Sunday, June 25, 2006

sun sun sun

Over the last few days issues of ‘spirituality’ have seemed to loom rather large. First of all, I attended the opening of an exhibition that my good friend Dan Belton has arranged in a gallery / bar here in Brighton. There’re four painters in the show, Dan’s work is easily the strongest – it’s funny, angry with itself, has a recognisable – what? – poise? It’s distinctive, and it looks good. Like good food looks good.

However, Dan is also (difficult this) a Stuckist. Let me be clear – I liked the show. If you’re in town you should check it out – It’s at the Arthouse Bar opposite the Providence on Western Road. But personally I find Stuckism irritating and boring. It seems to exist as a kind of embittered alter ego to conceptual art, taking muddled pot-shots at YBA’s, installation artists, Turner nominees and so forth, all done in full tweeds and deerstalker with a surprising flair for media and celebrity. The fact that they reserve a special place in their grimoire of britart demons for Tracey Emin when to me she seems to exhibit exactly the kind of angsty neo-expressionist narrative stuff they claim to prize so highly is evidence that there are things other than aesthetics driving this movement. (She stole it all from Billy Childish? So her ideas are rubbish...and they're stolen from a Stuckist?...ok...)

As a general rule, I don’t pay much attention to what artists say about their work, or what their gallery owners commission critics to write about them in catalogues. Some of the most strangled, airless and indigestible prose outside of the legal profession is to be found in manifestos and fine art catalogues, as everyone knows. I figure it’s politest to just pretend it’s not there, like a small fart. Unfortunately Stuckists are by temperament addicted to proselytising tracts, manifestos, slogans and bullet points. It’s not a small fart, you can’t ignore it. Especially when (and here I come to my point) they persist in mentioning spirituality, spiritual values, some kind of neurotic strained quest for authenticity.

My friend Vaughan once said to me, with a kind of clear angry pride, ‘I have no idea what a spiritual side is. I haven’t got one.’ That more or less sums it up. I understand spirit to refer to a kind of animating energy or principle which the physical body or mind partakes of, but which is not identified with it, not contiguous or coterminous with it. Breath, but not my breath. To me this seems a dangerously mistaken idea. I will say this as clearly and simply as I can: I believe there is no god. I believe the links between me and the outside world including other people, family, loved ones, originate inside individual (my, your) private, unshared apprehension. I do not think that for the most part very much is gained from (nonetheless very diverting) speculation on how exactly these links are constituted – the mix of genetic predisposition, physics, clustering, memory, atavism, that I privately postulate probably says more about the culture I live in than it does about the phenomenon I hope to describe. What is important to me is that the patterns made by these links are harmonically related. Things can clang, or hum; sigh, or shriek. That is to say, it is possible to experience the world in a disordered and anxious way. It is also possible to experience peaceful ease and pleasure. The solution to the problem of how we can all stay as close to the sunny side of the street as possible can’t be found inside single separate subjectivities, nor does it lie in some supra-human spiritual dimension. It lies in the variousness, the multiplicity of the individuals, all alone inside our subjectivity, but able to see out, able to make links, to share information, to recognise each other. It’s social. It is the complex musics of these links, their harmonic structures, that are what people mistake for spirit. It’s not spirit. It’s US. If I am ill because my family can’t afford to feed me because their life as farmers was destroyed when the valley we live in was flooded to make a hydroelectric dam so that the governor of my region could advance his political career, well, what’s my spirit gonna do? My spirit isn’t strong enough to move a match across a kitchen table without my body. Spirit, like soul, is a word, not a thing. And the way my illness will be cured will be by other human beings seeing me out of their eyes, or seeing a sign that means me in a newspaper, or hearing me down a phone line, and hearing a kind of dissonance there, some thing they don’t like, something they wanna put right. And ways get invented of doing it, slowly slowly. A lot of this is done at very boring meetings. None of it is done in religious ritual. Rituals have all kinds of possibly useful side effects, but raindances? Prayer? Anybody says spirit did it, or that anyone one this blue earth was ever saved by anything other than real people, they’re wrong.

Which brings me to Spiritual Peeve no.2. Anybody who’s spent any time with me in pubs has heard all this before and can safely go straight on to the next paragraph. I spend a fair bit of time over at Silliman’s Blog where the American Language Poet Ron Silliman keeps a well-stocked bar. There’re few more bracing pleasures than watching Silliman anatomize a poem, or share an insight into a neglected writer / little magazine / new anthology. Last week, though, in the course of discussing Charles Olson’s Proprioceptions he mentioned that Olson had some small interest in the occult, hermeticism, yadda yadda. This ended up in a discussion in the comments box about acupuncture, crystals, and all this one. I’d direct you over there to have a look but Ron had to turn the comments off after some unrelated abuses. Anyway, I felt I couldn’t stand by and watch, so posted saying why is everybody saying these awful things? Why are educated people talking about homeopathy? And I more or less got swatted away in a very polite californian way. But it made me think – why do people who are reasonable, educated people believe that, for example, homeopathy works, when it plainly doesn’t. It’s that little viral spirit idea again, making it seem ok to ignore the truth, centring responsibility for deciding whether something is true or not just far enough outside of the self that you avoid having to question it. It’s a mistake. If people can be made to believe in homeopathy then they can be made to believe other fantastic notions. The market knows best. You’ll feel better if you look at these celebrities. You need six months extended warranty. This crystal might help. It’s probably the fault of the jews / muslims / travellers / somalis. The Green Party could govern. There’s no end to the possibilities.

And thirdly: We’ve got Jerry Springer The Opera coming to Brighton. Which means we’ve also got those Christian Voice fuckers leafleting. Which is about as much as I can stand. They seem determined to pick a fight with all of us. Are you an artist? Seen any art you liked, ever? Or maybe you’re homosexual? Or at least not a rabid swivel-eyed homophobe? Ever had an abortion? Are you broadly speaking against rolling back 50 years of feminism and getting back to gingham-clad trank-zombie housewives? Then these bastards hate you. They’ve got money, time and influential friends. So, yes, write to your MP, join the National Secular Society, write to the papers, but more simply, just go down there and get in a row with them. Amanda tells me they’re around Pavilion Gardens and New Road. Go on your lunch hour. Ask the people around you if they like having homophobic religious fundamentalists on the streets of Brighton. A lot of towns have given in. I’m as cynical about the ‘Place To Be’ bullshit about Brighton as anyone, but if this town’s good for anything it’s good for sending these dried up hate filled fuckers up the road with their ears ringing.

I promise that’s the last moaning I’ll be doing for a while. I bought two volumes of Mayakovsky in Oxfam for £3 each. They’re beautiful Raduga editions, clothbound, illustrated, abebooks has them listed at about £35 each. That’s not supposed to happen anymore is it? Mayakovsky’s got a slightly dubious rep – he was a party man to his fingertips, and doesn’t have quite the rebel cache of Pasternak or Mandelstam, but I like reading him. Admittedly some poems in praise of the new hot-water-flats for workers seem inadvertantly comic, and the translations are a bit clunky, but the crazy brilliant optimism and confidence of a poem like An Extraordinary Adventure is irresistible to me. It’s linked in my mind with Frank O’Hara’s A True Account Of Talking To The Sun At Fire Island, Donne’s The Sun Rising, and also with a lovely Bill Griffiths poem in his Salt anthology The Mud Fort about the guys who drive the sun like a giant sci-fi tractor. Poems about the sun! I’m all for ‘em! In fact, come to think of it, about this time last year I did a little thing called Five Short Songs For The Sun. I’ll post them if I can find them.

Couldn't agree more. I was a little alarmed when following Dan's message in Comments for I'm Back and Fat post I found myself looking at something to do with Stuckism and thought it unlikely to be something you would have much truck with...glad to see I was right.
I agree with you as well, about Christian Voice, but on the other hand I wouldn't be at all sorry if the Jerry Springer opera suffered because of the protests unless it's dramatically different to the television adaptation which was utterly tedious and empty. I'd be depressing to see anyone expending any energy in defending it just because the people who oppose it are such dicks. Christian Voice may well be naive enough not to realise that the show would probably have closed ages ago if they hadn't made such a fuss about it.

By the way, did you see that bit on the Christian Voice site about how the Cooperative Bank closed their account? Heh heh.
Just a quick note folks. I don't object per se to anonymous posting in the way that some people do, but I suspect that the anonymous postings here are mostly from people who assume I know who they are. I think I know who they are usually, but occasionally I'm not 100% sure. So, y'know, sign yr posts. That was Gavin, right?
Dear Alan
I have no objection to you disagreeing with Stuckism, but I do object to you spreading misinformation about Stuckism.

It should be possible to state a point of view without this automatically being attributed to being "embittered". Exactly what evidence do you have to state this? We are saying what we have always said and believed in, since the original core of the Stuckist group worked as The Medway Poets in 1979. The statement "painting is dead" seems to have been quite acceptable in the past, so why not the statement that painting is the most vital art form, a position, incidentally, recently affirmed in a volte-face by Charles Saatchi. Is he too embittered, or is it OK if he says it, and not us, for some reason?

As for the ridicule of "full tweeds and deerstalker", I can only assume you are referring to Billy Childish and his band, Thee Headcoats, who wore such clothes. Billy left the Stuckists in 2001, and I have never seen a Stuckist wearing such ridiculous clothes.

Tracey Emin's "greatest influence" was her time with Billy Childish. You don't have to believe me: it's what she said herself in 1995 before she was well-known. After this, he has been airbrushed out of the story. I am sure it is rather frustrating for him to see his ideas repackaged by someone else. I have always recognised she has an emotional content to her work that sets her apart from (and above) the other Britartists, but I don't accept there is any great artistic value in displaying her bed in the Tate gallery, nor for that matter in Damien Hirst displaying a shark. You choose to concentrate on her, when Stuckist opposition has been to conceptual art in general. That is not a personal issue, nor do I see exactly what is muddled about it.
It is a coherent and consistent artistic philosophy.

You write off any notion of spiritual values. Perhaps it might make it clearer to say that we live in a society with emphasises material values, and has the deluded notion that more, faster, bigger, smaller possessions and gadgets is some kind of solution to life's troubles. We are saying that is not the case, and there needs to be more weight given to study and expression of self and relating, in fact "all alone inside our subjectivity, but able to see out, able to make links, to share information, to recognise each other". Your words, which could easily have been in one of our manifestos.
Hello Alan,

who cares ?

If you don't agree with some (or all) of the Stuckist/Remodernist theory, that's fine. What people tend to overlook is that Stuckism brings people together to do exhibitions and to generally communicate with each other in a meaningful way. That's to me what art is all about.

The paintings are all that matters. If you see a painting you like that's good, you don't have to buy a subscription or convert to a faith.
Charles Thomson said:
"we live in a society with... has the deluded notion that more, faster, bigger, smaller possessions and gadgets is some kind of solution to life's troubles"
I wonder in what way you mean deluded.Most of us "deluded" citizenary can clearly demonstrate ways in which,say, the internet, the mobile phone, the video recorder,the car, the printing press for goodness sake has improved the quality of our lives I'm not convinced the same can be said of "study and expression of self and relating" (expression of self does not includ putting a shark in a tank or displaying an unmade bed presumably. Says who and Why?) Gavin (happy now... I was enjoying my cloak of anonymity)
There is a difference between improving the (material) quality of life and finding solutions to the troubles to which I was referring, which involve emotional issues and spiritual ones (such as the purpose and meaning of someone's life). These problems are widespread, arise in many people's lives and cannot be solved by more memory in an i-Pod. However, there is an insistent message, through e.g. advertising that tries to equate material progress with happiness. Email may be faster than sending a letter, but it doesn't make bad news any better. I have found, as have many people I know, that it is necessary to direct attention and work to the mind and the soul (or emotions if you prefer) as a subject in their own right in order to deal with many of life's experiences.

Expression of self etc. does include the shark and the bed. Here the argument is about the quality of expression. I do feel these means are adequate to the job, and sell us and art short.
Surely though, Charles the thing is, simply, you pays your money yous takes your choice, ok so the advertisers art doesn't float your boat but Kabullah, buddhism, astrology, Christianity etc are only better paths to happiness if you believe them to be so (invest in them, if you will).Perhaps as well, unlike the ipod, the trail of profit is better obscured.
Similarly if you don't like conceptual art why not just ignore it and get on with doing what you do, i.e painting. Best Wishes Gavin
Indeed you pays your money. I'm paying mine and taking my choice. Obviously anything only gives a return if it's utilised. Why not ignore conceptual art? Because we live in a democracy where free speech and debate is a healthy privilege. I have the right to express my point of view, just as you do. Ciao.
That was me getting the last word, by the way, not me endorsing anything anyone has written here.
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