Tag Archives: Psychology

Where do you go to my lovely when you’re alone in your bed?

“where do you go to my lovely when you’re alone in your bed?”

(title from the song with lyrics by Peter Sarstedt, 1969, listen to it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRDaeLs69i4 )

Originally publised in Art of England, Issue 76, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

Fantasy, imagination and dreaming have been acknowledged sources of artistic inspiration as well as scientific discovery. Dreaming is particularly interesting as we all experience it, doesn’t require a university degree, or that we consort with the assorted wildlife in the art community.

Many artists have drawn on dream states in their work. In Deirdre Barrett’s The Committee of Sleep (2001) we learn:

  • Albrecht Durer’s 1525 watercolour of a storm came to him in a dream;

  • William Blake’s “Young Night’s Thoughts” (1818) is a dreamscape as is his “Man Who Instructed Blake in Painting His Dreams” (1819);

  • Edward Burne-Jones’ pre-Raphaelite paintings frequently depict dream states, such as “The Rose Bower”.

The Surrealists were consummate dreamers – Paul Nash’s “Landscape from a Dream”, Dali’s “The Dream”, Max Ernst’s “Dream of a Girl Chased by a Nightingale”, and others. According to Barrett, Dali developed specific methods which he encouraged artists to use to facilitate entry to and exit from sleep in such a way that the dreams would be remembered – the trick here is to wake up before you go into REM sleep.

And not all dreams are pleasant. Goya’s paintings frequently document nightmares; “The Sleep of Reason Begets Monsters”, in his Los Caprichos (1799), is one example as are his lesser appreciated ‘Black Paintings’. As dreams these provide an additional layer of meaning, extending on the more rational interpretation that he was depicting the state of man. However, these works were originally painted on the interior walls of his house, as though he were creating an immersive environment for his mind – perhaps to live in his dreams rather than the real world. They were subsequently removed (placed on canvas) and hung on walls in the Museo del Prado, but this is the vandalism of art historians and their failure to grasp the subtlety of their genesis.

As someone who prefers the abstract, dreaming is particularly interesting as our dreams are pure creations of our innermost self. The brain (the bit our minds live in) likes to create patterns, likes to play, and do this much more than people realise.+

We all wonder what dreams mean, and whether they carry messages to us from ourselves, like we were whispering life’s little secrets. But beneath, or above, all this sits the mind itself, quite independent of degrees from art schools, or social status. That we all dream bestows democratic creativity on everyone and not just the chosen few.

Despite or perhaps because of this, we can be mystified at the sources of artistic creativity when we get to journey with it. Charles Saatchi’s television and artistic disaster School of Saatchi (remember?) showcased chronically insecure self-promoters failing miserably to produce anything of anything, but perhaps that is the point that Saatchi was making – and in the end the joke is on us for taking all this seriously.

Do we think differently about art if we knew the artist were documenting a dream, or were instead probably insane like in Wittgenstein’s later work? In such cases, do we become mere voyeurs of madness, safe in our own smug sane little worlds?

But many of the ‘dream’ artists, do challenge us with the sensitive and intelligent translation of inner visions into outer thought-provoking imagery. The Dulwich Picture Gallery show “Twombly and Poussin” illustrates the contrast between the abstract and the figurative. And we are left wondering what dream Twombly was suggesting in his The Mathematical Dream of Ashurbanipal, but mathematicians offen solve problems in their sleep so why not the rest of us?

And so, underneath all the analyticity of so many figurative artists, or the safe critiques of well-grounded critics, lies the murkier and far more interesting idea generator at the centre of our own being. Finding our way into ourselves is always harder and perhaps scarier and that is perhaps why art today can be often be so uninteresting.

Frankenfolks can be artists too!

“Frankenfolks” can be artists too!”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 86, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

Are older people curiosities, especially the long-lived? Do we see them as ‘marvellous’ simply for their fact of survival. Perhaps instead, we trap others in the medico-social web of nursing homes, expensive end-of-life care, and dependency on others. Perhaps old people become ‘Frankenfolks’, as Margaret Morganroth Gullette wrote recently in her book on ageism.

Working as I do in the health arena, but a painter as such, her comments drew my attention. Figuring out what her comments mean entails coming to grips with something else she wrote: “Sometimes pop culture looks like nothing more than a giant machine for excreting ageism.”

Certainly less than a century ago, the average life expectancy was 40 years, death of children was expected; today neither is true, with life expectancy of a healthy person being at least to the mid 90s. Furthermore, most of us will not pass our final days in nursing or care homes. And despite doom-laden predictions of rising cancers and metabolic disorders, most people should expect healthy ageing and natural death. So much for the good news.

The departure of Cy Twombly is a timely opportunity to reflect on all his work, and how it evolved, and challenged us as he himself moved through the phases of his life. All long-lived artists evolve, some like Picasso were condemned in old age for what was seen as inferior work by people with short memories.

We all have life trajectories, and some are acutely aware of the process of personal evolution and seek to reinvent themselves over and over again. Others, whose lives may be more tied to the corporate business cycle may just stop when they hit a ‘retirement age’. Regardless of personal life experiences, ignoring the evolving talent potential of ‘older folk’ echoes ageism.

I’ve noted in other writing the dismal performance of the UK’s art schools. It is also worth noting that while an arts education is a wonderful thing in and of itself, few arts graduates actually make a career out of their studies. And this at the expense of art schools themselves becoming engines of creative expression for the whole of society regardless of age. Like pop culture, art schools also seem to be engines of ageism.

There may be a reason for this. For some, art history is broadly linear; this is a typical western approach, that present perceptions replace past perceptions, a sort of movement from/to. Other cultures see all history as living in the present, so art movements of the past also speak to the present: Sumi-e for example. Can abstract expressionism, described as dated by some, be relevant – no sooner had abstract expressionism burst upon the scene, pop artists were claiming it was obsolete. Really?

The point here is a simple one and betrays the superficial approach to creativity that abounds in the art world and that fosters ageism, namely, that new art replaces old art, and when an art ‘style’ has been replaced, it has no more to say to us. In that respect, we are always looking for the ‘shock of the new’, like Matisse’s gouaches découpés, themselves his response to ageing.

Is everything before transformed, as newness forces us to reassess everything that went before, and must we then consign it to the bins of the history of art?

What can Malevich, or the Futurists, say of relevance to ourselves in our 21st century angst when no sooner are we tweeted than we’ve moved on to the ‘next big thing’. And the next big thing is showing his or her work at some dodgy art school of middling quality at taxpayer’s expense, hoping to shock you with some edgy work of marginal interest (this sentence could go on and on….)

And so we never notice that we are drawn to the specious moment, in our search for that euphoria of artistic discovery, a type of addictive behaviour overwhelms, which always needs a fix. In this way the conditions for ageism in art are created. QED.

On Learning to Steal

“On Learning to Steal”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 77, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

I was watching some students in a gallery the other day, planted in front of a variety of different paintings, with sketch books. They appeared to be copying the paintings.

What exactly is the point of this, I wondered?

I went back to my cork-lined room, and sat in front of my plagiartron, typed in some search terms and found a couple of articles on plagiarism, did a cut and paste and produced, yes, this article. Not really.

But in the real world, some students and some well-known authors do a kind of cut-and-paste on their writing all the time. But what about artists? Is arts a plagiarism-free zone? Can artists just copy willy-nilly? Is anything original any more?

Who said “Good artists copy, great artists steal”? Did I? Does it matter that I might say I did, even if I didn’t? If I said I had am I lying or just being economical with the truth. If you don’t catch me out, shame on you.

Of course the point is many artists don’t get caught.

Now back to the students beavering away in the gallery. What are they doing and how is it contributing to their artistic development? When we learn creative writing for instance, we aren’t given passages of Hemingway to copy, or handed a Shakespearean manuscript to copy out the text to mimic the handwriting, as though that had something to do with the words used. Art teachers say copying has something to do with learning about design, the way the paint is applied, mark-making, colour choices, etc. But if this is true, why are the students sketching with a pencil, and with the absence of any passion — a type of forensic duplication, devoid of any creative insight. So, again, what are the students learning to do?

I suggest they are learning to steal.

Some will never progress beyond mere derivative work, while others will become truly proficient. The painters whose work I want to see are the ones who are not in the gallery with their sketch books, but elsewhere using their brains. Copying is essentially a pointless activity (like rote repetition of multiplication tables) and I wonder why the students put up with it — perhaps they don’t think either.

In our cynical sort-of-post-modern world, it does draw attention to what the students are doing, with other gallery goers looking over their shoulder; they become almost as interesting as the paintings, a type of performance art, perhaps an unintended commentary on the failings of art education.

But copying has been handed down over the centuries from atelier to salon to studio to today.

Some well-known artists have been accused of appropriating the inspiration of others to produce works they have claimed as their own. Critics have said this type of artist looks outward rather than inward, forgetting to acknowledge their sources. Artists accused of plagiarism may describe copying as an act of tribute, rather than overt theft, but that seems self-serving.

I think we look to artists to be the authors of their own work, to actually make the pieces they sign. The notion of atelier with employed painters completing pieces to be signed by the ‘master’, turns artists into the worst type of signaturist. I think real artists know this is a con. Why would an atelier artist recently show new work proclaiming that he had done them with his own hand?

In the end, it is the authenticity of the work through the intimate link between idea and result that defines genuine authorship and creativity, not merely the act of fabrication.

We certainly expect people to acknowledge their sources, and where there is suspicion of plagiarism, to have an explanation. Consider the similarities between Henri Matisse’s “L’Escargot” (1953) and Alma Thomas’ “Watusi (Hard Edge)” (1963) of Obama White House fame, where there is an explanation.

Contrast this with the allegations of plagiarism involving Sam Leach’s “Proposal for Landscaped Cosmos” which won the Australian Wynne Prize and which is seen as having what are referred to as “heavy references” to Adam Pynacker’s “Boatman Moored on the Shore of an Italian Lake”, produced some 350 years ago. The artist admits having failed to “reference” the Dutch work when he submitted to the competition. Academics said that had Leach submitted his work for academic assessment, he would have been accused of plagiarism. (source: Michaela Boland, “Spot the Difference: artists Sam Leach denies plagiarising Dutch master”, The Australian, 14 April 2010. http://www.news.com.au/national/spot-the-difference-artist-sam-leach-denies-plagiarising-dutch-master/story-e6frfkvr-1225853423386; accessed 5 October 2010)

Perhaps works of art should have footnotes.

As for the students, I still don’t know why they are being taught to steal.

Censorship & Arts

“Censorship and Arts”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 28, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

Who would have thought the real cyber-war would be fought over freedom of speech as we see the WikiLeaks saga unfold. This got me to thinking about censorship more generally and how the arts have fared in this respect especially during times of conflict, since the UK is at war and terrorism looms large in public awareness.

Censorship of art is alive and well around the world. Whether it is draping a nude statue, removing pictures of children from an exhibition, or advising photographers what they can and cannot photograph, the forces of censorship are active and vigilant. They are found, as expected in repressive regimes, but also in the hyperactive sensibilities of enforcement authorities in progressive democracies, such as the UK.

Self-censorship is just as dangerous as the type that marches through the door to snatch a piece of art work that ‘offends’. Being ‘on message’ is something familiar to many people who go to work every day, in areas subject to public scrutiny or interest. A wrong turn of phrase can mean you are not supportive of ‘the plan’. So, we suppress our views and engage in self-censorship lest we be labelled: ‘not one of us’, ‘not a team player’.

Many discussions about WikiLeaks are taking place in forums that are private, owned by companies, and not strictly public places — there is no digital Speakers’ Corner. Violating the opaque terms of use of various commercial social-networking sites can lead to your account being closed. Indeed, the Facebook group on WikiLeaks has been discussing whether discussing WikiLeaks violates the terms of use. This is tantamount to the privatisation of censorship, over which the individual has little recourse.

Siberia not just a place on the map.

But it is becoming clear that the digital internet world is seen as different from the ‘real world’, and that forms of expression that would be tolerated in newspapers, broadcast media, and the Art of England magazine, may be seen as subversive, intolerable, and worthy of censorship when available through the internet. It is easy to raid a bricks-and-mortar gallery; an online gallery is something quite different. And what is becoming clearer every day is that it is one thing to be a website publishing secret government documents, it is quite another to be a newspaper doing the same thing.

Art has always attracted the attention of officials for its potential for subversion and coded communication. Repressive regimes have suppressed freedom of artistic expression. The Soviet Union had its official state art, produced by state artists, to convey socio-political messages, and famously feared abstract expressionism. Inserting codes into paintings and photographs has been considered by some as an excellent form of espionage. A benign painting of a landscape could conceal in plain view essential relationships between buildings, or the lay of the land.

During World War 1, the Defence of the Realm Act (UK) censored the content of artists works, such as art depicting the horrors of war — something that speaks to us today. Marine painters were virtually put out of business at the time as the Admiralty decreed that even the image of a ship might aid the enemy. Artists were seen with considerable suspicion, and people looked everywhere for evidence that the local artist was a spy.

During World War 1, Swiss customs officials detained the composer Igor Stravinsky believing the portrait of himself by Picasso was a plan: “It is not a portrait but a plan”, they said. “Yes,” said Stravinsky, “it is a plan of my face, but of nothing else.”

Reference: James Fox, Traitor Painters: artists and espionage in the First World War, 1914-18, The British Art Journal, vol 9, number 3, March 2009.



Originally published in Art of England, Issue 83, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

In the film Amadeus, Salieri says of Mozart that it was like he was taking dictation from God.

Most of us know the difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. It is not about dictation, but hard graft. Work can often be summarised thus: dirt, dirty hands, muck, wading into the muck. Untidy, but real.

Creativity is not done by dictation, despite Salieri’s suspicions.

And so we come to a book by Michael Petry, The Art of Not Making, about, well, about artists who conceptualise, but don’t make things. He suggests that the idea of artists actually getting their hands dirty, with unique personally created works of art is gone – is art just about putting a urinal on display and suggesting the art is only about creating new thoughts for existing objects? A bit like an unmade bed. Not art, but branding.

The arterati would cluster ‘round like bees to a hive, perhaps a bit zombie-like, waiting to be consumed by the branding as much as consuming the product. And art products are just evidence of the branding, indeed of notoriety, rather than substance, of being known for being known, rather than being known for something.

But the branding is important today for it is how we sort the wheat from the chaff, as it says these pieces of work are art in the early 21st century. It says we will buy (sometimes) and appreciate (maybe) these works literally in the same way as a can of peas, as an object to be consumed, and in the consumption to become alive in that moment, but not forever.  Perhaps in our new terror world, we seek any frisson of excitement, like the first orgasm, over and over again, replacing what makes us uniquely human with mere physicality.

So in this world, the arid secretions of artists who employ others to fabricate their ‘stuff’, become evidence that I am alive as I consume their products.  We might call this ‘secretion art’.

There is an artist who sees himself as conceiver of ideas, a thinker. Far be it that the artist should get his hands dirty, better to use others who can paint, but can’t think – this is such industrial age thinking about division of labour that we must surely find it archaic, if not exploitative.

This ‘thinker artist’ is a con, a bit like a philosopher king – would you want to spend much time in the company of such arrogance? But if you can sell a lump of wax for $3 million, well who wouldn’t? Do we marvel at the creativity of such work, cringe at the silly value, envy the ‘con-artist’, or bathe in the reflected glory that we got the invite to the preview?

In time, we will learn from the lack of substance, the failure to communicate, the muteness of the messages, and I think critically, the real lack of authority, for artistic authority must always lie in the process of creation, not merely its thought.

It is bizarrely reassuring to know that these secretions will be preserved for future generations by people who collate, collect and catalogue – it is for others to judge.

I predict that in the year 2135; a curator, who is just starting work today, but will be in her mid-forties then, will arrange a retrospective, “Secretion Art: memory of orgasm as evidence of creativity, 1990-2020”. Perhaps by then art will be dirty work again.

Now, where did I put my turps?

The mind in another cave

Another early scratching of an early human endeavouring to capture the external world has been found in Wales (2011). What was this person thinking, and why did he or she even do this?

English: English version of Brain in a vat. Fa...

hmmm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is particularly interesting, and assuming this is about 14,000 years ago, is that with visual forms, there is a need to abstract from the external reality an interpretation of that reality in the mind. Having done that, this person then had to decide what they wanted to represent and how. In addition, they had to choose something to do it with, which suggests perhaps that this wasn’t or might not have been the first time, either.

As an abstractionist, I encourage people to explore the mind’s natural way of seeing the world, rather than the highly socially constructed one we normally see. The brain naturally likes to construct patterns, and one assumes that a 14,000 year old brain did, too.

This is exciting not just for the discovery itself, but further affirmation that even in our earliest days as more than mere beasts but as maturing sentient beings, we sought to interpret the external world.

The other question, of course, is what did others at the time think they saw when they looked at this, and did it have a purpose? After all, if it was a form of communication, this artist needed to have some theory of mind — in particular, that those viewing it were like themselves mentally.

Intelligent Life

waste basket and jumble of letters

Now what to do with it. [Image by Torley via Flick

I subscribe to only one art magazine: Turps. Actually, I subscribe only to a few things anyway. I used to want to get one of each, like some artists who need to have one of each colour.

Knowledge is different, and I guess the fear is that you’ll not be reading the right material when something comes up in conversation. Art magazines can feel voyeuristic or worse, self-indulgent.

I got a complimentary copy of the magazine, Intelligent Life, published by the Economist the other day, hoping I’d subscribe. I’ve read this magazine before. I can only say it feels like a intelligent version of the FT’s How to Spend it. But not something to subscribe to.

Sorry Economist.

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Medicine for Body and Soul

Histopathogic image of senile plaques seen in ...

Senile Plaques: what goes on here can change your life

Art of England (issue 66, 2010) has published a short piece of mine. It is some commentary on a conference in London on arts and health.

This is an interesting area. Research is beginning to show that arts can have therapeutic value, can trigger memories in people with Alzheimer’s, or be of rehabilitative value in treating stroke victims.

Near where I live is the Sydney de Haan Centre, which is focused mainly on music and health, but art and health groups are active around the world.

What to know more?

This journal, Arts and Health, is a good beginning as is the Journal of Applied Arts and Health.

There are many arts and health groups around the world, and well as many arts and health research groups. I can provide a list if you’re interested.

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Abstraction in China

I am delighted to see the further development of Sumi-e into strong abstraction. Chinese and Japanese brush painting has tended to bucolic, naturalist imagery, for obvious

Pilgrim’s Journey

reasons from its historical development. But some artists, particularly in China are exploring new ideas. An artist to consider is Lei Hong, who recently participated in a show “Mind Space” in China.

I look forward to new developments as this traditional approach to painting enjoys a rebirth in the contemporary abstract.

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Art in historical/social context: The Stolen Kiss

The Stolen Kiss

Is she really having such a good time?

Do you ever read a critique of a painting that you don’t agree with? Of course we all do. A recent review of The Stolen Kiss by Jean Honore Fragonard in the UK’s Independent bothered me.

So, The Stolen Kiss: I think not.

The painter is trapped within the ways of his time and produced infantile paintings designed to delight. But in historical context, they reveal attitudes of mind in play at the time.  Observing the behaviours of his time, this painting depicts a forceful male act against an unwilling woman disguised in the coded social language of the day.

It is his kiss, not hers, and by stolen in the (English) title, clearly not something he is entitled to.

Her posture is clear: she is off balance, not balanced, find her left foot, and it seems she is actually being pulled. Indeed, he has obviously stepped into the room as she opened the door or moved in his direction, since his left foot is stepping on her hem. More evidence of control? I suspect her right leg is bent and braced against his pull.

She has also been interrupted in what she was doing as she has not let go of her handiwork and apparently intends not to, which one would have done if one were going to greet the visitor willingly — he is a known person, but an intruder nonetheless.

Her right arm suggests she is searching for a place to put it, to steady herself against his force as he is gripping this arm with both his hands; more control.

Her mouth is pursed and eyes are averted — I don’t think she is having any fun.

There are people in the other room but she is not part of that crowd, preferring to sit quietly in a separate room  — perhaps they are discussing whether she should be matched with the man, gossip around the card table and he, emboldened by the discussion,  has decided to invade her private space.

She is hardly heroic. There is no sexual furnace in the middle of this painting only the flash of male fantasy, of hidden delights and the need to use force over persuasion.

She just wishes he’d be gone. There is no moral ambiguity here.