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Reflections from Reykjavik

1 Dark into Light (for Jane)

The airbus funnels dumbly through the grey

grey snow, grey sky, the pewter coloured sea

occasional black outcrops of the land

next day is brilliant, and the wind is keen

father and daughter trudging round the streets

as if the gap of years had never been

and houses which were hidden in the murk

flash out like petticoats from inbetween

in red and peppermint and olive green

The landscape doesn’t seek to praise or blame

but all the same

reminds me that some thirty years ago

I said come out, come out into the sun

and out you came

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2   Runes for Leaving (for Boo)

The night before we left the snow did fall

Drifting on roofs and smoothing out the ground

a hazy brightness dancing in the air

utterly still: we saw no-one around.

The houses all stood back to watch us go:

our wheels leaving meander tracks behind,

we crunched down Fjólnisvegur in the snow.

A bend disclosed a family below

Mum, Dad, two kids, the small one on a sledge.

The parents bent, the young boy pulling too,

made runner tracks, and footprints up the hill

which met ours coming down. Briefly, we knew,

these runes would stand, so land could tell the sky

where we had been, where they were going to

Loo card grab

It’s as easy to wreck a small town as it is to wreck a small planet, and in both cases it is done bit by bit.

I live in a small village on the edge of Harleston, one of a string of small market towns along the Suffolk/Norfolk border, industrious, fun to live in centres for the hinterland they serve, and in parts quite beautiful. These towns have had their share of pressure, from the economy, but also from unsympathetic expansion, bad planning, and administrative cock-ups. But they have in the past fought back. For instance, an attempt to impose parking charges on Harleston, which would have had a dire effect on trade, was repulsed by the townspeople.

But Harleston has been caught out by the latest insult, the closure of the town’s only public toilets, and their replacement by new automated loos you have to pay for, as on a railway terminus The former loos (locked up) are in a small redbrick, pantiled building next to the large redbrick, pantiled Budgens supermarket, in a square above the Thoroughfare used for parking. They are a bit rustic, but perfectly serviceable, (when open) as far as I can see, though they are unfortunately rather too distant from the market and the main street. The population is ageing, and none of our bladders are getting more expansive, so what was needed was more available loos in more places, not an inferior replacement of what we already have. But wait a minute; there was some years ago another set of loos next to the Cornhall, excellently placed for the Market wasn’t there? Yes BUT, through some form of benign neglect, these were allowed to dwindle and be converted to a dwelling. Meantime Harleston is growing. There isn’t a dwindling need for loos.

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New loos could have been placed in the town’s other car park where they would in principle have been useful, and where they would at least not have clashed with other buildings. In fact the new block not only looks temporary, it looks silly. Anyone with one eye could have told the planners that it was going to look silly, but apparently there was a shortage of one-eyed people at the time. The block has been carefully oriented to make an alley-way between its front and the old toilet block, so that those who might wish to vandalize it are carefully screened from view – we know from past experience that things placed there are likely to be vandalized
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Adding injury to insult, this new block requires us to pay, though it is sited in middle of the free parking area which the town fought for. Didn’t anybody think that was a contradiction? What we now have is a bit of bad French basic design, in a metal box, dumped alongside the vernacular red brick. It doesn’t even sit happily on the tarmac. The only consolation is that as its complicated systems break down they will provide employment for the town’s plumbers, electricians and engineers.

The joy of using them will not add to the pleasure of the Harleston experience.

The worst part of it all is that the new loo-block must have been studied by a mort of people – planners, architects, councillors, and so on in the planning stages. Put your hand up if you voted for it. And what horrors are you planning next?

DP & Boo in Reykjavik

DP & Boo in Reykjavik

A Private View in Reykjavik

My daughter Boo said “Let’s take a trip to Iceland to celebrate your birthday”. So we did. The first time we went down town to visit the Art Museum we found it hard to find, in a very cold wind that took away one’s concentration. So by the time we arrived it was shut. There’s not a lot of day in Iceland at this time of year: it gets light around 10am and dark by 5pm, so we were surprised it closed so early. However, the next day we got there in good time.

“I can’t sell you a ticket”, said the lady behind the desk, “because the galleries are closed for an Opening.” And indeed, people were wandering about the middle of the ground floor with glasses in their hands. So we crept upstairs, in this clean, functional and rather fine building, and across to a picture window looking out onto the harbour, at the other side. It was very large, with a disconcerting crack at the bottom right hand corner of the glass, as if someone had hurled themselves at the window in a frenzied attempt to get out.

A friendly elderly curator came over to us, and we three chatted for a while, looking out of the window – about the weather, the population of Iceland, and so on. Then he said to Boo “Why don’t you put your rucksack in one of the lockers downstairs: then you can join in.” The lockers were facing the public and free: you just put the key back in when you had retrieved your things. No ‘Security’, as in airports: just informal friendliness.

The Opening now began. We were all welcomed in English. “But now,” said the
speaker, “I must say a few words in Icelandic-” which of course left some of us floundering. Icelandic is apparently (it says here) a fully inflected language, and because it has, with rather more success than the Academie Francaise, resisted absorbing foreign words, there is little for an incomer to latch on to. So the sound of Icelandic rippled on for a while, like the sound of a stream rippling over pebbles, not that you could see the bottom, however. At the end people applauded: I failed to do this, through some vague mimsy fear that I might be endorsing some improbable view or demand, which made me feel mean and discourteous. But at that point the galleries were opened, and we all traipsed upstairs.

The main exhibition seemed to be three or four rooms given over to a young American with an improbable name. One room contained groups of two vertical objects, somewhat modified, leaning in pairs on each of the walls. There was a ski, for instance, a vacuum cleaner, and a skateboard with the face of Bart Simpson on it. In the next room there were vertical video screens each containing a still figure in the upper half, while the lower half contained a moving reflection in water of what was above, quivering and shimmering as you looked at it. Another room held a large video screen playing a loud repeating loop: a basket ball player, seen from behind, bouncing a ball, and then throwing it, jump cut to a frontal view of the player, and then back to the bouncing again

I said to Boo “This seems to be an artist with lots of technical skill and no imagination.” “Hush,” she said, ” He may be just behind you.” I don’t have any objection to conceptual art, but how often does it really grab me? It’s been around a long time now – the R Mutt “Fountain” Man Ray’s |”Gift,” and Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined tea-cup were early twentieth century, and the business of Art shocking people, or even provoking them, is worn, apart from being extremely difficult nowadays – Goya’s Desastros seem no more than a note on reality.

In another gallery were some very large paintings by Erro, whose work I didn’t know before. I was rather distracted from the pictures themselves by their sheer size.- they went on for yards. Having recently struggled to get two 6 x 4 foot canvasses into the back of my estate car in such a way that I could drive without looking (and feeling) like Houdini doing an escape, I wondered how you could transport them without doing damage. Anyhow, they were blown up versions of smaller collages, also on show, They were homages to particular painters, or groups of painters. The format was constructed of meandering paralell lines, with paintings or bits of paintings in the collages stuck down between these lines, the whole thing then blown up large-size and painted throughout. There was a Miro panel, a Matisse panel and a German Expressionist panel. I share the attraction of making a copy of a painting you particularly like, partly to see how it is done, partly to get to know the work better. Of course it also relieves you of worry, as the outcome is already a fine solution. I did enjoy the panache of these pictures and the manic energy it took to produce so many of them.

When we went downstairs we found that there were no post-cards of these, presumably current, works. The old story with lack of post-cards. I also couldn’t find a postcard of work by Louisa Matthiasdottir, another painter I hadn’t know before, but whose work I had seen in a large heavy monograph in a shop at the National Theatre. There was also a largish painter of hers there, donated by the family, hanging in the gloom of the atrium. To my mind it was the wrong picture: one of her over-simplified Icelandic horse pictures, not one of the intense self-portraits. A few more of her pictures would have brightened the place up.

The post-card problem returned when we got back to London. We went to the British Museum. There used to be a large collection of post-cards as you went in, down a corridor to the left. Now it seemed there was only a very shrunken selection of PCs in part of the rotunda. The PC was and is the foundation of the poor man’s, or stdent’s, art gallery, as well as a little celebration of companionship – as when a gaggle of Italian girls out on a spree would all sign a card to someone – it was cheap, celebratory and joyful.

Here is a suggestion to the Post Office: bring back the cheap rate for post-cards. They are the perfect vehicle for short communication. My old tutor, who could get more words on a card than most, used to say that it was a perfect way of not having to settle down to a serious letter. And the picture is a bonus. There is nothing, in this era of the insubstantial screen image, like a real physical object, delivered by hand. Bring back the cheap PC rate, and see the traffic increase.

But I keep forgetting: the Post Office isn’t ours now. It’s Private.

Morning at the Cross copy

Syleham Morning Looking North; Brian at his workshop oil on canvas 4 x 6 feet

Back in the ‘seventies, when I lived part & then full-time in a cottage at the Cross, Syleham, Suffolk, I decided to paint these 6 x 4 foot pictures of the view from the cottage upstairs windows, looking North in the morning, down to the Waveney & Brockdish village, and South in the evening at the humpback hills and the road leading up to Wingfield. At that time Brian lived next door (there was a kind of flying freehold). Queenie Harper lived a bit further along, in the lodge of Monk’s Hall, with her husband, the Estate gamekeeper at that time. Queenie had known the urban life, having been a barmaid at the Maid’s Head hotel in Norwich in her time.

Her husband had served in the war: he told me that after a fierce battle to establish the army in Italy his detachment were called out by the commanding officer, who said: “Now you men. You all come from a farming background, and as you can see, there are no able-bodied men hereabouts, and it’s harvest time. So you are going to get the harvest in.” They were fallen out, into this country of women, children and old men. And when the harvest was duly gathered, they were fallen in again, and continued fighting their way up Italy. There’s a film-script in that.

Looking South the road up the hill on the right led I believe to the house where Margo Mellis had lived with Frances Davidson. (Earlier Margo had lived in Cornwall, and befriended Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth when they fled London & came to an unknown St Ives). That was before my time, but the area obviously attracted artists.

The Old King’s Head in Brockdish is being reopened by Vicky Townley (a member of the Harleston & Waveney Art Trail) and her husband. Great news for the village, which used to have two pubs, a post office/shop and a restaurant. Good news for artists too, as paintings etc will be on show in the new Old King’s Head.

The opening is on Thursday the 19th Feb at twelve o’clock. All welcome.

Evening at the Cross

Syleham Evening Looking South; Queenie Harper Riding By. oil on canvas 4 x 6 feet

Somewhere in the corner of the room there has been a lot of discussion about the Arts in the last few days. The Guardian carried an interview with Julie Walters (Sat 24 Jan) in which she said that she, and working class kids like her, probably wouldn’t get into drama school today. This came in the context of a spat about a supposed dominance of silver-spoon singers and actors initiated by the Labour shadow culture minister Chris Bryant. There is an argument to be has as to whether ‘working-class’ is an adequate label any longer, but we know what Julie Walters means.

I would like to start the next paragraph “The fact is…” but we are desperately short of facts. Very little serious research is done into ‘cultural’ education. As a surmise there are probably fewer working class students studying and training on Arts courses these days, for two reasons. Firstly because this education is no longer easily available to the poorest potential students. The Education Ministry over decades pursued a relentless policy of pushing up entrance requirements. As I’ve pointed out before, this was a civil service policy, because until Gove, the average life of a Minister was about two years, which would not have given them the time to take on board and modify existing policy. Back in the ’60s Art and Design course were a conduit into higher education for working-class students; it was fairly easy in those days to get a place on a course.

Secondly this education is no longer free. Presumably the prospect of being lumbered with a £40,000 debt by the time you start work will put off students proportionately the poorer their background.

So far as raising the entry bar goes, in the late ‘sixties we were able to show that having five O levels or two A levels or no qualifications at all had very little influence on outcomes. Most Art & Design students in those days obtained employment related to their study within three months of leaving college. (Ritchie Dight Frost and Dight : The Employment of Art College Leavers HMSO 1972) This put paid to the myth that thousands of long-haired art school leavers were swelling the dole queues, so the report was sneaked out in the Summer recess. in the hope that no-one would notice it. The Ministry, faced with an actual concrete fact, continued nonetheless to push up the entrance qualifications in some drive for uniformity. But every rise in the bar meant denying access to a cohort of working class students. There is no good reason for these requirements: they should be dropped.

The second obstacle, affordability, requires a radical solution. Of course there is a problem of cost to the State when it expands education. Leaving aside the increase in cost itself, the proposition that it should be left to the Colleges to set the fees was crazy. The colleges immediately pitched their fees at the top end of possible charge, to show that they were not inferior to anyone else. Students meanwhile became lumbered with debt. It all was done in bad faith too, because the (non-silver-spoon) MPs who voted for these charges had mostly themselves been the beneficiaries of a free education.

A graduate tax system, which I read is to be advocated by Peter Hain in his new book The Future of Socialism, implies that the community (The State) accepts responsibility for enabling its citizens to undertake education or training to they level they require, while beneficiaries repay the community by paying somewhat higher tax over their lifetime, rather than carrying a mesmerizing individual loan debt at the beginning of their career. I associate this (I’m afraid wrongly) with “Here come I, Little Jack/ With my wife and family on my back!” To which you can add “my student loan and my mortgage”

So far I have talked about access to the Arts via education.
; there needs also to be much discussion about accessibility of the Arts, and the conditions of work and remuneration of the Arts makers. Here are some notes for that discussion:

1 The Arts are not a frill. They are a major industry in which (because of past investment) this country excels. It is in the natonal interest to sustain it.

2 If you want a peak of excellence, you have to maintain a broad base

3 A healthy arts ecology depends on artists of all varieties (writers, actors, musicians, painters, potters, designers etc) receiving a fair percentage of the profits made from their work. The Government can ensure a fair market-place, but does not.

I have given up on Sayid Javid. He doesn’t seem to have done anything as Culture Minister (please explain otherwise if you are listening). In any case the election is coming and he won’t be in post much longer. What I think anyone who cares about this area should do just now is to write to the political parties and ask them for their Arts policies. If, in the memorable words of someone interviwed by the BBC in a Grays Working Men’s Club the other day, “UKIP are Tories in Drag”, maybe they have a good line on drama?

I’ve always enjoyed an event in those early comedy films (was that the Marx Brothers?) where a banknote is given to someone and then artfully retrieved from the distracted recipient by a piece of string attached to it. Something like that has recently happened to a painting of mine which used to sit in a flat belonging to an old friend in the rue Baubourg in Paris. This enabled me to say that, although I didn’t have a painting in the Tate or the Pompidou, in both cases I did have one next door. Well, very sadly our old friend has died, and the painting has returned to England, to live on the wall of a London sitting room, so my dining-out sentence no longer works.

 

The painting is one of those which sits in a particular period of work, of which you say that you couldn’t do that now. Not entirely true, but an approximation: the technical ability may still be there, who knows, but the drive to produce this particular work, of this kind of work, has gone elsewhere. The conviction would be missing.

I couldn’t do that now!

 

Sayid Javid, (the new Minister for the Arts), was interviewed in The Guardian on Friday 6th June. What he said was hardly a manifesto, but we might as well start there. He said:  “I’ve made it clear that I didn’t grow up in the kind of family that went to the Donmar Warehouse [in London] or even the Bristol Old Vic. To be frank, it was a treat to get to the cinema to see a movie.”   Mark Lawson, interviewing him, continues: ” ..both the nature and variety of his childhood cultural experiences have informed his call that culture must be genuinely “for all,” drawing in those who have felt excluded by lack of money, education, or, most worryingly, by race or class. Javid is concerned with statistics showing that people from “black and minority ethnic” and “lower socio-economic” groups are much less likely to engage with the arts or to apply for jobs and grants in the sector. Why is that so?”  “Well, I’m asking the question. I’m not going to sit here without any research and come up with the answer.   I’m going to talk to people, maybe feed in my own experiences, and see what can be done to increase accessibility and diversity” This seems to mean that Javid believes in evidence-based policy. Let’s hope it does.

 

The one really weighty piece of research into Art and Design in our time, which flashes like a beacon, was Ritchie, Dight and Frost’s The Employment of Art School Leavers (HMSO 1972), research which was undertaken under the aegis of Margaret Thatcher  (who, the article tells us, is Javid’s ‘democratic hero’). The Ministry of Education, however, was intent on slimming down Art and Design, and so the intention, as justification, was to show an overproduction of students receiving a final qualification, who thus swelled the ranks of the unemployed. But the Report showed, contrariwise, that nearly three quarters of qualified students obtained an employment related to their studies within three months of completing their course, a better result than achieved by graduates from many other courses at that time. As this was definitely not the message the Ministry wanted, the Report was sneaked out in the Summer Recess, so as not to be noticed. I was on holiday like everyone else: in fact I was in the bath in St Ives when Richard Bourne, then Education Correspondent for The Guardian, rang to ask if I would like to review it. It became clear that the authors of the Report had not been properly briefed, that is to say, had not been made aware that there was a vigorous debate going on in the Art and Design sector about relevant entrance qualifications, Fortunately we were able, with the help of a friendly peer, to get some of the statistics re-run, to show that, in terms of outcome, there was no difference between those who had entered with 5 “O” levels and 1-2 “A” levels, and only a marginal difference between those with no “O” levels or 1-2 “O” levels. That is to say you didn’t do better because you started off with more academic qualifications.. This was obvious to those of us in the sector, but it was nice to have it officially stated. In fact the information was already available in the shape of Royal College of Art statistics. but there are none so blind as those who don’t wish to see.

 

The Schools of Art and Design since the war had been an admirable mix: women made up a large proportion of the intake, and working-class students learnt comfortably beside middle and upper class students. Within the melting-pot of Art and Design, students were equal, and it was what you created that mattered, not where you came from. That’s not to say that class didn’t impinge. One of my second year students, part of our interviewing panel, advised firmly that we should not accept the applicant we had just interviewed. “Why not?” I asked. “Because you can’t make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse!” But the central point is that Art and Design courses were a conduit into creative employment for working-class students; academic qualifications were broadly irrelevant to the skills needed and acquired. And each time the entrance qualification barrier was raised (because of some specious need to achieve uniformity across the system), another cohort of working-class people was denied access to this particular path into skill and employment. Furthermore, it is not enough to make the Arts available to all, though that is a worthy aim: they must also be made by all. And it follows that gifted individuals must be enabled to enter the system, whatever stratum of society they originally come from.

 

What was true in the early seventies is sadly still true now. Potential students from certain groups, as we are all ceaselessly reminded, are unlikely to have the (irrelevant) entrance qualifications required of them. So if Javid wants to increase access for “black and minority ethnic” and “lower socio-economic” groups, he should seek to get entrance qualification barriers lowered. I’ll say that again: it makes sense to reduce the entry requirements. Now that Gove has been forced out, there may be people in the Education Ministry who will listen to reason On the 6th of June 1968 Sir John Summerson, addressing the assembled members of Hornsey College of Art, Crouch End Hill, said that there were loop-holes in the entrance requirements for his new qualification: “It’s a doorway – but you think it should be a triumphal arch.”  Well, yes! That’s what we thought then, and it’s what we think now.

 

Dear Sajid Javid,

Welcome to the Arts.

 

First off, take some time to find out what is there, and what is happening, which is a great deal. Secondly, look at the history behind it, without which it cannot really be understood. For instance, the fact that Great Britain has historically had the most extensive system of Art and Design education in the world, in spite of persistent attempts by the Education Ministry to restrict, reduce, and diminish it, is one of the fundamental reasons for the vitality of the Arts in these islands (not just the visual arts, but also music). Thirdly, in emulation of the Hippocratic oath, DO NO HARM. And finally, DO SOME GOOD.

 

Policy is the best honesty. Most of the time we (the Public) can’t see what general outcome the Government, or the Opposition, of whatever party, is aiming at. When it comes to direction, there is always widespread fog. So we ask, where are you going? what sort of society are you aiming at? And where do practitioners of the Arts fit into this vision of society?

 

A statement of fact to begin with: the Arts are a pyramid, or if you like, an iceberg. That is to say, the power of this structure depends on the solidity of its base; it may be, as in the case of the iceberg, that only the tip is glowingly visible above the waves to most people most of the time, but the tip is only there because of what sustains it beneath. In order to have the best television and plays (for instance) you have to have many theatres and production companies, many writers, actors, musicians, cameramen, technicians, designers and so on to choose from. You can’t decide just to support a few, or ‘the best’ – next month ‘the best’ may be another grouping. Unless you have a broad spectrum there is no choice, and without choice you will not get the best. Also, if you allow the base to shrink, then in the longer run (once again, this will not be apparent for some time), the quality at the top will deteriorate.

 

Now for a guiding principle: intellectual property must be safeguarded:

for the creators. So far from being ripped off, they should be the substantial beneficiaries of commercial transactions. We creators don’t begrudge the disseminators of our intellectual property, those who sell, distribute, broadcast or publish, or the end-users of our works, their proper due, but we do demand a fair return for those of us who create the material in the first place. For Government, however mean-minded this may sound, ensuring that creators get a fair return from the rest of the system is the cheapest way of maintaining standards, and therefore overall income.

 

We are not talking here about something marginal, the decoration on the cake. The Arts, or the Entertainment Industry, if you prefer to call it that, is a major contributor to this country’s economy, and come to that, to the economy of most advanced nations. The ‘Arts and Culture Industry’ (sic) contributed an estimated £5.9 billion to UK GDP in 2011, that figure not counting the spin-off effect on Tourism. The true figure is probably much greater.

 

Let us look at some sample issues, all of which bear on our guiding principle. A major issue is the use of music. Through the internet it is nowadays possible for everyone to listen to music, but the payment which originating musicians receive for this use by an audience enormously larger than anyone has ever had in history, is ludicrously, disgracefully low. For instance (a real musician’s example), for 1296 performances of a piece on U-tube Alliance, the royalty for one of the four writers was 0.0284 pence. A penny a play, which does not seem exorbitant, would have produced £12.96 . Two plays on Spotify produced 0.0004 pence. How many million plays would it take, at this rate, to produce a living wage of (say) £20,000 per annum? (I am not a mathematician, so someone else may like to try, but I estimate that if 80% of the Chinese population played the piece on Spotify once a year, that might about produce the required income).

 

 

Because the Internet is notionally ‘free,’ consumers expect to have music for free. But music can only be free if the musicians are long dead. Real musicians who are alive need money to live on, and the money necessary to support their production. At present living musicians are ripped off by the big organisations – and by the public: these circumstances will eventually lead to the demise of music – at any rate alive, innovative, relevant music. The problem of how artists of any sort are to be protected from the pirating and exploitation of what they produce is not a new one. In the 19th century authors – Wordsworth, Dickens and others – had to fight for copyright agreements so that they could benefit from the income generated by sales of their works abroad, particularly in the USA – one of the main pirates, interestingly enough, was Benjamin Franklin – (see the useful article at http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/pva/pva75.html), but also from persistent pirating and copycatting at home.

 

This is not just a problem for musicians: with the Internet we now have a means, which did not exist before, of making visual artworks available to the world audience. But now we have a mass access to art, there must be a system of royalties for the digital use of our material. Like the musicians, we cannot live by bread alone – but we also cannot live without any bread at all. Ultimately negotiating and enforcing a system of payment for the use of intellectual property has to be done at Governmental level.

 

More crudely put, stop musicians and others being ripped off, on the one hand by internet moguls, and on the other by national pirates – even the piratical general public – as now happens. This could be ameliorated if there were much better Union organisation on the ground. But because access to recorded music has become nearly universal, there is no way individual musicians, or national Unions, can prevent their work being pirated. Once again, we should add, that as the sums are very considerable, the Government, by helping artists, would be helping itself.

 

Another issue, again focussed in the music area, is the difficulty of getting performers into this country. London has in the past been the vibrant centre of the World Music scene, but it isn’t any more. Our commanding position has been given away out of sheer carelessness. Why? because in the anxiety caused by xenophobic immigration panics, the Government has made it more and more difficult for performers to enter and work here. The number of embassies issuing visas has been reduced, so that many African musicians (for instance) have to apply to a neighbouring country: in some cases to go there in person. Whereas a Schengen passport gives access to most European countries, so that a sequence of concerts can be planned, we have a local system which puts obstacles in the way of a European tour which includes the UK. British visas are expensive, and require guarantors: but most of the small units of production which nurture World Music are not rich enough to be acceptable as guarantors. Through this sort of carelessness, or (or un-joined-up planning), a vital area of production is squeezed out.

 

One more example, this time in the visual arts. Dealers and galleries have developed the habit of requiring exhibitors whose work has been sold to pay the VAT liable on the commission they charge for sales, on top of the commission itself. This regularly brings the total to 50% or more (and clearly, the greater the commission, the greater the additional tax). The overwhelming majority of artists do not earn enough to register, and therefore to be able to claim back, the VAT already paid on their materials, so they pay tax on the materials to which they add value, but also on the value added at the next stage by the dealer- a perverse interpretation of the tax.

 

Here are a few issues. Clearly there are many others which can only be resolved at Government level, through the resources commanded by a Minister. You may have noticed that nothing here is demanding subsidy or special treatment, only a decent system, properly run. If you can set yourself to look into some of these issues, and resolve them, you will be doing the Arts and the nation a favour. You don’t have to be a fully paid up aesthetic intellectual to tell right from wrong, and to use your time to all of our benefits. We hope you will surprise us by your tenacity,

 

People in general conform to their social group, but an artist conforms to his- or her- self. Or not: the old two-headed eagle problem. This is partly due to the nature of reality, and partly to the enlarged ego of the solo operator.  But any artist who has achieved an identifiable personal way of putting things obviously doesn’t compete with anyone else –  because nobody else says that in that tone of voice.

However, a scorpion of doubt lurks in this comfortable slipper, namely “Is my work self-consistent? Do these diverse pieces come across as the work of this one person?”

Creators adopt various rules and self-denying ordinances to cope with this problem.  For instance, Braque would not allow himself light and shade in three dimensions, apart from the odd trompe-l’oeuil nail casting its shadow, a small pictorial joke. Or maybe he just knew he was better at two dimensions, though it is difficult to accept the moral severity of his strictures on ‘eye-fooling devices’. Perspective might be inappropriate, but can it be wicked?

Anyhow, on one side you have artists tying themselves to a rule-book for consistency, while on the other side are those artists ploughing a narrow furrow, who try to ensure that a case can be made for their variety..  Sometimes the result is almost comic, as in this statement by Morandi:

I have always concentrated on a far narrower field of subject matter than most  other painters, so that the danger of repeating myself has been far greater.

I think I have avoided this danger by devoting more time and thought  to planning each one of my paintings as a variation on one or other of these few themes

Dialogues: Conversations with European Artists at Mid-century, by Edward             Roditi, Lund Humphries 1990 p. 107

 

My smile is with Morandi, not at him, since the modest objective is so beautifully achieved in his calm paintings and etchings. Another case is Lucien Freud: in a recent review of Gayford’s book about his experience as a Freud sitter, Julian Barnes writes:

..Gayford tells us that Freud’s aim was ‘to make his pictures as unalike as possible, as if they had been done by other artists.’

 Heart Squasher, Julian Barnes, London Review of Books, 5 Dec. 2013, p.3 seq.’ (It’s worth the reading the whole of this fine review)

Another smile: if that’s what Freud was after, he made a duff job of it: a man whose later characteristic paint surfaces are dominating and unmistakeable. Of course he could have made his pictures unalike:  he could have abandoned perspective/ flattened everything/ drawn all things by the bounding line, or revelled in pure chromaticism.  But no, this is the man who said that he could not bear the idea of one of his paintings being known as ‘the blue one’. He said he painted things the colour that he saw them. Well, I see them in different colours, and anyway, reproducing the colour of  the objects in the scene is not the only ambition of painting. Terry Frost, who could become totally rhapsodic about the use of pure colour in modern painting, would have been deeply shocked by the idea that you should not paint in all the colours that are available to human perception. (There can, miraculously, be other colours, but to see them you have to become an insect).

However, in spite of the attempts of some to diversify their work, the problem for those of us on this side remains that of consistency: how to ensure that our images hang together coherently.  I would wish a sequence of my paintings to relate to one another like the parts of a sonata – which is, I suppose, not far from what Morandi was talking about. Oh, and that includes the ability to quote and refer, the way that Bartok inserts the little, wheezy musical-box section (or ‘barrel-organ’, as Paul Griffiths has it) in his fifth quartet, without breaking out of the coherence of the whole. But then all visual art wants to be frozen music. And again, again, who says that I as creator should be the judge of this?

The problem for us on this side is, yes, we know our own subject-matter, our tendencies, our harmonies and habits, even though, Braque says: ‘La personalité de l’artiste n’est pas faite de l’ensemble de ses tics’. (Cahiers). But personally we can be overwhelmed by the serious difference of one of our pieces from the last one – or the next one.  We don’t know – we can’t know – whether they look consistent to other people, however soothingly they reassure us, or however brusquely they confirm our doubts. Are we constricting ourselves unnecessarily, and failing to make the leaps, or are we jumping all over the place in an incoherent way? We are left with the condition TS Eliot describes in  East Coker: ‘every attempt/ Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure..’  True, but of course no help to us, struggling with our likenesses and dissimilarities.

ps.  I have put a few recent pictures in my pictures column. Do they hang together? See for yourself. And the intrusive memory serves up the  quote: “Depend upon it sir, if we do not hang together we shall surely hang separately!”

David Page 23 02 14

In the latest Norfolk Contemporary Art Society Newsletter there is a piece from Sculpture for Norwich about Barbara Hepworth’s Sea Form Atlantic, which reads:

SfN has expressed concern to the City Council about the state (and positioning) of this major sculpture now sited in St George’s Street. Already the patina is irreparably worn away in parts by children’s clambering. Following the representations and meetings with councillors and Nikki Rotsos, executive head of strategy, people and democracy, it was agreed that a plaque which Derek Morris has offered to design, should be placed on the plinth providing information about the work an expressing the pride of the City of Norwich in its ownership of a seminal work by this great artist.

 

Well, if it is decided to place this rather unusual climbing-frame-type object next to a children’s playground, it is inevitably going to get clambered on by little kids who wouldn’t know it was special.  As to the patina, some interaction between the public, the environment, and the work is also inevitable: the wonderful, cheeky bronze David with a floral hat by Donatello (now in the Bargello) used to stand in the open  – was it in the  Piazza della Signoria? – in Florence: it had a gleaming little penis because people stroked it as they went past; not sure whether you could say that was the subtraction or addition of a patina. Sculpture which does not wish to interact with people should presumably be guarded, or out of reach.

But this conflict between sculpture and children has happened to Barbara Hepworth’s work before. Back in about 1962 the Penwith Society of Artists in St Ives decided to reduce the entrance fee for families so that visitors with children would be more able to visit the current exhibition in the Penwith Gallery.  At that time Barbara Hepworth was exhibiting sculpture with stretched strings, (presumably an influence from Gabo?) When she heard that her strings had been twanged by kids, she insisted that the Committee put the entry price back up again. She also objected to the cathedral-like white space of the Gallery being violated by noise.  As the building was actually a refurbished pilchard packing station, it must have rung with the cries of fishermen and fishwives for years before it was consecrated to art.

Incidentally I’m not sure whether it is direct influence or some kind of convergence, but the vertical  Dyson fan-heater has a distinct Barbara Hepworth look.

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