You are still in the thick of your annual 7-week Summer School stint. The first 6 weeks is Art History, using all the museums, then there’s a week of ‘Art & Politics’ and soon after the undergrad terms kicks back in. So, there’s little or no sense of ‘holiday’ or ‘break’ and even if there were time, despite all this work there wouldn’t be any ‘disposable income’ to make a holiday possible (welcome to the precariat!)
You sometimes fear that Art History teaching might be getting you stuck in the mud of a canonical narrative, but to be honest, once you get into it, it’s always a joyful and enriching experience. Working with Summer School students is a delight as everyone is so new to, excited about, and never cynical about the subject. Often they are in London or Europe for the first time.
There’s been a lot of cynical criticism of ‘naivety’ and ‘unreality’ regarding politics lately, but you think that it’s by maintaining a certain child-like ‘innocence’ that we can best affirm our art and our world and our lives and find new solutions through hope. This, you believe, is what Nietzsche championed as the ‘Yay Sayer’ (not the cynical ‘Nay Sayer’), as well as the child and the artist as models for philosophy
Another bonus of teaching Art History is that going over the whole (yes, canonic) story again and again, annually gives you the sense that you are ‘sweeping the floor’ or ‘polishing the mirror’ of certain fundamentals concerning and underpinning contemporary art. All the central precedents for, and influences upon contemporary art emerge again, enabling you to scrutinize and clarify their value, and their relationships for the umpteenth time.
Deepening your own understanding and sharing them with people who are often hearing them for the very first time can be extremely exciting and rewarding, and, far from stultifying you it only strengthens your foundations and confidence as an artist, writer and lecturer on contemporary art. Its nevertheless important to stress to students that any art historical ‘established’ narrative, though convenient (the museums are hard-wired into it), is a construction, and therefore always ripe for revision – by e.g. feminist, postcolonial, class and other critiques.
Every year you take so much pleasure in seeing people becoming fascinated by art and to art history, people who have mainly come to London for a break and to develop their English language and who major in very different subjects. Occasionally you have had real converts who actually swap their major or change careers as a result of the Summer School (you’re still in touch with some who are now curating, working in galleries, making art or starting PhDs.)
London can be lovely at this time of year too and its great to have your work based in Bloomsbury, which is surely the most attractive, thoughtful, sophisticated and ‘civilised’ part of this wonderful city. If you wonder why for a moment, well, it may be because there are far fewer shops and no shopping centres in Bloomsbury. It’s that fact, plus the presence of the museum and university campuses, you think, that makes it such an exception. This fact makes you resent, even more, the great blight that shops and shopping lay over our mental and physical environment, stealing our imagination and shrinking our ability to think.
Of course there is also an increased police presence in London, more armed police, more security arrangements and less visitors at the museums. This week there was a murder very close to the college that serves as base camp for your course. The woman killed was in fact the partner of a Bloomsbury Summer School lecturer. Terrorism and other indiscriminate murders have become such regular occurrences now, almost an everyday part of our 21st century capitalist, consumerist, modernity, that both we ‘average Joes’, and the ‘powers that be’, are now used to expressing the fact that we can do little or nothing to avoid them. And so, this week, we just went on as normal, not even discussing the horrors that had taken place a stones throw from our lecture on ‘Dada & Surrealism’, our seminar on ‘Baudelaire to Bauhaus’.
Again, it may be the cultivation of a kind of ‘innocence’ or child-like unreality that is necessary to human beings who simply cannot going burdened by what someone once called ‘too much reality.’ You are a kind of ‘refugee’ from one class (a ‘country’ of a kind) who is always asking to be accepted, established and recognised as a member of another (middle) class. Despite 30 years of pouring time and energy into this personal project you feel as much an outsider than ever. Many of your overtures backfire, people misread and misinterpret your, perhaps childlike requests to share and play and to belong. Perhaps you still don’t talk the lingo, don’t have the innate ‘body language’ of those born into that class. As a result you feel you still have to struggle all harder, without the support groups that others cultivate and enjoy.
Although this can be, and has often been saddening, challenging and often exhausting, some compensation lies in the fact that, when you are relatively alone and forced ‘out on a limb’ your imagination and creativity are less constrained. Meanwhile your fear of others’ (those ‘natives’ of the ‘country’ to which you are always trying to migrate) power and sophistication is decreased by distance, allowing you to cultivate your own confidence and belief. Still, having made your works, and clarified your thoughts, you always do all you can to share them with as many others as possible, even if this means proffering them with wide-eyed hope of acceptance, only to find you and your works ignored by people sufficiently focused on those they ‘already know’, and whom they ‘already know’ to be of a certain status, ‘caliber’, and value.
Teaching fine art can never be authoritative but rather a kind of licensing, a way of opening-up spaces of possibility in other peoples minds and for other people’s hands. You cannot presume to know what art is, what good art is, or what these will be for this student, for these students, or for the future into which they are growing, and so, telling them what is right or wrong in art, or insisting on imparting trendy, current or contemporary values as if they are a rule, merely has the sad effect of closing down what should and can otherwise infinite speculation, in which anything can happen, now and in the future.
Tony Blair recently told the Labour Party that, rather than following its ‘heart’ or searching for its ‘heart’ (in a kind of reinvigorated Socialism) it should ‘get a heart transplant’. Again we see cynicism and science and ‘reality meaning well but wiping out what people most need right now, which is a space in which to dream up a possible future. Yes, our dreams and hopes may seem unlikely, unrealistic, naive etc. but there are periods in politics when ‘hearts’ and ‘dreams’, ‘innocence’ and ‘naivety’ are surely necessary; times where and when a certain romance or Romanticism (not forgetting that it was Romanticism that fueled the revolutions that brought about modern democracy) are the only way to build up that special, collective morale which can become its very own form of (internal) ‘power’.
Once a more institutionalised, recognisable (external) form of power is achieved, that might be a time for more mature, responsible, pragmatic, ‘realistic’ and scientific thinking. Right now, when everything is so broken, and yet so ‘up for grabs’ we instinctively, and strongly need to dream, to imagine, to play and to hope and to thereby unite wherever possible. Ideally today we would cast aside our all-too-grown-up, all-too-knowing, all-too-territorial fears, borders and limits. We would our doors, share our toys and our talents and take pains to talk and to listen, without presumption or prejudice, to what both our perceived comrades and our perceived ‘others’ are saying.