Category: Philosophy

Artful (Part One)

One dictionary definition of art describes it as “the conscious use of the imagination in the production of objects intended to be contemplated or appreciated as beautiful, as in the arrangement of forms, sounds, or words”. 

You can’t argue with that, of course, but it’s a faintly lacklustre description of what seems to me a magical process. (By magical, I don’t mean anything supernatural. Nature herself is plenty deep enough for me.) So I sat down, contemplated and came up with words to finish a sentence beginning Art is …

Art is … 

celebration	   empathy	    example	      acknowledgment
clarification      preservation	    representation    remembrance
focus		   transformation   symbolism         vision
refuge	           escape           relief            rescue
vision             affirmation      assertion         critique
play               consolation      exorcism          purging
purification       journey          confession        exploration
adventure          creation         mystery           completion
record             analysis         synthesis         experiment
therapy            weapon           touchstone        composition
meeting            bridge	    mirror            reflection
sharing            contribution     warning           recommendation
conversation       spur             signpost          rallying-cry
prophesy           manifesto        subversion        provocation
illumination       healer           argument          questioning
collaboration      catalyst         explanation       unique

Great art can be all of these things. No wonder creative people are prepared to go through agonies to produce something worthwhile. But following your own inner promptings while keeping your eye on the subject and your ear tuned to the expectations of an audience is a juggling act which requires psychological stamina and deep determination.

A big ask.

But artists aren’t superhuman – very often their expressive ability is rooted in misfortune and injustice, their human frailty the source of strength. The struggle against mute power, says philosophical novelist Milan Kundera, is the struggle of a theatre group that has attacked an army. This is an almost comic version of the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword.

But it’s also a heroic image. Art embodies the hope that we aren’t helpless – something can be done.

My previous post, featuring an unbelieving Philip Larkin reflecting on religion to draw fresh conclusions, suggests that cultures can merge to create something new. A paradox – art is nothing if not original but grows best when nourished by tradition. Someone commented that today’s European churches were often built on the sites of ancient temples and I replied that many were dedicated to gods of healing – perhaps our new temples are the medical centres, sources of endless antibiotics.

As to our spiritual needs – answers to big questions like Who am I? – we have modern-gothic malls to bestow the dubious blessings of consumer identity. I shop, therefore I am?

But there’s trouble in paradise. Shop till you drop becomes Shop till you drop the climate in a hole it can’t clamber out of … and this, I like to think, is where art appears at the top of the hill like the cavalry to the rescue. Or is it the Commanches?

Hang on, our movie seems to have jumped forward a few reels … let’s wind back a bit!

Ha, look, that’s me in a walk-on role! I play the part of a free-thinker who has a tendency to get himself lost. Being in love with words doesn’t help – chasing fine phrases down ridiculous rabbit-holes butters no parsnips, as nobody said to anyone ever. I never know what I want to do until I’ve done it and consequently am the world’s worst procrastinator … or else a close second to this chap!

Image result for AA Milne shipwrecked sailor

To see AA Milne’s poem about the poor fellow, click on https://davekingsbury.wordpress.com/2016/04/26/procrastination/

Where was I? All over the shop, as usual, and whenever shop-assistants start to hover I tell them Just browsing … you too, huh? Hmm, going into shops without buying anything could be the new agitprop – “political propaganda promulgated chiefly in literature, drama, music, or art” – but would anybody notice? I suppose you’d have to combine it with requests for impossible objects – gold-plated cycle-clips in honour of Philip Larkin, perhaps?

By the way, Larkin has form when it comes to supplanting religion with art:

Water

If I were called in
To construct a religion
I should make use of water.

Going to church
Would entail a fording
To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ
Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

Larkin’s tone is ironic but the beauty of the final image suggests a serious intention. It is open-ended, inviting the reader in to wonder … or wander! The poem steers clear of religion’s didacticism and enters a more democratic artistic space. I am reminded of the campaign to bring pure drinking water to the world’s poor and its unforgettable images:

Image result for children at water taps

In trying to create my own artistic space, I’m encouraged by novelist Richard Ford’s words:

I’ve always tried to abide by EM Forster’s famous dictum … that … fictional characters should possess “the incalculability of life”. To me, this means that characters in novels (the ones we read and the ones we write) should be as variegated and vivid of detail and as hard to predict and make generalisations about as the people we actually meet every day … I should add, as a counterweight to Forster, that I have also taken to heart Robert Frost’s advice meant specifically for writers: that what we do when we write represents the last of our childhood, and we may for that reason practise it somewhat irresponsibly.

I’m drawn to this because I can’t quite get to the bottom of it. Does he mean, be mature but don’t forget to have fun? Is he saying, go for realism but leave room for fantasy? Maybe the message is that rules are there to be broken – there’s no progress without contraries, says William Blake.

But are Ford’s two principles really opposed? I suspect that a childlike point of view – immune to cliché, where the merely childish are wholly susceptible to it – would appreciate ” the incalculability of life”. When once we start to reduce the “variegated and vivid” and content ourselves with stereotype, we lose our appetite for life. This is where all the trouble starts …

I’m well aware that the artist in me is wary of making generalisations, where my inner preacher can’t get enough of them. A friend of mine once said I had a “shopping-trolley mind” by which he meant that I pull ideas off the shelves at random like a lucky winner in a supermarket sweep.  You may have more ingredients than anyone else, he said, but they may not add up to a successful meal.

Ah well, time to empty this particular shopping bag and see what I can serve up in Part Two … maybe a tip or two on turning a million and one ideas into something tasty and satisfying. Just don’t expect me to have a shopping list.

And in defence of my somewhat round-the-houses approach, I’ll end with some curiously encouraging words from writer George Saunders:

Intention does not make good art.

 

 

Image result for race round supermarket

 

Image: Mirror

 

Art Attack #3

Hmm, time to pull this rambling argument with myself together! Ah, time

The poet Andrew Marvell, frustrated by his lover’s reticence to commit herself, gently reminds her they’re not getting any younger:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime …

… But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

And the elephant in the room is … well, here’s a selection of euphemisms from those clever Monty Python chaps:

Image result for dead parrot sketch

Owner: Well, he’s…he’s, ah…probably pining for the fjords.

Mr. Praline: PININ’ for the FJORDS?!?!?!? What kind of talk is that? … ‘E’s not pinin’! ‘E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!

The English language probably has more ways to avoid this subject than Eskimos have words to describe snow. Which subject, you ask? Well, er … look, I’m not being coy, it’s just … you see, moving from funny to serious ain’t easy! Right, deep breath, dive in …

Image result for blackadder goes forth

Laughter can be nervous. There is such a thing as gallows humour. Blackadder Goes Forth found plenty in trench warfare to laugh at but the final moments were filmed with admirable solemnity, ending in a memorable still frame which dissolved to a field of poppies:

Image result for blackadder goes forth ending

Image result for blackadder goes forth ending

Philip Larkin puts it as well as anybody:

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

from ‘MCMXIV’

Time heals, they say, but public feeling about World War One seemed to intensify in recent years. Was this because Old Soldiers approaching their natural end of life at last broke traumatised silence to speak of less fortunate comrades? Perhaps it was the sheer number of WW1 centenary events after 2014, its battles engraved on monuments and hearts in so many nations – the likes of Mons, Liege, Ypres, Anzac Cove, Suvla Bay, Verdun, Jutland, the Somme, Arras, Passchendaele.

Premature death is always shocking – a loss of human potential which prompts urgent political questions about the denial of entitlements. What, we wonder, might those young people have contributed to the common good? And where, we ask, is the machinery to stop such pointless suffering?

Death on such an industrial scale is a shared agony and betrayal and shame that creates a public demand for a community wider than the flag-waving armed camps that march to war. The cry goes up: Never again! And how often we hear of friends and families campaigning to protect the safety of strangers in the name of a loved one who has suffered an avoidable death … Never again! 

No one should live in vain. All life has value. And I would suggest that all death has meaning because without it life would have no shape, sweetness or intensity. Would each day be so precious if we could live for ever? Each day we hold others in our hearts who are not with us, dead or alive, and so become temples of eternity. We honour the living and the dead, even those ancestors we never knew, because they have fitted us for this moment.

Realising this can be an epiphany leading to a kind of apotheosis. The words may be religious but the ideas aren’t, though they are sacred to me. As Nietzsche said: Be faithful to the earth. I also take heart from novelist Lawrence Sterne:

When we are – death is not; and when death is – we are not.

Live in the moment and last forever. Growing older, I find, most desires fade away but one burns brighter: the desire for remembrance. I would like people to have a good time at my funeral, remembering they are still alive. And I would like to produce something which has a value to others after I am gone. Re-enchant the world, maybe, or at least give somebody a good laugh.

Ha, just remembered my previous post promised to answer this question: if nature is broken, can art mend it? Nah, is the obvious answer, but DH Lawrence offers a crumb of hope:

It is the way our sympathy flows and recoils that really determines our lives. And here lies the vast importance of the novel, properly handled. It can inform and lead into new places the flow of our sympathetic consciousness, and it can lead our sympathy away in recoil from things gone dead.

Include poems, songs, plays, films and other art forms and you could get something going to win hearts and minds for the good fight. If nature is broken, only we can fix it – if we’ve a mind to give up shopping and go living instead. Could the aesthetic rewards of friendly art wean us, perhaps, from the addictions of lonely consumption? Art is story and stories make good signposts.

Art, like love, can even transcend death. This is because art, like love, can only exist between us – a sacred unity, the two that is not two. I find paradox miraculous because it breaks down oppositions. Without Contraries there is no progress. It takes a writer and a reader to create meaning. Anger can become Compassion. Death and Life are one.

Image result for paradox

 

‘Everything is the opposite of what it appears to be.’    – John Lennon

 

Art Attack #2

Where was I?

Oh yes, just like you, here … and trying to make sense of it! My previous post set several hares running, so let’s see if we can catch up with some of them.

The Buddhist Higher Worlds (Learning, Realisation, Compassion) emphasise relationship, the core skill of a social species. The Lower Worlds (Hunger, Anger, Animality, Tranquillity) demonstrate disjunction, the breakdown of communication. What separates Higher and Lower is the difference between the collective and the individual. This gulf can be bridged, however, as Anger – to take one example – over injustice can lead to Compassion.

Snakes and Ladders, anyone?

Or swings and roundabouts. Did you know our power of speech is an evolutionary gain which increases the risk of choking? Thankfully we can use it to remind ourselves of the Heimlich Manoeuvre at the start of every dinner party …

I don’t really consider Buddhism a religion because it foregrounds the shared life in the here-and-now, unlike death cults which put individual salvation ahead of collective welfare. I Before We.

Perhaps the most famous example of We Before I is the stirring cri de coeur of the French Revolution – ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité!’ Unlike the Higher Worlds, however, these three beauties aren’t easy bedfellows. My liberty to do whatever I want, for example, can make a mockery of your right to be my equal. We may need some relationship counselling. Or maybe some helpful quotations:

‘Equality is the soul of liberty. There is, in fact, no liberty without it.’ – Francis Wright

‘Love is not accidental. Love can only exist with freedom.’ – Leo Tolstoy

‘Liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order.’ – Pierre-Joseph Proudhon

‘Who sees all beings in his own Self, and his own Self in all beings, loses all fear.’     -Eastern saying

Whoa, more hares disappearing over the horizon! That last quotation suggests we need more than just a little give-and-take. What’s required, it seems, is a radical change of consciousness. And who better to guide us than, gulp, a politician?!

‘The only thing we have to fear is…fear itself.’ – Franklin D. Roosevelt

It’s a frightening thought, isn’t it? Like Keep Calm And Carry On, it makes me wonder what they’re trying to hide …

Besides, what’s so great about Tranquillity? It’s one of those pesky Lower Worlds, isn’t it, full of zombies and yes-men? Far better to think for yourself, expand your capabilities and refuse to hate the unfortunate patsies and scapegoats they sling your way to hide their own incompetence and lies.

They? If I hate anyone, it’s those who get elected on promises of strong government and then dismantle safeguards against unfairness to favour their own kind. You know. Them.

But the bad old days of freemasonry and closed shops are long-gone, right? Surely no secret deal is safe in these days of WikiLeaks and world-wide web-sharing? We are entering, are we not, a golden era of openness and honesty in which we are all fellow-citizens of a world without borders or barriers or ignorant bigotry?

Hmm, could be … but in the meantime, dear Netpal, you’ll find my FacePaint Page under a sassy pseudonym with a pirated profile picture and a plethora of posts carefully curated to present a thoroughly positive image: witty, sophisticated, discriminating, intelligent, thrusting, upbeat … all friends selected, all nerds unfriended … a perfect shop-window for a world that’s open for business 24/7!!! 🙂

😦 Now I am frightened. Just looked at my FaceAche Page. My satire is uncomfortably close to the truth. Sometimes the internet resembles the aftermath of an explosion, numberless fragments flying around, a crazy chaos without context. Conventional media, caught up in the blast, dance to the same broken tunes. And you can find whatever you want unless you want to make any real difference to anything.

Too gloomy? I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

If you’d asked the Ancients to imagine a magical way of talking to everyone in the world, what might they say were its possibilities? A marvellous theatre or a great debating chamber? A gallery of wonders, drawn from art and nature? Above all, perhaps, they might have envisaged a repository of truth and goodness and beautiful flashes of insight – a pathway to enlightenment.

When I was a kid, giving little puppet shows to anyone who’d watch and listen, such a vision seemed to beckon. The other day I told my granddaughter, 2 years old, about toys I’d lost as a child – the little manikin out of a favourite forklift truck, a plastic crocodile floating into the overflow drain of a sink. She asked me to retell these two stories over and over. Then she devised a drama in which they were returned to me.

You know what? It worked. There they were.

When nature is broken, I wonder, can art mend it? It’s a question I’ll return to in my final post in this sequence … no guarantee of reader satisfaction, of course, but I can promise this picture clue will be part of the answer

 

Image result for skull

 

Image: Dr. Odd

Art Attack # 1

 

 

Inspired by the free-flowing piece on writing that I linked in my previous post, here are some foot-loose and fancy-free reflections prompted by the above graphic.

I’m a sucker for clever graphics. This one pretty well sums up my philosophy of life. If you define science as the exploration of nature, you have the classic art-nature opposition which dissolves because art seeks to celebrate and even emulate nature by mimicking it. As we learn ever more about our world, art evolves to reflect scientific understanding. And like natural evolution, a more willed process than used to be thought, art involves performance-feedback-revision.

I’m also a sucker for equations. An equation to represent the graphic might be:

Knowledge + Creativity = Reverence

By coincidence, I’ve just read this in ‘V’ by Howard Jacobson:

There was rapture and there was responsibility. Each imposed an obligation of seriousness but together they made the serious sacred.

Dionysus and Apollo together make up the ancient Greek ideal – two sides of the same coin, no one without the other. The poet William Blake understood that ‘without Contraries is no progression’. But what strikes me about the equation is how it echoes the Buddhist concept of Higher Worlds: Learning, Realisation and Compassion.

A swift digression – I’m no student of religion and happy to be put right but my understanding is that there are 10 Worlds:

Hell, Hunger, Anger, Animality, Tranquillity, Heaven, Learning, Realisation, Compassion, Nirvana.

Hunger is absolute want. Anger is the root of conflict and war. Animality is obsession with status, pecking-order, dog-eats-dog. Tranquillity, sometimes known as Humanity, is inertia – passive acceptance of the status quo. Suffering two or more of these Worlds becomes a Hell on earth. Heaven is a temporary respite from the other Lower Worlds.

Now the good news. As we all know, there are positives in adversity which enable us to climb out. Learning is our evolutionary lifeline. Realisation I take to mean mastery, the attainment of skills which help us transcend ego. Compassion is simply fellow-feeling. Blend these Higher Worlds to attain Nirvana – escape from the cycle of Birth and Death, with all its inevitable suffering.

Now – cards on the table – I don’t happen to believe in Reincarnation, any more than I believe in Transubstantiation. Infected by the scientific method, I require hard evidence of life after death – evidence which is so far not forthcoming. But the 10 Worlds work for me as a theory of human life, with the potential to alleviate my natural and universal fear of death. And if I can use the certainty of my own demise as a means of enhancing my appreciation of life, so much the better – one in the eye for the Grim Reaper, you might say …

Enough for now. More to come next post, though, as I’ve only just scratched the surface of what I want to say. It gets more cheerful, promise!

Here’s a taste of what’s to come …

 

Image result for the grim reaper

 

Image: Twitter

travelling through time and space

I once wrote a historical novel. It was never published but I loved doing the research and trying to create characters whose life experiences were very different from my own. They weren’t famous people, just ordinary men and women whose harsh lives were largely unchronicled in the history books.

The following poem was the perfect companion, encouraging me to persevere with my efforts to empathise with voiceless strangers. Coming across it again, at a time when tolerance and generosity of spirit suddenly seem in very short supply, I feel it has fresh relevance. When the dominant narrative is unfriendly, we may need a little help to climb out of our comfort zone and think for ourselves …

 

Through Nightmare

Never be disenchanted of
That place you sometimes dream yourself into,
Lying at large remove beyond all dream,
Or those you find there, though but seldom
In their company seated –

The untameable, the live, the gentle.
Have you not known them? Whom? They carry
Time looped so river-wise about their house
There’s no way in by history’s road
To name or number them.

In your sleepy eyes I read the journey
Of which disjointedly you tell; which stirs
My loving admiration, that you should travel
Through nightmare to a lost and moated land,
Who are timorous by nature.

Robert Graves

 

Image result for land of dreams

Together

Trying and failing to resist a double whammy of jet-lag and sleep deprivation – it seems like only the young fall asleep easily on long-haul flights in economy class! Will catch up on what other people have been posting when I recover …

In the meantime here’s a quick acrostic response to the current Daily Prompt which is, er, Resist.

R eject
E ach label they try to
S lap on you and
I nstead become
S omebody who can
T ick every box.

This wonderful little film captures the idea much better than I can:

Communication Breakdown

To put my previous post into perspective, here is a short news item about what it really means to lose your voice.

 

For once I’m happy to remain speechless. But here are three traditional sayings that somehow rise to the occasion:

‘Thought shall be the harder, heart the keener, courage the greater, as our might grows smaller.’ – Anglo-Saxon hero facing the Vikings

‘The owl of Minerva only flies at dusk.’ – Hegel, after the Greeks

‘In dark times, the eye begins to see.’ – Chinese proverb