You worry and wonder this week about the value of your experience and your contributions. Summer school teaching is going well, as ever, the students are enthusiastic about learning art history using London’s many wonderful museums. You too get inspired, re-energised by art and history and the questions and conversations they provoke about society and the present. You finished teaching yesterday evening in St James’ Park with a little seminar in the dappled light beneath a a London Plane tree. A group of students from Japan, Italy and China were discussing questions based on a recent visit to the V&A; questions regarding Beauty and Purpose, the Purpose of Beauty and the Beauty of Purpose no less.
In the afternoon you’d jogged them around the National Gallery, starting with Robert Venturi’s arch postmodern Sainsbury Wing extension after briefly glossing Hans Haacke’s witty contribution to the Fourth Plinth outside in Trafalgar Square. Anonymous Late medieval paintings, then early Renaissance paintings by Cimabue, Duccio and Giotto soon gave on to the perspectival accomplishments of Uccello and the still-bewilderingly brilliant breakthroughs in oil painting by Jan Van Eyck, Leonardo was cursorily compared with Botticelli and then you visited Room 7, Pontormo, to run the concept of ‘Mannerism’ by the students.
The Dutch ‘Golden Age’ offered relief from Baroque drama in the form of small commodity-like paintings depicting the new 17th protestant federal republic of the Netherlands, a place where art seemed to be for everyone, or at least where there was a kind of painting for everyone and a kind of painting that was of or about just about everyone. Rubens was drawn in for comparison and to emphasise the persistent difference of the more Cathoilc / Flemish baroque style. The political history of Velázquez‘s so-called ‘Rokeby Venus’ gave on to the audacious skills displayed by Caravaggio, before you ended the hurried tour comparing the neoclassical and academic painting of David and Peyron with sweet, florid and relaxed Rococo paintings by Watteau, Boucher and Lancret.
Despite all this great privilege, despite all this pleasure, despite all this opportunity you sometimes feel slightly flat lately, as though disengaged from current debate. History is certainly alive and rich but you feel most excited, ultimately, by those times when you can try to forge new thoughts, writing as philosophically and politically and convincingly and as contemporarily as possible, in polished and publishable prose, or while preparing images (moving or still) as contributions to exhibitions of contemporary art.
You have long understood the old expression used in busy offices: ‘If you want something done quickly give it to the busiest person’. You crave periods of empty time in which to resolve unfinished projects, complete incomplete works, find the time to submit papers, edit them professionally, even to apply for funds etc. and yet those days, that time never, ever really comes, not to you anyway. It’s just a mirage. And so, you have to accept, that for you, for your art, and your writing (based on your own economic and social conditions) you have to try to ignore this mirage and keep your own reality in focus, including the fact that your work will always, in truth, be forced to burst out of the seams and squeeze out around the edges of the work you do and have to do, every day, week and month to pay the rent and to pay your way in the world. But you hope that this means your work will nevertheless make its own contribution, as the contributions of less privileged, less aristocratic, less well funded and underpinned creative people have always done, and, furthermore, that it may have a special relevance to your economic environment precisely because it is so directly a response to it.
You have a nephew staying for a fortnight, and you had to hastily rearrange your small flat (already crowded with the fallout from your partner losing their studio to the South London property boom) in order to accommodate and entertain your visitor. In the process you come face to face with your published archive. You haven’t counted your publications but there are four short shelves of their amassed thin spines, so there must be 100- 200 articles and essays, and 3 -4 stories, in various journals, magazines, catalogues, and a few books, all written and published since 1997. You worry that they have made no difference, that they haven’t changed the world, and have made little difference to your status or economy (many were done for little or no payment); you worry that no-one ever reads them, or does so cursorily before they are discarded and ignored. You see that there is still a very long way to go until what you feel is your full potential is any way realised, and until what you feel are your real abilities are appreciated.
But then, this might almost be described as the ‘human condition’ within your modern, capitalist context, i.e. given this particular socio-economic nexus, almost every human being is given a strong sense of their own dynamic potential, only to be (bar those economically liberated elites we know so well) weighed down with so many tasks, demands and responsibilities, keeping our potential in sight but out of reach, as something many of us even come to try to forget or ignore, perhaps because the constant contemplation of our potential, in its unattainable form, is just too painful for us to behold.