Looking like what it looks like

So. I have been thinking about visual art, mainly as a result of a blog post by a friend who is a conceptual artist, He was thinking about the apparent chasm of understanding between conceptual art and what we may, for lack of a better term, call ‘the public’. His thoughts prodded me into thinking about the root of the problem which goes much further back than conceptual art.It seems to me, as a non-visual-arts-practitioner, that part of this issue with the visual arts stems from the origins of the discipline in representation. Now, I am not saying that representation is the core of visual art, but for many centuries the practice of visual art has been based around representation. Broadly, people have judged visual art on whether it looks like what it is meant to be, so when works of visual art cease to be about ‘looking like something’ people turn away from them as they are unable to engage.

Of course, visual art has always been about more than ‘looking like something’: much renaissance art is based around allegory and symbols, which viewers at the time would have recognised, but which most of us, now, do not recognise. ‘Reading’ such a painting is more than seeing what it looks like. Unfortunately, recognition of the need for ‘reading’ among the broader audience has been weak, so when we get into the late nineteenth century and into the twentieth century the gap between practitioners and audience gets broader. Until we get to the stage we are know with a divide between popular art which ‘looks like something’ (e.g. Jack Vettriano) and unpopular art which does not.

That was as far as I had got until a recent trip to Paris which took in the Musée de l’Orangerie and the Musée d’Orsay, both of which have collections of late 19th and early 20th century paintings and sculpture. Looking at those collections it was clear that the ‘problem’, or better, the ‘divergence’ really kicks in with the Impressionists who have a different approach to ‘what it looks like’, resulting in works thst would have had them laughed out of the eighteenth-century academy. Not that they couldn’t have produced works of academy style and standard, but they chose a different way of looking (and, not that the academicians thought they were only dealing ‘what it looks like’).

Once that different way has started there’s no going back: ‘looking like what it looks like’ in the academy way is no longer the path: that get us to post-impressionism, cubism and all the rest. And that’s fine. There is no requirement for works of visual art to resemble anything: but there are, I suggest, requirements of competence and good faith.

Good faith: that’s a bit of a strange one, isn’t it? Maybe, but it came to me as I was looking at the Matisses in the Orangerie and comparing them to the Derains on the opposite wall. The heads of Matisse’s people looked wrong. Not grotesquely wrong, or ‘I-can’t-do-any-better wrong’ (which is what we excuse in Rousseau), but very deliberately not quite right. He chose to do that, even though he could have painted them ‘right’. That faux naïf approach from a man who clearly could draw annoyed me, like a good musician deliberately playing out of tune.

Of course, he had a reason for doing that (at least, I hope he did), a reason which overrode the need to ‘look like’. Unfortunately, I’m not able to get past the naiveté to connect with that reason.

But opposite that was Derain’s Table de cuisine (Kitchen Table) a painting that ‘looks like’ something, a lot of things, but also does more than that. I find it difficult to describe exactly what that ‘more’ is, but I think it lies in the arrangement of the items and their emphasised edges. We have more than just an image of a kitchen table and some kitchen objects. Derain has given us the table and some.

I don’t have a snappy conclusion to these thoughts: I am still thinking and happy to listen to the views of the better informed.

The sleeping bard

Gweledigaethau'r Bardd Cwsg D.S.Evans (ed.) 4th ed
So. I have been trapped down one of the research mines I wrote about earlier. This time, a reprint of an archaeological report from the 1980s led to a Welsh writer of the eighteenth century and his visions of the ills of society.

Ellis Wynne was a clergyman in North-West Wales, whose reputation today rests on his book Gweledigaethau y Bardd Cwsg (Visions of the Sleeping Bard), first published in 1703. I’d be surprised if you’d come across it: for all its status as a classic of Welsh literature, moralising visions of hell and destruction are not widely read these days. (If you want to have a read, the text is available on Project Gutenberg in both the original Welsh and George Borrow’s 1860 translation.)

Wynne’s targets in the book are for the most part commonplace (the proud, lawyers, the Pope: eighteenth century Protestants were not very ecumenical), but there were a couple that pleasantly surprised me. Here’s my first extract: the narrator is asking why the devils in Hell regard rulers and nobles as worse than common thieves.

“Pray, my lord,” said I, “how can you call those illustrious people greater thieves than robbers on the highway?”

“You are but a dupe,” said he; “is not the villain who goes over the world with his sword in his hand and his plunderers behind him, burning and slaying, wresting kingdoms from their right owners, and looking forward to be adored as a conqueror, worse than the rogue who takes a purse upon the highway?  What is the tailor who cabbages a piece of cloth, to the great man who takes a piece out of the parish common?  Ought not the latter to be called a thief of the first water, or ten times more a rogue than the other?—the tailor merely takes snips of cloth from his customer, whilst the other takes from the poor man the sustenance of his beast, and by so doing the sustenance of himself and his little one.”

Conquerors and those who enclose common land; worse than highwaymen and cheating tailors. Yup, I’ll go with that.

And a second extract: here a knight is trying to excuse himself from damnation on the grounds that he comes from a noble family; the devils are having none of it.

“If your ancestors and your ancient house be all that you can bring in your defence, you may go the same road as he,” said one of the devils, “because we can scarcely remember one ancient house, of which some oppressor, murderer, or strong thief did not lay the foundation, and which he did not transmit to people as froward as himself, or to lazy drones, or drunken swine, to maintain whose extravagant magnificence, the vassals and the tenantry must be squeezed to death, whilst every handsome colt or pretty cow in the neighbourhood must be parted with for the pleasure of the mistress, and every lass or married woman, may consider herself fortunate, if she escape the pleasure of the master.”

Almost every noble house has been founded by an oppressor, murderer or strong thief (that is, a violent one) and their continued existence is a financial burden and moral risk to all around them.

Wynne may be laying it on thick – the visions are extreme – but too often we to go after the little crimes, ignoring the big ones because their size deceives us into thinking they can’t be in the same category.

I think Ellis Wynne may end up featuring in my poetry.

Great as in auk

psm_v62_d510_great_auk
The Great Auk

So. Two short thoughts as we head for the door.

First, a recent article in The Guardian told us the French and Germans had decided Brexit was going to be treated as a masculine noun, while the Italians, although they hadn’t quite decided, were probably going to treat it as feminine noun. It was the justification I enjoyed: the underlying word in Brexit, exit, is uscita in Italian, which is a feminine noun, consequently Brexit should be feminine.

I want them to go one stage further. There is no logical reason why they have to call it Brexit. They could call it anything they liked – even something uncomplimentary. So why stick with the English word exit? Why not use uscita? Then they could call it Bruscita, which is almost an Italian word. And the English can think erroneously of toasted slices of bread with delicious toppings.

Secondly, there is a lot of talk about making Britain great again. Hmm. But it was Great Britain before the United Kingdom became an imperial power and it continues to be Great Britain even after it has ceased to be an imperial power. How so? Because Britain is Great Britain in the same sense that the Great Auk was great: to distinguish it from another similar but smaller thing. In the Great Auk’s case it was the Lesser Auk. In Britain’s case it was Brittany, that well-known settlement of Britons on the Armorican Peninsula.

The United Kingdom could turn into an unpeopled waste land, but it would still be Great Britain on the maps.

A short history of writing on the move

img_2852
A Handspring (2000 AD) and a Palm Tungsten (AD 2003)

This post is a little like Ikea, if you want to skip past the kitchen displays and the bedrooms just get to the marketplace and checkouts then just jump here.

And I can only assume that if you are still reading you are ready for a little meander.

I have been writing for years (I tried to write an encyclopaedia when I was about ten: was this ambition?), but have only been writing on computers thirty years. This has been a good thing as my handwriting is both abominable and abominably slow: since I have using computers people have been able to read my words – for good or ill. The downside was being tethered to a computer keyboard. First a mainframe terminal, linked to a computer running MTS (Michigan Terminal System in case anyone’s interested), then an Amstrad PCW 8256 and a little later a PC (a 386 from a manufacturer which folded a few weeks after I bought the machine).

Any time I wanted to write I had to be at the desk, which was really annoying. I had all manner of attempts at working around, including a dictaphone (for which I made a little foot pedal – screwing a switch to a piece of plywood and doing a spot of soldering). If I was away from the machine I would write – on paper, with a pen – then type it up. I wrote a couple of unpublished (unpublishable) manuscripts (let’s not call them books) using that method. It was so frustrating – particularly (did I mention) given my handwriting was slow and bad: in the worst case I can only read my own writing within five minutes of writing it.

Then, towards the end of the 1990s (so long ago) there were Palm Pilots, the first laptops, the Apple Newton. Hints towards writing on the move. Finally, in 2000, I bought a Handspring: a green plastic block with a blocky screen. No keyboard, but a stylus for making almost writing shapes. Wonderful. I could write where I was then upload the words to my PC and drag them into a Word document. Even better when I got a folding keyboard to go with it and I could touch type to the small green plastic block. The scary thing with the Handspring was changing the batteries: thirty seconds to do it or everything vanished.

The Handspring was a game changer, but the whole Palm/Handspring landscape that seemed so solid, so well developed, has vanished like the missing part of a Norwegian valley – ground away under the weight of a glacier. Three years later I upgraded to a Palm Tungsten, which slid up and down on itself and had a folding keyboard. I wrote some good stuff on that. But, of course, a but, there was still the need to transfer the text to a proper computer and fiddle with it. And editing a document of any length was painful.

The split of little device and tethered computer disappeared when I got my first laptop, a G4 iBook. It wasn’t one of the orange or blue clam cases (I still love that design, even though I never had one). The iBook was a breakthrough, the words in the right format, wherever I was. It was good, and got even better when I tried out Scrivener: astonishing software which just fitted with the way I write. I mean, how often do you start at the beginning and keep hammering on to the end until you’ve finished? Or do you write bits and pieces in different files and on little pieces of paper that have to be connected with letters in big circles and squares to link it together. I am definitely in that second category, so Scrivener was almost a miracle.

I have written so much in Scrivener: plays, brochures, stories, technical books. The only thing I don’t start in Scrivener is poetry: for some reason that still starts on the page with a fountain pen.

But lap tops weren’t that small, still a couple of kilos to carry around. Not exactly stick in the pocket stuff. So when the iPads came out I got one: with a bluetooth keyboard it was a nice writing machine (I still can’t cope with the on-screen keyboard, touch typing doesn’t work on an immobile screen). But I was back in the dark valley of syncing and formatting. Until July 2016, which is when Scrivener for iOS was released.

[And a welcome back to those who have cut through and missed the wardrobes and kitchens.]

Scrivener for iOS is as astonishing as Scrivener on the Mac. The whole paradigm of writing in pieces, not writing in one long stream. The binder, the synopsis, the metadata, the document notes (because a document is not simply a piece of text, but an embedded part of a network of thought and words), all there on the iPad.

And all synchronising back and forward before the iPad and the Mac, happening solidly through Dropbox. The same words, the same formatting, here, there, on the bigger screen, on the smaller screen. Even (thank you aeroplane mode) thirty thousand feet above the ground). Somehow this brings together the mobility, the decent keyboard and the proper formatting.

Scrivener of iOS is not the be all and end all: it still doesn’t make the coffee, and I still have to hammer the words out from my head. But it is a wonderful piece of software. So thank you Keith (not Kevin).

And everybody else, please buy Scrivener.

About bricks

So. I’ve spent some time in Siena and, apart from the Duomo and its marble, the overwhelming impression is one of brick. Mediaeval brick, renaissance brick, modern brick. Brick which makes walls, arches, columns, even floors (though strictly the Sienese probably count that as tile).

You can trace the history of a wall in the changes in the brick, the infill, the lack of bond in one corner, the change in brick size, or the way a string course suddenly stops. The wall I am facing now has a blocked up window with three different brick lintels and arches above it. Some of the arches are uniform, some have rubbed bricks at the centre of the flat arch to create the necessary forces to hold it up: each arch reflects a remodelling, someone’s decision to change the way they use the building.

Now, one of the things about these bricks is that they have all been made by hand. Someone has dug out the clay, puddled it to get out the biggest impurities, slapped it into a mould, let it dry and then fired it. All of that before any kind of building work has taken place. Also, at one step further down the process, someone has cut down a lot of trees in order to feed the kilns that fire the brick. Every brick is therefore a hand-made object and a record of human activity.

There are maybe ten thousand bricks in the wall facing me, which is one wall of four storey building. The rest of the street’s façade has maybe ten times that number: so a hundred thousand bricks on one short stretch. Give each building a back, party walls and floors and we are up to maybe half a million bricks. Add the other side of the street and we are up to a million bricks. (By this point my numbers have become very approximate and I should perhaps stop estimating and multiplying, but it is tempting to continue.) If we say the streets of mediaeval and Renaissance Siena are somewhere between two hundred and fifty and five hundred times the length of this short street – which is not impossible – we end up with a somewhere between a quarter and half a billion bricks in Siena.

That naive, arithmetical reflection can lead me in one of two ways: I can think about the community of interdependence required to create those bricks: the digger-out of clay, the brick-maker, the forester, kiln-master, waggoner, blacksmith, wheelwright. All those people need to eat, drink, sleep, marry and give in marriage. There needs to be a whole bunch of other people busy at their work before a single brick can be laid. (And I haven’t even started on the making of the lime mortar necessary to bed the bricks. Somehow, perhaps because it is shapeless, the mortar doesn’t get the attention it maybe should.)

And that actually brings me round to the second way of thinking about bricks: economically, as an expression of the use of surplus. The level of production in Siena and its territory has to be much greater than would be required just to keep everyone fed, clothed and sheltered.The bricks consume the surplus, just as the city elites consume the surplus of the countryside (leaving trade aside for the moment): in fact, as I think about it a little further, the bricks are a consumption of the countryside, as much as the brocades, velvets and laces of the city.

There is a weight pressing down in the bricks of Siena that is more than just the mass of burnt clay.

The morning after the morning after

HPIM0173.JPG

So. At this time on a Saturday morning, with the weekly shopping done, I would normally be writing poetry. But poetry takes a certain amount of focus, and today I do not have that. Following the referendum result, the UK and Europe face years of challenge and uncertainty. I find myself uneasy and worried.

I know there are many people who see this as a wonderful new start for the UK, free of the shackles of the European Union. I trust they will use their sudden freedom responsibly, to make the UK a peaceful, stable, generous, welcoming place.

As for me, I do not share their near-mystical faith in the British (look how I am already in a terminological mess by the third paragraph as I try to tease things out). There are many, many good things about the UK and, having lived here all my life, I know how things work and I can be comfortable here. (I prefer East Anglian beer to any other in the world, but that is, in part, because that was the beer I started drinking.)

I can admire the view across a valley, seeing the pattern of the hedgerows and fields, the woods and the single oaks in the pastures. Yet at the same time I know a large part of that landscape was formed as the result of an eighteenth century land-grab, carried out by the elite and sanctioned by their unrepresentative parliament. (And the same, or worse, can be said about the grouse moors of Scotland.)

There is a certain inevitablity in quoting Chesterton when talking about the UK (and again, the terminology: Chesterton wrote a History of England, not a History of Britain). When, during the Boer war, he was faced with maddened imperialism, he observed:

‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’

You love your mother because she is your mother, but do you want her to behave like that?

Britain no more has a ‘rightful place in the world’ than the USA has a ‘manifest destiny’, and the ‘British way of life’ has no more intrinsic value than any other. Such value it has comes from its alignment to universals such as justice, truth and kindness.

But we are where we are. So the question is ‘what do I do?’

Despair and resentment are not options. My answer is that I must act with justice, truth and kindness, and I must work that out in everything that I write and create.

It is time to write poetry again.

Manifesto-y

IMG_2539
The left-handed writer

So. I have a couple of poems going up in an exhibition at the Catalyst Festival. Grand. But the organisers also wanted a bit of blurb about ‘why I write’.

That paralysed me. Why do I write? Flippin’ heck. It doesn’t help that I have always found this sort of meta-writing difficult (I don’t like writing press-releases or advertising text either). Some authors write books about why they write (and maybe someone, somewhere has written a book about why they wrote a book about why they write), but, honestly, I can’t be bothered with that.

I don’t want the grim wisecrack, in the style of Doug Stanhope (‘I’m Doug Stanhope and that’s why I drink’). Nor do I want the weirdly worthy: for example David (and Leigh) Eddings:

The field of fantasy has always been of interest to him, however, and he turned to The Belgariad in an effort to develop certain technical and philosophical ideas concerning that genre.

(I have loved that sentence for over thirty years.)

I was stuck. Then, on a train, away from the interwebs, I thought I might as well try one of the techniques I recommend to other people: five minutes’ free writing. I opened a new text document in FoldingText (because there is no possibility of wasting time with formatting) and started typing.

It worked. The first few sentences were gibberish, but quite soon I got something worth developing. What I ended up with is manifesto-y, but I think it is an adequate answer. Here it is.

Why does anyone write? Dr Johnson said no one but a fool wrote except for money. So, I write out of folly. I write out of ignorance, to find out what I think. I write out of excitement: when the big idea wasp buzzes around my head the best way to be rid of it is to pin it to the page. I write because sometimes, very, very rarely, I think I might have something worth saying. I write with an excess of hope, but no expectation of success. I write as peacock and as ostrich. I write out of fear, because if I stop the writing I might disappear. I write because I have something even more difficult to do. I write because the world keeps giving things to write about. I write because I can’t draw, paint, sing or dance.

Radio playing

20160507-100850.jpg So. I went to Alphabetti Theatre to see Frank Sumatra by Mike Yeaman, which the publicity described as being performed in the style of a radio play. (As an aside – if I needed any encouragement for that – if you are in the North East of England go to Alphabetti. It’s a shoe-string operation which does great theatre in a basement.) It was a great evening with a funny, well-performed piece, which left me thinking about the radio play format.

In my teens I listened to a lot of radio drama: adaptations of Dorothy L Sayers detective stories, half-hour comedies, proper plays. I even tried writing them myself. (My early 70’s play about a plane hijacking – very topical then – used a hoover for the sound of an aeroplane taking off: that was before I got my first cassette recorder.) Despite all that listening I haven’t thought about them very much: so here goes.

The first and obvious thing about radio plays is that you can present any scenario you want, provided you can present a realistic soundscape. You can do things you can’t do on stage or in film without a massive budget. In Frank Sumatra, Frank was an orang-utang, four months old at the start at the play and fully grown by the end: eat your heart out Richard Linklater.

Beyond even Frank are the Goon Shows, which used the freedom of the format to create astonishing sound images: a rabid Christmas pudding terrorising people; a man travelling in a crate (Eccles: ‘Ah this is the life, being nailed up in a crate and carried across Africa’); a canvas tent with an upstairs.

Why does that work? My current idea is that radio draws on our experience of oral storytelling: it is a step beyond Charles Dickens giving readings from his work, but still on the same path. In the same way as our friend giving us the ‘he said, she said’ of their day, the radio play invites our engagement with a vocal story. We have to put ourselves in the path of the play.

The second thing I noticed was the treatment of time. The radio play, like the novel (and the TV advert) can make huge temporal jumps: ten seconds of a Frank Sinatra song and the characters in Frank Sumatra have conceived, carried and given birth to a child. Brilliant. And no need for a nine months later caption. The story-telling roots permit the leaps in time, which the more visual presentation of theatre and film balk at.

The more I think of it, the more interesting the format becomes, even without the additional layering of the live stage performance of Frank Sumatra (and, in its first incarnation Anomalisa). I might have to give it a shot myself.

Contra crepusculum

men_of_the_old_stone_age_28191529_wolf
Polychrome painting of a wolf in the Font-de-Gaume cave (drawing by Henri Breuil)

So. I find myself in a trap of my own making, caught between Angela Carter on one side and Stephanie Meyers on the other, because I have decided to write about wolves. More specifically about wolves and people with an indefinite and poorly defined line between them.

Currently, I have a short, ten-minute, play with one character who is a wolf and who is also, somehow, human (or, at least, appears to be). I managed to write that without leaping to the obvious conclusion that everyone reading this will reach in a few milli-seconds: I have written about a werewolf. Which is where Angela and Stephanie come in.

I have not read the Twilight Saga and do not intend to. I have not read Angela Carter’s wolf and werewolf short stories, but I have bought a copy of The Bloody Chamber, the collection in which they appear, and I will read them in the next few days. I am, though, wary, as they will inevitably change by thinking on the subject, and I will lose the knowing innocence that has served me so far.

My problem is that I don’t really want to write about werewolves, certainly not in the Meyeresque (hence the title of the post). I don’t want the huge, leapy, instantly-transforming things of team Jacob (even without reading/watching I know too much). I don’t even want the dorky New Zealand werewolves of What we do in the shadows (that good, but bloody vampire comedy).

I want to write about wolves and people. As yet, I don’t know how to do that, but I will find out in the only way I know how: by writing about it. And I’m starting to think I might want the wolf of Gubbio.

Can crosswords be art?

IMG_2489So. Someone was asking whether video games can be art. Now, I’m not particularly bothered about video games as such: apart from a brief dabble with Angry Birds a couple of years ago and a few goes at Age of Mythology (machine opponent always set on ‘easy’) I haven’t really played them.

What interests me in the question is that, in order to attempt an answer, we need to have some idea of what art is, or what its key characteristics might be.

Given that other people are bothered about video games I thought I’d shift the discussion ground to something less emotive and see if we can get some light instead of just heat. You’ll find the results here:

Can Crosswords be Art?