Heightened vitality

Museumsinsel, Berlin

Museumsinsel, Berlin

I was so smiled upon by fortune that I lived, for the month of November, in Berlin, with someone very dear to me. Our life was a flurry of activity, of love and painting, chilled grey days and toasty croissant breakfasts, U-Bahn trips populated by the most curious characters, endless halls of incredible paintings, evenings of Aktzeichnen and steaming blueberry wine and hot cherry beer out of terracotta mugs. We were quickly absorbed into this energetic city.

Liebe

We gladly sought out labyrinthine artist studio complexes during open studio and exhibition evenings. These were odd experiences, as I generally found myself at a loss when trying to speak with other artists. While physicists might be expected to find some common language with other physicists, artists seem to lack much overlap in either practice or ideas: each is trying to do something in an entirely unconventional way, and each is an artist and –. An artist and a faux-physicist. An artist and a nutritionist. An artist and a geographer. Being an artist who works with paint, not with stale cheese, torn up posters, or contour maps, and lacking a sound understanding of quantum physics (though I suspect, so too was my new artist acquaintance), I was able to have neither intellectual nor practice-based conversation with my apparent colleagues. We are a confused constellation of makers with no true common field. ‘Art’ truly has no meaning; it is not a discipline.

Milchhof, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

Milchhof, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

The ever-thoughtful Gombrich (1972: 4) once wrote, ‘There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.’ And a similar impulse drives me to investigate just what makes one an artist, for perhaps by coming at it this way we can better appreciate what good art consists in. Since in these volatile times anything may be branded art, it becomes harder and harder to engage with art, much less appreciate it or gain anything by it. I want to contend that artists need to take a long, hard look at what their job is. My own intuition is that the artist is not an activist, contrary to common opinion. Yet I am certain that artists could strip back all the pseudo-philosophy, tenuous threads with string-theory and shameless narcissism and establish just what makes art a distinct discipline rather than an embarrassing parasite in the bowels of society. I would like to propose a place to start.

Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Distinct from musicians, distinct from writers, visual artists are presumably offering something visual to the world. Before we can produce something to be gazed upon, we must ourselves partake in a vast amount of looking. We live in a highly literate society, yet nonetheless one that increasingly relies on visual cues and shortcuts. The artist, in my view, is a person with a distinct ability with the visual: they notice sights that slip under the very noses of those who have important reports to contend with or a head constantly interpreting the world through calculations. Rather than being inward-looking, the artist turns her eyes upon the physical world, appreciating fortuitous arrangements of shape, of space, of colour. Appreciating individuality in appearance, noting cloud formations, watching shadows fade and flicker. Being amazed by the contrast in hue from one plane of a building to another; being absorbed in the mood a hushed evening light casts over a park. Artists are physical creatures, living thoroughly in their bodies, alive to every spark of sensation. This somewhat eccentric revelling in the sheer delight of having a body, of physically intersecting with the world, is what gives artists insights that others often miss. The same sensations are available to all of us, but some of us need more help to notice them. This is where the attentive artist finds herself needed.

Fernsehturm, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

Fernsehturm, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

The artist is, as John Dewey would phrase it, grounded in experience. The artist’s engagement with the world is not, he argues, qualitatively different from that of the scientist’s; rather, ‘the difference between the esthetic and the intellectual is … one of the place where emphasis falls in the constant rhythm that marks the interaction of the live creature with his surroundings’ (1934: 15). Dewey considers the artistic and scientific modes of thought to differ merely in tempo: the scientist does not have a monopoly on thought, and the artist does not hold exclusive rights to meaning and elusive poetic insights. ‘The artist has his problems and thinks as he works. But his thought is more immediately embodied in the object. Because of the comparative remoteness of his end, the scientific worker operates with symbols, words and mathematical signs’ (1934: 16).

kunstlerbedarf

Rainbow of thoughts

 

Not only are artists equipped with a particular penchant for observation, for a certain ability to be drenched in the present, but their very thoughts are often visual rather than linguistic or even symbolic. The language of an artist is composed of forms, colours, volumes, shapes, tones, textures. The language itself is very physical, can be moulded with one’s hands in a way that other languages cannot. ‘The artist,’ as Dewey (1934: 16) describes it, ‘does his thinking in the very qualitative media he works in.’

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

The significance of the physicality of art, of its grounding in perception and experience, is extremely non-trivial. This is an understanding that undermines much contemporary art and its preoccupation with self-expression, shameless self-adoration and cults of personality. For the ‘heightened vitality’ of experience is anything but autobiographical: ‘Instead of signifying being shut up within one’s own private feelings and sensations, [experience] signifies active and alert commerce with the world; at its height it signifies complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events’ (1934: 19).

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Gombrich, E. H. 1972 [1950]. The story of art. Twelfth ed. Phaidon: Oxford.

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It’s taking over everything

It's taking over everything © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

It’s taking over everything © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Based purely on observation and my own experiences and without recourse to hard research, I’ve come to hold the wholly unfeminist view that men are, generally speaking, better at things than women. I certainly don’t want to make any normative claims that things ought to be this way, but since these observations have troubled me my entire life, and have sometimes made me feel without hope due to some seemingly inbuilt inferiority, I simply want to speculate about why this might be.

Christ Church, Oxford

Christ Church, Oxford

And I wouldn’t be the first. Virginia Woolf meanders through a very persuasive line of reasoning, narrated through her wanderings as a guest through the ‘courts and quadrangles of Oxbridge on a fine October morning,’ much as I found myself this past October. ‘Intellectual freedom depends upon material things,’ she argues (1928: 106).

‘Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves. Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.’

And while I certainly do not disagree with her thesis, I want to build on it and offer an idea of my own. This being that, perhaps due to greater material liberties, perhaps due to the way they are encouraged to explore and not taught to everywhere be cautious, afraid and compliant, boys learn in a fundamentally different way to girls. And they learn more thoroughly, more single-mindedly, and more carried by their own wilful curiosity even if it drives them beyond the accepted bounds of education.

Oxford

Oxford

It is no secret that girls, only recently permitted an education, are performing better in schools than boys. But our education system does not, if I might make so bold a claim, encourage greatness. Instead it asks for compliance, adherence to curricula, and measurable aptitude through examinations. I was an excellent student in both school and university, often triumphing over the very boys I looked up to. I was willing to accept the terms of the game, and perform the requisite tasks to receive the desired praise. A boy I particularly admired—Billy—gave approximately zero fucks. We had a beautiful symbiosis: I sat next to him in physics, listened attentively to the teacher while Billy drew or made jokes, and then I brought all my questions to Billy. And he furnished me with every answer, with insightful explanations, demonstrations and a depth of understanding that absolutely dazzled me.

Bodleian Library, Oxford

Bodleian Library, Oxford

School was a magical place to me, where there was a library and people who set aside time to impart their knowledge to me, knowledge I was hungry for but did not know how to access. School was, I’ve no doubt, infinitely boring for Billy, except for getting to sit next to girls like me, because all of his learning took place outside of school. When I realised this, it blew my mind. School seemed a holy sanctuary of knowledge; Billy taught me (among wave theory, additive and subtractive colour and how to calculate trajectories, Simpsons jokes interspersed) that school barely skimmed the tip of the iceberg and that our teachers were cruelly holding out on us. He had university textbooks at home, and did all the calculations during the summer holidays, and learned a great deal from the mistress of experience, thanks to his mother allowing him to blow things up in the backyard.

Girls have adapted to the education system because we are extremely good at being submissive and we care how people measure us. We are well-trained since birth, since the dawn of time, to obey instructions and meet requirements. We excel in this for we are ever conscious of how others perceive us—our hair, our gestures, our conversation. School is merely another form of etiquette, and we fit its rigid confines comfortably. Yet despite the academic success of girls, it’s also no secret that men remain at the top of just about every imaginable field. Women can demonstrate understanding of taught concepts, but we are stunted as innovators.

Copies after Sir Alfred Gilbert, Icarus, and the Roman Clio, muse of history, The Ashmolean, Oxford

Copies after Sir Alfred Gilbert, Icarus, and the Roman Clio, muse of history, The Ashmolean, Oxford

True genius depends on making leaps, taking risks, and working doggedly at a single problem in the face of sustained criticism. It requires a degree of madness: obsession, single-mindedness, anti-social tendencies that compel one to stay home of a Friday night solving a problem that matters to no one else. These traits are—I don’t pretend to know why, or to claim that this is necessarily genetic—characteristically masculine. It’s unladylike to grow your armpit hair or to express left-of-field ideas. Our mental states are as groomed as our hairless skin. I want to suggest we ought to let them grow wild as our brothers do: assuming nothing, open to new concepts, and fearlessly tackling them with reason. Let us remain so madly fixated upon our tasks that we, too, become impervious to attacks on ourselves, and engage only with those relevant to our work.

I’m reminded of the fearful all-consuming passion of a male character described by the undeniably brilliant Mary Shelley (2008: 29):

‘Even at that time I shuddered at the picture he drew of his passions: he had the imagination of a poet, and when he described the whirlwind that then tore his feelings he gave his words the impress of life so vividly that I believed while I trembled. I wondered how he could ever again have entered into the offices of life after his wild thoughts seemed to have given him affinity with the unearthly; while he spoke so tremendous were the ideas which he conveyed that it appeared as if the human heart were far too bounded for their conception. His feelings seemed better fitted for a spirit whose habitation is the earthquake and the volcano than for one confined to a mortal body and human lineaments.’

Mutter mit Kind über der Schulter (1917) by Käthe Kollwitz

Mutter mit Kind über der Schulter (1917) by Käthe Kollwitz, Berlin

Käthe Kollwitz, an unquestionably brilliant German draughtsman and sculptor, shares some insightful observations in her achingly beautiful diaries on her unlikely artistic development and the falling away of many of her female contemporaries, her own sister Lise included. ‘Actually,’ she writes of Lise (1988: 80),

‘she is more talented artistically. That shows up to this day. But she lacked training. And something else too, perhaps: my guess is that she has lived less intensively. When she was young she cultivated herself and the objects of her love. That was enough for her. I probably had more drive. And it has been this drive alone which has made it possible for me to develop as far as possible my talent, which in itself is inferior to hers.’

Mutter mit totem Sohn (Pietà) by Käthe Kollwitz, Berlin

Mutter mit totem Sohn (Pietà) by Käthe Kollwitz, Berlin

And, more strongly (p. 24-5):

‘Now when I ask myself why Lise, for all her talent, did not become a real artist, but only a highly gifted dilettante, the reason is clear to me. I was keenly ambitious and Lise was not. I wanted to and Lise did not. I had a clear aim and direction. … But she was gentle and unselfish. (‘Lise will always sacrifice herself,’ Father used to say.) And so her talent was not developed. … She lacked total concentration upon it. I wanted my education to be in art alone. If I could, I would have saved all my intellectual powers and turned them exclusively to use in my art, so that this flame alone would burn brightly.’

Mutter mit totem Sohn (Pietà) by Käthe Kollwitz, Berlin

Mutter mit totem Sohn (Pietà) by Käthe Kollwitz, Berlin

I want to suggest, along with Kollwitz (p. 23), that ‘the tinge of masculinity within me helped me in my work’—and that in order to reach these heights of brilliance, with the Mary Shelleys, Virginia Woolfs and Käthe Kollwitzes of the world, we must follow the man inside us and adapt the way that we choose to learn. We must set ourselves tasks, ignore external measures, walk away from outside demands. We must not think of ourselves at all, but solely of the work, and abandon all else that distracts us. We must simplify our lives and allow ourselves to be absorbed and consumed with our occupation. Let us turn away from superficial praise; true respect comes with real accomplishment.

For even Virginia Woolf (1928: 98) breathes a sigh of relief at the substance of men’s work: ‘Indeed, it was delightful to read a man’s writing again. It was so direct, so straightforward after the writing of women. It indicated such freedom of mind, such liberty of person, such confidence in himself.’ I in fact don’t think that women need be inferior—and Woolf, Shelley and Kollwitz present dazzling lady counterexamples. I only think that we need to identify where we are causing ourselves to stumble, for these are obstacles that we can remove. Let us not sacrifice ourselves with the sweet-temperamented Lise Stern. Let us not be lost in obscurity with the once-promising Berlin painter Sabine Lepsius, distracted by the care of others, who wrote bitterly, „Schade um meine Gaben.“

Copy after Selbstbildnis (1885) by Sabine Lepsius, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

Copy after Selbstbildnis (1885) by Sabine Lepsius, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin

 

Kollwitz, Käthe. 1988. The diaries and letters of Käthe Kollwitz. Ed. Hans Kollwitz. Trans. Richard and Clara Winston. Northwestern University: Evanston, Illinois.

Shelley, Mary. 2008. Mathilda. Ed. Elizabeth Nitchie. Melville House: Brooklyn, NY.

Woolf, Virginia. [1928] 1963. A room of one’s own. Penguin: Mitcham, Victoria.

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Glasgow, imaginatively

Lanark

Glasgow is in the midst of celebrating one of its staunchest defenders, the artist and writer Alasdair Gray. I had the pleasure of visiting the Kelvingrove Gallery’s tribute, Alasdair Gray: From the personal to the universal, with my artist comrade Allan, a maze of drawings and paintings unfurling before us in the vast labyrinth beneath the heavy red sandstone building.

Kelvingrove gallery, Glasgow

Kelvingrove gallery, Glasgow

Gray’s imagination is astounding. His writing floods pages like surrealist gloop, flowing thickly and inevitably despite its startling absurdity. And though his artwork, less Dalinian, is more rooted in reality, more literal, his eyes see a Glasgow few have imagined. Gray’s Glasgow ebbs and flows with its own unsettling perspective, a gently sickening distortion one nonetheless believes, convinced one is rolling through a vivid if perplexing dream.

Glasgow

I get the sense that Gray, just like his infamous character Lanark (of the novel with the same name), struggles only to tell the truth. His pictures might be described as grotesque, with cackling faces, prominent noses, puffy lips, sunken eye sockets. As his character is chided for making monstrous representations of people, Gray himself might be considered unkind to his subjects, but I find his pictures utterly delightful for being sure impressions of real people. Gray doesn’t simply doodle oddballs and freaks, but captures endlessly fascinating individuals. ‘I will try to tell the truth,’ as Lanark promises. And not for shady purposes: these drawings feel celebratory of our individuality, of our uniqueness, of the endless fascinating variety of the human race.

Kelvingrovepark

Opting not to leave Glasgow after his studies at the well-know Glasgow School of Art (spectacularly designed by the celebrated Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and spectacularly burnt down only this year on the day of the graduating exhibition, final projects and all, which in itself would make a furious and melancholic cataclysmic Gray picture), Gray was eventually commissioned for a fitting task for such a proud Glaswegian. As ‘City Recorder’ in the 1970s, he was requested to produce a series of images of Glasgow people and life. The works—line drawings, subtly coloured, often on brown paper—exude an honest and fierce love for the city and its people. The task melds seamlessly with Duncan Thaw’s observations in Lanark (2007: 243):

‘Glasgow is a magnificent city,’ said McAlpin. ‘Why do we hardly ever notice that?’

‘Because nobody imagines living here,’ said Thaw. McAlpin lit a cigarette and said, ‘If you want to explain that I’ll certainly listen.’

‘Then think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively. What is Glasgow to most of us? A house, the place we work, a football park or golf course, some pubs and connecting streets. That’s all. No, I’m wrong, there’s also the cinema and library. And when our imagination needs exercise we use these to visit London, Paris, Rome under the Caesars, and the American West at the turn of the century, anywhere but here and now. Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.’

Glasgow2

Gray’s entire life has been dedicated to giving himself and his fellow Glaswegians an imaginative Glasgow rich with the gritty pulsing life and gusto of an industrial city which has successfully reinvented itself as a culturally strong metropolis. London may lure many with its long imaginative history, but tucked away in Scotland, in the shadow of cosmopolitan Edinburgh, Glasgow has been determinedly carving out a place in our literary and artistic landscapes. Gray might teach us not to abandon our hamlets in search of fame and fortune, if our hearts are really there. For in ‘waiting for something to turn up’ we might turn our hand to describing our cities to ourselves and others, and demonstrate the significance of our distinct and particular lives—factories, grotesque characters and vacant lots and all.

Glasgow3

 

Gray, Alasdair. 2007 (1969, 1981) Lanark. Canongate: Edinburgh.

 

Alasdair Gray: From the Personal to the Universal is showing at Kelvingrove until Sunday 22 February 2015, £5 / £3.

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