Human Conditionality

Away from home means away from my usual routines, methods and places. But I’ve been enjoying my new blog and have been receiving some encouraging feedback, so I thought I’d make the effort to carry on this week even though this could be regarded as a ‘holiday’. Of course, we can’t take a holiday from our thoughts and a Blog is some kind of record of our thoughts translated into writing or perhaps influenced and inspired by writing.

Before my break began I managed to deliver what I hope is the final version of a long (8,000 word)  article for a prestigious online journal. I’ve been working on that, one way or another, and off and on for about two years. I won’t be paid for it, but it’s important to work to high external standards and to place your work in places where they might get noticed, as well as in places where they might create serious and enduring ripples, dialogue feedback etc. (as opposed to the everyday chit-chat of social media etc.)

It felt good to have this wrapped-up and to clear my head and come to another part of the world and leave usual routines behind. Nevertheless, I recalled that an ex-student has asked me to contribute a piece to a little publication she is planning, so I’ve made a few notes about that. She wants all the articles, poems, and various pieces to relate to the theme of ‘The Human Condition’. A pretty expansive title you might suppose, but it could be that these group of three words has changed its meaning since Hannah Arendt used them as the title of a book back in the late 1950s. It’s a book I worked with a little as an MA student but would now like to find the time to revisit. My main experience of Hannah Arendt is as the person who wrote the introduction to Walter Benjamin’s ‘Illuminations’ (she was an associate of Benjamin), a book, and an introduction, which truly changed my life and career, full of ideas I carry around with me as part of my flesh and blood.

From my present distance, far from my home and usual ways of working, and remote also from the time of Arendt’s ‘The Human Condition’, the publication date of 1958 makes me think of the humanist outpourings that pervaded art and thought in the period immediately after WW2 and prior to the youthful cultural revolutions and rampant Americanisation of world culture of the 1960s.

In the late 50s, many thinkers and artists  seem to have been immersed in debates about ‘The Human Condition’ (think of the images of works created by Samuel Beckett or Alberto Giacometti at that time) without perhaps being able to think of the ways in which today’s ‘human’ is newly intimidated and perhaps even abused by the technologies it has produced. Rather than Arendt, my current students are more likely to read Donna Haraway’s books on the ‘cyborg’ and various post-human or post-humanist (there is a distinction) ideas. So, if I have time, I will be dipping into this area, this overlap between generations of thinkers on ‘the human’, perhaps researching and writing something on the theme, and maybe comparing the use of the term ‘human’ in 1958 with its current use.

In the small notes I’ve made so far however, I chose instead to approach the ‘condition’ and the idea that to be human might be a ‘conditionality’ and not just a state or form of being. e.g. what might be the conditions for being human? On what does it depend? What does it require? In what ways might it be fixed or changing? Perhaps human beings have already tried to establish some of this in a set of universal ‘human rights’.

I think I will end the Blog this week with an image of and a link to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the link includes not only the rights themselves but also information about how and when and why they came into being). It reminds me that a brave art student that I worked with once had the rights printed out and applied to the steps and landing of the main college staircase, so that we all had to be reminded of them every day and several times each day.

But before ending, I just want to draw attention to the fact that these rights are also  writing, they are pieces of carefully crafted writing, they are words, and thus a good reminder that writing and words can and do shape the world we live in, even if our words, and even our most glorious words, may often seem weak, ineffectual, even useless in the face of brute violence, hatred and ignorance and carelessness.

We shouldn’t forget that our world, our life, our society, our experience is formed as much by words, by writing and by writers as it is formed by climate, by location, by minerals etc. This might be easy to forget this in a world where we seem to be using more and more words, more and more carelessly and cheaply than ever before, and it could be that the apparently depressin decline in the state of our societies and our politics is caused by this very careless new use of words and writing.

Perhaps we should strive then, where and whenever possible, to use our own words, and the history and the archive of the written word, more carefully, lovingly and responsibly, so as to to maintain and further our humanity, to extend and enhance whatever we might mean by ‘the human condition’, which today seems to increasingly blur into the animal condition, the plant condition, the climate condition and the condition of everything else on which the human depends.

Please read the 30 declarations here:

https://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/

universal-declaration-human-rights

 

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When Work Is Done

This week I finally came to the end of an academic year’s work that began back in September 2018. It’s a relief and I am starting to enjoy some sense of freedom. Work is done, I might say, but of course artists of all kinds tend to grasp such moments to concentrate on what we call ‘our own work’.

My art teaching doesn’t allow me any kind of routine by means of which I can say, OK, every (e.g.) Wednesday I will do ‘my own work’. Nor have I ever earned enough money in my life to pay both the rent on a home and the rent on an artist’s studio. To me that still sounds like an inaccessible dream. Just imagine, having a dedicated space and time in which to make your art!! The thought stuns me, but I guess for a lot of artists this is a norm, a given,a prerequisite.

I do however manage to make ;my own work’ in various ways. First of all, as soon as I started teaching and realised that it was going to eat up all the time and head space I had previously dedicated to ‘my own work’ I decided to avoid conflict by simply regarding my teaching as itself ‘my own work’. that may sound unlikely but I truly believe it has been successful and that, if my teaching has been in any way successful over the past 20 years it is largely because I treat each session, course, term and event as something to which I dedicate the same standards of creativity, conscientiousness and commitment that I concentrate to what would normally be called ‘my own work’.

Furthermore, I long ago learned that I was an artist who would probably never enjoy the privileged time, space and funds enjoyed by lots of the artists I admired and found influential and, again, reconciled myself to making art with whatever time, space, funds, materials, skills, equipment etc. that I had at any point in time. Surely it’s a principle we should all appreciate and employ, to make our best work with whatever we have to hand, rather than bemoan all that we do not have available to us.

After seven years of searching and exploring the possibilities of studio art, living in a housing-benefit-sustained flat that I turned into a live-in studio, I really felt that I got to the bottom of several practices that were both authentic to me and involved very little in terms of cost, time and equipment. I honestly and strongly feel, as a result of that experience, that an artist can make almost anything with a paper and pencil, words and drawings, and that, given the right state of mind – a special kind of moral conviction crucial to the production of art – something made with just a paper and pencil can be priceless.

Since making those discoveries (which seriously arose out of a condition of sustained barren hardship) l have always been able to find a way around apparent constraints and to ‘make my own work’ in the gaps in, around and about my teaching responsibilities. There are times (though less and less) that I of course would have loved to have more time, money, technology, or help and support to execute works, but I never dwell for long in this negative and conflicted state. Better to spend time feeling satisfied with all that  you HAVE done than in being dissatisfied with what you have not.

Furthermore, and finally, I truly believe that, at this stage of my life, I have made my work. It is no kind of resignation or failure of ambition for me to say that I am satisfied with the photographs I made during the period of my life when I was immersed in that passion. The same goes for a certain series  and style of drawings I made at another time. There is a set of short stories that I penned in two inspired phases, about ten years apart, and which I feel I cannot now improve upon. Then there are about 150 songs, 150 published pieces of art writing, at least as many unpublished and experimental pieces of art writing, a few video works, an archive of artworks and exhibitions, and more, all of which I regard as completed and satisfactory.

This realisation, this arrival, at this destination, changes, it seems to me, an artists’ life and purpose quite profoundly, as I do not feel at all that I am striving after a particular standard, style, process or identity. Rather, what remains for me to do is to organise, contextualise and present these completed works as best I can. For the time being this means ideally making a series of books or albums, though other means of presenting these works might be possible. (I am not keen on exhibitions. A certain kind of archival website might work for some works, but that would betray the material qualities of others).

Of course, still none of this is easy to do, and will still involve finding time, funds, and support of many kinds. Nevertheless, it is always good to feel, at the end of a teaching year, or at a certain point in life, that your work is done.

I’ll illustrate this week’s post with a photograph drawn from my photography archive. It was made in Berlin in about 2007.

matters of fact024

 

Morning Person

I call myself a ‘morning person’. Yes, when teaching I do have to work in the afternoons, but I find that, for any important creative work (some of which I find I have to do every day of my life), I have to prioritise the morning.

There have been times, when I had lots of teaching to do as well as several texts on the go, with deadlines, that my mornings started to cut into my nights, because I started getting up earlier and earlier so as to elongate my morning and the period of maximum and highest quality creativity. During one such period I started getting up regularly at 5 am rather then 6, then at 4.30 and then at 4. In a way, that is my ideal, rarely attained, but if it could be sustained, who knows what might be possible? Sad to say, it makes me think of how our lives and potentials are compromised by those demands that exhaust us even in the basic act of keeping ourselves fed, watered and sheltered.

Nevertheless, I learned long ago to avoid resentful conflicts and to rather see every aspect of my life holistically and as continuous, not divided into warring fragments. And so, when I am not writing or don’t have the energy or inspiration to write, I satisfy myself that I have written and that I will write, and that every experience can flow into my writing, just as my writing flows into me and my world in an inexorable and undeniable reciprocity.

It wasn’t always so easy and clear to declare myself a ‘morning person’. In fact it wasn’t until my forties that I was able to start feeling I could establish any traits within myself and stop broiling away my life in a serous of risky experiments and fatal strategies, knowing neither myself nor the world sufficiently to be able to construct a life out of the materials available to me.

When living alone in my 30s, for seven years as a kind of hermit, searching for a way to understand myself and what kind of artist I might be, as well as how I might simply survive, I had some strange dialogues with the day and the night. Unemployed, and surviving on benefits, I was – as they say ‘time rich’. I lived a strangely aristocratic life as an impoverished person. And so I would sometimes spend the entire night writing and drinking cheap green tea until the sun rose. I had no structured time of the kind that orders and organises the modern, capitalist, technologised and consumerist world in which I found myself.

I can recall watching both sun and moon pass slowly across my window, and writing long poems about that cosmic fact. Or listening to looped tapes of favourite albums (Radiohead, Al Green, Faure’s Requiem … )  through the formless day and through the night, sleep coming and going as and when it wished, and the two (night and day) having little distinction. Like the first time I sailed on a yacht out of sight of all land and all other human beings, I felt myself to be outside of society’s time, a truly timeless human spirit, someone connected to infinite and eternal things. And that, of course, is ideally where and how the artist and writer, the poet and songsmith should and would reside if they possibly could.

A neighbour I had at that hermetic time, in a street and a house that seemed to be populated by starving artists of various kinds (unemployed actors, recent arts graduates), once told me that he had walked home one summer night at 4 am and heard me, from the other end of the street, typing energetically away on an old typewriter. A wonderfully romantic image, and one which I feel glad and proud to have created.

Today, the demands on my time and creative abilities are almost entirely consumed by the significant demands of teaching, which, in return, just about keeps wolves from my door. Still I manage, in whatever gaps and chances I get, to continue with all my most cherished artistic practices. I write as often as I can and publish my writing in a variety of ways (including artists’ books, academic articles, this Blog etc.).

In my early career I was consumed by my passion for photography but now I restrict that form of expression to smartphone pictures uploaded to social media. In doing so I sometimes miss my old professional aspirations re photography but reconcile this with the thought that photography was always a newly democratic form or artistic expression, never just the privilege of professionals, so my relatively careless and carefree exposures are perhaps now, more than ever, in the true spirit of photography.

Large parts of my life and career have also been dedicated to playing and writing and performing music. Again, I am not able to pursue this as much as I feel I would like, but continue to make, record and publicise as much of my music as I can.

Again, it’s important to do all of this without any sense of conflict, resentment or too strong a sense of compromise. I might fear sometimes that I have become a dabbling dilettante, and yet there is a unique sequence of influence running between these various interests, so that my songwriting influences my article writing, my photographs influence my teaching etc. Every artist must make their peace, it seems, with their particular economic scenario (time rich /  money poor, or money rich / time poor etc.), along with the particular and especially the idiosyncratic or unique technical and creative abilities they have been given to hone in their own way.

But to return to the initial theme here, before closing, I will always be a morning person, and often wish the whole of my day could be one long free morning fueled with fresh energy from excellent sleep. But I am happy to take and greet and use as best as I can every free morning that I am given in which to do my best creative work. Meanwhile,  I can learn to love the afternoon too, as a time when I have to live and work in other ways, but relieved of the burden of feeling I have to create.

I’ll just illustrate this post with Wikipedia’s idealistic and rural (and slightly fuzzy) image of ‘morning’.

index

 

 

“First Thought, Best Thought”

Yes, that’s right, I don’t want my Blog to be a diary, or an art critic’s weekly column, or an artist’s studio reports. I don’t want it to be political, nor neurotic. So what CAN it be then? It will just have to be what it is, what unfolds, what I write when I am avoiding all the aforementioned styles and modes.

I take writing seriously, but there are times and places for all kinds of writing. In fact, one of the difficult things about writing professionally is working out just where to place/publish something you’ve written. Every journal has its own schedule and routine, its own editorial mission, its own style, audience etc. Fitting neatly in with one of these isn’t easy, even if what you’ve written is great, exactly who is it ‘great’ for and useful to?

The Blog has been provided to us as a model by the internet and I like to think it is a new and different venue for writing. Hence my search to locate and only include things here that could or should only belong here.

Aaaah, the internet. This strange new free space where anyone and anyone can now publish their written thoughts for all to see. It seems to make us all ‘writers’ and at the same time remove some of the privileges of ‘writers’ as exceptional beings. What we write here is published instantly and (generally) without the intervention of an editor. A Blog is highly personal and highly public.

We are reluctant to put carefully wrought written works here, because we might be wasting them in the relatively lo-value arena of Blogging, because it still seems to be the case that what we think of as our best ideas or best writing doesn’t belong here, that it should be saved and worked-up into something more considered and substantial, something carefully edited and composed. etc.

And yet, there is a strange tension here between a desired goal (promised by the internet) of a democratic, free, non-hierarchical space in which we can all be writers and all of our writing is ‘writing’, a tension between that ideal and the maintenance of some standard and value established by and perhaps only achievable by attending to procedures that evolved with earlier technologies – pens, typewriters, hand-copying, posted and printed drafts etc.

However, there is another realm that cuts between these two approaches to writing, and that I think might just be the correct ideal to reach for in Blogging. i.e. the model of the spontaneous orator who achieves excellence without recourse to corrections. One axiom that I hold dear was something I heard spoken, as an axiom, by the Buddhist poet (and pal of Bob Dylan) Allen Ginsberg when he said “First Thought, Best Thought”. I must confess I have used this almost ever since to pursue my creative work as an artist, writer, lecturer, musician and songwriter, as well as in matters of daily life.

Decisions and judgements can be hellishly hard and complex and unsatisfactory but Ginsberg’s axiom clears them from our path leaving something else to guide us, the mysterious certainty of the intuitive and spontaneous, almost a deferring of the intellect to the more animal aspect of mind – our antennae we might say.

Applied to the task of writing, and of Blog writing, it’s important to note that what differentiates Blog and other Internet activities is its ‘Live’ quality. When ‘online’ we are ‘ON’, and on stage. thus, here, our writing becomes a live performance, and as we know, live performances can be good or bad, as well as rehearsed or unrehearsed.

But what I am suggesting here is that we think of Blogging as a live (or near-Live) performance, and aspire to our favourite orators, comedians, musicians, rappers and actors who are able to achieve a kind of excellence-without-editing, to come ‘off-the-top’ (as late-80s Nu Skool rappers used to say) fully trusting in our abilities, and in the moment, that what we are saying or writing, and what we are about to say next is worthwhile, relevant and valuable.

Ultimately, I have to confess, I think this is the kind of artist I always wanted to be, the kind of art I always wanted to make, an art that was not separated from and representative of the world as something other than that art, but an art in which the world and the act of representing it are immanent, fused, simultaneous, and thus perhaps not ‘art’ at all but simply this.

I think I will illustrate this post with an image of Allen Ginsberg:

ginsberg-self

 

 

 

ALL & NOTHING

Here we go again, diving into the nowhere of white space that is the waiting page. What will we write about? What will YOU read?

I try not to look at the virtual page on the screen, but need to attend to the keyboard ( I can’t ‘touch-type’). The letters there are separated out into little buttons, something like Scrabble letters, and arranged in a certain pattern (known as ‘QWERTY’ for obvious reasons).

I can also see my (quite dirty) keyboard, and my hands, looking older, but in a way more distinguished than I last remember seeing them. They seem to be moving well for their age, bouncing around on the springy buttons, transforming thoughts into words made up of letters. At least, I think that’s what happens when you write. I am not always sure? Do we really write our thoughts? Or are our thoughts shaped by the fact that we are writing?

I’ve had a busy and eventful week, full of teaching and music, politics, art, and London, and yet, whenever I come to write my weekly Blog my mind seems to empty and nothing of what I have experienced seems to to cry out to be of any urgent concern.

I suppose this could be because a Blog does not want or need to be a Diary. It can, and perhaps should be something other than the kinds of weekly or regular publications that evolved with earlier technologies.

This is the age of the everything. When everyone and everything has made itself visible and made itself hears and refuses to be discounted or ignored. This is the age of the planet, of the global, of the earth, of immanence and of all. Thus we come to write about anything and everything and thereby find ourselves writing about nothing.

My notebooks fill with inspired thoughts, jotted down while waiting at a red light when cycling to work, or when waiting for a bus. 99% of these remain there, in my notebooks, un-visited, un-returned to, though I must admit I find it difficult to throw old notebooks away. They build-up in a deep filing cabinet draw, and once every few years I go through them and tear out the best things I find there.

About 1% of those jottings have been worked up into articles, stories, lectures, facebook posts, articles in referee journals (I’ve published about 150 professional pieces now, but recently feel disappointed and demotivated by the fact that these haven’t significantly changed my status, income etc.)

But I really worry and wonder about all those other unexploited notes. Do they somehow improve you as a thinker, as a person? Do they provide some kind of internal education? Are they there, still available to you, the next time you discuss a related topic?

But what if you don’t get to discuss as much as you once did, and don’t get the opportunities to lecture and to publish that you once did? Then, do those great ideas just evaporate and dwindle and disappear, ultimately having no value or purpose, other than to momentarily excite you and help you to maintain the belief that you really do have something creative and intelligent and idiosyncratic to contribute to this world?

I’ll illustrate this week’s post with a picture of my Left hand at the keyboard, taken by my Right hand holding the camera.

DSCN7637

About ‘About About’

With this recently re-booted Blog I’ve been taking the risk of writing whatever comes to mind each week, without presuming to have anything interesting or valuable to say, and without any particular subject or theme in mind to write ‘about’.

This reminds me that one of my first large scale lectures as an art lecturer was titled ‘About About’. I came up with that title because, at that time (it doesn’t happen so much these days) soo many students were concerned with what their work was ‘about’.

As I say, this problem, or at least this particular articulation of this problem, no longer seems to occur. Perhaps that lecture I gave was as influential and world-changing as I hoped it would (as we secretly hope all our lectures and publications will be).  But maybe I was not the only artist and lecturer who recognised the ‘about’ epidemic was diverting or restricting a new generation of artists from progressing.

I must admit that I am more of a writer and lecturer than I am a researcher. I tend to explore an idea through my writing and thinking, and draw research in as and when I can, or have to, but I don’t work particularly hard for it, even though I do acknowledge, and have experienced the benefits of well-researched writing.

Perhaps, for this reason, I never took the time or trouble to research just when it was that artists and art students started using the word ‘about’ to explain their works and practices and trajectories. Just as we now might be occupying the afterlife of ‘about-ness’, so there must have been a time that pre-dated its use by artists as a key term.

There is a famous interview with Andy Warhol in which a journalist is basically asking what his work is ‘about’ (what its values and procedures amount to). Warhol answers by  asking if he can answer by saying ‘blatherblatherblather’ (he makes a noise like this with his mouth without waiting for the consent of the journalist.) And in another famous interview Warhol responds to every question asked ‘about’ his art by saying either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and answering without time for reflection or consideration.

What this example seems to show is that in the 1960s artists had already become sensitised to this kind of encounter and that they were primed to respond to the media-age by talking ‘about’ their art in ways that they knew were bound to be both inadequate and inaccurate. After all, art itself is not news, not journalism, not a news story, not a vox-pop or a provocative interview. Interestingly, Warhol went on to parody all of this in his own magazine, titled ‘Interview’.

The artist is also of course aware that even if they had resolved at what point their work is ‘about’, that interpretation is only a temporary life raft, a piece of flotsam to hold on to until the meaning, value, process etc. all seems to slip, slide and shift into another form. Furthermore, over time, across space, and under different, other and new eyes, any established interpretation of a practice is bound to change, way beyond the artist’s own control.

Every art, every practice, every life, like every civilisation, culture, or people, ultimately ends up as a more or less inadequate archive, a set of fragments and ruins which misrepresent the past but are nonetheless valuable to those who regard them. Once an artist understands this, we set ourselves free of many delusory restrictions and ambitions, including the ambition to understand and be understood, art always exceeds this aim.

There, I am finished for this week.
Now, what did I write about?

Warhol Interview

 

Teaching & Tiredness

This week I started teaching my annual summer school. It lasts six weeks, in two three-week blocks.

The course uses London’s museums and galleries to teach mostly young international students about art and art history and history. Meanwhile, in tandem with another tutor, the students use the speaking, listening, writing and presenting opportunities of the course to improve their English skills.

It’s difficult to explain to people who don’t teach just how demanding, responsible and exhausting it is (as well as being fun, fulfilling, noble etc.) Every sentence you utter as a teacher requires some kind of consideration and preparation. Meanwhile, it has to be engaging and therefore appear spontaneous.

Holding the attention of a large group, in a class, or in a museum (sometimes crowded and noisy, sometimes empty and quiet), or sitting in the shade of a tree in a park also requires a  a special skill and energy (a way of speaking, using your eyes, moving your head, your hands). To a passer-by it might just seem like chatting, but it is far more than that.

It also requires  a certain ethical motivation to make sure that no teaching and learning opportunity is wasted, and that everyone present is getting an equal opportunity to get as much as they can out of the event.

I always tell the students of this course that they are very fortunate to be studying in London, not classroom-bound in a provincial college dependent upon projected slides, nor in a city that less well stocked than London with world-class museums and artifacts.

By the end of the week I feel excited about the course, the new group of students, the museums, the artifacts, the conversations and ideas. But I also feel exhausted, according to that deep, deep form of tiredness that you only begin to encounter in middle-age, a kind of tiredness that one night’s sleep, or even a weekend’s rest doesn’t seem to compensate for.

I spent large parts of my life listlessly unemployed, and other parts involved in manual or low-skilled labour. Nowadays, I use my ‘head’ to make my living.

This is something that I remember dreaming about in a school playground when I was about twelve years old, musing to myself : “what if you could make a living by thinking?” while most of the boys around me were indulging in fighting, to establish hierarchies according to a crude kind of ‘strength’.

My ‘head’ must be pretty strong by now, but it sill doesn’t feel hard. I’ve been working it hard and paying the rent with it for twenty years now, working ‘full-on’ as a very busy teacher, and, when not teaching, writing seriously enough to produce about 150 professional pieces, including several articles for referee journals, plus a few self-published artists’ books that double as essay collections.

Still, the strange kind of exhaustion that results from teaching, and which is so hard to describe or justify and explain to others, does seem to be based in the brain.

On returning from work I often say “my brain feels fried“, and go and lie down, but usually sleep doesn’t come, proof perhaps that this is a kind of stress as much as any physical kind of exhaustion.

And stress has the insidious property of filling us with a kind of negative energy that refuses rest, even though, and even when we are both physically and mentally depleted.

I’ll illustrate this week’s post with a link to a nice song about sleep.