Awkward Around Art

There is a picture in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, where I live, called The Annunciation. I keep a postcard of it in my writing room, and visit the actual painting from time to time. A winged and haloed angel Gabriel, holding white lilies and pointing up to the heavens, kneels before the Virgin Mary, also haloed, her arms crossed on her breast, her head slightly bent to receive his earth-shattering message. They are in a kind of reception room. Mary stands behind pillars, Gabriel kneels in front of pillars opposite. Between them at the centre of the picture two more pillars guard an open doorway to a garden path that leads to a wooden door that seems to go out into the outside world. The floor tiles inside and outer wall around the door are terracotta and echo Gabriel’s swathed robe and the dress of the Madonna. Mary wears her blue cloak, and Gabriel a tunic of the same colour. The walls of the reception room are a pale blue grey, and beyond the outside wall, just a little of the cerulean blue sky can be seen. It’s a painting about so many things and it can be looked at repeatedly. The occasion is momentous, of course, and at a great distance from ordinary human life, although, as the 15th century understood it, it was also the announcement that was going to change humanity forever. It’s a painting that speaks of distance in every kind of way. Gabriel and Mary are far apart in the room and in a formal relation to each other. At this early Renaissance moment, the artist, Domenico Veneziano, is revelling in his immaculate grasp of perspective, of depicting the distances between the figures and the spaces in the room, with its ten upright columns, the rectangular tiling on the floor, the space from the doorway through to the garden and the door out into the world. And there is the metaphysical distance of course between the angel and the woman. The picture is pale, calm, orderly and beautiful in its proportions and its philosophical implication of a world about to be saved. It isn’t the world of workers and peasants that Bruegel painted a hundred years later, it is the formal announcement that there will be harmony and balance in the world. It is, I have no doubt, art.

I am awkward around art. Not at all confident about how I should look and what I should feel. I stand both pleased and helpless in front of this painting and look, think about what I’m looking at, and wonder about it, in as much as I can, because I’m not an art historian. Often, standing in front of paintings I wonder what it is I am supposed to be feeling beyond the looking and thinking. Artists I have known talk about ‘just responding’ to a picture. But I’m never sure what just responding is. I worry about it. It is only in writing the above paragraph for this article that I’ve managed to figure out what exactly it is I like and might ‘feel’ about the Veneziano.

But does it matter? Does art matter? Would it matter if I’d never seen it? Imagine how many thousands of fine paintings I haven’t seen. What is it I lose in not knowing or seeing paintings and sculpture? Certainly, there is a great difference between the postcard I have and the painting in the Fitzwilliam (the colours are not quite right, and it gives no indication of how small the painting actually is). There are many pictures I only know from books or postcard reproductions. Van Gogh paintings in real life are jewels of which the reproductions are mere outlines in shadow.

Does art matter to a society, then? It always goes without saying that it does. And all of those involved with the humanities, teaching, making, curating, or just enjoying art of various kinds, will insist on the necessity of art to human society. But the truth is that most of the world, most of the time, doesn’t confront great art. Great art has always been for the few. For popes and monarchs in their palaces, for those free to get to wealthy and nationally-supported metropolitan museums. Most people know the popular dopplegangers of great art, and the cliché about ‘knowing nothing about art, but knowing what I like’ is understood to be a populist response to the elitism of the fine art world.

Then there’s the matter of popular taste. Tea towels with Vincent’s Sunflowers, Jack Vettriano’s hugely-selling, sentimental paintings, the orientalist Chinese Green Lady by Tretchikoff that hung on the walls of a millions homes in the 1950s, including mine. Are these good for the soul and society? Or does taste need to be good, and does good taste come to a special few with an ‘eye’, or from education and on high to be trickled down to the masses for their benefit. I don’t know the answers to any of this. The only thing I’m sure of is that I would, if I owned it, sell the Veneziano painting like a shot if I or anyone were hungry or sick and had no other way to eat or receive medical attention. But that’s an extreme case. I certainly wouldn’t offer my treasure to the present government so that they can clear the national debt, no matter how much I’m told it’s the right thing to do. And yet if it would clear the real suffering being caused by the government’s methods of clearing of the debt, I would sell it.

 

In 1956, Anthony Crosland published a book called The Future of Socialism. Crosland had been a minister in the post-war Labour government, more to the right than the left of the Labour Party. In the book, he wrote of the necessity of the welfare state and added that in a ‘good society’:

We need not only higher exports and old-age pensions, but more open-air cafes, brighter and gayer streets at night, later closing hours for public houses, more local repertory theatres, better and more hospitable hoteliers and restaurateurs, brighter and cleaner eating houses, more riverside cafes, more pleasure gardens on the Battersea model, more murals and pictures in public places, better designs for furniture and pottery and women’s clothes, statues in the centre of new housing estates, better-designed new street lamps and telephone kiosks and so on ad infinitum.

Austerity Britain was a grim place. In spite of the post-war debt, and the rationing that still continued, here was a politician saying that what was needed, as well as a nationally financed system of health care and protection against poverty, was attention to art, design, and the architecture of public venues for eating and meeting, and that it was the job of a socialist government to provide and encourage these things.

It’s been a long time since anyone, even the Labour Party, used the word ‘socialist’ in anything other than a derogatory sense. The present government, in the name of getting the public debt down, have made cuts in everything Crosland suggested made up the good society and the Labour oppostion have pretty much acceeded to what they claim to be ‘the necessity’. We know what is happening to our beloved welfare system, but what about the arts? The present government has made it clear that only ‘science’ and ‘technology’ offer the ‘value for money’ they insist will resolve the UK’s problems. Government funding for the humanities in universities have been cut by 30% and it’s expected that they will receive no funding at all in the longer term. The Arts Council has also had it’s allocation of money cut by 30%. This means that in some places, such as Somerset, local councils in receipt of Arts Council grants have cut their arts funding by 100%, because their other grants for everyday living have been cut too. Not only that, but the previous Chairman, Liz Forgan, a former BBC pro-arts executive, has been sacked before her term is up essentially for being too elitest, and Peter Bazalgette has been put in her place. Bazalgette was the head of the production company, Endemol, which brought Big Brother, the money spinning reality show, to British screens. Clearly, he is there to ensure the arts does it bit in providing popular works that will bring in money. These days there are people who openly state that if something is popular, it must be good, and they are assisted in an essential way by those who claim that ‘great art’ and anything not immediately graspable is elitist. As I say, I really don’t know what happens to human beings when the arts are turned into fast-gratification, money-making projects. Something tells me that it matters. I have a sense of terrible loss as the taking down of departments of literature, philosophy and fine art in universities, at the closure of local libraries and the selling of museum and art gallery treasures to make up the lost government funding. I am prepared to accept that I am elitist. I like and admire work that makes the reader or viewer work. I know at any rate, I want the best in the arts of all kinds, not the best-selling. And as Gertrude Stein said: ‘Governments are occupying but not interesting because master-pieces are exactly what they are not’.

 

Published in Swedish in Goteborg-Posten September 2012

Nothing Is Hidden

This is the Introduction to Nothing Is Hidden, a collection of photographs by Lynne Cohen, published by Steidl in May 2012.

 

There was a game we used to play at gatherings in the mid-Sixties in the arty middle-class world I found myself in during my teens. After supper and smoking a little pot (garden grown, cured in the airing cupboard), sitting on the floor in a circle, we’d begin turn by turn. You are walking along a path…describe it. You get to a house…describe it. A room…A table…A cup on the table…What are they like? Do you drink from it…what is it, how does it taste…you meet someone…who are they? And so on. It was a psychological inner truth game, played by people who prided themselves on their sensitivity and insight. Everyone made their path, house, table, cup, person as ornate and mythic as they could manage. The house a traditional timber or ginger bread cottage deep in the woods, or a multi-crenellated castle, the cup a bejewelled goblet, each gem sparkling a meaning, the meeting peopled with a figure of powerful Jungian significance. Imagination was at a premium. One evening we were playing it with a stranger in out midst (you see how this kind of role-playing gets into your head and prose?). He was a young German guy I’d met somewhere that day and brought back to the house (things were very liberal as well as psychological). He was travelling Europe, a little older than I was, and brought up in post-war Berlin, with all that meant. While the rest of us strove for intricacy and psychological depth, my new friend answered immediately and with a note of contempt in his voice. Path? A three-lane motorway. House? A post-war pre-fabricated concrete high rise. The room? Empty, damp, paper hanging from the walls. The cup? A tin mug. ‘Oh, come on,’ someone said. ‘Use your imagination. Make it special.’ ‘OK,’ he shrugged. ‘It’s chipped.’ Person? An American soldier.

Everyone disapproved of my sour young man’s lack of a vivid imagination and complex psyche. Evidently shallow. A disaffected youth. Disaffected of the wrong sort, since they were all in favour of complicated young people working through their difficulties (which was why I was there). But interestingly, if you don’t mind. This young man did mind. I was impressed. He wasn’t playing anyone’s game. He really knew how to be angry, and it struck me that his objects were as vivid, and perhaps more truthful than the older people who thought they knew so much and had such special inner lives. He wasn’t a very nice person – finally he disappeared with my beloved typewriter – but why should he be? It was a memorable lesson in dissent and a certain kind of clarity, that made better sense to me than the fol-de-rols of a supposedly fascinating psyche. Both approaches were knowing, but his, I thought, actually more knowing than the others And, too, essentially comic in the face of our sententiously elaborating elders. His inner landscape has stayed with me, call it his vision, but a vision that insisted on looking at the minimal, and at what he really knew, in its examination of what kind of creatures might create and inhabit such a landscape. It may be chilling, sometimes quite alarming, nevertheless the stern gaze can conceal a wry humour that speaks of something more substantial than style alone. 

 

I think my heart beat faster when I had finished leafing through Lynne Cohen’s photographs for the first time. My young German friend came back to me, along with a degree of panic which I needed to suppress, along with bursts of laughter which I didn’t hold back. So many rooms that I didn’t want to be in. Places in which, if I were placed in them, my spirit would sink to a grim low. No surprise that they are empty. Who wouldn’t flee from them? But perhaps my spirit sinks low too easily. Put me in an anonymous prefabricated hotel room, or a practical waiting room, and I have to gasp for breath I become so dismayed. I made an effort to look again.

There are many rooms and most have furniture or fittings of some sort in them, both of which must indicate human beings. What else on the  planet needs walls with ninety-degree angles and specially designed machines such as chairs, desks and shelves to oppose the gravity that would otherwise have us and everything at the lowest possible level? They are formal, practical rooms, mostly it would seem designed without much concern for the spirit of those who might be in them, working at the desk, lying on the bed, or sitting in the armchair. They all have some human purpose. All human rooms (and there are no others, I suppose) have a purpose. There’s a reason to be in them, desk work, improvement of the body, developing and practising skills of hand-eye coordination, or simply waiting – that essential human activity. However no one is in these rooms. They are purposeful rooms, but without anyone making use of them as they were designed to be used, they defeat their purpose. All done up and ready to go, they look not just empty but also ridiculous, comical, absurd, sinister, often quite frightening. They are rooms at a loss. Excessive in their muteness.

I find myself thinking about all the rooms on the planet that are empty. It worries me, and again gives me that vertiginous feeling of the mind spinning out of control I used to get as a child when I lay in bed and tried very hard to imagine infinity. The brain is not designed to take in the concept of all the empty rooms in the world. But now I’ve thought about it, I have to wonder if there are any empty rooms in the world. What about that tree standing in the park, the one Bishop George Berkeley wrote about in A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge in 1710?

It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects, have an existence, natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding… But, say you, surely there is nothing easier than for me to imagine trees, for instance, in a park, or books existing in a closet, and nobody by to perceive them. I answer, you may so, there is no difficulty in it; but what is all this, I beseech you, more than raming in your mind certain ideas which you call books and trees, and the same time omitting to frame the idea of any one that may perceive them?…The objects of sense exist only when they are perceived; the trees therefore are in the garden, or the chairs in the parlour, no longer than while there is somebody by to perceive them.

 

 Later the question was put a little differently: if no one is there to hear a tree in the forest crash to the ground, does it make a sound? Common sense says  it does, George Berkeley is adamant that it doesn’t. Of course, if it’s not there, it can’t crash to the ground; but let’s give a little leeway to more recent thinkers who insist there will certainly be a sound wave. Even so, if ears don’t perceive it, there can be no sound. Sound requires the translation of the sound wave. It isn’t a sound until it is ‘heard’ by ears or machines that emulate ears (and even then, what if the machine doesn’t play the sound back to human ears to hear?). I’m not sure if rooms, just being there, doing nothing, with no one in them, make a sound. Certainly they would ‘sound’ different to a person who has just come in from outdoors or from another room where a CD of Tom Waits was playing. Lynne Cohen’s rooms are present in the book, in an exhibition, but silent. For your eyes only. 

Unless the book or the exhibition space is closed. And then?

So another question emerges. Do empty room exists when not only are they not seen, but they are not even being thought about? The book is closed, put back on the shelf, and it’s time for you to meet up with some friends for a drink. Those pictures you were just looking at are there somewhere in a coded form in your hippocampus – later to be transferred to the frontal lobes for long term storage. If something should spark their recall, or for no obvious reason, they will suddenly come to you while you are listening to your friends discussing the merits of Tom Waits. Once you have seen, you can’t unsee. You can only archive or repress. 

But what if you haven’t looked at them yet? For some reason, you’re reading this before you look at the photographs. Still, someone has seen them. The editor, printer, others who have been to previous exhibitions by Lynne Cohen. The photographs or their content exist in other brains. And even if they didn’t exist in others’ frontal lobes, if she had chosen not to exhibit them, they exist, because Lynne Cohen has not only seen the photographs – they are in her head as original concepts. She took the pictures; she made them, chose and arranged them in the first place (though the actual first place is the creation of the room and its own history). The photographs have Cohen’s consciousness as a basic insurance of their existence.  Just as Cohen’s existence is assured by the material-world fact of her photographs. 

Once they have been captured on film, the rooms in that form remain undisturbed. This is true of all photographs. But we are more used to people frozen in time. We have a ready-made set of responses. There is a sadness about old photographs of people. Old photographs of old people, old photographs of young people. And new photographs of the old and the young, which will become old photographs. Every portrait is a memento mori, its model, even if an infant, ageing or already dead. Photographs of people point to a direction and to a terminus. They freeze a moment and in doing so remind us painfully that we can’t restrain time. What of a photo of an empty room? Perhaps it’s not so very different, apart from our ability to project on to peopled photographs. Rooms and everything in them decay. Even without people, entropy hovers over a held moment. Objects don’t die, though they outlive their usefulness and deteriorate for lack of (human) attention. When rooms run out of people to inhabit them, they become potential ruins. And ruins, once again, tell us stories of how time and things and we ourselves pass. You can be one of the tourists clambering around the Acropolis marvelling at history, or you can stand back and watch the tourists and the Acropolis together and then imagine all those people gone, and the ruins ruined with every passing generation. Many people who take pictures on holiday say they want to show that they’ve been there, prove they’ve had the experience. It must be so, because the beautiful or stark places they go to in order to bring photos home, have excellent images available on postcards, in books and on the Internet, without the need to make the effort of going yourself to take the picture which assures you that you were there. What sort of experience does Lynne Cohen retain? Those tourist shots, like old photos and portraits, aren’t narrative as such. They are mute until a human mind turns them into stories. And for the most part human minds can’t help but make up stories, even where stillness and silence offers them a way out of narrative. Does Lynne Cohen take her photographs to prove that she has been there, or to prove that photographs exist, to document a fact that will alter, to suggest a story? Does she care what happens when others see her photographs? I suppose she must, or why else would she show them.? But does it concern her what we do with them, how we understand them, feel them, turn them into narration, interpret her intentions or even deny them? Sometimes I’m at a loss faced with art. I can see why it is made, why someone would want to make it, but I don’t understand why it is exhibited. Or at least why anyone who makes art wants to know the response from others. Empty rooms don’t care, but people taking their photo offer them up to their fellow humans. To share, as they currently say in such a way that makes the notion of sharing sickly? To task others to look as well or to give the stuff inside your head material reality by putting it in front of others’ eyes?

But to return to those rooms, waiting silently for attention.

In fact, the rooms in this collection are certainly not empty. It only seems that way. All of them invisibly but necessarily contain Lynne Cohen and her quite cumbersome camera, her lights, and they have been seen, picked out, and managed. They are far from empty, actually. Moreover, most of them have their own lights on. To elaborate on the popular description of an vacant person: the lights are on, so somebody must have been there. Did they leave and forget to turn the light off? Even so the expectation is that someone will come and turn them off. And if they don’t, the trace of someone who has acted on the room is there in the bright bulbs. These lighted rooms conjure up people in every way. How could we see a bed or a gurney in a room without imagining a body? A tank filled with uncannily untroubled water is patiently waiting for the disturbance of a person diving into it, or making some vibration that will cause the surface to ripple. Machines wait for flesh to be shut inside them and sweated by creating steam. They have no other purpose. Reception halls cause anxiety without a receptionist at the desk. You may not be there now, but you need to know you will be received. The rooms in the photographs all, however vacant they appear, evoke people, and are at the very least always and already peopled by the unobserved but ubiquitous photographer, and then by the implications she imposes on the static scene. 

The rooms do not even all lack human figures. It’s true that there’s nothing of flesh and blood here, just as there’s no ‘outside’. There is an inside-out room carpeted in a grass substitute and painted green, a forlorn undersized Christmas tree in a corner, two blinded windows facing each other. A chilling marble hallway is wall-papered with a forest, or hideously painted with a waterfall. Humans getting their own back on Nature. An hilarious arrangement of tall branches hung with a variety of decidedly desirable hats rests in a corner. It’s a relief, actually, to get back to the unambiguous interiors. As with outside, so there are flesh and blood substitutes dotted around. Sometimes they are flat, two dimensional images, of soldiers or passers-by in what we recognise as military shooting galleries. Some are to be killed, pointing their guns at you, some to be avoided, harmless old ladies (a sad assumption) with their shopping bags, but all of them are stand-ins, a practice for the real thing. There are images of people on walls, or hanging silhouettes, that seem to be little more than wisps or decoration – though decoration requires someone more sensate than these mere slivers to appreciate it.

Sometimes there are more substantial figures. In one room a drama seems to be playing out, albeit statically, but surprising nonetheless in these generally unpeopled roomscapes. It’s as if you’ve turned a quiet corner and found yourself walking the mean streets. Three life-size characters in a barely completed makeshift room look anxiously towards another window, curtained, so again that there is nothing to see. (Though now I think, why life-size, why shouldn’t they be tiny in a miniature room?) They seem alarmed, waiting. But all figures seem to be waiting if they are immobile and made of plastic or fibreglass. Think of those brides, party girls and lolling sportsmen waiting expectantly in shop windows for life to happen to them. A man and a woman in this ceilingless room are complete although strangely disjointed. They barely hold together. Another women is only a torso on a cupboard with a balloon attached to her dress, pregnant or armed with an exploding device. All of them are spattered. Naturally, we think of blood. A large whitepad on an easel waits in the corner for someone to write on it. There’s a story here somewhere. In another picture four female torsos lie in open suitcases. Inconsequential and definitely not human, but if they were they would tell of unspeakableness and tragedy.

And here I am persistently making meaning. A writer’s curse, I think. Most writer’s envy visual artists. What can you do with words when confronted with a picture or the world but assign it a story? The only alternative is to anatomise it structurally. I would prefer to let them be, Lynne Cohen’s photographs, also the world, but it’s impossible for me to let things be. I notice when on a sea voyage a constant attempt to describe the sea I gaze at day after day: it’s like this, then that. The similes queue up to get their turn in the spotlight. One day I thought: the sea is like the sea. It doesn’t leave me with much to write about. I think I might have preferred this essay to have been 11 rather than 3000 words long. 

Lynne Cohen’s photographs are like Lynne Cohen’s photographs. Look at them.