? Incantations? And this is where I show how difficult I can be in civilized society: I take to eavesdropping. Naturally, having long since reached the age of discretion, I would not now dream of doing any such thing, but back then I move in, my excuse being that I hope to catch words of enlightenment from those guru-sounding individuals. That at any rate is my initial justification, though whether it is to remain my primary motive is debatable, for later I take to jotting down their words in my note/sketch books - obviously more for amusement than edification. And recently I came across one of those books. The following dialogues are, if you like, reconstructed from those brief notes:

The figures...
No, nothing's unimportant.
No, no, no. Nothing is what is important!
But difficult to paint.
More difficult to not paint, if you're him.
That sums his work up beautifully.
What's that?
Not painting. All his canvases are not-paintings.
Ah, so true!

I love this. You can tell what it was like on that beach, the colours tell you.
Hot, I should imagine!
No, everything is glowing. It is late evening.
The sun's high.
Yes, they are caught in a two-time narrative, like a Picasso caught from two viewpoints or in two perspectives.

His palette worries me.
Really? Too restricted?
No, the colours seem to clash a bit.
What, green and black?
Which one is the problem, do you think?
Both of them, really.

It's a puzzle, don't you think?
Or the answer to one - a Eureka.
He's saying life's a puzzle.
Or it's the answer.
To what?
That gets us nowhere.
Like life. Round and back to where we started.
Or he's feeling his way towards a formula...
Like E=MC2?
Could be, I suppose...

It's not "all", is it, do you think?
How you mean?
Art is togetherness. This is bittiness.
That's the bit bothers me... what is it?
A symbol.
Of what?
Not of. For.
Could be just a bit of paint...
Or a shadow even - what could a shadow symbolize? Or the shadow of an unseen symbol!

If so, it's not communicating, is it?
Not on one level.
Not on any.
Deliberately. He doesn't go beyond that point, see?
Which point?
The point of non-communication. That's where it stops.
So what's the point?
To say: thus far and no further.
But that's communicating.
On one level, yes. His level, the level he doesn't go beyond.

Thursday 3 January 2008

Life at the edge : unmaking your mind up

I recently had my attention drawn to a seriously interesting website with, in my opinion, a fatally serious omission. The address is that of The Edge Foundation, and this being the new year, and new year being a time for looking back to see where we screwed up, it is currently inviting men and women, all eminent in their respective fields, and all having recently undergone a change of mind - or heart - concerning some pivotal issue affecting we humans and our planet, to explain the reasons for the change. The issues raised are certainly pivotal, one being the limits to which the earth can go on soaking up the punishment we hand out to it. Alas, the fields in which these contributors are eminent seem equally limited - which is where in my view the site is lacking. They are just three: faith, philosophy and science. The contention is:
that when God is responsible for changing your mind that's faith,
when thinking changes your mind that's philosophy
and when some new facts change your mind that's science.
As I read, the thought struck me: What if some form of beauty were to change a person's mind, wouldn't that be art? Or poetry? Or music? Or is such an eventuality not considered possible?

Some may feel uncomfortable with the word "beauty" being used to represent the entire output of the process we call art, and indeed, it is not the only possible outcome. Some would demote it and maintain that it should not even be regarded as a legitimate end result. And sometimes it may not be, for occasionally the end result will be the very antithesis of beauty. Nevertheless, I find the word to be a useful generic term which can be taken to include truth, though I do not use that word here as it is also claimed by the man of faith, the scientist and the philosopher. However, please feel free to replace the offending word with whichever word or phrase rocks your particular boat. (Some might prefer a more neutral choice, such as "thought-provoking work" or "artifact". Others might go for something like "movement" (in the case of dance), "shape, colour and pattern"(in the case of painting), etc.

So if I could have my way and beauty (or one of its derivatives) be added to the three thought-changing entities on the website, on what issues might it force a rethink? Two spring instantly to mind, two matters on which, if I have not yet quite changed my mind, I am less sure than once I was. They are both old chestnuts - but old chestnuts can be hard nuts to crack. The first is trivial by comparison to the concerns on The Edge website and appertains only to art and specifically to so-called concept art: is it a con; or is it (as I am still inclined to think) a branch of, or an alternative to, philosophy; or is it in some way still in a long tradition of great art in the past? And here let us nail one frequent misconception: the phrase "concept art" is not applied to the end result to signify that the artist is putting across to us some new concept that has just struck him; rather it refers to the process, and implies a new concept of art.

My second thought is the one with which I opened: does art have a use, a value to the community, perhaps even to the planet? Is it capable of effecting significant change in us, in our take on major issues, could it bring about a meaningful U-turn somewhere, in someone? Or is it basically useless in the face of the ultimate stakes of survival versus the unthinkable?

I end on a serious note because the Edge is a serious site which I am sure you will find well worth a visit.