93. ‘An Ideal for Living: Photographing Class, Culture and Identity in Modern Britain’

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BOY DESTROYING PIANO,WALES, 1961 by PHILIP-JONES

The week since then has been your first without teaching work since perhaps last Xmas. Your mind and body give themselves up to rest, not really wanting to do anything very much. You lie around, reading and sleeping, idling and feeling that your body is as battered as your mind and spirit.

Gradually you get your energy back and its time for your own serious writing, book designing and book making, music and art projects, funding applications and a little park walking or just going about town with no rush or particular aim.

As Blog posting time approaches it’s ‘An Ideal for Living: Photographing Class, Culture and Identity in Modern Britain‘ (at Beetles & Huxley gallery) that seems the most appropriate experience to write about. There are two subjects here by which you have been diverted and distracted all of your life. One is Photography and the other is Class in Britain.

You have written and spoken about and practiced (you might say) them both, extensively and for almost as long as you can recall. Nevertheless you start writing this post with a little trepidation, not least because you have not arrived at any conclusions concerning either  – despite all the energy you have given them, despite all the ‘angles’ by which you have ‘approached’ them, despite all the highs and lows they have brought to your life’s narrative.

This also makes it difficult to know where or how to start, but you have two ideas: 1. go through the images generously supplied by the gallery on its website, recalling those that  struck you most forcefully and describing your response; and: 2. try to write an explanation of just what this medium (Photography) can contribute to this cultural phenomenon or content (Class in Britain). Perhaps you can do all of this, even though you have only 430 words of your weekly word-count limit remaining.

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COAL MINERS HOUSES WITHOUT WINDOWS TO THE STREET, 1930s, by BILL BRANDT

The still photograph is notorious for lying, at least in the way that it tells us next to nothing about what it portrays, other than all it captured in a fraction of a second (i.e.nothing before nor after, and nothing beyond the frame), other than that which the photographer selected and shaped and enhanced, in such a way as to aim to tell us certain things about that subject. Hence we might think the photograph tends towards reductivism, stereotype and caricature (a noble art in its own right of course).

The more you write the more you feel Photography is once again laughing at your inability to comprehend or contain it in mere words. And so you are drawn back to the images themselves, which sometimes seem to have supplanted not only the long proud history of painting but that of writing, speaking and explicating too.

Photographs, as well as being so very selective and restrictive, also say sooooo much, so much that chattering before them and about them soon seems superfluous. Walter Benjamin noted the significance of the fact that they generated their own tradition of accompanying captions. Some also adopted witty titles developed from genre painting traditions.

But when you find yourself becoming the caption for a photograph, as if, despite your attempts the photograph has nevertheless left you outside and beyond it, making connections which are merely arbitrary and never essential or intrinsic to the photograph itself, then it may be time desist, to restrain yourself, to close your mouth, switch off your intellect, close your Thesaurus and default back to the eye.

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OUTSIDE THE PISS HOUSE PUB, PORTOBELLO ROAD, 1968, by CHARLIE PHILLIPS

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TUINOL BARRY, CHELSEA LONDON, 1981, by DEREK RIDGERS

It’s our eye, often meeting the eyes of others here, that invariably moves us most. The working class seem particularly good at staring into the camera, while the suburban middle class, and privileged ‘Toffs’ from public schools tend rather to be captured at a slight distance and from angles which do not allow them to respond with that steely ‘despite everything’ working class pride.

All the shame and all the intractable pain of class is here, in this extensive exhibition in this modest-sized West End gallery. However, that shame and that pain is often so aestheticised by the photographic medium that only those living subjects who can actually recall or sufficiently imagine living powerlessly, vulnerably, fearfully, wretchedly, in windowless back-to-back, 2-up-2-down houses, with outside toilets, and while working for a bare subsistence, with no National Health Service, and being repeatedly thrown on and off the dole queue at the whim of capitalism, industry and government, only they can see these photographs as other than art, and far more than ‘beautiful’ evocations of modern humanity’s extremes.

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MAYOR OF TODMORDENS INAUGURAL BANQUET, CALDERDALE,1952, by MARTIN PARR

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UNTITLED, HOTDOG STAND, 1983-85, by MARTIN PARR

Class and classism is basically hateful, it is something as painful and destructive to human lives as other kinds of monstrous wall-building, e.g. racism, sexism, colonialism, slavery, all of which, along with classism, we must hope and strive and demand will one day be consigned to ‘the dustbin of history.’

But while we live with it, and cannot escape it -however we might writhe, kick, swear, struggle, cry, try, try, try and try –  we can also perversely enjoy it, enjoy its extreme difference, see the funny side of it, and photographers of the British Class system seem to have always managed to do that very well, even if, the moment their shutter closed and they turned their eyes away, they left (as we in the UK have been shocked to discover in the past 6 years of reinvigorated Tory rule) that the whole insidious and intricate class system is pretty much untouched, unchanged and unchallenged by what we once called ‘progress’.

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MAY BALL, CAMBRIDGE, 1983, by JURGEN SCHADEBERG

An Ideal for Living: Photographing Class, Culture and Identity in Modern Britain

 

 

 

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92. Art, politics, zines, détournement – the technological super-humanity in which we trust.

Art, can be any thing, after Duchamp. Art can be made by any one, after Beuys. Meanwhile ‘The Personal Is Political’ according to Carol Hanisch, and this statement (and Hanisch’s famous 1969 essay of the same name) suggest that politics is at least as universal as art. Therefore, when you teach a week-long Summer School (or ‘Short Course’) called ‘Art & Politics’ it might be hard to know where to begin or end.

Ultimately, this course or programme is shaped by your own tendencies, interests, habits, your own reading, your intellectual journey. But also by your students, many of whom have flown into London just for this course. You have, inevitably, favourite texts, movies, ideas and connections, certain artworks that make your points effectively.

Nevertheless, you always go into a course like this, and into almost any course you now teach, with a certain openness, ready for the particular students, the changed and changing world, the current exhibitions in London, and that elusive factor, your own changing knowledge and opinion of the subject, to all combine in determining the outcome.

Today is the final day and you can report that you have made connections from Baudelaire’s famous 1846 Salon essay, through Hanisch, to Walter Benjamin, Mikhail Bakhtin’s ‘Carnivalesqe’ and a little essay on Selfies, written by George Vasey.

Quite consistently you’ve referred to the idea that what we call ‘Art & Politics’ is influenced, not just by ideas and ideologies but by cultural environments and  technologies –  the city, suburbia, photography, film, video, TV, social networks.

‘Art & Politics’ is also about how the self (often by means of these same technologies) corresponds with wider community, culture and commerce. So it was also important to watch Abbas Kiarostami’s movie ‘10‘, and Renzo Martens’ ‘Episode III: Enjoy Poverty‘, and why it was important to (re)visit the ‘Punk, 1976-2016‘ exhibition at The British Library and the ‘FANZINES: A Cut & Paste Revolution‘ vitrine show at Barbican Library’.

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Zines may now appear to be the forerunner of our ubiquitous Blogs and Posts, and yet the show at Barbican seems so much richer than the endless sprawling selection of online communications we encounter daily. Not only is every single zine unique in its design, content, and materials, but the care that has gone into making each of them reflects the value of the messages they are intended to carry. Each strives to nurture some personal passion, however (purposefully) perverse. A kind of urgent necessity pervades every staple, every fold and every carefully typed word.

Like Punk, a zine is, or was, a way to give form to, and thus in some way legitimate, a line of thought that might otherwise remain mere immaterial whimsy, lines of thought which often seem too personal to be of interest to the wider world, but are painstakingly published in multiple editions nevertheless, as if out of bloody-mindedness. As such, the tradition continues (even in their more homogeneous, generic and virtual online form as Blogs and Posts) to assert the value of an ambitious affirmation of self-worth, proclaiming  a certain irrepressible sovereignty that here survives the constant onslaught  of unwelcome abuse made by mass media, mass production and mass promotion.

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Zines promote YOU and what YOU believe to be important/funny/daft, and even a modest show like this one at the wonderfully voluminous, strangely anachronistic Barbican library, is enough to allow you to revel in all the care and creativity that goes into each audacious act of self-publishing.

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Interestingly, the show includes a kind of ur Zine in the form of a foxed and faded copy of John Milton’s Areopagitica, ‘published at the height of the English Civil War in 1643 . This helps to prove your assertion that ‘Art & Politics’ is something for which we cannot find a manageable or convenient temporal or conceptual frame and so must embrace holistically, and relativistically, while allowing our own interests to give shape to the subject.

Renzo Martens’ film remains harrowing and is still strangely beguiling, despite years of repeated viewings, discussions and despite having published writing on it. Episode III still does better than almost any other journalism or other art that you know, to bring us into a more real and necessary proximity with the inhumane economy operating behind the scenes of our ‘Spectacular Society’. It ventures nobly but always also Quixotically, to embroil itself in the difficult search for solutions to apparently impossible and inextricably convoluted ethical problems, even if these turn out to be an update on that old conjuring trick described by Marx in the first chapter of ‘Capital‘.

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Profit and comfort, leisure and excess all depend upon the abuse of someone else’s humanity, on the extraction of someone else’s time and energy, and its ‘magical ‘ transformation into economic value. Meanwhile, those who work at the hard butt-end of capitalism will continue to be exploited, and with increasing intensity, until or unless capitalism encounters the conditions that will enable its own abolition.

Martens tries to reminds us that Art & Politics is your ‘Flat White’, your shampoo and your smartphone, if only because Palm Oil, Coltan and Coffee are all extracted from the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, along with diamonds and gold, and apparently with no significant (e.g. enduring, infrastructural) returning to those countries, other than in the form of patronising and ultimately debilitating aid which, in Renzo Martens’ argument, perpetuates an appalling state of poverty which, is, in various ways ‘enjoyed’ (as part of the great ‘visibility’ spectacle) by our drastically divided, media-saturated society.

Electric guitars, microphones, record players, photographs, photocopiers, risographs, vinyl records, and movies made with hand-held video cameras, can all reveal ‘personal’ details about our ‘political’ lives, through blogs, home movies, demos and selfies. Together they form a historical procession of little liberties and liberations, cultural revolutions, expressions and critiques.

This ever-lengthening procession of technologised representations is and has invariably been made by, claimed and grasped by those thus far failed by supposedly representative democracy.

In the continuing promise and future of these available technologies, as well as in the increasingly curated history of these technologies, we might feel justified in investing our hopes, and more so, you might add, than we invest in ‘representative democracy’ and more even than we feel we can invest today in our crushed, compromised, curtailed, kettled and consumed humanity.

Rather, our most accessible technologies, each (once détourned) potentially ‘cultural’, each (once détourned) potentially political, have become our ‘super-humanity’, supplanting any leader or god in whom we might have previously entrusted our redemption.

91. The Value of Sorrow (Ragnar Kjartansson at The Barbican)

It’s the last days and last week of your Summer art history school teaching. The final visit is to the Barbican to see, and evaluate, some Contemporary Art in the shape of Ragnar Kjartansson’s current retrospective there.

At the entrance you are trying to sort out the group booking when you spy a couple of other art writers, (0ne is also an editor or a well-known journal) who are just leaving. They look at you for a moment as if there might be some sense of territorial value at stake, but you make it clear you are not here to conduct a review, and therefore perhaps tread on their professional toes, but only to support your students in their studies.

Nevertheless, by the time you’ve seen the show, discussed it with your students, mulled it over on the bus going home, and described it to your partner, it seems the obvious thing to use as the stem of your Blog post this week.

‘Sorrow’ is a word, and a concept, that Kjartansson uses more than once in this show, a sprawling retrospective which repeatedly immerse you in dirge-like music, soul searching slowness, and sombre tones.

 

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In one work, titles ‘The SS Hangover‘ and which you recognise from reviews of the 2013  Venice biennale, a replica of an ancient boat, carrying a band of brass instrumentalists, repeatedly puts to sea and returns, from and to a sheltered Venetian jetty, while the band play a woeful tune.

In another piece the singer and his band are dressed in 40s-style ties ‘n’ tuxedos, their stage is swathed in red curtains and their lyrical refrain talks of sorrow trumping happiness. There’s a rock version too in which the artist and his musicians seem to invoke ghosts of ‘The Birthday Party’ or some similarly grungy, edgy and slightly demonic band.

 

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You knew you’d come across an artist creating these bluesy, melancholic musical atmospheres in a gallery once or twice before, then you put your finger on it. About 50 Posts back you wrote about Richard T. Walker at Carroll/Fletcher Gallery, and you can follow this link if you would like to see what I am talking about. Richard T. Walker Link

A B&W video, with its title written in a florid, romantic font, shows the artist dressed up as ‘Death’, complete with Victorian frock coat, scythe and black eye make-up. He tries in vain to scare children who are passing through a graveyard with their teachers, but the kids laugh back candidly at his props and his performance, throwing their own scary faces  and asking him awkward questions. Perhaps Death, personified in the age of Video Games and Virtual Reality needs to try a little harder to convince us today.

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But what is the place or value of all this sorrow and darkness for Contemporary Art? Is it an intrinsically ‘Icelandic’ contribution perhaps, something to do with the latitude, climate or daylight? It’s possible. But what seems more likely to you is that Kjartansson is promoting an undervalued realm in the current art world in general, wherein emotion, history, ‘soul’, melancholia and failure are repressed by all the positivity, wit, clarity, and ambition that pervades the arts in an age of media saturation, ever higher visibility, and global marketing.

And then, why does Kjartansson play and use so much music in his work anyway? Why not just be or become a musician? The answer to this seems to lie, again, in trying to draw something in to fine art from just outside it, something that may be currently pushed to art’s margins but which can always be readily found in music.

Music of almost any style and era has a tendency  and ability to be primarily appreciated as an emotive experience. Such experiences, it’s worth noting, tend to ‘humanise’ and unite us in ways that drier, wittier, Conceptual Art might not.

Questions of collectivity and community also arise here in a work titled ‘The Visitors’ (2012) (which is probably the ‘masterpiece’ of the show and likely, along with ‘SS Hangover‘ to be the most famous and enduring work here). Here, different musicians appear to occupy different rooms of a crumbling mansion (itself perhaps symbolic of our decreasing confidence in bourgeois power and value). Each individual is linked in to each other’s performance via microphones and headphones, and each is projected on a separate screen. There is something increasingly fulfilling and joyful about watching a piece of music made in this strangely fragmented-yet-united, and immediate-yet-mediated manner. Again, it seems confirm a shared humanity, both among the musicians and with the audience who can ‘get’ and feel viscerally what the musicians are doing while connecting the musical parts spatially, as separated components and separate individuals united by art and technology.

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There is nevertheless something about this show that sometimes feels overstretched, a little like the retrospective produced by Martin Creed at Hayward a couple of years ago where, instead of taking up the space and the concept of ‘Retrospective’ and turning these into one magnificent new Creed work, he seemed to ram everything he has ever done and everything he has ever half-done into one big, messy and ultimately annoying show. Kjartansson hasn’t gone that far, but you could have done without e.g. several of the works involving painting and paper (which seem designed to prove the artist is a kind of ‘genius’ capable of excelling, in all styles, in the art of several epochs, and by using diverse media). A few of the less resolved-seeming video works could have been edited out too, with the aim of reducing the whole show by about 30% and thereby making it all a little more snappy, powerful, confident and convincing.

One or two simpler, ‘one-liner’ type video pieces here however do have a special power to etch themselves onto the memory. In one, the artist’s mother (an actress) spits at him as they stand together in front of the family’s bookcases. In another, a famous Icelandic male actor stands in a snowed out landscape with a terrifying looking rifle plus a bargain supermarket carrier bag, in which he repeatedly fumbles for cartridges before letting off rounds, the sound of which echo across the whole Gallery. Somehow this macabre image digs itself deep into your soul. Additional information supplied by the gallery suggest it is related to Iceland’s recent financial crises and to certain corrupt individuals and organisations party responsible for it. Nowhere else in the show is ‘politics’ alluded to in such an explicit way, though, as you have said, some kind of yearning for community and shared, unifying, emotive experience persists throughout.

On the way to the exit you once again pass the weird scene that greets visitors to the show. Young men, strewn here and there, in various states of undress, on soft furnishings, laze around playing an absurd song with a ridiculous lyric while empty beer bottles surround them. Some of your students were wary of this piece on the way in but grew to like the show more and more. Others found the show initially surprising then increasingly repetitive. You try to avoid writing reviews at all (preferring to write rapid Blog posts or  very slow, considered,  wide-ranging articles). And if you do write a Review then you try to avoid making judgements and instead transmit something you have learned or discoverd from the experience you have had.

Here you sidestep the assumption that this show and this work are steeped in irony, and instead it’s what you might call ‘the value of sorrow’ that you choose to take away from this show as its most rewarding gift, and which you couldn’t take away from any other show you’ve seen for a good long while. Where is the soul of art, in this increasingly corrupt, cold, frightening and morally unpalatable society? Perhaps it can only be found within that tumultuous internal  weather system of emotions that we really and undeniably feel, and that we endure and process, even as we keep up more or less positive appearances (Like!, Like!, Like!)  on Social Networks.

SEE BARBICAN SHOW LINK HERE

 

 

 

 

 

 

90. Mercurialism and non-affiliation: a radical Left wing response to the divisive Right (featuring Cedric Price, Hito Steyerl, Bruce Lee and Deleuze & Guattari).

The internet really is insatiable. It sucks, or would suck, all of your wit, wisdom, art, words, images, time and energy up into it, if you allow it to do so. As you have articles to write for print journals you have to be careful not to give to your Blog all those words and ideas that you may later wish you had preserved for more professional contexts. Nevertheless, you want to remain true to the egalitarian generosity of the internet, and hold to your candid policy of being as true to yourself, to your week, and to what’s ‘on your mind’ (as facebook used to say) as possible.

Art & Politics is always a rich and rewarding mix as artists will always bring radical and progressive, as well as witty and inventive solutions to a discipline and a profession that all too often appears stuck in its own mire, anchored to tradition, relatively humourless, inordinately concentrated on economics and sorely lacking in imagination.

Teaching Art History this week you were able consider once again, with students new to the subject, the modernist principle, according to which artists, designers and architects, and therefore planners, and politicians, philosophers, sociologists, journalists and psychologists might all contribute to the designing and building of a better human future.

Sadly, today it often seems hard to imagine artists playing any such explicit, constructive, political and social role. But then, perhaps there is some glimmer of hope in the fact that the ‘Assemble’ group won last year’s Turner Prize. There seems no reason why artists should not play a new and important part, in what is rapidly starting to look like a thorough (and potentially exciting) renewal of Left wing politics, and therefore of politics per se.

Surely, the current generation of progressives should demand a newly open and accessible democracy, e.g. extending voting rights to 16 year-olds, making voting either more habitual or more compulsory, voting via the internet and creating new formats (above and beyond the soap box, the letter box and Right-wing dominated media) by means of which Objective, expert, factual information germane to each election or referendum is disseminated.

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Cedric Price (see also: http://discoversociety.org/2014/07/01/the-thinkbelt-the-university-that-never-was/)

The radical British architect Cedric Price once advocated a Europe-wide University that would occupy, not a building but a constantly traveling train. He also designed something similar for a deprived part of England. 21st century politics could take heed and take heart from this idea as it desperately needs to uproot itself from its home in a gloomy, adversarial, Neo-Gothic 19th Century building in London, and as soon as possible become a decentralised, nomadic, touring democracy. Place matters, location matters, proximity matters, being there matters, and democracy will be improved and renewed by making it mobile, more face-to-face and accountable.

This week you are regularly struck by the degree to which divisiveness can take hold of a country, given a Conservative, even a so-called ‘centre-Right’ (but in fact increasingly or surreptitiously hard Right government. The past 6 years have inexorably, relentlessly sewed and increased social and economic and cultural division across the UK.

Even among your progressive friends you feel painful splits and tensions growing, often from touchy misinterpretations and misunderstandings, as fear and anxiety takes hold and makes people jumpy, hateful, tribal and territorial where, not long ago they were more open, generous and had a sense of humour that oiled society’s wheels.

The UK today feels like a place in which it is more difficult to laugh, harder to make a joke, to make political progress, or to make a work of art than it has been for a generation.

But do not blame each other, blame the Right. It is Right wing politics that divides, and increasingly divides. That is its pre-modern aim, its pre-modern modus operandi and its pre-modern power, wholly antithetical to the modern Left wing project which was born precisely to mitigate and oppose this divisiveness, and to create or improve social cohesion (through fairness, communication, education, redistribution, infrastructure, regionalism etc.)

If you are lucky enough to belong to a coherent, established social and political group, ism or union, with consistent and coherent aims, then it may well be worth cultivating and nurturing that kind of loyalty, because if you are more of an outsider, it can be unusually cold, dangerous and disorienting at present.

Nevertheless, for those of us who are strangely compelled to live such questioning lives that, almost every aspect of identity and every event of experience needs to be constantly held and maintained in question, a certain, special pressure forces you to acclimatise to a sense of not-belonging, a constantly marginal and outsider-ly status, which is also a lack, refusal or relinquishment of status.

However, this, it seems to you, is ultimately, the most ethical (because least dogmatic) political position to hold, and perhaps the most ‘artistic.’ From this ‘positionless’ position (Maurice Blanchot called it ‘powerless power’) you feel able to support and contribute to – as and when and how you can- all those more clearly identifiable progressive groups, which are be made-up of more confident and consistent, reliable, hand-on-heart affiliations, e.g. feminists, ‘Black Lives Matter’ activists etc.

The point here is to try to avoid both schism and dogma, becoming as mercurial and creative a politcal activist as possible. The idea arises from experiencing painful divisions, according to which those who’s political view you strongly share, can shock you with their sudden and unexpected alienation of you from their own silo’d and territorialsed cause. or faction. Ironically, or paradoxically, non-affiliation is actually a call for greater unity.

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Hito Steyerl ‘Liquidity Inc.

Strategically speaking, those great, ancient, Asian authorities on warfare might concur that making yourself unrecognisable as an object may be the greatest power you can have over your ultimate opponent (the Right). Artist, activist and creative theorist Hito Steyerl seemed to suggest something similar in her ‘Liquidity Inc’ piece. When neoliberal globalisation becomes a tsunami – she seemed to suggest- follow the words of the great Bruce Lee and: “Become Water My Friend”.

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Bruce Lee

As above, there may seems an apparent irony or contradiction in championing heterogeneity at a time of increasing divisiveness in the Left and in society in general. The 20th century would appear to teach us that the way to defeat a unified power is to unify ourselves in opposition to it. However, more and more it seems apparent that we are still fighting, and ever re-fighting the battles of the 20th century (e.g. the nexus of big-business, Right wing / fascist politics, hatred and warmongering).

You may be cursed with a philosophical level of deconstructive critique which leads you to test and suspect every form of union (or ‘organ-isation’ as Deleuze & Guattari might put it), along with every form of silo’d and territorialising dogma (the one perhaps necessarily leading from the other.)

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Deleuze & Guattari

You’ve also long been interested by the radical (and again Deleuzian) argument that the Left is only truly Left when it is OUT OF power, i.e. when it is free to be most oppositional and critical, and in a position from which it is able to observe most acutely the shortcomings and afflictions of the empowered, of power itself (in this case always necessarily the Right). From this position-less position of ‘powerlesss power’ the Left is able to patiently cultivate (by all kinds of institutional, and more creative, inventive, plural and non-institutional means) the next generation’s as yet unnamed areas of protest, as yet unnamed new rights, and as yet unnamed demands for  extensions of and improvements to the evolving project of society and democracy.

For this reason, the most progressive among us may be happy to avoid both dogma and dog-fighting, remaining necessarily and tactically un-afilliated, mercurial, and relatively autonomous, a mode in which we are most free to think with fluidity and creativity. And this is not just the artist’s preferred mode but a mode the artist would like to and can share with the designer, the architect, the politician, the planner, the philosopher, the journalist, the sociologist and the psychologist to cultivate a fairer, more intelligent, generous, sustainable, kind, and peaceful way to coexist, inter and intra-exist, and share our  environment and resources.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

89.The Politics of Innocence – cultivating hopes, ‘hearts’, and ‘dreams’.

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.)

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‘Civilsed’ Bloomsbury

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.

88. Occupying The Globe – Towards an ‘ultramulticulture’ by way of History

This week you have been teaching Art History in London’s museums. It’s an annual Summer Job that you have been doing for over 10 years now. It’s strange, to spend the academic term time involved with contemporary art and artists and then switch into Historical mode for the summer each year.

It’s hard work, like all teaching, the responsibility for both your students and your subject make it tiring, even if, while you are in the full flow of teaching, you seem to acquire some magical energy, enthusiasm and inspiration.

To take a break, last weekend you managed to get £5 cancellation tickets to see Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at The Globe Theatre. About half way through the performance you got that feeling you always get when you watch Shakespeare, your eyes grew damp and you wondered why you didn’t spend your whole life with Shakespeare. Is there any better art and artist, really?

The current production, directed by Emma Rice is a multicultural whirlwind of contemporary relevance and reference. The Indian element in the plot is amplified by an Indian actress playing Hermia. A black actor plays Demetrius, white English actors dominate most of the parts, but Helena is played by a young man who looks and sounds Italian-American and plays the part as gay, thus culminating in a gay marriage between Helena and Demetrius.

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The music and choreography are largely built around (and ‘star’) a sitar, played by an Indian musician who is ever-present at the centre of the ‘minstrel’s gallery’. Her riffs are augmented and supported by elements of blues, jazz, funk, pop, soul and hip-hop. There are briefs outbursts of Bowie and Beyonce inthe show too. Costumes are mostly contemporary too, so Hermia sleeping in the forest becomes a girl at Glastonbury festival in cool pyjamas and Hunter wellies.

But the mystical magic of the 16th century’s very own ‘multiculture’ – in which reason and imagination; the varying worlds of a ducal court, fairyland, and the realm of artisans- mixes with comic results and  is never compromised by all this modernity, rather it is enhanced. Consider, for example, Puck’s trainers glittering and lighting up as the fairy promises to circle the globe in minutes.

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Katy Owen (Puck) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare @ Shakespeare’s Globe. Directed by Emma Rice. Choreographers Etta Murfitt & Emma Rice.Dramaturg,Tanika Gupta (Opening 05-05-16) ©Tristram Kenton 05/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

Surely Aristotle was right to claim that theatre cleans the soul of both individual and community, well, effective theatre at least. You are a BIG fan of cinema and its history, and yet words and ideas, weighted by the worldly influence of the theatre’s special multi-dimensional reality often convinces you that theatre is the ultimate art, and with the greatest claim to encompass all the other arts.

Today’s constant, daily drip of frankly, literally ‘disgusting’ news tells you that our society is everywhere in danger of failing. The pope this week said the world is ‘at war’ and laid the blame, not on religion but on money and power. But spending time in history and with history – whether it looking at a pampered aristocrat’s voluminous writing desk, or gold and enameled snuff box, or at Catherine The Great’s Sevres porcelain, a painting of a 19th century barmaid, or at an anti-fascist photomontage, or Joseph Beuys’ blackboards, or once again at Shakespeare’s historic and enduring wordplay, history is always a resource, an event, an opportunity within which you can glean valuable lessons, find other forms, and alternatives that might just guide us now, as we come, in our own time and in our own way, to occupy and take responsibility for our particular and temporary occupation of ‘The Globe’.

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The Globe Theatres’ stage this week was pulsating with difference. But, glancing around, the audience looked mainly white, and probably mainly made up of privileged tourists. You are sure that The Globe has rich and effective policies and departments that broaden its audience and gets all kinds of new communities and audiences involved with Shakespeare, and this week’s progressive, creative interpretation of something of such traditional and canonic value, seems to point – given our current political and social disasters- to possible solutions to today’s social ills.

Very soon after he was first elected Conservative (ex-) Prime Minister David Cameron gave a right-Wing speech in Europe claiming that ‘multiculture is dead’, when surely, clearly it has always been alive and always will be. Shakespeare proves it. Furthermore, we need politicians, and not just artists and arts organisations, to constantly increase and encourage multiculture not just as an idea or vision but as an inescapable, undeniable reality.

Far from trying to repress or deny, hide or kill-off something so natural, so immanent, so important, and so productive, we need to amplify and renew this now much abused term, perhaps by referring to an ‘ultra-multi-culture’  – a word that sprang to mind unbidden, sometime this week, after leaving the theatre and working in London’s unequalled collection of museum collections.

 

87. ‘Freedom’ to murder: Your capitalist democracy and Joshua Oppenheimer’s ‘The Act of Killing’

You’ve had a hot and busy week, teaching Art History, using London’s museums. You couldn’t help noticing the museum’s have only a fraction of the numbers of visitors you normally expect to see at this time of year. You assume its partly to do with the glorious weather, but perhaps partly to do with an increased wariness (caused by terrorism) of crowded public spaces.

Summer School teaching is as demanding and responsible (and therefore as busy and as tiring) as term-time teaching, and yet, there is something to do with the time of year, the kind of students, and perhaps the subject of Art History itself (not generally taught any more as part of any Fine art Degree programme) that can make Summer Schools an especially joyful teaching experience.

This is the only time of the teaching year when you ever find yourself cycling home, in a warm breeze, without rushing, feeling that you’ve done your job well and that many hours of daylight still lay ahead, in which you can read, relax or attend to your own works.

As the week came to a close you finally got around to watching, on DVD, an art film about which you have been hearing for several years. You have never been one to chase hype and labour to see the latest, most fashionable films or shows. Yes, you do often miss something ‘important’ but London is so brimming with ‘important’ events demanding your time that you long ago developed a strategy for dealing with it without feeling a constant sense of being behind the weekly tsunami of ‘important’ events.

That strategy is largely chance and convenience i.e. you keep abreast, using reviews and journals and hearsay, then attend if it is convenient, if you are passing, or if chance throws an event or artwork into your path.

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The ‘important’ art film that you finally got around to viewing this week was ‘The Act of Killing‘, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. It didn’t seem to matter that you didn’t see it when it first appeared. In fact, in some ways, you wonder if an eventful period of hype, reviews, heated conversations around a new art work are not likely to disallow a truly dispassionate and more objective judgement of the work.

If you attended dinner parties, it may cause regular embarrassment that you ‘haven’t seen’ this or that play, art show, movie, or read this or that “amazing” new novel etc. But after more than 30 years as an artist in London you can honestly say that the number of dinner parties you have attended could be counted on the fingers of one hand, and so, for you, discovering contemporary art and culture has always been akin to practice i.e. a relatively private, and often magical affair, uninformed and un-directed by ‘hype’, fashion and gossip.

It’s hard to disagree however with the commonly-held judgement that this film is some kind of ‘masterpiece’, fusing, innovative ways, creative and political values in ways that allow the audience to think through a damning and depressing social scenario in truly new ways. Even more impressive, an accompanying interview with the director suggests that the film has already brought about real change in the object it addresses.

That object is Indonesia and the fascistic legacies of its Western-backed, mid 1960s anti-communist dictatorship. If you are interested and involved in politics or in contemporary art, I agree too that you ‘must see’ this film. It is truly ‘bizarre’ (an often carelessly used word), as well as being grotesque, two values which have been used to describe other infamous fascist regimes.

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Following WW2 and the Nuremberg trials we learned that evil could be described as ‘banal’, but later historians of Nazism also came to point out its bungling and absurd aspects, some of which had in fact been reflected by Bertolt Brecht’s immediate response to fascism in certain elements of his thought, theatre, and very black humour.

If you are ‘of the Left’ politically then you will also be horrified, watching this film, to recognise numerous repeated tropes of fascism that are bubbling away not far from the surface of a society near you. It must be a very frightening time to be any kind of progressive, intellectual or artist in Turkey today, but look at your own society too when you watch this film and ask yourself if it doesn’t also seem to be mobilising the anger and potential violence of a reactionary and resentful lower class, disempowered by the inexorable movements of capitalism and now ready to sign up to a ‘loyal’ and ‘patriotic’ relationship with a ‘strong leader’ who promises new ‘freedoms’.

Here, you are missing-out any general description of this now well-known and often discussed movie. All that is readily available to the reader elsewhere. As a Blogger you prefer to find a more personal and more topical ‘angle’ with which to evaluate the film, and it lies within this disturbingly uncanny sense of familiarity.

Liberal thinkers and those ‘of the Left’ nurture ‘hope and change’ (famously mocked by one U.S Republican presidential candidate) and seek to ‘progress’ a society above and beyond the base and inhuman needs of a capitalism that often seems to have democracy tucked in its pocket as a relatively ineffectual force that can occasionally be utilised as a tool with which to leverage more wealth and power to the already wealthy and  powerful.

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However,  this film seems to show us that the choices that face us today are persistent, perennial if not eternal, and, worse, that they are always clearly polarised. In the 1960s, the Right Wing Indonesian regime murdered (and appear to have ‘enjoyed’ murdering’)  somewhere between half a million and two and half million people because: they were ‘communists’, they might be communists’, they were ‘of the Left’, or they were merely of Chinese origin and thus associated with communism.

Oppenheimer’s film is about a society that has not reflected on or regretted this activity, but, on the contrary, has continued to lionise the perpetrators of a genocide as the founders of the nation. His extremely hard-won film, made in dangerous circumstances over an 8-year period, is also informed by his apparently acute insight into human psychology.

But, as you have said above, despite the truly surprising, thought-provoking and informative value of this film, its most chilling point may be that, despite all our ‘hope and change’, and all our hope for change, you too may well live in a society where the concept of ‘freedom’ has been hijacked by those who want ‘the people’ to be ‘free’ of any collective responsibility to nurture and protect a civilised, generous, kind and tolerant society.

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The Indonesian government, then and now -as depicted in this film – rely upon a huge militia that is nether an army or police force but a kind of grown-up, macho, ragtag boy-scout movement. The government also lionise various various kinds of business-like  ‘gangsters’ who ‘get things done’.

Meanwhile the murderers of the 1960s refer to themselves, proudly, as ‘free men’ impressed by and inspired by Western and largely American values (and movies) that provided and continue to provide them with a model of stylish, cool, swashbuckling rogues, ‘free’ of the law, ‘free’ to avoid ‘bureaucracy’, ‘free’ to exploit and shake-down anyone weaker then themselves, and ‘free’ to disparage any ‘weak’ talk of ‘rights’ and ‘political correctness’.

Britain has recently comes increasingly under the spell of the once laughable, absurd and bizarre  UKIP, a party whose policies are being ventriloquised by the encumbent Right Wing Tory government as they follow UKIP’s xenophobic, ‘little-Brit’ agenda. Meanwhile Trump ascends in the US election.

And thus we see that many of the tropes, the language, the acts, and social organisations found in ‘The Act of Killing‘ seem, sadly, not exceptional but all-too-familiar, even fundamental aspects of any capitalist society that plays fast and loose with its relation to democracy; fundamental aspects of any capitalist society that is not appropriately governed by progressive, counter-reactionary powers and which therefore, clearly, rapidly and perhaps inevitably slopes off from a Right Wing adoration and centralisation of ‘business’ and a certain notion of business-like ‘freedom’ toward the unfettered and unscrupulous activities of the most brutal forms of gangsterism.