2016 was a year in which the world turned upside down in so many ways. And nothing seems to sum it up better than this shop window display I spotted this morning in Belgrade with its astonishing juxtaposition of icons. Hoping 2017 will be better for us all. Onward and upward!
Flying into Belgrade on a clear early April day a couple of days ago, I was treated to an amazing spectacle, glimpses of which are shown here, of the heavily farmed agricultural landscape of this part of the Danube valley.
Unfolding like a bedspread it disclosed a multilayered history of order imposed on disorder, only to be subjected to continuing organisation, disorganisation and reorganisation in a process that produces subtly changing patterns of great beauty.
Reminding me of the much-loved painting by Judith Rugg that hangs in my sitting room which she told me was also inspired by the view of fields from the air in the American mid-West.
The patterns that have been imposed on the land over the millenia make it absolutely impossible to imagine what it might have looked like before human beings singled out particular plants and animals for special attention and classified them, disciplined them, penned them for their own purposes and disputed the ownership of these pens with their neighbours (although ghosts of earlier land use patterns and watercourses can be seen from the air underlying the bare ploughed soil).
Fresh as I am from revising an article about how to theorise the global division of labour, this brings to my mind the way in class societies that people are classified, corralled and disciplined for the purposes of ordering production.
How quickly this landscape would change if the maintenance stopped. But this would not bring a return to the old botanical division of labour. Rather, new (perhaps non-native) species would expand aggressively, choking out others, creating a new ecosystem.
Which makes me think of the weed – the farmer’s enemy, trespassing on the areas marked out for formal planting, reproducing itself in ingenious and unsanctioned ways, perhaps brought from afar by birds or boots, an unnoticed stowaway in the global traffic of commodities.
In human society the weed could be seen as a metaphor for the opportunist, the spiv, the perhaps- criminal entrepreneur who threatens the social order by disrupting its rules of fairness and introducing new inequalities.
But also the lone dissenter, the voice that wants to emerge from the suffocation of the mass ranks to be heard as an individual.
The socialist in me fears the former; the artist-intellectual in me yearns to be the latter. Do we want a farm-or-be-farmed society in which people are tended in orderly fields? Or a hunt-or-be-hunted wilderness in which they can roam freely at their own risk? From the tension between the two, perhaps, some new solutions can emerge.
I used the image in the last post as my greetings card this Christmas (changing the title to ‘knock, knock’ because people found the existing one rather obscure). I took the picture in Budapest several years ago when the sight caught my eye on my way back to the hotel from a conference. When I looked at it again I was surprised by the feeling of optimism it inspired in me – despite the decreptitude of the wall. Perhaps this is something to do with the bright colours? or the jaunty angle of the mysterious square hitching device which reminds me of a knocker? Anyway quite a few people responded positively to it as an image and this has inspired me to revisit a project I never got round to developing – a website called Entropica I originally set up around 15 years ago with the intention of using it for writing and images associated with my fascination with entropy. So today I spent a happy afternoon (tinged with guilt because I should have been doing other things) uploading images to it. You can visit it here. I am not sure about the black background – it was the simplest template I could find that easily accommodated a lot of visual material. Comments welcome!
A sophisticated awareness of graffiti is now part of the essential intellectual armoury of any East London resident or visitor with pretentions to hipness or gentility. Tourists take guided tours of the street art of Shoreditch, Islington home-owners trying to sell their £1 million houses proudly point out the Banksy at the end of the road to their potential buyers and no art bookshop is complete without a table of expensive glossy books on street art (some, rubbing in the irony, with names like ‘The Art of Rebellion’). There is even an iphone app called ‘Street Art London’, celebrating the work of the likes of (pseudonymous yet would-be famous) Phlegm and ROA.
Conferring this formal status as ‘art’ onto something that used to be regarded (by society at large) as nuisance and vandalism and (by a minority of intellectuals) as a transgressive form of Art Brut creates troubling contradictions both at the aesthetic and the social level.
At the aesthetic level, the self-conscious artistry of a Banksy or Phlegm deprives us as viewers of our ability, in the tradition of Marcel Duchamp or Jean Dubuffet or Kurt Schwitters, to become an artist ourselves by being the person who ‘sees’ the art in our environment. Their graffiti are defiantly presented to us as ‘already’ art and we are put immediately onto the back foot, with the choice of passively enjoying it, thus constituting ourselves as fans of the artist, thereby conferring status on him or her, or of being cast as killjoy philistines. Either way we lose that intellectual superiority that comes from asserting the dominance of our own vision that goes along with the identity of artist.
At the social level, the public authorities or property owners who are keepers of the urban landscape are faced with the practical dilemma of defining what is, or is not, public art in their daily decisions about what to leave untouched and what to paint over. This gives them an unacknowledged role as arbiters of taste.
The results of their paintings over have become a great source of visual pleasure to me. there is a cream-painted wall opposite my house that is frequently graffitied on and, just as frequently painted over by Council workmen. Each time they do so, another rectangle of slightly differently coloured cream paint is layered over what already exists creating a subtle patchwork of cream-on-cream that I love. It reminds me of early 20th century experiments in abstraction.
Also near my house is a derelict pub one of whose walls is overlaid with similarly overlapping layers of shades of red and pink. I think of it as a wall of Rothko paintings, though the other side of the building is more reminiscent of Jasper Johns or Frank Stella.
I am of course seeing them through modernist-trained 20th century eyes. But no eye is innocent. Sometimes I wonder about the vision of those Council workmen whose job it is to go round implementing the zero-tolerance-of-antisocial-behaviour-including-graffiti policy. For all I know, some of them could themselves have spent teenage evenings with a spray can leaving their personal mark on the drab neighbourhoods they grew up in. Or some might be spare-time artists in a more socially recognised sense. Or might some even be doing the work as Community Service, enforced punishment for past crimes, perhaps even seeing what they have to do as a brutal desecration of forms of cultural expression that they identify with and cherish? Or could this repeated repainting be work done, not under the Council’s jurisdiction at all but by some artist-squatter?
Most jobs, of course, involve some sort of pride in the craft being exercised (I have written about this here) and I am sure that any conscientious worker with a paint roller in hand must be exercising some sort of judgement about how the paint is applied, perhaps even with some sense of leaving an individual stamp on the finished work. I wish I knew more about the labour process of these workers. Is the defiant patch of grey on my local Rothko wall (pictured here) the result of a conscious aesthetic decision, perhaps? Or had they simply run out of reddish paint that day and abandoned the attempt at a colour match?
Whatever the intention, my pleasure as a viewer is tempered with a certain unease. Haunting each such wall is its complex history: the pristine wall, the graffitied wall, and the overpainted wall, with perhaps many intevening layers of deterioriation, repair, alteration and restoration. Each of these might provoke a different aesthetic response: admiration, regret, celebration, aversion. In taking a picture of such a wall, am I responding to it as intended art (like a tourist taking a photo of the Taj Mahal) or as unintended art (like someone ‘finding’ unexpected beauty in nature)? Or might I be ‘discovering’ some form of ‘naive art’, like a Cubist coming across an African mask, or a feminist historian a patchwork quilt? And if so, am I perhaps patronising the people who made it, imputing to them an ignorance of their own creativity or even appropriating and commodifying the results of their aesthetic labour? Am I entitled to see my representation of it as an original artistic work?
I first became aware of the beauty of the overpainting of graffiti when I took this picture from a train window in Brighton, some time in the 1990s. When I took it, I was most conscious of the pattern of black verticals and horizontals against the different reds and oranges on the station platform. It was only when I looked at it afterwards that I realised that the lovely subtle colour patterns, whose irregularities had puzzled me, must be the result of such overpainting. Despite the streaks (caused by the hairy plate on an old scanner on which a cat used to sit) I still like it as an image, especially the serendipitous way it has captioned itself with the word ‘private’.
There is something both moving and optimistic in this continuous human effort of renovating and remaking our urban landscapes. It gives us a visual representation of the dialectical relationship between originality and inherited aesthetic values, between individual transgression and collective social control, between the private and the public and between the past and the present. Unfortunately, the conditions that sustain this delicate dynamic balance are now under threat. It could easily be lost: if public spending cuts continue; if the anger of unemployed youth spills out of control; if more of our common public space is privatised and placed behind locked gates; or if ‘development’ is allowed to bulldoze our communities. Cherish it while you can.
Postscript: All this was triggered by the fact that I was burgled last week and my handbag stolen, leaving me temporarily not only without any formal means of identification or of conducting any financial transactions but also without my bus pass. As a result, I was obliged to walk along a route I usually travel by bus, giving me a chance to take photographs of the ever-evolving ‘Rothko wall’ I so often enjoy through its windows.
* click on these images to see them in greater detail.
Whether it is because the synapses transmit more randomly to each other in an ageing brain or perhaps just because I am exposed to fewer auditory distractions, I have recently found that songs are getting stuck in my head for much longer than they used to. I hate that term ‘earworm’ with its implications of involuntary infestation by an alien parasite. These are not necessarily songs I dislike. They are, at least in the early stages, welcome guests. In fact sometimes I think I hold them there to extract every last drop of emotional juice.
But how do they get there in the first place? Sometimes it’s obvious. ‘Here comes the sun’ or ‘There she goes, just a-walking down the street’ can be triggered simply by one’s internal commentary on what is going on around one. ‘But she breaks just like a little girl’ or ‘Tell me why – I don’t like Mondays’ or ‘Leader of the pack’ might be summoned up by silent reflection on someone’s behaviour. Sometimes a bit more detective work is required to track down the source, especially when, as in dreams, some terrible pun is involved. A couple of years ago I found myself humming ‘Goodnight Irene’ at breakfast time, not having wished anyone goodnight for some time or having thought about anyone called Irene. Eventually I worked out that it was because a nerine bulb I had planted in a pot on my front steps in the expectation that it would have pink blooms had in fact produced flowers whose scimitar-like petals were such a pale shade that they were almost white, but I had decided I still liked it (not many plants come up with such grace and elegance so late in the summer). My poor befuddled brain was singing ‘Good white Nerine’ to me!
In a kind of do-it-yourself psychotherapy, a new musical arrival in the consciousness provides a good pretext for ferreting about in one’s memory – and in the broader culture – for associations both likely and unlikely.
Earlier this year, for several weeks, I was haunted by the Welsh song Myfanwy, beloved of male voice choirs and anyone else who is not too self-consciously modernist or afraid of their own inner sentimentalist to be melted by the beauty of a 19th century love song. I thought at first it might be sticking around in my head for so long because I didn’t know all the words, so I googled it and discovered not only the lyrics, with several different – mostly execrable – English translations, but also a number of different renditions on Youtube. I was particularly moved by two of these.
The first was by Cerys Matthews who, when she sings in Welsh, ceases to be the feisty rock chick she was in Catatonia and becomes a good little Sunday school girl, anxious to please the grownups. It is perhaps the childlike unaffectedness of her voice that is the secret of her charm as a singer (though I wouldn’t want to downgrade the intelligence and musical taste that makes her such a good DJ on Radio 6).
The other, even bigger, surprise was the version by John Cale, a more extreme example of the same phenomenon. I am used to associating this Very Bad Boy of Rock with the heroin-drenched performances of Velvet Underground or the over-the-top anguish of his version of Heartbreak Hotel (which I sometimes recommend to people as a cure for depression: hearing one’s despair so caricatured, so much on public display, so magnified, can induce a degree of detachment that makes it easier to bear, if not laugh at). But he sang Myfanwy on a Welsh TV show in 1992 with such simplicity and honesty and understatement that it is hard not to be moved to tears by it. One sees the child he must once have been in how he sings it, and the pain he must have experienced since then is not flaunted but forms part of the backdrop of his sensibility, giving his singing and piano-playing the quality that, thanks to African Americans, we call ‘soul’ in English, though the Welsh word is ‘hwyl’ (a word that also refers to fun and to the quality of inspiration that comes to preachers when they are on form).
It is hardly original to suppose that singing the songs of childhood reconnects one to a world of innocence and since-dashed hope. But when that childhood was experienced through a different language this takes on an extra dimension of estrangement: for me, at least, and perhaps for these two singers too, it is a world from which the English-speaking adult self is permanently exiled and whose beauties can never be communicated to one’s English-speaking friends. It therefore becomes the focus of an extraordinarily intense nostalgia, or, as we say in Welsh, ‘hiraeth’.
So this song of lost love commemorates a double loss: of past loves and of communicable culture. It is also, of course, an exceptionally good (and reputedly autobiographical) love song. In the same spirit as the Righteous Brothers’ ‘You’ve lost that loving feeling’, the poet narrator is made aware that his fiancee has gone off him by her irritability and failure to light up when he appears. He doesn’t want her hand without her heart, so releases her from the engagement, but, in the tear-jerking last line, after wishing her all possible joy in the future, he asks to take her hand one last time – just to say goodbye. And the tune is powerful enough to move you even if you don’t have a clue what the words mean.
At the moment, the song that I am waking up to every morning is ‘Me and Bobby McGee’. What’s that about? It is quite possible that the original trigger might have been one of the aphorisms embedded in it. To coin one memorable aphorism in a song is an achievement. In this one, Kris Kristofferson managed to generate three phrases that have embedded themselves in the consciousness of several generations, if you allow for the first breaking down into two halves: ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose’ and ‘Nothing ain’t worth nothing but it’s free’. Then later, we get ‘I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday’. My life is full of experiences that prompt such reflections and it would be no suprise to find that this was how it got there.
But the song has other resonances too, not just, I suspect, for me. Its protagonist is part of that long and ambivalent American tradition of itinerants: cowboys, hoboes, beatniks, hippies, whose representations have done so much to romanticise a particular model of commitment-phobic masculinity. It does so in a way, unthinkable in most other parts of the world, that successfully airbrushes class and race out of the story. His narrative is in the first person but he is described, as it were, from outside, by a middle class eye, with his faded jeans and dirty red bandanna (a traditional blues singer, surely, would see no need for those adjectives when describing his taken-for-granted clothing). Kristofferson (former Rhodes scholar, though he was) is careful to respect the vernacular (‘With them windscreen wipers slapping time’ would be ruined if the grammatically correct ‘those’ were to be substituted for ‘them’). When I looked up the lyrics (once again, in the hope that getting them right would exorcise the song from the top layer of my brain) and saw them in cold print for the first time, I found myself feeling quite schoolteacherish about the writing. How sloppy just to insert the word ‘Lord’ whenever a line needs an extra syllable to make it scan. How awkward to write ‘we finally sang up every song that driver knew’ when ‘we wound up singing every song that driver knew’ would work so much better.
But how supremely irrelevant such quibbles are when the song comes loaded with such a freight of meaning. Most people of my generation, I think, know the song from the versions sung by Janis Joplin and Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan, both powerful, soulful performers whose tragic lives came to an end much too early, in 1971 and 1973 respectively. I heard Pigpen sing it, more than once, on the Grateful Dead’s 1972 European tour, when I attended every concert I could get tickets for, three of them with a dear friend who also died tragically young. Sometimes it was Phil Lesh who took over the vocals with his reedy voice while Pigpen played harmonica but Pigpen’s voice was raunchier and bluesier and he had an extraordinary ability to rouse an audience and this was a song that brought us to our feet. But it is impossible to remember it without also hearing the heartbreaking sweetness of Jerry Garcia’s guitar in those soaring and unpredictable solos that took you somewhere different every time. I did not know then that Pigpen and Joplin had had an affair and remained friends till her death, so he must have had her in his thoughts when he sang it, or that he was already very ill from the liver disease that caused his death the following year, or that Joplin had also been in a relationship with Kristofferson, who encouraged her to make the recording we know so well which was released after she died (I hope, for his sake, not just for the royalties it would generate). So many currents of tragedy flowed through this song in that brief interval between those two deaths and it is impossible to hear it without this retrospective tinge.
For me, the song has yet another layer of association. I spent the summer of 1965 travelling around Greece with a Harvard-educated, guitar-toting American backpacker on his way back from India who embodied many of the qualities of its narrator. When I googled Kristofferson’s lyrics I also found his biography and discovered a series of remarkable parallels I hadn’t been aware of between him and my erstwhile companion. These two guys were both born in Texas, in the same year, both sons of army officers, both did military service before the Vietnam war and both (or at least the one I knew) prided themselves on being dropouts and saw this as a sort of badge of artistic integrity.
I am reminded of the ambivalent lure that the United States had for my generation. We hated what the CIA was doing in Latin America and the US army in Vietnam, but, boy, did we love rock and roll.
The romance of the road was somehow inextricably tied up with the glamour of America and seemed to offer not just an escape from responsibility but also from the more general binds of conventional gender and class relationships. It created a fantasy world in which it was possible to form a relationship on as-if-equal terms with anyone one encountered and, if it didn’t work out, just move on to the next town. Bobby McGee meditates on this, recognising that there is a cost, but, despite the tone of regret, the implication is that the subject has no other option than to live this way: if you want to be an artist, you have to be like Kerouac (or, as I wrote on my bedroom wall when I was about 15 ‘there’s no security like no security’).
Time to move on!
I spotted this Father Christmas in Thailand six or seven years ago. I particularly liked his old-style mobile phone and the grubby meringue-like foam on his beer.
But I also liked the way the sculptor had captured the unfocused bleariness of the drunk Caucasian man, no doubt based closely on first hand observation: the kind of amiability that can so suddenly switch to incoherent rage or, alternatively, collapse into maudlin blithering ending in sleep.
(In Thailand, of course, such unpredictability of mood change wouldn’t just make the difference to whether or not the waiter gets a tip, but could also shape the degree of violence experienced by some poor child in the sex industry. One of the things that upset me most when I was there was the sight of young Thai girls walking down the street hand in hand with beer-bellied white men old enough to be their fathers or in some cases grandfathers, wearing that embarrassed expression that seems almost universal among teenagers that says to any passer-by ‘please don’t judge me by the company I am forced to keep’ – but here meaning so much more than just ‘My Mum is SO uncool’.)
You can see Santa’s expression more clearly in the semi-profile view above than in the prettier shot below that shows him among the poinsettias and greenery of his tropical setting
It is extraordinary the extent to which the Western idea of Christmas has been exported around the world. I have heard little Goan girls who have never seen a snowflake in their lives singing ‘jingle bells’, seen huge replica pine trees in shopping malls in parts of the Southern hemisphere which have no indigenous conifers, and countless images of holly and robins (not to mention 19th century stagecoaches hurtling through snowy landscapes) in places where the cultural references must be sieved through so many half-apprehended filters that they have about as much meaning to the local viewer as the cod chinoiserie on a willow-pattern plate did to me in my Welsh childhood.
The unthinking arrogance with which it is imposed is breathtaking. Remember that Live Aid concert where they sang ‘Don’t they know it’s Christmas?’ over montages of images of starving children in Ethiopia? Was I the only person to wonder ‘why on earth should they know it’s Christmas?’? OK so there are quite a few Coptic Christians in Ethiopia but also, as in most other parts of North Africa, very large numbers of Muslims. Can you imagine a song that goes ‘Don’t they know it’s Eid?’ or, for that matter, ‘Don’t they know it’s Diwali?’.
Research in India shows that one of the most resented features of working in international call centres is being obliged to work through the national holidays, missing out on family get-togethers, but being made to observe Western holidays whether they want to or not. But these cultural differences can be turned into an advantage: during the 1990s I came across a BT call centre in the North West of England where the trade union had managed to negotiate a deal whereby the – largely Muslim – local staff were paid to work over the Christmas and Easter holidays, taking calls from other parts of the country where workers wanted to take the day off, in return for other workers covering their shifts during Eid.
Which brings me to my own ambivalence about Christmas. Much as I dislike many features of it, I do really like the idea that there is a time of year when one catches up with friends and family and shares food and company and gifts and other things take precedence over work.
(But the punishing European Commission funding cycle means that January is always the annual deadline for getting in research proposals so that last part of the above statement has to be modified a bit – this year I am working simultaneous on four proposals all of which will have to be finished before I am due to have my next bout of medical treatment in the second week of January. The timetable seems to be set so that the Fonctionnaires can take their Christmas holidays while the Academics sweat over their laptops. Then in the summer, the same thing happens: off they go to the beach in August whilst those researchers who are successfully funded, have to prepare the documents for the September meetings).
So, in spite of it all, here’s wishing you a very happy winter holiday (or for those in the Southern hemisphere, summer holiday) and all good things in 2012. May it bring you health and happiness and may it bring the world peace, justice and freedom.
I have not thought much for many years about the Courtauld Institute, where I was a student from 1966 to 1970, at a time when it was situated in a beautiful Adam-designed house in Portman Square. Then last week I was tracked down through this blog by a fellow student (who also has family connections in Dalston) and then this morning, in one of those accidents of synchronicity, I turned on the radio and there was a programme about Anthony Blunt (the Courtauld’s director), bringing together various people who knew him well, including Anita Brookner, whose course on 19th Century art criticism I still remember vividly and with gratitude. And John Golding, who was the most modern person there, teaching us about cubism, with the precision and passion that could only come from being a practising painter himself. I’m sure that both would be surprised to discover that between them they introduced me to Marxism, by a most indirect and circuitous route. In Brookner’s case, it was making me read Walter Pater which took me, via his surreptitiously autobiographical philosophical novel set in ancient Greece and Rome, Marius the Epicurean, to Hegel, and dialectics. Golding pointed me in the direction of John Berger’s wonderful Marxist essay about why cubism could not survive the conflict of the first World War because of the way it forced people to take sides – another window into dialectics. These courses ran in parallel in the same term and by the end of it I was reading Capital.
Listening to the programme, it all came flooding back. Not just the names of those lecturers that had slipped my memory, but the building itself, much more like a house than a college, with the student common room (the only place you could smoke) in a hut on the right hand side of the garden at the bottom of which was another hut where they taught restoration. The restoration students cleaned tapestries by laying them out on the lawn and shuffling delicately up and down over them with damp sponges strapped to their soles, which gave them a Japanese air, like something out of the chorus of the Mikado. I remember coming back from a visit to Paris in the summer of 1968, fresh from les evennements and discussing them in that common room with some of the other students (I’m guessing Corinna Lotz and Chris Rawlence, perhaps, both of whom were more politically active on the left than I was) and being interrupted by an incredulous Tory student who couldn’t believe that we should be ‘on the side of the students’. ‘B-b-b-b-but’, he stuttered, ‘They’ll b-b-b-b-b-burn down the L-l-l-l-ouvre!’ his voice becoming almost a howl, ending in a crescendo of anguish.
The closest I ever came to intimacy with the great man was in my first term (autumn, 1966, it must have been) when, I suppose as a sort of introduction to the culture of the place, we were asked to write a paper about the Adam brothers and the building itself. I elected to study the ceilings, many of which were beautifully painted, research for which required me to lie on my back on various floors whilst looking up intently. Whilst thus engaged one afternoon I was interrupted by a polite throat-clearing cough, and there, standing over me, was Blunt, with a visitor. I suppose this room must have been his personal office. He was as gracious and charming as if I had been some inhabitant of Buckingham Palace but nevertheless made it absolutely clear that he wanted the privacy of his own space – NOW! My only other clear memory is of him giving one of his famous lectures on Poussin. But I was moved to hear, I think it was from Ben Read, years later, that when he first re-entered the building after his awful public disgrace, staff and students lined the hall, and all the way up that imposing curved staircase, applauding, to welcome him back.