Tuesday, 28 July 2020


For a decade or so bridging the 1980s and 90s, until we had children and I went part-time, I was a member of the Executive Committee of the local branch of the academic trade union, then known as the AUT, at Southampton University. Those were difficult years for the trade union movement, and also for higher education: at times it felt as if we were at war with the zeitgeist, and as a result there was a high level of commitment and camaraderie among the activist members of our union. It was the same everywhere: when I attended national-level meetings as a representative of the so-called "academic-related staff" (librarians, administrators, and so on) the sense of embattlement was very real. Both government and the top management of many universities were clearly out to change things radically, but as we thought – rightly – in a bad way and for the worst possible reasons. So I was taken aback to discover recently that one of my old comrades from those days, a particularly effective President and Secretary, is now Sir Ian, ex-Vice Chancellor of Aberdeen University, and the National Statistician, no less.

There's no law against a poacher turning gamekeeper, of course, but the desire and pursuit of eminence is a curious hobby, and quite alien to most of us. Certainly, I was brought up in a family where the simple morality of working-class Baptism could be boiled down to: be nice; don't show off; be suspicious of hierarchies and self-proclaimed authorities; trust that everything and everyone has a purpose, but that it's not up to you to decide what that is. When it came to worldly aspirations, to become a teacher was about as far as anyone could see. At school I was quickly recognised as one of the brighter kids, but my teachers were good people of limited horizons, whose expectations and moral foundations were much the same as those at home. Nobody ever whispered in my ear, "One day, my lad, you could be Sir Michael, Lord Stevenage, ruler of the world!" Which was probably a very good thing. I have never wanted to be the boss of anything, or felt that my abilities, such as they are, entitled or obliged me to make any such claim.

Desire and pursuit are not necessarily linked, and it suits the purposes of those who would rule us to separate the two. It's widely acknowledged that one of the main motivating engines of our society is the constant stimulation of a free-floating desire, which is only ever temporarily satiated by material consumption. As a result, there are an awful lot of people who feel they want something quite badly, but have little or no idea what it might be. The idea of fame has substituted itself as a sort of consumer-lite version of genuine achievement. It seems many children, asked what they want to do with their lives, answer, "I want to be famous!", as if fame were a job description. Which, to an extent, I suppose, it has become.

In old age, this inchoate desire seems to transmute into a nagging sense that one might have done more with one's life. Which is almost always true. I expect even David Attenborough sometimes regrets the years he wasted making those TV programmes, when he could have finished his postgraduate degree at LSE and gone on to do some serious academic work. I'm no more immune to this than anyone else, so there I was the other day, reading an article in the TLS which considered the steep decline and fall of most boxing careers [1], when a quote from Matthew Arnold, of all people, delivered a stinging left jab. It was this:
It is a sad thing to see a man who has been frittered away piecemeal by petty distractions, and who has never done his best. But it is still sadder to see a man who has done his best, who has reached his utmost limits – and finds his work a failure, and himself far less than he had imagined himself.
Now, I'm happy to put my hand up to a certain measure of under-achievement – I'm a lazy man, with a tendency to daydream, and an instinctive aversion to self-promotion – but this has never struck me as sad. It's who I am: I was never going to be anybody else. No, Arnold is transparently talking about himself: he is the poet laureate of anyone who had natural abilities that somehow failed to thrive, particularly if starved by deliberate neglect. Auden's sonnet on Arnold asserts, memorably: "He thrust his gift in prison till it died". He did give poetry a good go when young, and published what would in time prove to be some of the most enduring literature of the 19th century. However, his efforts came in for some snarky contemporary criticism and so, given that he doubted his own true capacities in that regard anyway, he gave it all up for a proper job. A trajectory that will be familiar to many, and which, again, does not strike me as remotely "sad". The world has a far greater need for school inspectors (Arnold's choice of career) than for poets.

Matthew Arnold and I have history, I should point out. He – or rather his poetry – featured heavily in my school sixth form English studies. I was introduced to his glum Victorian worldview at that sensitive age when your view of what poetry is all about – and indeed what life is all about – is being formed by the diet put in front of you. Seventeen-year-olds should only be exposed to the sophisticated but dubious pleasures of despair and self-repression, Arnold-style, with a certain caution, I think. Arnold's poetry, like that of so many Victorian poets, exudes existential sadness like a contagion. A too-early acquaintance with the pleasing melancholy of middle-aged regret can warp our expectations of life's outcomes, by pre-preparing us for disappointment and failure [2]. A not entirely unrealistic forecast, of course, but why get the Bad News so early in life? Arnold is best-known for a single poem, the anthology standard "Dover Beach", a sonorous groan of despair at the decline of the age of religious faith. It is without doubt a very good poem but, once you have discovered that in all probability it re-enacts a solemn but histrionic monologue delivered to his wife in a Dover hotel room on their honeymoon, it becomes irrevocably hilarious. As well as conflicted and sad, two rather more characteristic Arnoldian emotions.

Our criteria for success and failure are set very early on in life, I think. I've written before how a friend and I had been unprepared by our family backgrounds or education to grasp the nature of the opportunity that had been put in our path by being admitted to an Oxford college (also Arnold's college, as it happens) that has long acted as the launch-pad for eminent lives. For us, a solid public-service career in education or the Civil Service with a final-salary, index-linked pension scheme was the ultimate goal, Plan A, not a fallback position: it would represent a major step up in our family stories. Yes, we might have entertained fantasies about alternative lives as writers or musicians or artists, but failure – an almost certain outcome, in retrospect – would have been catastrophic, and to have taken that risk would have been the sort of folly only the exceptionally brave (or irredeemably strange) can contemplate: working-class families have no safety nets to cushion the fall of their crash-and-burn casualties. So success was measured by securing that job and doing it as well as possible, sustained over the course of thirty-plus years, with a bit of writing, music, and art on the side. A very ordinary and possibly underpowered set of ambitions, perhaps, but the bar seemed high enough, and it was gratifying to have cleared it comfortably and in fine style.

True, I came nowhere near being the person I fantasised I might become in my teenage moonage daydream years. But who does? I'd bet even Tony Blair still poses in front of the mirror with his Fender. Which must be a sad spectacle, indeed, in the more contemporary sense of the word. But what if those other, bolder, riskier choices had paid off? What if, instead of crashing and burning as a writer or artist, I had soared, reached escape velocity, and left the ordinary life of a "civilian" far behind? Well, I imagine that – in the very unlikely event that those bolder, riskier choices had paid off – it would have felt pretty good. I imagine that it would have seemed like the just reward for being a truly special person, a golden exception to the general rule; justified, even, in a quasi-religious sense. Dangerous stuff. But I also wonder if, looking back, it would have felt good enough to compensate for the trail of wreckage and hurt that seems to accompany the self-centredness of prominent creative lives? I'm also pretty sure that even to wonder about that is to understand why one was never in the running in the first place.

More mundanely, there was always the route of the dedicated careerist, of course, seeking serial promotions into the most elevated senior ranks of the professions, where the honours come up with the rations, as my dad would have said. But, just as Groucho Marx didn't want to join any club that would have him as a member, I had no desire to lead any organisation that would have had me as its boss. Besides, I never once dreamed about living that sort of sober-sided, grey-suited lifestyle, learning to conduct a committee like a string ensemble, or how to compose the definitive position paper. Again, what sort of person does? "Sad" doesn't begin to cover it.

Of course, I did have the unfair advantage that no-one had ever whispered in my ear, "One day, my lad, you could be Sir Michael, Lord Stevenage, ruler of the world!" But is that really how extreme ambition arises in otherwise normal-seeming folk? I wouldn't know, obviously. Do some schools run special extreme-level careers-advice sessions? Or perhaps it's genetically pre-programmed into alpha types? Do some more modest people get talked into it by their exceedingly ambitious partners, à la Macbeth? Or maybe they get blackmailed by shadowy "black ops" agents, seeking to corrupt the workings of the state from within? Who knows? Perhaps, if we ever meet again, I should ask my old AUT comrade when and how it all started to go so horribly wrong for him, after such a promising start in the awkward squad. After all, nobody ends up as a university vice-chancellor or taking a knee in front of Her Madge by accident, do they? It seems a fair enough question to ask, on a par with, "So why on earth did you decide to get your face tattooed?" But I expect he wouldn't even remember who I am by now, after chairing so many committee meetings and drafting so many position papers, and might even have me escorted from the building by security. Now that would be sad.

1. TLS July 10 2020: "In the hurt business: The rise and fall of ‘The Fighting Jew’", By Declan Ryan.
2. Whether the close reading of gloomy poetry at an impressionable age might actually induce self-doubt and inner conflict or merely exacerbates pre-existing tendencies it's impossible to say, but I suppose, in this ultra-cautious age, someone somewhere might feel inclined to run a proper randomised, double-blind case-study to determine the truth of the matter: "Can Victorian poetry destroy a child's life-chances?". Meanwhile, a precautionary ban on the teaching of Tennyson is surely the only wise course of action.

Thursday, 23 July 2020


Accordion-folds are not the only style of book susceptible to a mock-DIY approach, of course. My original interest in these alternative formats was sparked by a visit to an exhibition of Buddhist texts at the British Library back in January, and prominent among these were many examples of the palm-leaf book, in which long narrow "pages" (originally made from processed palm-leaves, but subsequently from other materials shaped to the same format) are strung together like a slatted blind.

So here is a first attempt at a DIY, card-engineered palm-leaf book. If I have another go, I may make more of an effort at some proper 3-D modelling: each "page" could be a six-sided flat box, for example (this is where the lessons learned from my packaging deconstruction hobby will come in handy). But I like the visual impression it gives, anyway; it has a certain Zen presence.

Talking of which, and given you can barely see the detail at this scale (the original is 50cm square) and would have enormous difficulty cutting your screen up to assemble it correctly – no, please don't try – I can reveal that a haiku by Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) is hidden in there:

On the morning frost
The blacksmith's sparks

For no reason, really, other than that one of the raw materials was this previous four-bar construct:

Which, in turn, made use of one of the many circular haiku texts I created for the exhibition "The Colour of the Water" (2003) and the subsequent book Downward Skies:

As with the cardboard boxes, I like to recycle stuff, even if it is only made of pixels.

Sunday, 19 July 2020

Cut It Out

I've been having some fun in the past week. My original idea of the "poster book" has taken a DIY turn, and become the "cut and construct" booklet. I have always been a fan of those card models where an entire three-dimensional Houses of Parliament or Peregrine Falcon has been reverse-engineered into a sheet or two of card printed with shapes to cut out, score, bend, and glue, complete with guidelines and assembly instructions. By comparison, a cut-out accordion-book is a pretty simple challenge.

In fact, what I like most of all is the way the pristine, flat sheet of card looks before it has been imperfectly butchered with scissors and turned into yet another dust-magnet around the house. So these DIY booklets have been set out as if they were intended to be realised as card-engineering projects, but are actually meant to remain intact as 2-D pictures. I have created them as 60cm square images – six so far – but (in the unlikely event that anyone were ever to select one of them for an exhibition) I would probably reduce them to 50cm or even 40cm and present them in that very contemporary-looking, frameless, "dibond and acrylic glass sandwich" style. I think they'd look great.

Another aspect of card-engineering that intrigues me is the construction of packets and boxes, particularly the lighter-gauge sort used for tea, biscuits, and other grocery items. Ever since recycling was introduced I have taken to carefully disassembling such packaging, rather than simply stomping it flat, as I have become fascinated by the sheer variety of solutions to what you might think was a fairly simple, standard packaging problem: make a six-sided box using a single die-cut piece of card that is rigid enough to withstand handling and transport, yet easy enough to open, and if necessary act as storage for the contents. Some of the designs are as simple as you would expect, but others are bafflingly baroque: any Brits reading this might want to try deconstructing a range of teabag boxes into their original complete flat sheet sometime. Points will be deducted for tearing any card: the PG Tips box is a particularly intriguing challenge.

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Bath-Time Extremity

Diana: selfie with Actaeon

Well, after you've turned someone into a stag for stumbling across your bath-time, and then had him torn to pieces by his own pack of hounds, you're going to want to show off your handiwork, aren't you? Heh, what am I like? Gorgeous, that's what! And maybe a little savage. Check it out, immortals!

I'm pretty sure the swivel-eyed Roman below is not Ovid, but he's got the look, hasn't he? "The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling" and all that.
They hem him in on everie side, and in the shape of Stagge,
With greedie teeth and griping pawes their Lord in peeces dragge.
So fierce was cruell Phoebes wrath, it could not be alayde,
Till of his fault by bitter death the raunsome he had payde.
Much muttring was upon this fact. Some thought there was extended
A great deale more extremitie than neded. Some commended
Dianas doing : saying that it was but worthely
For safegarde of hir womanhod.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 3 (trans. Arthur Golding, 1567)

Ars Poetica

Saturday, 11 July 2020


I do love a backlit bus-shelter. I'd hoped to keep a bit more detail in the highlighted area, but only other photographers notice or care about that sort of thing. In the end, it's the overall effect that counts. 

In fact, now I come to think of it, I really like all those transitional places – bus-shelters, bus-stops, railway platforms, cafés, and so on – where we are open to the in-between moments when one thing has paused and another has yet to start, and certain realities are foregrounded that normally lie hidden in the busy background. Waiting around can be a sort of enforced meditative interlude: the poem "Adlestrop" by Edward Thomas captures the feeling exactly.

These don't need to be actual places, of course: there are times in life like that, too, ranging from passing idle moments of "wool-gathering" – I'm a past master at staring out of the window – to longer periods, such as the weeks between ending one job and beginning another. As one who has spent a working lifetime within the rhythms of the academic year, I immediately think of those summer weeks between the end of exams and the receipt of results, and then the release into a month or two of leisured irresponsibility for the lucky few, or a first taste of employment (or, more likely these days, unemployment) for the rest.

Just now, quite a few spaces are waiting for us: where'd everybody go? Sadly, the Nuffield Theatre (which, if you know what you're looking for, can be seen reflected in the view of a backlit university café below) will be remaining empty for some time: the Covid shutdown has driven it into "administration". Although this happened so very quickly – by the end of April – that you have to wonder whether opening a second venue in the city centre was such a good idea after all. But it's a shame to see forward-looking optimism punished quite so brutally.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020


Genuine imitation Bonnard: £65

[Portentous voice]: Previously on Idiotic Hat:
I suppose a major factor in my liking for multiples is that, like so many of us from small-town backgrounds, I acquired my tastes in art from books, posters, magazines and colour supplements, and never saw many actual examples of the "real thing" until my late teens. The real thing, it turned out, was often disappointingly crude, compared to a good reproduction. Of course, the imperfections that might, to you or me, seem like "crudeness" in a painting – the layered corrections and brushstrokes, the reliance on easy but expressive effects, the poor finishing, and all those qualities that announce "made by hand" – are the very things that are admired by those who put a high value (aesthetic and monetary) on the uniqueness of a work of art. Some people, after all, like to drink their coffee from some bulbous, warty, stoneware mug bought from an artisan's stall, whereas I prefer the smooth, functional perfection of industrially-produced china.
I thought I might return to the question of the high value placed by some on the uniqueness of a work of art. Or perhaps "exclusivity" is the better choice of word.

I realise this is ground covered by one of the classics of "theory", Walter Benjamin's essay of 1936, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction". Many years ago (in 1976 – longer ago now, scarily, than 1936 was then) I was a postgraduate student enrolled in a Master's degree in Comparative Literature, and this was prominent in the list of required reading. Since then, thousands of students have dutifully read this seminal text and, it seems to me, most have failed to understand it. Unsurprising, as it's a tough read, and it's clear Benjamin's heart and head are not quite in the same place when it comes to the "proletarianization" of culture. I think much the same could be said about John Berger in Ways of Seeing, which to an extent is a popularisation of Benjamin's ideas about the significance of the mass availability of art in reproduction versus the "aura" of the unique, original work. It was clearly hard for Marx-influenced (Marxish?) art-lovers who had grown up worshipping the Old Masters and their modern inheritors to acknowledge that the objects of their adoration were, in some profound way, tainted and on the wrong side of history.

On the other hand, the farsightedness of old-school intellectuals writing at the very onset of modernity never ceases to amaze me. Consider this from Paul Valéry, as quoted in Benjamin's essay:
Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so shall we be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.
Now that was written in 1928 ("The Conquest of Ubiquity"). Thirty years later, no doubt, it was taken as a foreshadowing of the exciting new medium of TV. Ninety years later, we can look back in some amusement and think: not so fast! Perhaps one reason we lack comparable futurological soothsayers today is our enhanced awareness of how quickly technological reality outstrips and wrong-foots imagination. Of course, once we introduce the internet into the picture, the whole "cheap(er) multiples" vs. "expensive one-offs" argument looks rather dated. Valéry was right: high quality images and sounds are now available to anyone with a broadband connection more or less on tap and at negligible cost, even compared to the very cheapest poster or print. And we won't even mention the daily inundation with yet more photographs.

But "original" art (and let's take paintings to represent all art) still sells, and sometimes at extraordinary prices. If we accept the risk of accusations of bean-counting philistinism, I think we are entitled to to ask some bluntly un-aesthetic questions. For a start, what is a painting – particularly one that costs a significant multiple of an average annual income – for? What need does it satisfy that something far cheaper like a print, or a good, mass-produced reproduction, or indeed a computer display does not satisfy? Mega-rich collectors aside (for whom a work of art represents not so much an aesthetic experience as a financial investment to be secured in a bank-vault – let's call them art-abductors) what can anyone do with such a painting in a domestic environment, other than hang it on the wall, occasionally admire it or show it off, but in the main ignore it as part of the furniture and background noise of day-to-day life?

In a way, you might say that – like any luxury item – what such a painting is for is pretty much to be as expensive as possible: it's a so-called Veblen good. In the scheme of things, a £500 painting is practically a giveaway, and even a £5,000 painting is still moderately cheap. But £50,000? Or £500,000? Now we're talking! Look, we've got loadsamoney! But why should any bit of canvas or board covered in paint-marks be worth more than a luxury car or even a typical family house?

To most people, I think, a high price is an implicit guarantee of high quality; in art this is further justified not so much by the high cost of labour, production, and materials as by the supposed scarcity of true talent. But the association of quality and/or talent with prices on the Veblen scale is secondary, and probably illusory; we're really talking about the association of price with status. And status need have nothing to do with quality. After all, a pair of plain but hand-made, bespoke leather shoes is going to cost you a lot of money. For all I know, they might even be worth it – I have very wide feet, and have terrible trouble finding comfortable shoes – but as a status object they'd be pretty unremarkable. But a pair of factory-made, ostentatiously "designer" trainers turned out in off-the-shelf sizes? High price, yes; status, yes; quality, no. Status is never an intrinsic or implicit property, it seems, and can only ever really exist in other people's eyes.

"High quality" is also not the same thing as "high aesthetic value". I choose my smooth, industrial china mug for its coffee-drinking qualities, which is not an aesthetic category, in the western mind, at least; it's a perfectly made object, but aesthetically rather marred by the, um, trite slogan perfectly printed on it. These things are obviously very subjective, but there can be no doubt that, for example, Michael Craig-Martin's "An Oak Tree" has been a highly influential work, even though its component parts are ready-made, cheap, and deliberately devoid of any sign of "craftsmanship". Its significance alone makes it a high status work of art, although I've no idea whether Craig-Martin ever had the chutzpah to offer it for sale, or at what price. By contrast, I remember visiting the workshop of furniture-maker John Makepeace at Parnham in Dorset about twenty years ago, and being shocked by the price of his extravagant re-interpretations of basic household items like tables and chairs. Sure, a lot of skilled handicraft had been applied to a lot of lovely wood, but who wants or needs a set of over-thought, over-wrought dining chairs at £5,000 each, when a set of perfectly attractive and functional chairs can be bought for rather less?

Well, we can imagine who. So, cards on the table: I do not believe anyone in guilt-free possession of a large fortune and an urge to spend it on hyper-priced, high-status objets d'art is truly capable of meaningful aesthetic judgement. There is an inherent ugliness in all de luxe articles produced for the exclusive delectation of the super-rich, isn't there? Like financial advice, the wealthy can hire in purveyors of "good taste", but their very condition prevents them from ever developing it themselves. This may sound harsh, and may even be untrue, but it is no more untrue than the idea that very poor people have no capacity to respond to the best in art or, worse, that they somehow deserve the quotidian bleakness that too often surrounds them. No: if we believe that no-one is free until everyone is free, then surely it follows that the rich cannot exculpate themselves from the systematic squalor their wealth has created, simply by spending improbably large sums of money on art. Which, you might say, is the 21st-century equivalent of buying indulgences from the mediaeval church.

Most art is not expensive, of course, and thus relatively status-free. In truth, most self-declared "artists" are really makers of crafts, turning out variations on much the same harmless, decorative still-lifes, landscapes, pots, and prints that have enlivened middle-class homes ever since the Bloomsbury crowd brought their soft-furnishings-friendly aesthetic to interior decoration. Such folk do not expect or want to lead a 1% lifestyle [1], and their price-tags reflect this: tens or a few hundreds of pounds, and rarely nudging the thousands. Their work usually shows some slight twist on a well-established genre, so that – even if "unique" – it is rarely original or significant in art-historical terms. But if you're after a crusty stoneware mug, a hand-made greetings card, or a watercolour to match the new sofa, you know where to look. In a paradoxical way, these works are often so similar that you could regard them as hand-crafted multiples, produced in small, distributed quantities like some pre-industrial cottage industry.

Even in the niche above the craft-folk, where artists of genuine accomplishment but modest worldly success reside, we don't generally get into the truly high-status, Veblen-scale territory. Some of these may be yesterday's stars, still plugging away in a studio somewhere, sustained by the success of their early years, perhaps hoping for a retrospective or an upturn in their reputation. Some will be relative unknowns, earning their living by teaching, or some other day job which threatens perpetually to displace any actual art-making. Others will be creative dynamos, simply too busy making stuff to think about anything else; an assistant, a spouse, or a gallery will be handling the business end, such as it is, and they probably have no idea how much or how little cash goes into the bank (or is diverted into the gallery's account). Their prices can be surprisingly modest, particularly when it comes to those genuinely hand-crafted multiples, prints. You can get a signed, limited edition print from Tom Phillips's Humument series for a few hundred pounds, for example. Although you might even consider that a bit steep, considering you can get an entire hardback book of the final edition of A Humument, brand new, for less than £20. Now that's a multiple. It's even available as an inexpensive app for the iPad.

But then there are the few, the internationally-acclaimed, platinum-plated art superstars, with teams of assistants and a place seemingly pre-booked in the art histories, if only in the chapter entitled "Whatever Were We Thinking?". Such artists – who presumably hoped all along to be joining the ranks of the wealthy – are marketed by exclusive galleries as, essentially, one-person luxury brands. They – or rather, their products – are pure status, or will be for as long as their brand stays in fashion. A distinctive, easily-recognised trademark style is essential, which is presumably why Damien Hirst is prepared to take legal action against anyone using "his" coloured spots. Plus, of course, there needs to be the crucial endorsement and reassurance provided to the anxious customer by that Veblen-scale price-tag, falling in a range denoted by the old quip: "if you have to ask how much it is, you can't afford it". Which galleries tend to rephrase as POA: "price on application" [2].

So why should the work of these latter types be worth quite so much more money than anyone else's? I suppose that's really a question only a silver-tongued gallerist or a very wealthy art-buyer could answer. I certainly don't know, other than to say that art by bankable names seems a pretty solid way of laundering investing very large sums of money at any time, but especially when interest rates are approaching ever closer to zero. So long, of course, as they remain "bankable". There is clearly a corresponding need to limit the supply of celebrity artists, who embody whatever it is wealthy people and their advisors currently think art is all about. Determining who these are is the essential mystery of the high-end art market, but there is clearly something fundamentally wrong, not to say corrupt, going on in that world. Contemporary art by here today, gone tomorrow art celebrities can surely never actually be worth that kind of money. Unlike land, not only are they still making it, but it gets made in ever greater quantities: it is certainly not a shortage of art that is driving prices ever upwards.

Now, I don't want to get into hand-wavy arguments about the value of art, or its relative importance compared to, say, professional sport or medical research. So, let's be bold, let's point a finger straight at the naked emperor's arse, and make the provocative proposal that paintings have very little intrinsic value at all. Practically none. All it would take is a change in the aesthetic weather to render your multi-million pound canvas covered in scribbles, dribbles, and smears worthless. Whatever magic is embedded within those paint-marks is at least 50% a product of the viewer's personal psychology, like a Rorschach inkblot, with a healthy dealer's percentage of hocus pocus and wishful thinking thrown in. As Michael Craig-Martin demonstrated decades ago, for the purposes of art a glass of water on a high shelf is an oak tree. Just believe!

Of course, celebrity culture affects everything, at all levels, these days. I was following an online fund-raising "secret postcard" auction at the Royal West of England Academy recently, for which RWA fellows and guest artists had been invited to submit anonymous, postcard-sized works, signed on the back. Bids started at £50, with the slightly disingenuous promise that you might end up with the work of a famous artist at a bargain price. There were some very attractive pieces on offer, but there was also a surprising amount of awful "phoned-in" tat. It was transparent, however, to anyone who follows contemporary art with even half an eye that certain pieces were by Antony Gormley, Grayson Perry, and a few other Big Names. In the end, most pieces achieved a modest price somewhere between £50 and £500 – I made a bid myself on what was clearly a Susan Derges print, but was outbid almost instantly – but, inevitably, these few celebrity-artist postcards attracted the most attention and went for far more: several thousands each. Which was nice for the RWA, obviously – over £100K was raised in total – but a bit of an indictment of our collective susceptibility to celeb-culture. I mean, seriously? £4,500 for a postcard-sized, felt-pen drawing – a cartoon, really – of a tranny in stack heels on a BMX bike, simply because it was so obviously by Grayson Perry? I suppose a charitable interpretation might be that it was Perry himself who bought it (or perhaps it was his gallery), pushing up the price to keep his market value buoyant, whilst adding generously to the finances of the RWA. Otherwise, some fool somewhere will soon be suffering an acute case of buyer's remorse.

Paintings are great, I really enjoy looking at them, but I do not believe in art as a sort of quasi-religion, in which some higher reality is mediated to us via its anointed priestly practitioners, and which we can only get really close to by immersing ourselves in the "aura" of the Real Presence, preferably by constructing our own private chapel at enormous expense. Particularly when the sermons of the most fashionable contemporary preachers turn out to be all about art about art. In fact, I take the ultra-protestant line that art is best thought of as a verb, not a noun: it's about the "doing and viewing", not a message to be conveyed, or a product to be bought and sold. Perhaps the most profound lesson of photography is that, with properly-adjusted eyes, just looking at the world can be more than enough "art" for anybody. Which doesn't mean you can't look at art: it's part of the world, too.

So, down with indulgences! Down with priests! Down with simony! [3] Some sort of Reformation in art is long overdue. To paraphrase Diderot, humanity will not be free until the last private art-abductor has been strangled with the entrails of the last art-dealer. But here's a thought: if I were to be put in charge of such things, I would introduce a law – the Idiotic Art Reformation Act – that said that no single work of art, ancient or modern, could be sold or resold at a value above, say, the average annual salary of a state secondary school headteacher. And any work achieving that valuation would automatically have to be offered to a public gallery or national collection at that same price for first refusal. Can I get a witness?

Look! The truth is out there... (Uffizi Gallery, 2016)

1. Although it is striking how many craft-artists live comfortable lives in highly-desirable rural locations. It is also striking how many are married to high-earning professionals... Whether and how anyone should expect to make an independent living from making art is an interesting question, but one for another time.
2. I have occasionally bothered to follow up a POA invitation on the phone, if only to give myself (and the gallery) the satisfaction of gasping, "HOW much?? You cannot be serious!" 
3. I refuse to make a joke along the lines of "And down with Garfunkely, too!". This is serious stuff! Oh, go on then...

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Urban Trees 2


A couple of paired photographs from the emerging "urban trees" series.

We visited St. Petersburg in 2018. As usual, my partner had a professional gig there and I tagged along, curious to visit Russia for the first time after so many years of working with Russian-language books. As it happened, it was during the run-up to the FIFA World Cup, held in several locations in Russia that summer including St. Petersburg, and I got the impression that the city had been cleaned up and told to be on its best behaviour. St. Petersburg is traditionally a very westward-looking city, and – were it not for the cyrillic signs and the mega-capacity drainpipes (oh, and the crashed, abandoned cars on every other street corner) – I could have been persuaded I was in Lisbon or Amsterdam, as some tattooed and pierced youngster brought me a green tea and interpreted the chalked "specials" on a blackboard above the stripped-wood counter. The trees on the left are on the boundary of the Summer Garden (Letnyi Sad), seemingly making way for a view of the Koronny (crown) Fountain. The ones on the right, by contrast, are blocking the view of the utterly bonkers Saviour on the Spilled Blood church (Spas na krovi).

Below are a pair of night-time photographs from London's South Bank in November 2015. I was "in town", as we provincials say, to see Keith Jarrett at the Royal Festival Hall with a party of friends. It was a memorable night, and very cold. There's something special about a cold, crisp night in London, when the city is just starting to get en fête for the Christmas season: the excitement is still fresh and palpable, so that "going out" has an extra edge. The South Bank of the Thames is one of the main congregations of theatres, concert halls, and galleries and so has particular reason to get dressed up. The riverside trees have to put up with multiple impositions – being draped with lights, and forced to share their space with stalls and fairground rides – but manage to maintain their dignity throughout.

London, South Bank

Thursday, 2 July 2020

Planet Swatches

Creating a universe? Need some planets? We've got planets! Have a browse, and take your pick: excellent rates for bulk purchases.

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