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Saturday, 30 August 2008

Heads, Tails, Both or Neither

Only for tails read hearts. Very familiar in the world of art - or art myth - is the person who knows what he likes, of whom it is often said that, what he really means is he likes what he knows. And why not? How is anyone to like what they don't know? Which begs the point of the remark being made of him, which is that he is too set and does not try to go beyond what he knows to other riches that art, literature, whatever, might have to offer him.

Art, music, poetry all sing when the intellect understands what it is it is looking at or listening to and when at the same time the heart embraces it and feels its way into it. When' in fact, the critical faculties and the emotions respond together. But there is no need to wait for that glorious occasion, no need to be limited to it. It is possible to admire a work of art, for example, without being able to love it, without being able to embrace it, as I have put it, with the feelings. At this moment in time the public is being asked to raise - or at the very least, to approve the raising of, a large sum of money (£50 million each) to save at least part of a valuable art collection from being sold abroad. The pride of the collection are two of Titian's finest: Diane and Actaeon and Diane and Collisto. (The image shows his painting The Holy Family and Palm Tree another from the collection .) I admire the work of Titian greatly: I can appreciate a whole spectrum of aesthetic qualities, I acknowledge that he was a great master in his field, but the works do not sing for me. That is a fault in me. Whatever it is that a Titian painting resonates with in other people is missing from me. Yet I shall be mortally disappointed if they are lost to the nation. Milton's Paradise Lost I would put in the same category, along with much (but not all) of Browning. Certain works do it for me, others do not. But judgement - hopefully - need not be affected.

On the other hand it is equally possible to love without qualification a work and yet not be able to fully comprehend it with the intellect.The first time I read W.S. Graham's The White Threshold, I think it is true to say that my intellect made nothing of it at all, yet it lept from the page telling me that whatever it was, it was not nothing. The heart saw something in it, feelings were aroused and responded to it. (I wouldn't want you to run away with the idea that all Graham's work is like this: there are more beautiful poems and there are certainly many less difficult ones - most of them in fact. My illustration is limited to this one example.) Indeed, the whole of this poem is not like this. These are the first two verses of a first section of six verses, half a page of a poem of perhaps seven pages, five sections in all:

Let me always from the deep heart
Drowned under behind my brow so ever
Stormed with other wandering, speak
Up famous fathoms well over strongly
The pacing whitehaired kingdoms of the sea.

I walk towards you and you may not walk away.

Always the welcome-roaring threshold
So ever bell worth my exile to
Speak up to greet me into the hailing
Seabraes seabent with swimming crowds
All cast all mighty water dead away.

I rise up loving and you may not move away.

Graham can leave you mentally wallowing in his wake, while you are at the same time being dazzled by the something you cannot catch up with. The trick, I think, is not to worry about the meaning. Least of all should you attempt a prose translation of it. That is an absolutely fatal mistake. It will take you nowhere but away from the poetic meaning of the piece. Meanings will come with reflection and re-readings. I am still at that stage with The White Threshold. Other once-difficult poems have revealed themselves more easily. I recall the first time I heard Chinese poetry recited aloud in its original tongue. I was in my teens. Obviously, I did not find it intellectually satisfying, but the feelings clicked in. I thought it was beautiful.

But what if there is no contact, either with the mind or the emotions? I have written earlier - as I know Jim has - about the personal difficlties that arise when you can make no sense of a work on which other people, whose abilities and judgements you respect absolutely, are lavishing great praise. What do you do? What do you tell yourself? That all these people of sound judgement (so you believe) are deluded? I have this problem with Tracey Emin and the now famous (or infamous) bed - which I take as an example, for I have the same problem with most of her work. And it is this: I can see what she is at, so to that extent the brain is engaged, but it does not respond because she has done nothing with it, it is still, in my opinion, raw material. It is not a found item, yet she has not sublimated it. (Yes, I know, I have changed the usage of the word sublimate, applying it to an object, rather than an impulse, but it is as near as I can get to saying what I want to say.) I see what she sets out to do, but cannot see that she has done it, or even tried to do it. She has not turned her material into a work of art. Sadly, neither does she speak to me through the emotions, not beyond the feelings that she arouses, the normal human feelings that all must surely have when we hear about the troubles of her early upbringing and the traumas they have left her with in adult life. But as attributes of a would-be work of art they do not speak, for the very same reasons that prevent it working on me intellectually. But there are these many people whom I admire who absolutely rave about her work. So what is a poor bewildered chap to think?

I have an almost equal difficulty with someone like Francis Bacon, not because the raw material has not been processed, for it obviously has, but because the point of it is lost on me. I join the ranks of the philistines and ask: why does he have to paint nothing but what I can only interpret as ugly and evil, a distortion of reality that does not seem to portray any hidden truth? If you do not know his work, click on the link I have given to see one of his portraits in the famous/infamous Screaming Popes series.These are a real difficulty for some, but how would a person think about the Pope, the ultimate authority, who was a 100% dyed-in-the-wool atheist and card-carrying homosexual who had been brought up in Ireland? Interestingly, he expresses my heart/head dichotomy in rather different terms: Some paint comes across directly to the nervous system, other paint tells you the story in a long diatribe through the brain. He was not interested in the latter. Art for him was completely visceral or it was nothing. You coud not talk about an image; if you explained or analysed it, you rendered it worthless. The distortions that most satisfied him were those he took from medical books, of bodies twisted into grotesque shapes. And yet he is perhaps the most popular English artist since Turner - but turner painted pleasant landscapes, stuff the public like to see. recently a study for a figure by Bacon went for £14million. The critics (mostly) adore him. What am I missing?

The two images given here to the right and above depict two of his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, the next three are works by a great hero of mine, Graham Sutherland, a painter in the best traditions of English landscape painting. The first of the Sutherlands is Boulder in a Landscape, on the extreme right is Thorn Head and lower down Entrance to a Path. You may think there is a superficial affinty, a blood brothership almost between the Bacons and the Sutherlands.

Many have remarked upon it when I have professed to being moved in heart and mind by the Sutherlands, whilst being left out in the cold by the Bacons.

To me the difference is all, the resemblances merely show the importance that motive makes to the all-important processing of the work.
Yet maybe it is a blind spot that I have. Maybe, maybe.... but to return to my original contrast: there is an important similarity (and difference) as between Bacon's work and Emin's. The similarity relates to their childhoods. Emin's I think is well known. It was, as I have said, traumatic.The nature of the trauma was that of not being wanted - or at east believing that she was not wanted, a trauma still unresolved. In Bacon's case three facts are critical: the first that he was an ugly child, told he was ugly by his parents; the second that he would often visit his grandmother whose second husband would cut off the claws of cats and feed them to the dogs before tying the cats up by their legs and torturing them; the third critical fact is that Bacon discovered he enjoyed witnessing this. Given the emotionally vulnerable nature of a young boy, it is not difficult to see how this last could happen. It perhaps was not pure enjoyment that he felt, but there was something there in his feelings that he could not deal with, perhaps has never been able to deal with, is still trying to deal with. It has been said that these figures at the base of the crucifixion are animals with human physical characteristics, because we are animals. The truth it portrays is that of our ugliness towards each other and ourselves.

But it is, as I say, when a work of art speaks directly and 100% to both head and heart that we experience the sublime. Let me therefore give an example of a poem that does that for me. (I confine my literary examples to poetry partly from personal preference and partly because the point is more easily and thoroughly made than would be posssible with, say, a novel.) I have chosen T.S. Eliot's Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets (read all) Here are the first two of the three verses that make up Part 1.


Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart's heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul's sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time's covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
Zero summer?

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world's end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city—
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

I have to confess that I find that sublime. And my final is image is of a sculpture that I find equally magnificent: The Horseman by Marino Marini.


Rachel Fox said...

Interesting post Dave and I particularly like this whole business of saying 'I don't get why people rate this' (rather than nodding along with everyone else and keeping quiet as we watch what looks to us very much like an emperor dancing by naked...).

However...whilst I see the issue here I don't find it confusing. People just have different tastes and ways of judging...for so many reasons to do with how we learned, what we know, what we don't know, what we've lived, what we're made of. This kind of statement is not popular with those who think they know good from bad but that doesn't stop me feeling this way. I think it's important to try and recognise who we are as readers/viewers/listeners and then we can understand (to some extent) why we like what we like. After that we can also understand (to some extent) why we don't like certain works of art too. And after all that we can start to surprise ourselves now and again by liking and enjoying something we never thought we would!

One other point - with art like Emin's her personality is a huge part of her success (rightly or wrongly) and it remains to be seen whether the work will have any appeal after she is gone! It's not a new phenomenom either (how much of Eliot's success was/is his HUGE personality too?). We may try to divorce the artist from the art (I know Jim writes on this a fair bit) but it is harder than we sometimes think and even when we're sure we have done it...have we really? Not always.

Dave King said...

Mmmm... a lot of thought-provoking stuff there, Rachel. Nothing that I would disagree with, but a lot I need to think about. I go part way with you in terms of why we like or dislike certain things, but what when we don't actually dislike it, but can't see what others see?

Rachel Fox said...

I think partly it's that we all look for different things, have different priorities, have different ideas of what makes something art at all.

Dave King said...

I'm sure there is a lot in that. I think your point about HUGE personalities has much to be said for it, also.

hope said...

Perhaps sometimes it's the moment in time in which you view art that determines your interpretation. That could be age related, possessing a mind which is still growing or a mood where you may be moved this time, but not the next. That said, sometimes it's simply personal choice in that, "What the heck is THAT suppose to be/do/make me feel?" Even that is a reaction, although probably not always the one the artist desires.

I think if something moves us, there are times we won't be able to explain why. Perhaps later on as we grow, we'll discover what the "why" turned out to be.

I fall somewhere in the middle: I know what I like and why yet I try to look at ALL of it with an open mind. Sure, I may giggle sometimes, but I try not to do it in public. :)

Lucy said...

I've identified the feeling I get when I read one of these posts of yours as gratitude, that you take so much time and trouble and honest effort to articulate so much, and to confront what's difficult about so many of these ideas. I think you speak for a lot of us who don't feel a virtuoso confidence in our opinions and responses, but that it's worth the trouble to try to understand thigs better, rather than being smug and assured either in ignorance or superiority.

I don't think there's ever just one right response to any work of art anyway.

There's a bit in one of the later novels in AS Byatt's Frederica quartet, I forget which, when Frederica is watching some vaguely situationist 'happening' art of the 1960s, which attracts her interest, but she finds herself thinking, 'There is not *enough* point to this', and I think I often feel that about much conceptual stuff, it's something of a one trick pony; Damian Hirst's shark as the thought of death in the living mind is a very powerful and memorable image, but then that's it, understood. It could be written in a sentence and save a lot of formaldehyde.

I suppose I sometimes think too that avant gardists want to have their cake and eat it, inasmuch as they want a shocked, perplexed, troubled and therefore sometimes angry reaction from people they see as smug and reactionary, but get upset when they receive one, vis Tracey Emin's storming out on John Humphrey's when she said he was rude to her. In fact I'd have thought she should have been delighted by his response.

Similarly, though not as petulantly, Peter Maxwell-Davies was terribly upset that many people found his music completely unlistenable and left the performance, whereas his friend Harrison Birtwhistle said cheerfully that in effect he couldn't care less, he was doing what he wanted and if people didn't like it, tough, which seems to me more to be having the courage of one's convictions.

There, I didn't mean to write that much...

I really like tha WS Graham piece you quoted, and I'll copy the award thing tomorrow, thanks!

Jim Murdoch said...

I have just sat down to read your excellent and thought-provoking post after watching the first episode of Channel 4's new series The Sculpture Diaries and while I'm writing this I'm listening for the first time to Dyson's Violin Concerto a work I acquired simply because the reviewer rated it higher than Britten's. So, I was very much in the right frame of mind for your piece.

Taste is very much the issue here. But let me digress. I don't like Guinness. I was told by a good friend of mine that it was an acquired taste and I would not like my first pint but to persist and its sublime beauty would be revealed to me. So I allowed him to cart me all the way down to Troon of all places to a tiny pub with a roaring fire – I believe the fire was the attraction – where he supported me through three pints of the stuff. But, no, it wasn't to be.

A number of years later, hoping that my taste buds had matured, I decided to attempt the exercise once more and so, supported by my most current best friend, I tried to down a half-pint of the stuff one lunchtime. The effect was the same.

Occasionally my wife will have a glass of the stuff but I've never been tempted to try a third time in fact, when we visited Dublin as few years back, we must have been one of the few visitors not to take the tour of the Guinness factory. End of digression.

My point is that, with all the will in the world, I was physically incapable of enjoying Guinness in exactly the same way as I struggle with opera. I've been listening to quite a bit of choral music of late but I so hate when the soloists appear and (and I use the word reservedly here) spoil the piece.

I am bitterly opposed to the fact that works of art carry the stain of the artist as in Emin's My Bed. I know next to nothing about Dyson. I could look him up but so often the knowledge I've had of an artist or writer has soiled the work for me. It may well be that Dyson wrote the concerto for his poor ailing gran and that's fine but the work is all that remains. We know next to nothing of the Aphrodite of Milos; we know where it was dug up and how it made its way to Paris; it's conjecture that it is the work of Alexandros of Antioch and that the work is a representation of the goddess Aphrodite but the fact is all we have is what stands in the Louvre Museum. Personally I don't know what all the fuss is about.

Yesterday, Carrie and I listened to the Proms and the first piece was Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and I told her how I first discovered the piece (I would have been about thirteen) and how utterly bowled over I was by it. When it was done she said it was boring. Boring!? How the hell could she think it was boring? It was sublime. "No," she said, "It doesn't do anything for me." The point for me is that the piece made an emotional connection with me at the right time like few pieces do these days. We're onto the last movement of the Dyson right now and it's very nice, and it probably is better than the Britten but I'll have to dig out my Britten to check but it's nothing like the Khachaturian or the Berg or the Barber but then I heard them when I was much younger. Now I own bookcases full of music and it has to be something else to make me sit up and take notice and I'm always on the lookout for it. I want to be excited again.

With Carrie is was Schubert's Imprompu D.899 No. 3 which "perfectly spoke to [her] angst". Now she listens to it and wonders why she got so excited.

Art doesn't change but we do, every seven years I'm led to believe so maybe one day I will scratch my head when I read 'Mr. Bleaney' – I'm only glad learning as much as I have about the man who wrote it hasn't tarnished the piece in any way for me.

Interestingly, I prefer the Bacon to the Sutherland – although I do like his portrait of Churchill – but the Titian does nothing for me. £50,000,000 could be much better spent. To my mind great art has to be about more than technical brilliance. I don't see the Titian as relevant today; it's value is historical, I don't deny it that.

Dave King said...

I think for me the moment has it: one of the things that bothers me about tracey Emin is the wayI respond to her differently at different times, depending, I think, on the perspective that I have at that moment. All the same, my inconsistency bothers me not a little.

Dave King said...

I am flattered by your remarks about gratitude. No need to feel that: much of the time I am writing for my own benefit. How do I know what I think until I see it written down? that sort of thing. I do entirely take your point about the lack of purpose in some conceptual work - and some other avant-garde work. The concept often seems trivial and not worth the effort. We will all die, that type of thing.

Dave King said...

Thanks for your response. Better than Britten? There must be some mistake, surely! I've always assumed we'd have to wait for the next world for that!
I'm with you so far as the Guiness is concerned, but whether art is all a matter of taste I am not so sure. It's effect is very personal, certainly, but is that the same thing? Has art a duty to be liked? Can it not be like a sermon, which you aren't supposed to like, for obvious reasons?
I do agree that a work of art should be an artist-free zone, that the work should stand or fall by itself without reference to the artist's life. Indeed, I am working on a post which will include consideration of Dylan Thomas, whose main work I believe to have been eclipsed by the popularity of his lesser work which has fed the Bohemian myth that he so encouraged. However, what when the artist is the work?
Yes, the Sutherland portrait was superb. Did you know that Churchill's widow destroyed it immediately after his death because she thought it grotesque?

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm going to have to give the Dyson another couple of listens for sure. I thought it was a good way to illustrate the one-man's-meat point of view you were on about. I have to say I don't revere Britten as much as others but it's not as if we Britons are exactly falling over violin concertos or anything. Okay, Elgar, Stanford, Walton, Delius, Rubbra, Fricker, Moeran amongst others all had a crack at one but we don't really rank among the great violin concerto composers of the world and every one of the above composers is better known for other works.

As for whether art has a duty to be liked I have to say that it does not. It's like the book I've just read (In the Wake by Per Petterson) which is about survivor guilt, this is not a book one likes – that is the wrong word completely. I appreciated the book but it was a painful read. I couldn't even call it an enriching read because it was more of a drain on me than anything else. Art should have a purpose. Yes. That purpose should be to affect its audience. It is helpful when the audience is aware in which way it is meant to be affected and that's where works like My Bed cause controversy because everyone is affected differently and who is to know which way is right or if indeed there is a right way? Did Emin have a clear intent when she created the piece? It doesn't matter. A great work doesn't need – if I can use a musical analogy again – liner notes.

I look forward to seeing what you have to say on Dylan Thomas. He's a poet I've tended to steer clear of although I did sit through Richard Burton's film of Under Milk Wood a few years back.

And, yes, I did know what happened to the Sutherland portrait of Churchill. Stupid woman.

Rachel Fox said...

Emin writes a column in the Independent as you probably know. On 25th July she wrote about her work and I really enjoyed reading that piece (tried to link it - wouldn't work...it is still online) and it did help me understand why some people in the art world do take her seriously. I can't speak for the work as I've never seen any of it up close but my Mum went to the Edinburgh show recently and said something like 'Well, dear some of the drawings are so small I couldn't see what they were...a pair of knickers or whatever...'

Dave King said...

I give in: I've never even heard of Rubbra, Fricker or Moeran. At least, I don't think I have. I certainly couldn't tell you anything about them or recall any music by them.

It's an interesting point as to whether tracey had any aim in mind when she installed her bed. I would guess that she did. She is so self-absorbed where her work is concerned, I do get the feeling that she always has an angle.

Dave King said...

I do ead her articles in The Independent and sometimes find them interesting, even moving, and sometimes not. You mentioned her personality in an earlier comment; the thing I find strange is that she seems two different people, two distinct personalities: the concept artist and the journalist. Also she never (hardly) writes about art but always arts (if I can coin such an ugly word, just this once) about herself.

Rachel Fox said...

I don't think I would ever call her a journalist. The column is a personal diary really (a bit like a sketchbook in words) and sometimes it's pretty annoying (when the self-absorption/self-obsession has nothing much to say). Other times though I have found it very interesting and even moving (once in a while).

I think she's the kind of person and artist it's very easy to hate (so loud! so brash! so successful! women should be seen and not heard etc.) but there is something about her that I do find interesting. Again, I can't speak for the artworks themselves...I think that in this era of art it does seem to be the artist who shouts the loudest and dares the most ('can I get away with this...will some fool pay for it?') who wins (at least for now). But also visual art is not my strong point and there are only a handful of artists that I could say much about! That's one reason I come and read what you have to say...

Dave King said...

Yes, I withdraw the word journalist, I didn't like it at the time, but used it as a shorthand really, for her articles. She is loud and brash - though sometimes in her writing, she is not - and she is crude. It is in that she fails (for me)as there seems to be no artistic reason to be crude. But that may be a prejudice of mine. As to only artists get away with it, I think that may be because in poetry (for instance) the original thrust away from the old order was not maintained: the experiments of Pound and Eliot were largely ditched and poets directed back to the leather bound volumes of yesteryear. Now there's a provocation, if you like!

Rachel Fox said...

Sorry Dave..I didn't mean visual artists get away with shouting and daring more than other types of artists (e.g. poets). I just meant e noisy visual artists who seem to do well in that field (and I have to say Hirst gets under my skin more than Emin, every time). Like rock stars...As for our Trace...I don't find her any more crude than a lot of the current visual artists around...it is fashion, to an extent...bottle your own blood and all that.
As for poets...I think some experiment more and some less these days but Eliot for certain does not seem forgotten I read about him every day on some blog or other). I think one problem now for poets and visual artists and all artists really is..what is there left to try that really has not been done? It's not something I personally worry about a whole lot but I think for those of an experimental bent...where next and with what? That's why some of it can seem so...empty or simplistic I think.

Rachel Fox said...

That comment looks a bit experimental on the reread. Too much cutting and pasting!

Dave King said...

No, the comment's fine, and I did take your point about shouting.
I am in the early stages of a post which will include (if I ever manage to get there)a reference to Dylan Thomas and his experiments with poetry as a metalanguage. Those experiments have not been recognised, in part because of the popularity of his not-so-experimental works and the even more popular Bohemian status he achieved.
The only poet to have carried them forward has been W.S.Graham who achieved a great deal of umpopularity for his pains.
I agree that Eliot is not forgotten, but think he probably deserves his renown for the other poets he gave exposure to.

Conda Douglas said...

My father was an artist, so I can empathize with the struggle artists have to express their art their way while still connecting with the viewer. Dad was famous for his work with the Navajo and his sandpaintings, some from the Navajo ceremonies and all painted with natural sands.

Some people love his work, some hate it. This includes critics. And almost no one, including the critics, could say why.

I think, however, that sometimes it's difficult to be original and still stay within a language that others respond to--besides with yuck.

Same is true, as you point out so well, for poetry or, I believe any other type of endeavor. (I agree with you, Bacon leaves me cold as does Thomas Pynchon.)

Thanks for the thought-provoking and fascinating post, Dave!

Marion McCready said...

I love that W.S. Graham piece you posted. I've found that seeing art in 'real life' can make a big difference also - I love Picasso, went to the Picasso museum in Paris and now I love his work even more. I also really like Turner but a couple of years back I went to see an exhibition of his seascapes and found myself a little disappointed - they just didn't seem as powerful as I expected them to be.

Dave King said...


Your dad I imagine was working outside all the usual terms of reference, so people responded instinctually. That's very difficult for some people to do - as it must have been for your father. Some have not the confidence to do it and want to be led to water, to know what they should like. As long as artists don't get too often on there high horses, though, they are quite capable of getting there - so I believe, at any rate.

Dave King said...

I am planning a post (mainly) on Dylan Thomas and Graham. I'm not sure if I'll ever get it to an acceptable standard, but here's hoping.

I don't know about the exhibition you saw, of course, but to me it's the late Turners that are so powerful. The early ones don't give much indication of what was to come.