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‘No black!’ I heard my father say
‘Mourners in the East wear white’
his mourners tried to get it right –
everyone turned up wearing grey.
‘A barrow and a wooden tray
will do to wheel my body there:
leave the live flowers to bloom in air –
cut flowers will shrivel in a day.’
The coffin paused, my mother ran
and threw red roses on the lid
we didn’t know she had them hid,
it wasn’t anybody’s plan;
whatever it was the vicar said
I knew my father didn’t mind –
mourning is for the left behind
you get no choices when you’re dead.
It’s a fairly odd thing to find a painting by one artist on one side of a canvas, with a painting by another artist on the other side – of course it does happen, but it isn’t very common, though artists have often painted over their own, or other people’s work. Well. now two Tony O’Malley paintings are coming up for auction, each with half a Francis Bacon sketch on the other side. There was an article about this, with pictures, in the Mail on Sunday. Of course, it wasn’t ‘a canvas,’ it was a piece of hardboard; it wasn’t cut in half by Tony O’Malley (we wouldn’t have let him saw the board, as he had a very dicky heart), and you had better not call him ‘a minor artist’ in Ireland.
Regular readers will know how the event came about (see St Ives Studio; The Disappearing Bacon which I posted on this blog six years ago). If you want to look at the MoS , go to: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3467476/A-20-000-slice-Bacon-artwork-renowned-British-painter-fetched-millions-cut-HALF-reused-minor-artist.html
What is amazing, and never occurred to me, was that the pictures would ever surface. I assumed that Tony would have primed the boards and then painted on them so that the Bacons would have been under two coats of paint: it certainly didn’t occur to me that he would have been foresightful enough to preserve what was already there. On one thing my memory let me down on – I thought the Bacon was on the knobbly side of the hardboard, but obviously it was on the smooth side. I suppose I was influenced, thinking back, by the fact that Bacon sometimes painted on the unprimed side of canvas, an idea he got from Graham Sutherland .
Anyhow, Tony painted on the knobbly side; two rather heavy, cludgy pictures, perhaps influenced by Alan Lowndes (who of course was in turn influenced by L S Lowry) – very unlike the luminous paintings he later produced.
As to the story (in the Mail on Sunday) about the row between Francis Bacon and his then lover, a painter friend (Clive Cable, who died some years back)) was in the pub in St Ives on one occasion when Bacon and his lover came in after a fight the previous evening. As Clive retailed their pub account of the fight, one of them dropped out his false teeth, and the other stamped on them!
The educational propositions of Utopia, laid out by David Austin and David Page.
I was walking past a junior school the other day: a nice school—a clarity of glass and formal brick with a warmth to it. The children had finished their break, the whistle had blown, and they were moving in. Crumpled over the railing in front of the school was an elderly man: as I came nearer I realised that he was convulsed with laughter. Tears were running down his cheeks. I must have looked puzzled, because he gestured with his hand and said, “Excuse me,” and then, as he wiped his eyes, “but it is all so very extraordinary. I have just been to see your zoo,” he said, “and the parallel is exact. You put your young into houses, yes? And there are keepers to control and feed them. Only to watch the tea-party here, it is free.”
I must admit I was piqued, although I am not a specially patriotic man. “Look here,” I said, “it’s generally agreed that our educational system is pretty good; we have put up some splendid buildings and we’re working on the old ones. The teachers are decent and thoughtful, on the whole, and the methods are improving—gradually, but perceptibly. How much better do you do in your country?”
His eyes widened. “Oh, but—” he said, “you see, we do not shut small people away, and do things to them. We leave them free, and let them grow in their own way.” I started angrily. “That’s a completely- Utopian idea . . .” but he caught my hand and before I could say any more was pumping my arm like mad, laughing and smiling. “Come, come, we must have a drink together, you are the first person, the first, mark my words, who had guessed my country. Tell me what you know of Utopia.”
Though of course, he told me; as we walked to a nearby pub we fell to discussing the stranger’s outrageous view of a generally accepted and admired system. He was not, it seemed, as ignorant of our ways as had appeared at first; but the novelty of the Utopian system gave me the strangest sensation, like a man standing on a path in the early morning mist, perceiving an unfamiliar set of shapes and volumes, not recognising his own house.
“Without schooling,” I said, “how can you possibly educate your Utopian children?” “In Utopia No-one is Educated,” he replied. On seeing the surprise and disbelief in my reaction he hastened to explain. “Our language does not have your transitive verb to educate. But what child would choose to go to school except following the Pied Piper, to find out where the other kids had gone? We have no schools to interrupt the process of learning, nor professional educators to corrupt it.”
“Corrupt it,” I cried, unable to restrain myself, “but the pedagogic profession is most highly respected among us: we keep the remuneration very low, precisely so that mere material gain shall not exercise those who enter it. It is regarded as the vehicle which transmits our culture from generation to generation.” “In Utopia,” the imperturbable stranger replied pleasantly, “we are not as aware as yourselves of the generations. Furthermore your culture seems to me to be trimmed and distorted to fit your educators’ own dimensions. Your educators, after all, need reassurance as to the effectiveness of their work, which they will get by asking questions. To ensure that they will be reassured indeed, they teach children the answers to those questions which they intend to ask. We have a joke in my country about a self-fulfilling Professory. Indeed, it is much easier to pass on neatly ordered knowledge—to teach people a grammar in place of a language—and in the process English teachers produce philistines, and mathematics teachers produce tally-men.
” We paused to buy some beer and sit down. I was in something of a brown study over my glass. “Supposing,” I said, “that you are right; what then is the use of our educational system?”
“A good question,” he replied. “Primary education is unnecessary —children learn to read and calculate from literate and numerate parents anyway. Children of illiterate innumerate parents do not learn anyway. It is no good teaching children: you must first teach parents. However, primary schools do keep children off the streets, where they might pick up something useful. Secondary schools perform largely the same function, meanwhile selecting a docile group for training as an intellectual elite. Of course, no one knows whether they are intellectually superior, since it cannot be tested, nor what such a phrase implies, but it is enough that everyone believes it to be true, for so one gets your Government by Consent. In tertiary education, then, this elite is trained in obsolescent techniques by those who can’t or won’t make their way in their own profession.”
“It’s true,” I said, “that most would say their most intensive period of learning took place in the first two years after the course ended,” and he replied, “Why then postpone this experience?”
But I wanted to go back a point or two. “You said that it is parents who teach; but in this complex age what two parents could cover the range of learning needed?” “Why two?” he said. “In Utopia a Wise Child Chooses All its Parents. Natural curiosity leads a child to those who can help him. In your country, contrariwise, two parents have two point five children, a dog, a cat, and three rose trees—and they build a wall around them!”
“It’s natural to want privacy,” I retorted.
“By privacy,” he said, “you mean freedom from intrusion while you do all those things which it is more fun to do in groups. The children, locked in, destroy your ‘privacy’ far more effectively than the neighbours you lock out; yet they long to get away—and do indeed escape for some hours to the community—to a larger house, a larger walled garden, and teachers in loco parentis (a quaint phrase). And through their life they will be pursued by the spectral ideal of the Big Happy Family. In the meantime, however, you protect them from the people next door, and they protect their children from you.”
“But eventually,” I said, “their education comes to an end and they get on with the serious business of life.”
“You mean this education was not serious?”
“Not the same as work.”
“Aha, work. In Utopia Nobody Works. People make things, people create.. But by work, in your society, you mean doing something for most of the day, by compulsion. I have tried to analyse this. As far as I can see your people do three kinds of work. They slave laboriously because they are cheaper than machines which could do the same job. Secondly they watch machines slaving because they are cheaper than machines which could watch the machines. Thirdly they organise this money which discovers the shocking cost of machines in terms of human labour, and organise it with such complication that everyone forgets what it means. And so you have Economics: the solemn study of the phenomenology of a metaphor. Perhaps the real use of your education is to accustom men to a pattern of work, and to suppress their creative impulse—otherwise who would stand for it? But I forgot, there is a consolation prize, and this too we have not got: In Utopia there is No Dignity of Labour.”
“Talking of dignity,” I said, “let us return to the old; how do you look after them?”
“I am glad you mention them, for I had been told that here it was impolite to do so.”
“But what do you do for them?”
“We do not make them different,” he said. “In Utopia we Give Toys on Every Birthday. With toys one explores the world; one stops needing them when one stops learning. While the old learn, they are no different from the young, and in our society the young pass on the culture of the tribe to the old. Here it seems to me, even those in middle age have stopped learning, are frightened. But I forgot your national hero, from your most famous book—looking at his watch and exclaiming ‘Oh my ears and whiskers, I shall be late’.”
At this point, suddenly, he would say no more. We played a game of darts, but I got little more from him but a visiting card.
I have not slept very well recently. I am haunted by the image of a man bent over a railing, helpless with laughter.
David Austin and David Page wrote this article for the Spring issue of ARK (Journal of the Royal College of Art) 1970, before they had read Paul Goodman’s article, “The Present Moment in Education” in ANARCHY 107; Homage was then reprinted in Anarchy 115 (sadly without the drawings, more costly to reproduce in those days). We owe this dialogue to English teacher Harold Sheldrake, who made who made DP read Utopia, thus slightly undermining the argument here presented. Isn’t that just like life?
I suppose most people know the lines:
When I was but thirteen or so
I went a golden land
Took me by the hand
For me romance was as absolute, but engendered differently. An exchange was organised for some of us at school, at the end of the 1940’s (probably via Doris Gare, our French teacher). I was put on a train in London, and met at the Gare du Nord by a man called Monsieur Nash, who took me back to the XIV Arondisement for the night: the next morning he put me on the train to Rochefort-sur-mer. Monsieur N , dressed in navy workers’ jacket and trousers, was an Englishman who had moved to France when young, had lived through the German Occupation unharmed, and now worked as a concierge: he had completely forgotten English: I asked him what words he remembered, and he replied “Plum Pudd-ing?”
At Rochefort I was met by Madame Masson and her son Paul, who was my exchange partner. They lived with M. Masson, le patron, proprietor of the Cafe du Medoc, avenue Camille Pelleton. (I have done a Google-walk, but I can’t see the cafe there now; in the evening the mosquitos used to float in from these plane trees outside, in clouds).
M.Masson was entirely devoted to his Cafe: he worked seven days a week, from dawn to dusk, and never took a holiday. The Cafe did not have a bathroom: it was a bowl and jug in the room. The cabinet (loo) adjoined the Cafe and was reached from the yard. It was the usual ceramic hole in the ground. with two islands for the feet; on the wall was a wire hook with neatly torn up pages from l’Equipe, the cycle racing paper. If you needed a crap you lowered yourself over the hole by holding onto a bar on the door, which also served to keep the door shut (there was no lock). If someone came and tried to get in while you were on the job it was a bit hard on the stomach muscles. If we needed a bath, there was the Municipal Bath-house, where piping hot yellow water poured into the large bath, straight from the river Charente, silt and all.
Madame Masson was plain but sweet-natured, totally committed to her son, her husband, and to the household. I owe her a lot. I often went along with her early to the morning market, where she would check the whole line, asking “Ils sont a combien les oeufs, Madame?” and so on, finally returning to the best offer. M. Masson, as I said, never left the Cafe, but in the early evening in season he would carefully write the latest placements of the Tour de France on the mirror behind the bar, using a stick dipped in some kind of whitewash,. Those were the grand days of riders like Fausto Coppi and Robic, and I was taken a couple of times for a long wait by the roadside to watch the race swish past in moments.
Mme. Masson took Paul and I to the sea-side – Fouras. Perhaps we all cycled there, and took the Teleferique across the Charente, or maybe we went by bus – like my family, the Massons did not have a car. The Teleferique was a platform which swished across the river suspended on long cables – now preserved as an ancient monument. On the coast we prized oysters off the rocks. We went to a casse-croute cafe with outside tables: you took your own food and just bought drink. Madameproduced a long French loaf and butter to eat with the oysters, and we ordered a bottle of white wine: it was one of the great meals of my life. I must have gone many times to Fouras, sculling a boat there, or swimming in warm water among vast jelly-fish. And of course I drew. and painted all the time, cycling out into the country. Madame Masson reproached me, in the nicest way, for not speaking enough French, but I made pictures relentlessly.
Paul Masson was an only child, and in those days there didn’t seem to be any mixing of boys with girls in Rochefort: at any rate, though I would have been susceptible to their charms, I never actually got to know any young woman during my exchanges.
The only friendship I made outside the family was with a postman who frequented the cafe. He had a wooden leg, as so many did in those post-war days, but was a vigorous cyclist all the same, with one leg out before him like a prow. He suggested that I should join him fishing for eels -“S’il mouille, on y va pas,” he said. I think it did rain a bit, but we cycled off on a grey day and spent some hours looking at the water, occasionally lifting the cantilevered net, like Puvis de Chavannes’ Pauvre Pecheur, but catching nothing. The wags in the cafe were delighted, and a tall glass duly appeared on the bar, with a dead frog floating in it, and the legend “Specimen of Fishing at XXX.”
I realised, around then, that I was at home in France: I could speak French; sometimes I could even think in French, and I could connect with the past and the present. Later on in my life I spent time in other parts of Europe, and lived in Germany and Greece. I am a European by custom and conviction, a townsman and a countryman.
Yes, it is true that the present governance of this homeland of ours is muddled and inadequate, (partly because the pragmatic British have spent so long with one toe in the water, unwilling to commit). But after so many wars, this is a place within which we have ruled out fighting as a political tool, where we are free to enjoy wonderful lands, a magnificent history and culture. Let nobody try to take my European citizenship away. Have teeth. Will bite.
Over the years I have done a number of paintings which I have called Homages. I define this personal label, in a rather restrictive way, for paintings, interpreted and developed from black and white photographs of painters I admire. The use of news-photos as a basis for paintings is something Sickert freely used, aware that one can’t be there to see what a news-photographer sees, but that the content is immensely tempting: I have done some of that as well. Somehow trying to paint a picture of a painter you admire, in his environment, seems an affirmation and you hope some of it rubs off on you.
I have been making Homages for a long time: the earliest is a painting of Douanier Rousseau in his studio, holding his violin as if it was a palette, and his bow as if it was a rather long brush..
The image resonates for me with the description of the celebration banquet for the Douanier, described in that entrancing book The Banquet Years by Roger Shattuck, at which, after tributes, Rousseau gave the company a waltz on his fiddle. I painted the picture in 1961, when I was living in Galatas, Greece, on the mainland opposite the island of Poros. (There is another, more personal, resonance here: I much later learned that Patrick Leigh-Fermor had lived down the road, at Lemonodassos in 1935. and that John Craxton and Lucien Freud had lived on Poros for a while in 1945). There is a bizarre surreality about the Douanier photograph, which the painting hoped to accentuate. Greek houses at that time tended to have framed photographs on their walls displaying family patriarchs and matriarchs: these were really artworks, because the portraits had been retouched and remodelled on the plate before printing, sometimes so much that the image was more drawing than photograph. This feature of Greece also suggested a possible direction.
What the Homages seek to do is to take an image of the admired (iconic) person – hero, if you like – and to re-interpret it so as to catch something more general about the artist and his view of the world and artistic vision (so far all the subjects have been men), while at the same expressing my own feeling about that conceptual package. If that sounds pompous I apologise. So, anyway, it is not about making a pastiche, ‘in the style of’, and cannot depart too far from the framework of a photographic image or, as a portrait, from the recognisable features of the subject. These constraints, it seems to me, take the enterprise out to what Browning called ‘the dangerous edge of things’, to contradictions, with the danger of not satisfying any of the implied criteria because of exigencies created by the others.
The latest picture in this series is called Georges Braque at Varengeville and comes from the b/w photograph at the beginning of Edwin Mullins’ 1968 book on Braque, the first modern master I learned from. Unlike my contemporaries who went to art school, I chose that master before I had fully sharpened my life drawing (honed at the Ruskin School while I was studying English at the University of Oxford). A sort of reverse development from conceptual to perceptual. This picture does not, as I proposed before, try to develop the image via a Braqueian idiom – though when Braque died I had painted a broadly cubist memorial picture: Flowers for George, 1964.
The recent picture accentuates the wonderful seed fronds of grasses which blaze across his silhouetted jacket, like braid on a military uniform: shapes which Braque himself might have wanted to allow to develop into individual entities. Like my old mentor, Tony Oldfield, Braque would not have approved of spatial indicators leading potentially to holes in the picture surface (though I think that the lane does all the same remain more or less vertical like a step-ladder, rather than sliding backwards into depth): he would have tidied and organised the wild growth along the walls of the little canyon which the lane forms. But I wanted Braque set in some confusion and profusion which was not reducible to an organisation of clusters of rational shapes. I saw the silhouette of the painter as an epitome of his elderly self, but the picture widened, tugging at old me, into a statement about age itself. Well, that’s my reaction as the painter, but look and judge for yourself.
The Homages differ from one another, obviously, because they are a response to different personalities and circumstances.
Obviously in this one I’ve called Monet by the Lilly-Pond there is a joke about the figure: Monet is so self-consciously posing for the photographer, lying back and holding still, though his right leg wants to pop up as if pulled by the strings on a puppet, and the broad hat prevents one seeing much of the face, just the tip of a nose and a large beard – as often happens in photographs of him outdoors. For me it is all admiration, but irresistably funny – I can’t look at this picture without laughing. Cupped in the curves of the bench, lines of shadow anchor Monet to the ground: behind him there is the lilly-pond back-drop, in a sense his masterpiece. For me a chance to paint a scene, so powerful in Monet’s own pictures that it is almost interdicted as subject-matter for us who come so soon after, was a wonderful experience.
Geoges Braque at Varengeville will be on show in The Forum, Norwich, from July 13 – 17th
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.
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?
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.
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.
Three of my recent paintings are on show at the 2013/14 Cut Open, at the Cut Halesworth Suffolk – see below. This is a good, very well-hung show in a lovely space, and all works submitted have been accommodated on the walls. Well worth a visit. It is on until Sat 11 Jan.
Being Spied on in the Illfare State
Mermaids will not be denied
The last bubbles of our shame
The dragon flaunts an unpierced hide
The true fiend governs in God’s name
Robert Graves, Mermaid, Dragon.Fiend
I have been reading a correspondence between the Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer and the American poet Robert Bly: TT was in Budapest in October 1969, where he visited a Hungarian poet; he wrote:
Pilinsky lives in one room in a flat in central Budapest (like most Hungarians he can’t afford a flat of his own).
I read the sentence with a horrible shock of recognition: forty-four years later this describes the situation for many people in London today. We are going backwards.
Growing up after WW2, the majority of my generation who cared about politics took it as axiomatic that everyone in Great Britain and Ireland should have a job (and that everyone should work); that a job should pay a living wage, and that everyone should have health-care, education, and decent housing, financed by universal insurance via taxation. Maybe the performance fell short, but the aspiration remained the same. No longer true – test the propositions for yourself .
It may seem odd that the spying and intrusion which has been going on has not raised much more indignation and protest from older generations. There is a simple reason for this, namely, that we have all always taken for granted that we were being spied on. The extended generation I am talking about includes people like Kim Howells MP, Jack Straw MP, Peter Hain MP, Tariq Ali, and a few more millions.
One exemplary event hangs in my mind like a little film-clip – a French student visitor at Hornsey College of Art in the summer of ’68 lifting the telephone to phone home, and an English student bringing him down with a rugby tackle: nobody was allowed to make connections with other radical groups on a college phone. It had to be done in some random phone-box.
The assumption that the phones were tapped was tested in various ways. One way I heard about took place in central London. One of the radical organisations telephoned several others to arrange a Demo, specifying date, time and place of assembly. Then someone went round on foot to tell the recipients that this was a spoof. At the allotted time and place they took great pleasure in observing the police wagons draw up for the phantom event. Communication is a two-way street, after all.
At Hornsey College of Art there was an elderly art historian called Susie – from somewhere in Central Europe. She would shout at the student and staff radicals “Well, if that’s what you want, why don’t you go to Moscau!” She was not aware
(why should she have been?) that the minority of students who belonged to formal political organisations were Trotskyists, and that the unattached majority were libertarians. Just the people the KGB would have locked up, or eliminated. after a successful invasion. In my own case, hilariously, a friend who was teaching army officers told me that my name had come up in conversation as someone to be interned in the case of an imminent conflict. And of course, a list of who to lock up in the case of hostilities with country X or Y must exist, just like the plan in the Pentagon for taking over Great Britain in the event of a Red Government. And no, we can’t prove that it exists, because it is secret.
The Intelligence Community are rather more than less likely to make the same misjudgements as Susie. Firstly because of the political colour-blindness of people in a authoritarian position, and secondly because of the inevitable institutional paranoia of these organisations. They are set up to suspect the worst on our behalf, and indeed they do. Given that some of them thought Harold Wilson and Michael Foot were Russian spies it is only to be expected that they continue to construct paranoid fantasies; only the terms have changed. The organisation which may usefully defend us against real would-be suicide bombers also seeks to defend the State against the Vegetable Defence League. Those members of the Intelligence Community who are closest to the ground, mingling with real people and with some idea what is really going on, are by definition not at the top, making the strategic decisions
Most of the information about us which is now gathered will never be looked at by anyone: there are not the hours of work available. Of what remains, some will be scrutinised for respectable reasons, and some will be used for quite other purposes: laws brought in for one purpose end up being used for another. The Russians are not the only people who think “Demonstration = Piracy? =Hooliganism?”
Paranoia is infectious, in all directions, and destroys the social integration which, within a good State, ensures that extreme divergences from our moral standards are not tolerated by ordinary citizens. There is another problem with the Spying State, namely that it supports a conspiracy to insist that secrecy is indispensible, which all members of the Intelligence Communities world-wide affirm. Their international solidarity on this issue is amazing. A very large proportion of what they do is pointless and unproductive, but of course we don’t know what that is, because it is secret. Spying is not just an inept Government joke. It also costs us taxes.
Recent figures in the Guardian state that the three British state spying agencies have a combined staff of over 10.000 with a combined annual budget of £2bn. There is a Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, to scrutinizes the intelligence agencies. “Who shall watch the watchers?” the Romans asked. Well not many people it seems, since that committee is underfunded, according to Kim Howells MP. The average number of people killed by terrorism in the UK, 1990 to 2010 was 5.8, whereas the figure of those killed or seriously injured in road accidents in 2011 was just over 25.000. How many lives could we save by applying a billion or so pounds to improving road safety? A better use of our limited resources?
Teresa May was recently asked by Keith Vaz if she had been told of any concrete case of danger to personel as a result of Snowdon revelations. She danced round the question, coming across as increasingly shifty and evasive. She couldn’t say, because it was secret. Recently it was also announced that investigation had shown no evidence that the SAS were involved in the death of Lady Di. Well, that may be true. Or it may not. In Mandy Rice Davis’ formulation “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” The more this secrecy goes on, the more we don’t believe a word they say.