Pondering individualism

The Right (have been known to) claim ‘there’s no such thing as society’. They rail against ‘political correctness gone mad’, ‘big’ government, standing up for individual freedom against ‘the nanny state’. The Left, on the other hand, assert that there is such a thing as society and that social relations, defined in terms of various group characteristics, such as class, race, sex, gender, sexuality, ability, underpin social injustices – injustices which should be addressed by social/governmental interventions into the status quo. This debate is framed by the Right as one of individual freedom versus (unfair, illegitimate) state control of individual choices, which is seen as a moral justification for ‘small government’, for allowing the (presumed benign or at least neutral) ‘invisible hand’ of the free market to play out. The assumption is that the outcome of many individual free choices will be fair and justified by the transactions and arrangements freely arrived at, without imposition of social constraints. People are encouraged to see state regulation, taxation etc. as unwarranted interference in their free (and blameless) lives, for the sake of some ideology of equality. In some cases, this argument is used to justify rejection of the most minimal interferences (e.g. wearing masks in a pandemic), because any state intervention is framed as absolutely unjustifiable – individual freedom trumps public health (including the health of the individual in question).

The progressive Left are accused of having an image of a utopian future for which they are willing to sacrifice present freedoms. When they emphasise the defence of oppressed groups against discrimination, when they focus on ‘identity politics’, they seem to make group categorisations matter more than individual liberties. Their proposals of ways to mitigate inequality and social injustices based on group identity are framed by their opponents as unfair to the individuals whose actions will be restricted or whose taxes will be levied and used to pay for such interventions. And again, this framing is made absolute, and used to demonise proposed government interventions intended to benefit everyone, like environmental protections, or universal healthcare.

However, the Right’s idea of free individuals interacting in a free market is itself a romantic myth, utopian to the extent that it imagines we all find ourselves equally free to make our choices in the first place. It assumes (pretends) that the only restrictions on individuals that matter are those imposed by ‘the state’, and that without them we are all free. But this is to ignore the ways in which ‘the market’ and other social forces can benefit some more than others, so that inequalities arise which restrict the available choices of some individuals and groups. Once such inequalities of power and privilege are established, the actions of the ‘invisible hand’ will be unlikely to lead to fairness or freedom for the individuals or groups on the unlucky side of the tracks. Inequalities in social or economic capital are just as restrictive of individual freedom as are state regulations, if not more so.

The libertarian image of the free individual in a free market is one of a self-sufficient individual, who can walk away from any deal if they don’t like it, the economist’s fantasy of the perfectly informed, perfectly rational agent, playing on a level playing field, paddling their own canoe. This image leaves out the mutual dependencies we all share, however privileged we are. And it omits the effects of luck and of ignorance on our choices and their unintended outcomes. Most of us cannot make our own canoes and certainly will not have planted the trees from which we carve them.

Paddling your own canoe? (watercolour)
Paddling your own canoe?

The idea that the outcomes of free actions in a free market will be justified and fair, whatever those outcomes are, suggests that those who end up worse off have only themselves to blame – they didn’t play the game as well as the winners. But the real conditions of society and the world are not a level playing field. Rather, they form a fluctuating and uneven network of forces and ties, in which we are all embedded. ‘Winners’ are rarely if ever purely ‘self-made’, nor are ‘losers’.

(It is no coincidence that the Right tend to be opposed to environmental legislation as well as other types of regulation – the self-sufficient individuals they imagine are like pioneers, staking a claim in the wilderness and exploiting it to their own ends, assuming that this imposes no restrictions on the freedom of others. The unregulated freedom they demand presumes an infinitely available resource, an endless ‘West’ into which we can expand (or the possibility of unlimited growth, as required by much economic theory).)

Against the Right’s image of this disconnected, self-made individual, taking whatever they can get from nature regardless of the consequences, perhaps there is a more realistic vision of freedom as that of individuals in societies, which means societies with structures of mutual support, cooperation and compromise, acknowledging our dependence on each other and on the ecosystems we are part of. (One small aspect of this might be the rejection of political institutions based on adversarial, winner-takes-all electoral systems, which undermine the possibility of nuanced compromise or recognition of the legitimacy of difference, and encourage a politics based on totalising illusions like ‘the will of the people’, ‘the national interest’, ‘the public’.)

Anti-mantra (to grease the wheels of consumer-capitalism)

Keep your head down

Just got to make it to the end of the month

just got to make it to the end of the week

just got to make it to the end of the day

Keep your head down

Don’t stop

Keep your head down

Don’t stop

Don’t look up

don’t look ahead

don’t look down

don’t look

don’t wonder why

you mustn’t stop

don’t wonder what

it’s all for

don’t wonder where

it all ends

Just got to make it to the end

Keep your eyes in the boat!

Why are you painting now?

We are living in unprecedented times, as people keep saying. We are in a state of constant emergency. We rush towards ecological collapse while worrying about ‘rebuilding the economy’ once the pandemic has brought our system to its knees. A renewed anger in the face of institutional racism fills the streets, overriding any instructions to ‘stay home’. Our politicians seem to be handpicked to do a bad job on the most urgent issues, while they pursue absurd self-inflicted quests for border walls and Brexit.

The sense of obligation to ‘do something’ felt by many of us is expressed mainly in signing petitions and sharing things on social media. We try to be diligent recyclers, eat less meat and use public transport when we can, donate to good causes – all those individual actions which feel so ineffectual when what is needed is system change.

Some braver and more committed souls dedicate themselves to serious activism – they march for change and camp out in trees to hold back the bulldozers. They give up their life plans in hope or despair for a better future.

How can I then sit in my ‘studio’ painting still lifes and wishing for the pandemic to end so that I can get someone to sit for a portrait again? Surely all art should somehow be addressed to these emergencies? Though I am inclined to think polemical art, art with a ‘message’, is usually bad art, does that matter? How can some idea of the self-sufficiency of ‘Art’ (ars gratia artis) outweigh the urgency of the climate crisis, the vast injustices of racism and colonialism? Check your privilege, indeed!

No answer I’m afraid, just a confession that, in spite of everything, I am still sitting here looking at stuff, putting more paint on (reused) surfaces. Feel free to attribute meaning if you like.

in progress
in progress
drapery, oil on board, 2020

Passing thoughts during COVID

Expectations versus reality.

Apparently our (UK) government resisted instigating lockdown because they thought, if it started too early, people would get fed up with it and break the rules, so it was important to do it ‘at the right time’. They seem to have been wrong about the willingness of the public to follow the guidelines, so far. It looks more like the government itself is getting fed up and easing the lockdown sooner than many members of the public, teachers, trade unions, scientists, other national governments, etc. would like. Clearly certain government advisors lost patience with the lockdown rules very early – maybe they mistook their own lack of resilience/altruism as a general trait.

I wonder whether, in spite of the financial and social burdens of lockdown, the general acquiescence involves an element of relief from the burdens of perpetual choice, perpetual activity imposed by ‘business-as-usual’ in consumer societies. As has been pointed out by one of XR’s facebook memes, the economic slowdown results from us only shopping for essentials, only travelling because we have to. Maybe (for those of us who were affluent enough not to live that way before), this decluttering of our time and to-do lists is not so bad. Let’s not forget the value of stillness when the rat-race restarts.

Another little incongruity showed up in the polling about Dominic Cummings’ travels. In answer to the question about whether people in general would be more likely to break the rules because of this story, the majority said yes, but in answer to the question would you be more likely to break the rules, the majority said no. Interesting how we tend to assume we will behave differently/better than average/others. I hope we all live up to our own self-images and carry on being altruistic, in spite of the high profile examples we are set.

Random irrelevant image, painting with coffee

Ramblings on ‘originality’, and a wasp

(Notes for a zoom discussion with a small group of local artists)

Originality in art – what is it? Does it matter? Who exemplifies it?

Relevant words/concepts: ‘derivative’ (a bad thing), ‘in the school of’ (neutral), ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’.

What is originality?

  • doing something that hasn’t been done before – in subject matter, or method or medium
  • not imitative
  • not formulaic
  • breaking the accepted rules of a practice or medium
  • using a new medium
  • doing something that is new for the maker? that is, does it matter whether the work is similar to something already existing if the artist was not aware of that thing? This goes back to the first bullet above – ‘something that hasn’t been done before’ by whom? The individual, the local culture, humanity as a whole?

Does it matter? If so, why? Is it more important/’better’ to do a new thing than to do an old thing well? If originality matters in art, why is reproducing reality, and particularly photorealism, so popular? How does the concept of originality relate to that of creativity?

Is originality prized by the art market because it implies rarity and hence financial value?

Exemplar: Tim Knowles (see http://www.timknowles.co.uk/)

  • I came across this artist years ago when I googled ‘tree drawing’, looking for drawings of trees. His work (including drawings by trees) stuck in my head ever since, and luckily google found him again.
  • his work uses natural phenomena (including people) to translate movement in through space/time into images – traces, time lapse photographs – very different results/methods but unified by a single intelligence.

Other exemplars proposed during the discussion:

Picasso (especially Les Demoiselles d’Avignon) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Demoiselles_d%27Avignon

Yayoi Kusama https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/yayoi-kusama

And then one of our group found this (not really a debate – just two responses to the question): https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/magazine-debate-originality-overrated

Gayford:

distinctiveness and individuality are important …. Perhaps those attributes, however, are a bit like destinations in Alice Through the Looking Glass: you get where you want to go more quickly by setting off in another direction.

Cork:

If art is to be life-changing, it must break the rules, even if we find that unsettling…

True originality in art can never be overrated….we should all engage with even the most unsettling experiences that originality in art provides. Nothing is more depressing than the attitude of viewers who approach innovative work with all their prejudices rigidly intact, refusing to accept that art has a fundamental right to defy even our most hallowed preconceptions. If the importance of originality is not recognised, academicism becomes rampant, repetitive dullness prevails and artists lose their crucial ability to renew our vision of the world with outstanding, revelatory verve.

Which led me to this reaction:  

Gayford and Cork seem to be talking past each other. Gayford approaches it from the artist’s perspective while Cork is talking more about reception – and that may explain why they answer the question differently. It doesn’t make sense for an artist to ‘try and be original’ as their main goal (because it’s too abstract and it implies you have to learn about the whole of art history first in order to know whether you are being original). But a viewer may be looking for the new, or the original, when they go to the gallery.

Cork finds it necessary to point out that originality is not the preserve of the young and gives several examples of artists whose late work was ground-breaking. I’d think that ‘true originality’ (though that’s a loaded phrase – what would ‘false originality’ look like?) is likely to arise after someone has developed their skills and applied their mind to an artform and then chosen to pursue their own path, whether that means breaking with or continuing a tradition.

If we think of other art forms such as music, I suspect that rule-breaking is not necessary for a work to be ‘life-changing’. Cork’s view seems to imply that originality cannot be a feature of any individual work that is part of a tradition, which again ties the concept to an art historical context, and suggests that you can’t have originality without a tradition whose rules can be broken, and only an informed audience can recognise. And surely what is ‘life-changing’ or ‘revelatory’ will depend on the viewer as much as on the innovativeness of the work. Part of what was life-changing for Picasso seems to have been exposure to art from the traditions of other cultures. It was new to him and this fed into his own (from a European point of view) revolutionary art.

Anecdote:

When I was at art school, one of our tutors (whose remit was the more abstract/conceptual end of the course, as opposed to figurative drawing and modelling) used to irritate us students by saying, when we had explained our idea for an assignment, ‘have you seen the work of so-and-so?’, thereby pointing out that something like what we had thought of doing had already been done. At the time this seemed distinctly unhelpful. I don’t want the wind taken out of my sails by seeing someone else’s similar approach. But these days, having been inspired by Lucian Freud in trying to paint, if anyone said, your work is a bit like Freud, I’d be extremely pleased! What’s wrong with attempting to following a master?

And because words are boring without pictures here’s something I did recently which I haven’t done before. The wasp found its way into my bedroom, buzzing loudly and then died. So I drew it, and then made a linocut.

wasp, charcoal and pastel
wasp, linocut, with date added because this feels like an important time

Keep well everyone.

Covid-19 Lockdown thoughts, distractions

I’ve been a bit quiet on here lately – events in the world make it hard to focus or to hear one’s own thoughts over the cacophony of social media and the deluge of tragic statistics. I hope you are ok wherever you find yourself in these disorienting times.

Here’s a post I put on Facebook the other day (with inspiration from George Monbiot):

Lessons from the current crisis: 1. the ‘defence of the realm’ from real threats (pandemics, climate emergency, ecosystem collapse) depends on health care and resilient social support systems, not on military hardware, on community, not rivalry. 2. An economic system based on endless growth in consumption and in debt, on running as fast as we can to get to next month, on just-in-time supply chains stretching round the world, cannot cope with simply stopping all inessential activity. The inessential has become essential, to keep the income streams flowing. When the crisis is over we need a restructuring of social priorities so that real needs are addressed, real dangers planned for and money flows are driven by reality not the other way round.

Citation: me

Between proofreads and Coronavirus updates, I have been working on a large (100x120cm) painting to keep myself occupied/distracted (art therapy?). I had bought the canvas with the intention of making a larger portrait of my latest sitter (see below), but obviously that is not possible at the moment. Instead, I have ‘recycled’ the mirror boxes from last year, combined with that rope, another recurring subject. This is not symbolic of anything more than the absence of a sitter, but hopefully creates an interesting composition (in the back of my mind is the image in Fellowship of the Ring of Goldberry seated among bowls of waterlilies in Tom Bombadil’s house).

early phase
at an early stage
as it is now (probably finished)
detail
an earlier portrait of the intended sitter

Living is easy with eyes closed – what next?

It’s been nearly two months since the exhibition at the Old Fire Station happened and after a few weeks catching up with normality (if there is such a thing) and a short trip to London to see friends and family and some art (Gormley and Freud at the RA and Kollwitz at the British Museum – all fantastic), I am now looking to take the work to other venues and to develop/add to it. If anyone has any suggestions of possible places, please let me know.

Antony Gormley at the Royal Academy

While I was otherwise engaged, Troy Slater of West Walls Artists and Evan Rhodri Davies of The Often Herd, among other things, were creating a video and soundtrack, which you can see at https://youtu.be/KZ7kOt8pNng. I had wanted some kind of record of the exhibition but this video has turned out to be much more than that. Huge thanks to Troy and Evan!

and here’s me admiring the master – Lucian Freud Self-portraits also at the RA

Looking at the Freud self-portraits hung in chronological order, it struck me that his style and medium aged like skin or the bark of a tree. The very early drawings and paintings sharply drawn and smooth, almost translucent glazes of paint; the later portraits, as we all know, made with coarser brushes and meatier paint, show the direction of every stroke of the hogshair. And then in the work from his last years, the curdled paint so piled up and lumpy, the surface becomes gnarled and warty, deformed, arthritic, only resolving into a vivid figure at a distance – the distance necessary for aging eyes?

Enough. Time to send off some enquiries – and get back to painting …