The apocalyptic science fiction I read in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties seems to be coming true: ecological collapse (The Death of Grass, John Christopher), extreme inequality, AIs you can talk to, cyberspace (William Gibson), self-driving cars, gated communities, countries throwing nuclear threats about, people (serious people!) suggesting we are going to need to find another planet.
But on the other hand, so far, we have not been visited by aliens, friendly or otherwise. I watched a (devastating) lecture the other day (thanks to HoneythatsOK), arguing that we are past the point of no return on climate change and that civilisation and its collapse are both heat engines. So, whether we act or not, the game is up – the game in question being the human race and much else, the endgame not just the collapse of civilisation but human extinction in the not too distant future. (That got dark quickly.)
This led me to thinking a few things (!), among which:
Maybe the reason we haven’t been visited by aliens is that any civilisation sophisticated enough to get out into space would be very likely to disrupt its home ecosystem so much that it would destroy itself before it could do so.
What is a reasonable response to this prophecy of doom? A form of Pascal’s wager perhaps. We cannot be absolutely sure what is to come. Our models and our understanding are limited. Some climate scientists seem more optimistic than the speaker in the video (and we hope that is not because of a conspiracy of silence to prevent mass panic). So we have a choice: to accept the prophecy of doom and give up on trying to mitigate climate change, or to act as if it is not too late and try to do something about it. If the prophecy of doom is true, it makes no difference what we do, but if it isn’t and we act as if it is by giving up, we may be making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. So rather than giving up in despair, we should work on the assumption that something can be done to prevent the worst-case scenario, and do so with even more urgency.
I have a natural inclination to look for clarity in writing and ‘accurate’ observation in art – are these mistakes? Or lack of imagination?
I am only just beginning to realise that/how/why obscurity, abstraction (and invention?) are important too. The ‘clearer’ a statement, the more ‘true to reality’ an image seems to be, the easier it is to pass over them without engagement, to leap to a conclusion. You get it (label it) and move on. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.
But if you want to provoke a reader to think, not just to accept what you say uncritically, if you want the viewer to pay attention, to look hard, maybe obscurity, unclarity, is a good thing. Something that makes you ask ‘what’s going on here?’ Something that breaks the flow, stops the eye, makes you go back and look again, think again. (Is this why ‘decorative’ was a bit of a dirty word at art school and ‘nice’ or ‘lovely’ are damning with very faint praise, because a ‘nice’ thing won’t make us stop and think?)
It’s not just about tricks of the trade, speaking softly so people have to listen, manipulating an audience. If art is about the doing more than the product, this means that you have been provoked to thought yourself. The eye, the mind, that must be engaged and surprised is yours, the writer, the maker. And sometimes playing, not planning, is the best thing to do. Exploring, not arriving. Suspending judgement.
To assume that you can express a thought ‘clearly’, or a perception ‘accurately’ may be the basic error, to fall for Descartes’ myth of ‘clear and distinct ideas’.
The flowing line needs interruption, the glib, ‘self-evident’ thought needs examination. Facility à facile?
The unexpected, the unpredictable is what engages, what interests us.
Even when what you are trying to do is render how something really appears to you, you have to look beyond your assumptions, formulas, clichés, etc., because ‘truth is stranger than fiction’. Drawing what you see, not what you expect to see.
I’ve often been uncomfortable with the emphasis on ‘originality’ in art. It seems like a terrible burden to place on an artist or student – to do something no one’s ever done before. And doing something new for the sake of newness always seemed a mistake to me.
But if the unexpected, the surprising, is what engages us, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe being original is the point? Certainly, seeing something you’ve never seen before or meeting an idea that never occurred to you is part of what we value in art or writing.
But (another ‘but’) it’s that ‘for sake of’ that is the problem, I think. Making originality the goal is useless because it implies nothing positive. ‘Just don’t repeat.’ So do we have to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of art history before we begin, to make sure it hasn’t been done before?
We don’t want to be derivative, ideally; in that sense we want to be original, which means to think for ourselves, to address the world as we see it, and ask our own questions. Whether that results in something that other people would see as ‘new’ is a different matter (that’s probably part of what distinguishes the ‘great’ from the rest of us). In any case, what other people see as new depends on what they have seen before (just as whether an artist’s work is derivative depends partly on what they are familiar with – similarity to someone else’s work you’ve never seen can’t be derivative of that work).
Originality in the sense of ‘unlike what has gone before’ or ‘new to the world’ may matter to the well-informed receiver, but for the maker originality must about how they personally arrive at the work. They find something out by doing it. Copying is (usually) unoriginal, not because the result looks like the thing copied, but because the copier is letting the source do their thinking or looking. (A bad copy isn’t more original because it looks less like the source than a good one, though it may be more interesting to look at.)
Well, dear imaginary reader, you may be thinking ‘this is all so obvious – we’ve heard it all before!’ – but I feel as though I haven’t thought about these things before in quite this way, so that’ll have to do. Now here are a couple of drawings – enjoying pencil on paper.
I’m wondering how we Brits would view the world and our place in it if our country didn’t have ‘Great’ in its name. Lately we have been deluged with TV programmes called ‘The Great British …’, which seem to add to the impression that ‘Great’ is an evaluation rather than just a historical/geographical label to refer to a small bit of land off the coast of Europe. Would the Leave campaign have been able to persuade people that we’d be better off outwith the EU if there wasn’t a hint in every use of the name that we are ‘great’, a reminder that we used to have a vast pink empire on the map (pink – not for the colour of expats in the sun but because in the past pink was seen as suitably masculine and powerful – or maybe for some more practical reason like available ink?).
Let’s stop pretending we live in a ‘great’ country which should ‘punch above its weight’ in the world. Our history may have some bits to be proud of but our ‘greatness’ largely amounts to wealth acquired during a colonial past when pirates and thieves were euphemistically called ‘discoverers’ and bringers of ‘civilisation’ to benighted barbarians, and justified by a sense of entitlement based on self-interested racial constructions of difference. The British empire should be a subject of shame, not of nostalgia.
(And by the way other places have had empires too – Spain, Portugal, Holland, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, not to mention Rome.)
So, if we drop the ‘Great’, what should we call ourselves? The disunited kingdom?