Artful (Part Two)


Intention does not make good art.

George Saunders

Good news for those of us who can’t make up our minds … isn’t it? The ultimate slacker, of course, was Sir Francis Drake who – legend has it – greeted news of the Armada’s arrival during a game of bowls by remarking that there was plenty of time to finish the game and still beat the Spaniards. True or not, it’s a cool story! And here’s the blurb to Russell Hoban’s inspiring children’s tale, “How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsman”:

Tom is so good at fooling around that he does little else. His Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong, who thinks this is too much like having fun, calls upon the fearsome Captain Najork and his hired sportsmen to teach him a lesson. So the Captain challenges Tom to three rounds of womble, muck, and sneedball, certain that he will win. However, when it comes to fooling around, Tom doesn’t fool around, and his skills prove so polished that the results of the contest are completely unexpected …

Turns out the puritan work ethic isn’t the sure-fire short-cut to success it always claims to be. Nothing wrong with doing your homework, of course, provided you’re the one who set it. And as anyone who is micro-managed into a stupor will tell you … er, duh?

I enjoy blogging. You can please yourself what to write and each new post is ‘a raid on the inarticulate’ as TS Eliot put it … though not in a post, because he died in 1965! The phrase occurs in his long poem “Four Quartets”, a profound meditation on life and death, where he keeps circling back in frank admission that he has not yet found the right words:

And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

Uncanny, don’t you think, how well that describes every would-be post you’ve sent to the trashcan? But something keeps us coming back for more, perhaps the hope that this next one will articulate a wholly new idea never before even half-imagined … ah, dream on, Dave! The cold reality you need to face is that there is nothing new under the sun … but who is this galloping towards us, blowing his cavalry bugle?

No artist tolerates reality.

Franz Kafka

Ha, if Kafka’s brave enough to ride a horse, who are we to wave a white flag? Or stare glumly at a blank page, for that matter … each new post may not grasp the grail but together they may amount to more than the sum of their parts.

Both Eliot and Kafka produced constant variations on just a few themes. This brings to mind a principle of musical construction known as isorhythm, where a fixed rhythmic pattern undergoes a series of melodic transformations throughout the course of a piece. Jazz pianist Geoff Eales, who even calls his band Isorhythm, says: “It’s a marvellous way of achieving unity within variety.” If you have six minutes to spare, here’s a taste of their music:

Hang on, do I spy a figure in flowing robes riding a camel down that sand-dune? Could be John Barth with more support for the aesthetic existence:

Reality is a nice place to visit but you wouldn’t want to live there.

Let’s stay in the clouds awhile. Whether or not you agree with Walter Pater’s dictum that all art constantly aspires to the condition of music, it’s hard to deny the importance of pattern. What else are new works of art – or new blog posts, for that matter – but variations on a theme? That’s a phrase that could also describe evolution itself and there’s something to be said for the argument that we are no longer evolving physically because cultural change has taken over – ever since we decided body hair was uncool and started wearing animal skins.

Or maybe we just like dressing up. We’ve grown used to the mystery of attire and love playing peekaboo, much as we love words which seem to mean one thing when they also mean another. Our natural survival instinct is to hunt for variations in patterns which might signal advantage or warn of danger. Perhaps this is why I find it so rewarding to work within tight constraints of form – strict verse patterns, regular rhythms, rhyme schemes, limited word lengths and so on. I like the way you can construct a whole world in a small space – a forgotten world, maybe, or a spoof version – or even, perhaps, a better world? And unlike the real world, this one is under your control. William Blake knew the power of imagination:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Ah, the thrill of the chase!

What do you mean, you can’t spot the connection? If Seamus Heaney can compare his pen with his dad’s spade, please allow me to wear my deerstalker hat when I go on a word hunt … though I am trying to make a serious point here. Words and ideas seem to come more naturally when I’m struggling to make them fit into a tight space. Focusing on the how, perhaps, I’m less self-conscious about the what. How is style, whereas what is substance …

Let me cut back to the chase. Meaning is political and, in a world that’s shrinking fast, you can’t open your mouth without putting your foot in it – or else open your ears without some foul poison seeping in. So easy to feel hopeless, helpless, voiceless. But Scott Fitzgerald, as ever the canary in the mine, came up with this clear note of caution:

Either you think for yourself or else others have to think for you and take power from you, pervert and discipline your natural tastes, civilise and sterilize you.

Or drive you to self-medication, maybe? But we all swim in the same sea these days and perhaps art is our only lifeline.

Art is the link between soundbites. Well, why not? I’m a great admirer of playwright Joe Orton who assembled his hilarious satirical farces much as a visual artist puts together a collage. Each play had one main theme – sex, work, the holiday industry, death, religion and madness all took turns to amuse! – and his preparation was to make lists of possible ingredients which included … Titles/Names … Exclamations and Ripostes … Longer Conversations. Sometimes he had particular characters in mind but much was free-floating and using only the barest plot outlines he cut and pasted wild and unpredictable romps that have barely dated.

I saw a brilliant production of his ‘What The Butler Saw’ – set in a madhouse – only the other week. It was fast and furious, leaving the audience in a state of breathless excitement – torn between wanting to laugh and not wanting to miss the next line.

Whenever actors and directors complained to Joe that lines weren’t funny, he went home and used his lists to come up with new lines. One actor described him as ‘indefatigable’. Orton said that he wanted his lines to be ‘irrefutable’.

Indefatigable and irrefutable! Now there’s an artistic manifesto …

Well, I could carry on like this all night but I need my beauty sleep. The way I usually bring my ramblings to a close is to write on A4 paper and – when I reach the end of the second side – force a conclusion which sums up what I’ve written, often random thoughts and stuff I’ve copied from books or newspapers, before adding an all-encompassing title. It’s good training but useless here, where you can go on and on and on and … on that note, I’ll bid you a fond farewell and leave you with a reminder of what might be at stake if only we could pull our fingers out!

We created the art before we had the society.

Vladimir Tatlin

PS.  If you are the famous boy with your finger in the dyke, please ignore my final exhortation …

Image result for finger in the dyke



Image: The Daily Player

14 thoughts on “Artful (Part Two)

  1. I do think it’s all variations on a theme…but still, I can’t stop stumbling into the darkness. I’ve stopped making (or trying to find) sense. (K)

    1. ‘Stumbling into the darkness’ is a powerful metaphor and one I can relate to … I guess that’s why I keep trying to put this stuff together rather than watch it melt away. When I wrote ‘expressive ability is rooted in misfortune and injustice … human frailty the source of strength’ in Artful (Part One), it was about me (a little) though I’ve been much luckier than most …

  2. Okay, I was trying to decide whether the Kafka quote or the Barth quote was my favorite.I’ve decided on Barth. The longer I live and the more I see of politics, the greater the fan I am of escaping reality, or at least the current version of it. And thereby hangs a tale. Hitting your finger with a hammer when you are pounding a nail is reality. The rest is pretty much up for grabs. Thanks, as always, for your enlightening words, thoughts, and rambles, Dave. –Curt

    1. And thank you, Curt, for your considered reply – generous as ever! I too am in an escapist mood, from which I’ll probably want to escape in time – just like the cat who pesters you to let him out, only to appear at the window wanting to be let in. Meow!

      1. It’s what good literature and movies are all about, Gerard. Or maybe not so good literature and movies. Disappearing into the woods without any means of communicating with the outside world helps even more. But like you, given enough down time, I am usually ready to rejoin the fray. Escape is good on occasion, however! –Curt

  3. I like that quote about the ‘raid on the inarticulate ‘. A blog post always starts with a vague idea, certainly for me, and the post is an attempt to articulate it. Interesting stuff as always, Dave!

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