Untitled

Sun swept,

Cataclysm,

Drumbeats,

She sings.

So cool,

In the video,

Doesn’t smile,

She delights.

Who cares,

No numbers,

No belongings,

She charms.

Just the taste of wine,

Her pretty face,

To remember,

She bewitches.

The music plays,

The crowd screams,

Nothing changes

She stops.

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Smoke

She smoked.

Cigarettes are death, I said.

She smiled. Yes, she said, blowing smoke into my face, I suppose so.

She paused.

What does it feel like?

Warm, I said.

That’s the appeal of death.

It was a peculiar way of putting it but I understood what she meant. I had nothing to say in response so I stood there, leaning against the stone wall like a dog without a bone, voyeuristically watching as she slowly killed herself.

She took one last draw and stubbed the cigarette delicately on the flat surface of the wall until all the embers had turned to cold ash. She walked over to the bin and dropped the paper carcass into a refuse of crap. Death adjourned.

What are you up to, she asked.

Nothing much, I said.

The wind snaked through her hair.

Nothing to live for?

Only the moment.

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Art as Therapy

The writer Alain de Botton and philosopher John Armstrong want you to reconsider what you understand about art. It is not just an aesthetic, it is not just an asset and it is not just a critique of the zeitgeist. It is so much more.

They see it as a powerful form of therapy, a suitable non-medicinal way of alleviating ‘our most immediate and ordinary dilemmas’. Both Botton and Armstrong believe that certain works of art – it isn’t necessarily applicable for every painting, sculpture or installation ever conceived – can deliver momentous solutions to what woe has befallen us.

Art, as we know, has a limited audience with respects to other cultural fields, despite its universal appeal and the fact that it is a manifestation of a human need for expression. Perhaps this is where it goes wrong, Botton discusses in a recent article for the Huffington Post.

Our high regard for art – it is inextricably linked to the human existence, the meaning of life – renders it useless. He argues that upon leaving a gallery or museum, the likely emotional response is less than favourable. We are underwhelmed, bewildered and left asking “why the transformational experience we anticipated did not occur”.

We consider ourselves to be at fault, a consequence of a decided lack of knowledge about anything to do with art and/or because we are somehow emotionally or spiritually lacking, an error in our DNA leaving us somewhat nonplussed.

“I allege that the problem is not primarily located in the individual,” he discussed last month. “It lies in the way that art is taught, sold and presented by the artistic establishment. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the public’s relationship to art has been weakened by a profound institutional reluctance to address the question of what art is for. This is a question that has, quite unfairly, come to feel impatient, illegitimate, and a little impudent.”

Along with Armstrong, Botton sees it as more than just ‘art for art’s sake’ – the subtext being what else is there to do?  - and considers it as akin to a tool, which can be utilised in such a way as to “inspire, console, redeem, guide, comfort, expand and reawaken us”.

Utter tosh some may argue, but that’s the kind of retort that both the authors are actively aware of. They are actively courting rebukes because this indicates the problem of monopolised and singular thinking about what art is.

That, of course is troublesome, but this is where their book Art as Therapy comes in. It is a seed for new discourse and a spark for unhinging art from its restrained orthodoxy, thereby revealing its ‘latent therapeutic potential’.

For example, let us take the banality of work, an affliction many of us know all too well. It is difficult doing the same trite thing every day but not impossible – we do it regardless, shackled by our own ineptitude, societal prejudice, economic inequalities and the inability to roll lucky dices. It is a dull pain our souls find insufferable.

Convalesce from this ache by examining Pieter de Hooch’s At the Linen Closet (1663). Botton and Armstrong propose that the painting by the Dutch artist moves us because ‘we recognise the truth of its message’, which is the value of routine.

“It gives voice to the right attitude: the big themes of life – the search for prosperity, happiness, good relationships – are always grounded in the way we approach little things,” the authors suggest.

“The statue above the door is a clue. It represents money, love, status, vitality, adventure. Taking care of the linen (and all that stands for) is not opposed to these grander hopes. It is, rather, the way to them. We can learn to see the allure of those who look after it, ourselves included.”

It may come across as New Age, but the remedial strength of art has always existed. What has been absent is a language to describe this, a set of beliefs to lend from when visiting a gallery or museum. Art as Therapy is not new, but what Botton and Armstrong have achieved is a lucid book that helps articulate another magical side of art.

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Good English

beyond what you see

“Today, during a break from feeling, I reflected on the style of my prose. Exactly how do I write? I had, like many others, the perverted desire to adopt a system and a norm. It’s true that I wrote before having the norm and the system, but so did everyone else.

“Analysing myself this afternoon, I’ve discovered that my stylistic system is based on two principles, and in the best tradition of the best classical writers I immediately uphold these two principles as general foundations of all good style: 1) to express what one feels exactly as it is felt – clearly, if it is clear; obscurely, if obscure; confusedly, if confused – and 2) to understand that grammar is an instrument and not a law.” Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet.

Read more on what I think about Good English here:

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X

Want you, always,

Though isn’t that impossible?

Nothing lasts, they say,

Life is death.

But, true love, you,

My sweetheart,

Refuses to be bound,

By nature.

Forever is as real,

As a Sunday morning.

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Picasso and Truth

Picasso and Truth

John Gray, one of the greatest thinkers of his generation, wrote last year that “truth is determined by reference to how an idea accords with the projects to which the speaker is committed”.

Truth is something we’re all looking for, although, if you’re a fan of Gray or share his sentiments – the author John Banville describes him as being “against all proponents of the grand idea” – you’d have to accept that ultimately this is an illogical pursuit.

Nevertheless, while we can only ever know nothing thanks to Socrates, if all pursuits are ultimately redundant, the days have to be filled. What better way to occupy oneself, professionally or leisurely, than in finding the spark that lit the big bang?

However, what Gray’s assertion reveals is that ultimately no universal truth can ever be realised, as for each of us, our interpretation of the life we’re living, the world that has come before us and the unwritten future is constrained. Or, it’s as we would wish it to be.

For T J Clark, a professor of art history emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, historians and critics have, in their over-romanticism of Pablo Picasso, failed to deliver an accurate portrait of the Spanish artist.

He describes, for example, with brute confidence and credible vigour, that almost every attempt to understand Picasso has been “abominable” and that most if not all biographies on him are akin to “second-rate celebrity literature”.

This undercurrent of dissent and contempt runs through his persuasive and brilliant book Picasso and Truth: From Cubism to Guernica, which reassesses his work during the twenties and thirties.

For Clark, the only way in which you can understand one of the titans of modern art is to do away with biography altogether, to reduce Picasso to a mortal man who stood in front of a canvas and shook up the art world with his symphonic, affecting and poetic brushstrokes.

The expert, whose books include The Absolute Bourgeois: Artists and Politics in France, 1848–1851 and Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism, fails to see any merit in the sensational aspects of Picasso’s life, be it the heartbreak or celebrity he achieved.

His riposte to art history is tremendous but he is not without his shortcomings. His ruthlessness is a little too parochial, but it does what all good works should do: fire up debate, a dialectical conversation. It’ll never get us to the truth, because what then? What will happen to Picasso?

Clark knows what he is doing and while he has certainly ruffled a few feathers in the art world – in particular the art historian John Richardson, a renowned Picasso biographer – one expects that he will relish any counterarguments to his assertions. Arrive at your own truth.

“The fact that for a long time Cubism has not been understood and that even today there are people who cannot see anything in it means nothing,” Picasso once said.

“I do not read English, an English book is a blank book to me. This does not mean that the English language does not exist. Why should I blame anyone but myself if I cannot understand what I know nothing about?”

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John Constable’s The Hay Wain vandalism opens up a debate on how to protest

The Hay Wain

Free people are at liberty to protest, to make statements in support of a legitimate cause, to be able generate materials that express their unhappiness and to be able to hold people in power – be it an organisational level or way up to the world leaders and governments – to account.

“Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence,” said Leonardo da Vinci, expressing the need for humans, as a species, to stand up for what they believe in, so long as it falls within the parameters of decency.

The power of protest is only too evident as of late, with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians taking to the streets of the country to express their discontent at President Mohammed Morsi’s apparent stranglehold on power.

Equally, from another vantage point, the former NSA and CIA employee turned whistleblower Edward Snowden has been engaged in his own form of remonstration, delivered through the leaking of sensitive documents, a decision which he made in good conscience but has left him stateless.

As both of these examples demonstrate, when we protest, the divide between what is justifiable and what constitutes a step too far is more often than not difficult to gauge. In Mr Snowden’s case, many journalists and intellectuals in favour of transparency have declared their support for the analyst, while many politicians in the US consider him to have engaged in espionage.

How then do we approach the damage incurred by John Constable’s masterpiece The Hay Wain, which was vandalised by a member of the quasi-lobbying and protest group Fathers4Justice?

The painting, which hangs in the National Gallery in London, was attacked by Paul Douglas Manning, who glued the image of his young boy to the 1821 landscape painting. It had the word ‘help’ written across it. He had recently lost a child custody appeal.

“We have reached a tipping point in the campaign,” a spokesman for the group said in an statement that also revealed its intentions to abandon its five-year “attempted engagement with the political establishment”.

“For every 1,000 families destroyed each week in the family courts, fathers should respond in kind with peaceful non violent direct action, by either writing ‘help’ or placing pictures of their children in significant places where they are visible to the world,” the official went on to say.

“We can no longer stem the tide of desperation and anger of fathers who have had their families destroyed and their hopes betrayed by a government that promised equal parenting but only delivered desperation.”

While the despondency of such individuals is understandable, and the right to protest upheld, there is a considerable amount of confusion as to how to effectively articulate the feeling that they have been consistently let down by the rule of law.

Fathers4Justice’s argument that it is following in the footsteps of the suffragettes is confused. An attack on a work of art that is abstract from a political and social disagreement is unhelpful and likely to have the opposite effect as to what was intended.

It certainly raises the group’s profile, provides them with ample media coverage, but divides the public much more than it unites them. The vandalism, which luckily has left no lasting damage to the iconic work, elicits not so much anger but mystification.

Constable’s work, in particular, is abstract from the debate and therefore, while its deliberate damage caused a stir, it seems utterly irresponsible. After all, art is a conduit through which humans engage with the world, make sense of it and reinvent it.

Art can be used as an effective tool for protest, which is something the group may want to ruminate over. To desecrate any work is to hold siege to one’s own sense of liberty and justice.

All that said, when you are at a loss, the machinations of government doing everything to make your existence harder, to estrange you from your child in this instance, the crime of vandalism is nothing compared to the affronts faced by many dads.

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Art matters

Spending cuts… how about that for an opening line? Such an awkward turn of phrase loaded with pessimism or in the case of governments all around the world “the inevitable and unpreventable course of action required to one day usher in a golden era”.

Sir Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate Galleries, is someone who positively cringes at the thought of cuts across the arts, stating recently that some organisations operating within this sphere are already facing “starvation conditions”.

Some people think of all forms of art as a “cultural frill, a piece of social veneer” as Susanne K. Langer ironically captured in her 1966 essay The Cultural Importance of the Arts. How people forget.

“Every culture develops some kind of art as surely as it develops language,” she wrote. “Some primitive cultures have no real mythology or religion, but all have some art [yet] the ancient ubiquitous character of art contrasts sharply with the prevalent that is a luxury product of civilisation”.

It is reflective of the spiritual discontent of a species preoccupied with a confused economic understanding of humanity, a wisdom that is the true incarnation of the fictional and perennially corrupt Gordon Gekko’s post-recession motto of “money never sleeps”.

“To say we can’t afford to have the arts as part of our lives is an admission of defeat as a nation and society,” Sir Nicholas expounded to the Financial Times. Yet, here we are, on the precipice of another cut, akin to a blunt nail in a canvas pulled down with malice intent.

It is easy to argue that art and culture endures, except not as we understand it. Mass entertainment therefore makes up for the absence of what aficionados argue is a catastrophic void.

While it is a legitimate point, and a contemporary concept of art and culture, there is still a discernible neglect. To play the devil’s advocate here, consider it from an economic point of view. The secretary of state for culture, media and sport Maria Miller says that the Treasury fails to recognise the value of arts and culture. In fact, there are rumours that the department might be scrapped altogether.

Art, it can reasonably be inferred, is inconsequential, posh doodles, elaborate sounds and certainly not a money maker. One need only look at the blockbuster art sales of late as a suitable riposte.

“Art is the epitome of human life, the truest record of insights and feelings, that the strongest military or economic society without art is poor in comparison with the most primitive tribe of savage painters, dancers, or idol-carvers,” Ms Langer wrote.

“Wherever a society has really achieved culture, (in the ethnological, not the popular sense of social forms) it has begotten art, not late in its career, but at the very inception of it.”

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L’Art en guerre, France 1938-1947

Woman Sitting in an Armchair

After the Nazis occupied France, Pablo Picasso could have sought exile abroad. Instead, he remained in Paris, a form of protest in itself. It was risky but the Spaniard, by virtue of his incredible fame perhaps, managed to escape the absolute horrors of the war, as well as outright persecution.

He was hounded nevertheless. The Gestapo endeavoured to find evidence of his links to the French resistance, but failed. They did however succeed in diminishing the visibility of his art, which both the Vichy government and the Nazis termed as degenerate, a perversion of what art should be.

Still, he lost none of his power, nor his acidic wit. For example, there is a famous incident where a Gestapo officer, on coming across a reproduction of Picasso’s monumental work Guernica, asked the artist if he had made this. “No,” he retorted. “You did.”

An entire section is dedicated to the artist in a new exhibition at the Guggenheim Bilbao. L’Art en guerre, France 1938-1947: From Picasso to Dubuffet examines the way in which artists responded to the “ominous and oppressive” environment of Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War. Art was not just about existing, or a way to escape; it was also a weapon against tyranny.

Eleven other sections provide a sweeping, poignant and thoughtful overview of this period, which are comprised of 500 works by over 100 artists, across various media such as paintings, sculptures, documents, films and photographs.

“The pieces created over the course of those years reflect very different aspects of the daily reality of those who lived through that period: their dreams, nightmares, and hopes – in short, the cognitive, creative and emotional atmosphere that made life meaningful in different sectors of society,” the gallery explains.

“Yet that context of social chaos and spiritual darkness was also a productive and innovative time for art, which survived everywhere and flowed forth in all variety of circumstances, both as an underground trend and within the parameters of official taste.”

Even against all odds, artists endeavoured to create, utilising whatever tools and materials they could. The art that was created during this “spatiotemporal framework” was unlike anything before it, surprisingly dynamic, full of energy and, at times, monumental. To be able to express oneself through art was vital. Otherwise they would truly have vanished into oblivion.

Below is a succinct breakdown of the various sections that make up this seismic show.

Section 1: History

The exhibition opens with an overview of the important events that occurred after France was occupied, resulting in the creation of a double-dictatorship. Through this came the French resistance and a spirit of unity, among ordinary citizens and artists. There was, in short, a resolve to live and see a better world again.

Section 2: The Official Taste

Official taste was something that left a bitter taste. This section reveals the art that was effectively sanctioned and ticked off as acceptable during this period. The likes of Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Wassily Kandinsky, Joan Miró and Pierre Mondrian were ostracised, while movements such as cubism, fauvism and surrealism were neglected.

Section 3: The Surrealists

“The Parisian art world, now cleansed of ‘undesirables’, was every bit as dark and dismal as the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme (January 1938) had predicted,” the gallery highlights.

“Organised in Paris by André Breton and Duchamp, this show offered irrefutable proof of the growing strength of the surrealist movement, but the exhibition’s disconcerting atmosphere also turned out to be an uncanny premonition of the horrors of war.”

Section 4: The Camps

Even in horrific, inhuman conditions, the desire to create art endured. The French internment camps, originally developed to house refugees fleeing Franco’s Spain, were later used to intern a strange mix of anti-Nazi and pro-Nazi Germans, people from countries that were sympathetic to Hitler and French communists.

Here we observe the co-option of miscellaneous items into art. From cans to matches, to fragments of wood and iron, artists manufactured works that captured the terror of this period.

Section 5: Exile, Refugees, and Concealment

An interesting aspect of this section is dedicated to the American journalist Varian Fry, who was sent to France by the US government as a representative of the Emergency Rescue Committee. His responsibility was to rescue intellectuals, artists and Jews who were being persecuted.

Some, of course, had no option but to go into hiding within France. Joseph Steib was such an individual, who produced caustic works of art that reflected the hardships, humiliations and atrocities experienced by many.

Section 6: Masters of Reference and the Young Painters in the French Tradition

The Young Painters in the French Tradition were a group of artists that included Jean René Bazaine, Francisco Bores, André Fougeron, Charles Lapicque, Jean Le Moal, Édouard Pignon, and Alfred Manessier.

Their bright, abstract and colourful works were inspired by both Romanesque and modern art, echoing the ideas of Pierre Bonnard, Georges Braque and Henri Matisse, which jarred against the official idea of what art should be.

Section 7: Picasso in His Studio

Picasso was supremely productive in isolation, producing masterpiece after masterpiece. It didn’t matter if pro-German painters like Maurice de Vlaminck derided him, the Spaniard endured.

It was nevertheless difficult, with Vlamick’s assertion that Picasso had “dragged French painting into the most fatal dead end, into indescribable confusion” a sentiment shared by Nazis and their sympathisers.

Section 8: Galerie Jeanne Bucher

Jeanne Bucher was one of the few gallerists who did all she could to support arts during the occupation, opening her gallery to artists like André Bauchant, Francisco Bores, Louis-Auguste Déchelette, and Paul Klee.

Section 9: Camps and Prisons

“As the years passed and the number of detainees in French camps continued to swell, living conditions became increasingly harsh,” the gallery notes.

“For these prisoners, creating works of art was the only way to make sense of a cruel and absurd existence, fashioning surprising objects from the scant resources and materials at hand.”

Section 10: The Liberation

Exaltation came to Parisians in August 1944, when the city was finally liberated. The French communist party, with Picasso in tow, began to reclaim the cultural scene and judge, albeit it with compassion, those artists who had collaborated with the Nazis.

Section 11: Decompressions

A postscript, this section explores how artists, after the war, sought to understand what had happened through their art. This can be see in the morose works of Bernard Buffet, Olivier Debre and Hans Hartung, as well as in Wols’ (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze) fraught scratches.

Section 12: The Anartists

The concluding part of the show looks at the Anartists, who were artists that rebelled against the established order, as well as those who were keen to journey forward into the unknown, to know more about life, spirituality and the human condition.

L’Art en guerre, France 1938-1947: From Picasso to Dubuffet opens at the Guggenheim Bilbao runs until September 8th 2013.

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Seasons

You rattle my soul,

Out of its mournful reverie,

With your lipstick medicine.

You are summer to my heart,

Spring to my grey autumn,

A sweet interlude to my winter loneliness.

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