The sun had not quite slipped below the rugged stoneline behind me, dipping the rough, honey-coloured history into silhouette. In those last few moments of the ordinary day, the dazzling low rays of our star still pumped heat into the dusty humid air cloying us together as the old city rooftops, encircling us, turned pink. But we no longer felt weary. Weary from the ordinary day, even an ordinary day in another country. What we began to feel, was a strangely calm sense of excitement. Just waiting there, in those last few moments before we knew the ordinary day was over.
LISTEN TO THE UNSEE THE FUTURE SPECIAL, EP20: ART >
The well of the arena opening below us was a yawning crater, like a fearsome unfolded iris to the underworld, exposing who knows what legends, creatures and heros to the first couple of stars blinking out of the prehistoric indigoing sky. And it was filling up with very nice middle class people on red carpets in the expensive seats on the arena floor, where the bloodbaths used to happen in the Roman games, watched by the proles in the cheap seats high above. We’d climbed to the very top and back of Verona’s vast and ancient theatre.
I’d never seen opera before. The lovely first lady of Momo and I had often pondered taking the cultural plunge at last, but I’d vowed it would be something delightfully playful, like Mozart. In the end, it was something fearsomly grander, and the spontanious idea of a couple of other family members, on the end of a little road trip across Europe this summer that found my favourite wife and I in different countries for the last leg. As I said to her afterwards: “Sure, it was kinda mind blowing. But it was looooong and there was only one good tune. And, like, no dancing.” She shrugged.
Ballet, we’ve jollied off to enjoy a good few times together over the years, because they apparently let in people like us now. As a lover of dance and human body expression, more often of the club music variety, Mrs Peach has also delighted in many of the famous tales told through clasical movement, as the odd highbrow-feeling grown-up night out can be a nice bit of theatre in every sense; everyone needs a touch of culture swank occasionally, to feel like you’re somehow clever after all. And, sure it’s not the Beatles, but most of the classic ballets have at least a few good tunes in ’em we can all half remember in the bath afterwards. Grand opera, however, for my favourite wife, might be akin to a modernist jazz recital or an intimate evening of Morrisey acapella; something I could picture her starting a saloon bar punch up in the middle of to help find the ‘proper culture’ a little more engaging.
This production, though, just seemed like too grand a classical bit of culture to miss, on my one night in Shakespeare’s invoked city of doomed love, away from my gratefully so far working out love. For this tale too, like Romeo and Juliette, was of just that – a tragic starcrossing of lovers, brought to bitter end by politics. Guiseppe Verdi’s Aida.
I’ve never really loved ol’ Joe Green’s work, epic as it reveredly is. Couldn’t get past the wasted opportunity another number of his is, The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, being as un-middle eastern or evocatively anciently Jewish sounding as it’s rather boring possible to be, to my ears – but everyone loves Aida, as was obvious from the fascinating range of show posters lining the perimeter of the Verona Arena from more than a century of putting grand cultural works into a craggy Roman entertainment space, some 2,000 years old. A genius combination, somehow, and a bit of a cue to the civilising effect of modern culture, no doubt.
As the sun dropped out of direct sight, the stage lights warmed up slowly. And I could tell this was going to be something, well, grand. A hundred-foot rotating pyramid sat in the middle of the stage, for one thing. And when the orchestra struck up and the principles emerged resplendent in exquisite costume of ancient Egyptian courtly life, the tradition of performing all without sound reinforcement was impressive. The glimmering light design and light-catching fabrics, placed across a vast stage space under the ever deepening inky, stars-speckled heavens, unfolded a scene of something… magical. What other-worldly other word is there? An atmosphere all at once antidiluvially ancient, civilsationally old and much more recently historic. It just… drew us in. Suspended in epic temporary belief in something extraordinary.
Franco Zeferelli himself, legendary film maker, had so commandingly staged this whole production that he had even choreographed a lunar eclipse to rise and unfold from blood moon to shining silver disk amid the constellations precisely behind the stage end of the arena, across precisely the three hours of the sweltering Italian night. Is there nothing the grand master wizards of storytelling, our traditional high priests of culture whom we so revere, cannot do?
It was three hours of supreme art, is what it was. And it obviously felt a bit sorta fusty.
It was, unequivocally, Old School Art, you might say. Across Verdi’s rich and beautiful but oddly unaffecting score, at least for me, opened out and filed through a series of massive tableaus. A cast of a few hundred, possibly. Impressive. But, essentially, an exhibition of costume theatre design, moving around carefully.
Three hours of showing off needlework and woodwork and fingerwork, essentially.
And it was utterly amazing. An absolute spectacle of skill. And a massive slab of yer actual culture… that I couldn’t very deeply connect with. Cheers anyway, Frank and team. I mean, you’d have to be dead from the pulmonary valves down to not feel something at the climax, and it’s a story that deliberately scales from impersonally stately formality to messy human heartbreak as it glides through its libretto, with the skill of musicianship and voice across cast and players that was world-class human talent. From the narrative to the spectacle, this was art that absolutely had a right to light up the shadows of millennia of history, because in so many component ways it spoke across time. Pressing anciently sensitive human buttons.
So I still clapped my hands off at the end, obviously because, really. Wow. In the end it simply felt like a privilege to be there.
But it did make me wonder: What is the purpose of such grand, ‘high’ art like this today? And indeed, what is the purpose of any art, when there are some fearsome practical challenges to deal with in the real world? Why should art feel like something for the privileged? Is it because only the privileged can afford to be so self indulgent.
If so, then – jeepers! – this episode of Unsee The Future will qualify me more than any other as either an unconsciously biased part of the hierarchical problem or an insufferably progressive Social Justice Warrior. Whoever comes through the seige barrier first, I’m reasonably certain they will be pretty joylessly unimpressed with me, and who can blame them. This essentially special episode of my researching podcast project is all about the most self-indulgent thing you could spend your time doing – and I’ve apparently put it at the very heart of the whole endeavour.
If you weren’t so unfathomably niche, Peach, you might one day be dangerous. Mostly to yourself.
Because… art? It’s all very well, of course. But art is a little bit of a pompous luxury when the world’s on fire, no? Productions like this are more like signals of decadence as the ship goes down, surely. So what relevance has art got to the real problems of our times? Who is it really helping?
The fact that you are already thinking of a few examples and also suggesting that it depends a bit on what kind of art we’re talking about is a rather hopeful signal of our age, I might quietly think upfront. Don’t blame me if you’re already accidentally more of an insufferable progressive than you righteously realise. And as distant, highbrow or old school as Aida in a Roman arena in Verona may absolutely sound, there was no escaping that night that an experience so evocative makes it easy to forget the world outside, with all its muck and blood and ruddy disappointment. Caught up in there, thinking of other past and mythical worlds, suspending your feelings about your own troubles for a bit. More than ten thousand people a night there seemed to think so, certainly, today in 21st century.
Because, y’know. It’s all rather nice, isn’t it? Especially when the troubles of the real world outside that ancient arena – and all the arenas of our imaginations – are as potentially terrifying as we all wonder about at the moment.
But if that’s the main aim of art, is escapism really the best use of our time, right now? Isn’t sticking our heads in the popcorn bucket rather the whole problem of our age?
As Unsee The Future has explored already, there seems to be an unprecidented converging of global problems out there. One that can’t stay locked out of the opera stadium or the movie theatre. The very world we’ve known seems under threat. Perhaps as surely as by any vast ancient army seeking war over a lost princess, or any Independence Day alien invasion. Except it’s chillingly more like Invasion of the body snatchers, I think. Which is just the sort of McCarthyesque paranoia plenty of people would like you to feel at the moment, I’m sure, such seem our times.
My own contention, laying out the foundation of this podcast through the UN’s Global Goals for Sustainability in series one, is that the great catastrophe that seems to be unfolding on multiple terrible story arcs at once all around us, like Game of Thrones fractalled, may also be the greatest window of opportunity we’ve ever had to address a bunch of fundamental problems. And perhaps, put us on a path to redemption. The hero’s journey for us all.
Film maker Duncan Jones – son of cultural icon David Bowie and creator of sublime science fiction mind-tickler Moon – said this on Twitter:
“My desire to use renewables comes with a twist… I am not looking to minimize my life style. Im not a granola eating crunchy looking to be invisible to the planet. I don’t WANT to save energy. I want to generate SO MUCH renewable, clean energy, I can afford to waste it!”
This is, essentially, the obvious implication to me of all things sustainable. A word. One I have avoided researching deliberately and will do so here for now too – abundance. I know among some of the wealthiest changey-hopers this is a capitalised ambition, but I’ve dodged looking at it at all as a ‘movement’ to see if my own research ends up anywhere near it. And in broad principle, I can see how possible it is for humankind to have an abundant future – and energy might be the way in. As Jones lists out some headlines of how clean energy thinking can add up, he says:
“I do believe there is an amazing coincidence going on that as we reach a point of terrible self-inflicted destruction on our planet, we are ironically so close to having the knowledge and skills to repair all the damage we’ve done, and live on in a clean and sustainable way.” And he adds: “There is a race going on between civilization’s collapse, and a conversion to a sustainable future, and bizarrely there are people rushing in both directions.”
I’m not so sure of the realities of just how much we can repair all the damage done; I wonder if it will take the scars of such terrible damage, on our minds as much as the planet’s surface, to help us truly move on. Such massive trauma to life on Earth may be stripes very hard-won in our growing up. But the opposite directional rushing Zowie points out there is the central weirdness to our Now. We suddenly live in polarised times like none before them across the west. And it does seem like an ideological struggle between looking backwards and looking forwards. Splitting families and nations with rhetoric-spitting preach. And if it shows anything, to me it shows what we will need in order to unlock the potential of now, which is as great as the threats.
New outlooks. On everything. On what it means to be human, currently just on Earth.
Researching the UN’s Goals to save us has shown me two things I currently feel strongly, as a result. The real usefulness of the Goals to ordinary farty twerpy you and me, at ground level, is not the individual strategies of each separate Goal. They’re educational, vitally perhaps, but those individual Goal pages still don’t give real calls to action at the bottom of them to ordinary farty twerpy you and me. Because I don’t think they’ve quite worked out how to, still. Which rather dangles the hopey-changey thing just out of reach above us.
What I think the Goals are essential for is something that could actually unlock our thinking in the most vital way. Ordinary farty twerpy you and me (OFTYAM). They can help us put it all together in our minds.
Dwelling on all the goals can flick a quiet switch in your head. At first it can all seem either academic or overwhelming; the massive troubles in the world you’d rather not be thinking about because you’ve got enough at ground level you’d rather not be thinking about. But I’ve come to the conclusion that the single most significant problem of the modern world could be its mindset of disconnection. Spending time with all the problems of the world at once, calmly over herbal tea, can begin to form the idea in your mind that these are not at all disconnected challenges – they are, in fact, potentially all symptoms of one global outlook. One Earth-wide human culture. The one that transformed the world in astonishing speed. Rational, industrially-engineered merchant commerce. Capitalism.
A culture that adds up by boxing up. Everything. Into countable, disconnected, shippable, sellable units.
Is our fearsome Now a time of all the little boxes beginning to open?
The boxes of our minds. We are used to living without a thought of where our food comes from and what we are putting into our bodies, or our minds. We are used to living without a thought of who made everything we clothe our bodies with, and out of what, and what they were paid to do it, or what it was like as an experience, working to make our clothes. Or anything we own at all. We are used to living without a thought of where all the waste goes. Or just how much of it there is. We are used to living in a world of many differently-flagged countries, thinking of the people living under those fluttering abstract symbols and within the artifically constructued cultural boundaries of nation states as ‘foreigners’. And such cultural borders shape our own identities, our languages, our accents speaking them and our beliefs about things we’ve never seen as the words come out of our mouths.
Something that dawned on me at Why Digital’s hosting of Do It Day Bournemouth, earlier this year, was a simple realisation. Our age seems to be manifesting something in more and more of us across the board, across cultures and ages that may be a key one to take note of and it is of course mental unwellness. Something about exponentially modern life is twisting us inside. So it’s interesting that many of the practically more sustainable responses to the logistical challenges of our time have a knock-on effect of helping mental health. Someone in our group found themselves writing the phrase: Environmental health equals mental health. Like the polar opposite mindsets of permaculture and industrial farming economics produce the opposite mental symptoms.
Something about the way we’re doing all things together at the moment certainly seems to be producing some tension inside us. Some conflict.
For one thing, modern life seem on the surface seems to have completely forgotten some basic facts of life. We are all made of soil from this one planet. And we all depend on its matrix of life. Any economics that doesn’t value that is, you might say, some stunted maths.
Which, put like that, means some very stunted maths engineered the foundations of the world we live in.
How much can we keep going with all this, do you think? Before you even mention burn-it-once, toxic-waste-producing energy that has fueled the whole endeavour, this already sounds unsustainable to me. You can walk me round the junkyards and oil refinaries and gang economies of the real world whenever you like, but the staggering poverties and shifting degrading environments of the same real world do beg the philosophical question. Because it’s fast becoming a pragmatically existential question.
Any system that helps us begin to see all the problems of now as components of one big problem – of one outlook – has got to be lifesaving in its potential, I think. Because it’s the sheer numbers of us lot working within the same outlook that are amplifying the problem – we’re all in it. But an outlook that begins with something like the Global Goals, connecting all the converging symptoms in your imagination might well massage your mind to begin to see, in your ordinary comings and goings, useages and purchases, savings and wastes, that everything you do is part of the same thing. The same outlook. ..The same story. One so strongly impressed in our imaginations we don’t see it consciously. Yet consciousness is really what we’re talking about here. Waking up.
And yeah. As you know, that’s how I became a hippy, apparently. And probably a Marxist. And lost to all common sense, right? Probably. I have previous.
But I think the Goals can slowly form this realisation in anyone’s mind. That it’s all connected. And that is potentially indeed awakening for us. OFTYAM.
However. Researching them also showed me something else. Or at least, I chose to see it this way. Because listing out the whole world of problems onto a grand plan whiteboard does remind you – this is emotionally way over our heads at best, and overwhelming if we really feel able to dwell on any of it. It’s depressing. It’s fearful. It’s simply way too much to engage with. And it dawned on me: The Goals are missing a Goal. One I think is crucial. One that tackles the very thing we’ll need to actually implement all the others, and so light up the whole plan and the ruddy future.
It is the business of creating new ways of seeing.
And the UN’s plan, as it stands, mentions not a thing of how we change people’s minds. Of just how we will do the only thing that will truly unlock what it will take to light up you and me. Inspire – how do we plan to inspire ourselves? The UN’s plan, as it stands, doesn’t roadmap how we can work up a new, more inspiring story of us.
And what do we need more than this now?
So, I guess I’ll speak personally for a moment here, for context. The first series of Unsee The Future has been, y’know, a bit of a journey for me, man. Researching it has mapped out a circle of foundation for my own thinking about the world I find myself in today. To discover that there is a coherant working plan somewhere at high level to address all the fearsome global challenges in one connected mindset I have found heartening – the UN’s Global Goals for sustainability are devised to be both practical and hopeful, written in plain English and attempting to put everything of our Now together into one determined outlook. Plus, it’s kind of geeky; it appeals to just the sort of slightly high-minded strategic pencil straightening in me as a designer and writer. It sums things up. And it makes you feel like we can tackle the impossible-seeming. Which means it could easily turn out to be as nicely branded and fancifully useless as me.
But, the truth is that it isn’t the worthy unqualified journalism of producing a factual podcast that has diverted my own outlook so consciously. What Unsee has done for me is amplify the understanding and begin to boost the new direction I’d already turned my mind towards. And that turn was inspired by something wholy creative – a simple idea for my next piece of work as an artist.
The desire to take my amigos into space with the third Momo:tempo LP was obvious and single-minded – a no-brainer. Celebrate my life-long love of science fiction in a few theatrical little tunes? Obviously. It was only when I began to consider how I’d structure the writing of this that I laid a trap for myself; a self-imposed snare lurking like a trojan algorithm in a hidden shunt in my brain. One that, when triggered, would quietly turn all my instinctive mucking about into my mission.
The Shape of Things To Hum might have begun life as a bit of musical fun for me and amigos who all love the many worlds of imaginative storytelling that scifi has inspired over a hundred years, but the more I looked at the many themes of the genre, the more I felt them begin to juxtapose into a vibration. A question, shimmering into focus like Blake, Jenna and Avon rematerialising in the teleport: Of all the apparent predictions of science fiction, which future is the most likely?
Scifi is not actually in the business of prediction. It is always the alegory of What If. But all those visions of the future, most of them resolutely dystopian, do blur into your imagination with enough ingestion of them and become cultural expectations. Which focussed a sudden thought as I began sketching out music: What if science fiction has effectively been teaching humanity the future? And, if so, as it’s exploded from geek specs to multiplex in its fanbase, could this mean that we might even learn from it and… one day be okay? Might we even survive the now of fearsome realities? Because of scifi.
While you are obviously rolling your eyes at this latest convoluted leap, I got on immediately with making the idea the core thesis of the project – and the jumping off point for trying to devise a whole performance experience around this idea: How has science fiction been teaching us the future? And what have we had to learn?
At some point there is no escaping the implications of this. Namely, looking squarely at the Now scifi or any creative thinking is trying to save us from. What is wrong, and why? And what are the trends of how we’re really living?
I’d already written my starting point thesis and turned it into a comfortingly physical old-fashioned bit of print to wang on people’s desks and begin the task of asking clever people if I was an idiot for devising such a creative ambition when I then heard about the Global Goals. And suddenly, I had a structure to interrogate Now with. But, should I take the leap down the rabit hole? By now, I wasn’t even asking such questions, I was too inspired.
[ SHOUTY INTERUPTY WEB-AD-MODEL POP-UP ALERT: Amigos on the mailing list can hear the whole proposition to The Shape of Things To Hum with the audiobook of its founding little thesis – you can download it and hear all about it if you fancy signing up to the regular Memos. ]
It has been a fearsome exploration, for sure. But my point here is that it was artistic impulse that inspired me to dare to look at things I’d been blind to. Which made me wonder whether the only thing that might really save us is, indeed, art. Because what else can tempt us, frighten us, entertain us, trick us, coax us… encourage us to look anew at the world around us we thought we knew? Us, fundamentally imaginative creatures of inner life driving our outer mark making on the world.
This is all beginning to sound a bit abstract but bear with me. This won’t be a comprehensive thesis on the psychology or history of art; I may spend the rest of my life pondering such things. Were I to cave in and go back to university for a history of art degree, so cementing my retirement years penury, I’m sure I would still be refining how I put all this. But this is my starting point for us to ponder, as we consider how to encourage anything more hopeful about the future.
The basic idea I have thrown up to test is this: Art is all about new ways of seeing. And there is nothing we need more than new ways of seeing. Everything. Ourselves in the planet.
It is time to write new stories of us. And perhaps it is Science Fiction that has been doing the most to help us think about human life in the grandest contexts, the most fundamental modes, and crucially human consequences. Looking forward.
War and Peace may be a touch of genius in writing, as well as steroids-demanding endurance, because Tolstoy painted such a vast canvas of history and allowed the details of an unlikely character to very slowly catch the light of your attention. If you weep at the end, it is likely mostly to be with relief of having made it, but also I still hope at the true heroism of Pierre, in his morally flawed, unsociety manner humanity. But War and Peace only captures a moment. Makes you look at something that’s happened a different way. Science Fiction shows you reality anew by reinventing reality.
We’re story creatures. You’ve heard it before. Probably a lot, lately. But what authors today don’t picture the film of their novel and the A-listers playing their characters as they write it? Surely some still, I hope.
“Art is born out of as well as encapsulates the continuing battle between order and chaos. It seeks order or form, even when portraying anarchy. It’s a tension visible in Greek statuary and the colourfield paintings of Rothko and Newman, stopping off at every conceivable artistic movement in between. It’s a tension that arises from our natural urge to reconcile opposites.”
So says John Yorke in his recent book Into the woods.
Everyone seems to be talking about storytelling these days. I’m even doing it. I like the idea of “telling little musical stories” and of “helping others tell their stories” but isn’t this all quickly sort of hipster babytalk? Well, probably. But it’s also helping us realise something in the cluttered modern world about how our primal human brains work. Because we positively live inside stories, as a way of staying alive.
A screenwriter who’s worked on all manner of things off of the telly that you’ll have heard of, Yorke says that stories are basically the way that humans constantly manage to sort order from chaos.
I’d say it feels to loads of us around the world that there is a great deal of chaos unfolding globally today. And that feeling seems like more than just information overload, now that the number of devices tying us to news and stories from around the world has exploded like a food blizzard in Cloudy with a chance of meatballs. Everything we hear much more about that’s apparently actually happening seems uncertain, right down to the fundamentals of life on Earth, when we dare think about it. Makes our grandparents’ fears about nuclear armageddon sound rather quaint now. Ironic that we’re mostly not bothering to worry about that particular existential threat at the moment, when the precarious combined potential for a nuclear explosion around the world has never been greater. Yuh.
Well, parking that carefully over there for a moment, I mean, no one seems in charge properly any more and everything is noisy. So how will we, Generation Now, find a new sense of order? People have tried to build whole new orderings of the world before – it is the multiple storyarc of the twentieth century more than any other, and it mostly ended in misery, one way or another. Which is partly why the apparently unscripted bright idea of making fun new things and selling them and playing with cars and refrigerators and advertising campaigns seemed like such a relief to so many westerners at least, after the last world war. Such a bright idea that while pop music flowered as a whole new artform out of the new consumer times and teenagers were invented to buy it, in countries like Poland, behind the iron curtain, they made knock-off copycat pop of their own to try and furtively echo such good vibrations across their resolutely austere, anti-capitalist culture for at least a glimmer of reflected joy. To those on the more hopeful side of the wall, it all seemed so much more fun than all the brave new worlds that had been murdering everyone and eviscerating all the farmland, and it all seemed so born of such confidences, which seemed to create a sense of such possibilities. Kind of for everyone. A flowering of culture across laboratories, libraries and television screens. Awkwardly in that shadow of the sudden new possibility of nuclear anhiliation, sure, but every protagonist needs his and her grit, right?
Stories, of course, can give us glimpses into our own workings. It’s why we tell’em. And it’s not simply because books hold cold knowledge, though they very essentially do.
“Books are the way that the dead communicate with us. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us. The way that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be re-learned over and over.” says Neil Gaiman, possibly quoting Douglas Adams. Which is all brilliant. But there’s more to it, he says. Somehow, it’s not the non-fiction section in which many more of us find something coming alive in us.
“Fiction is the lie that tells the truth”
Because what else speaks quite so effectively to us but the parable? Like an in-joke, when we laugh the hardest because we get it, the parable can wake us up in the night with a sudden sense of realisation, because we’ve had to put it together in our minds. A shouty preach, by comparison, can just put us to sleep. Or even ruin our rest with more paralysing fear.
But it’s more even than parable. I think we actually think a bit like we’re characters in a story, day to day. It’s hardly surprising – absolutely everything of the world around is just a neurological construct in our own grey matter, after all. We make character choices about who we think we should be, according to the story we think we’re in. So understanding how story structure works a bit, from a writer’s point of view, might help us unravel our own musings in a new way.
One aspect, as John Yorke explains, is that characters on the page and us characters shuffling to the post office have facades. They are ways of dealing with the tensions between our expectations and perceived reality – be it internal, between parent and id, as Freud would put it, or higher aims and baser desires in other words, or external, between cultural demands or promises and personal experiences. In the journey of their stories, characters will have to face their fears to resolve their tensions – perhaps embrace their weaknesses to find their strength. If they are to really get anywhere, and so make an interesting story, the projection, the facade, will have to drop.
I’m not so sure a facade is merely cladding. And frankly even if it holds no structural integrity to the building, a facade will likely look much better than a gaping hole; the character I play through my personality is part of the truth of me, I feel fairly certain. It’s a bit less of an act than it probably looks. But a mask is a mask – a decision to hide the real face. And that is unresolved truth. And boy, but unresolved truth just seems to eat away at us. How long did it take you to come out, for example?
Some ruddy annoying thing in the human brain wants to resolve conflict. So the challenge remains for all of us: How do we manage the tensions in our lives to find practical balances and so progress towards our goal over the precaious tightrope? Because you bet, like characters, we all have goals – and they always seem to be placed on the other side of precarious tightrope walks. Like we’re in some humdrum version of The Hunger Games after all.
Yet, without the pain, how would we gain? What, as knowledge-seeking but empathic creatures, would we ever know if we could never feel the value of anything?
So what do our facades or masks say about our fears in the Now of fearsome realities? Feeling all this uncertainty. Looking at all those impossible balances, and far off goals? What truths do you think we have been hiding about the ways we see the future? Because I rather think we’re seeing some of them start to come out, all over message boards and into ballot boxes. And are many of those truths really the unresolved tensions of unfaced fears?
Are we only just starting to face them? And will we have to much more to do any future building business? The drama is usually higher when the stakes are.
I wonder if a good question to ask in the middle of this is: What characters are we playing in the current modern story of us that are going to have to journey towards a resolution of truth in order to embrace the futures we most hope for, when we dare hope at all? How might any new story of us change us?
Jungian theory is being referenced a lot again these days, thanks especially to various man groups helping gents find new languages for their inner lives. But whilst ol’ Karl’s shadow is a nice bit of poetic imagery, for example, his work follows initially in the footsteps of his teacher Freud and is in train with many psychological storytellers over the last century, who’ve between them helped us all live with the gnawing periferal sense at least that humans do tend to carry around a conscious duality within them.
Our higher, better, boil-wash-white-robed hopes of us, and our skidmark gusset admissions of us. Still, dress for the part you want, I always say.
Tom & Jerry could put an angel Jerry next to a devil Jerry and kids in the 30s would laugh at the essential truth of such inner conflict – we get it. More entertainingly than when the apostle Paul says it in the newer end of the Bible. But John Yorke suggests it’s this fundamental psychological firmware in the human brain, of so often not doing the things we feel we ought or want to do, that makes story structure resonnate with us so instinctively.
All the big hitting psychoanalysts, he says: “suggest that humans live in a neurotic state in which primal desires are at war with socially acceptible behaviour” and further that they: “tacitly accept that these neuroses need to be integrated and overcome in order for ‘happiness’ to be achieved.”
I have simply lost count of how many times I have sagely quoted James T himself on this: “I need my pain.” I kinda do, mate. And while centuries of religious teaching inspired many to attempt to overcome their baser, more animal brain wiring for their image of God hopes, it was more modern thinkers that dared to suggest we should probably hold our dark side close on the transporter pad as Spock attempts to reintegrate our two halves for a healthier emotional strength. (A James T quote, incidentally, that I have lost count of sagely quoting that is from what I suddenly now realise, with an icy shock of horror, is not the classic episode The enemy within but the single worst Star Trek movie in history, The Final Frontier. But if that isn’t embracing your pain, I don’t know what is.)
Yorke’s point is that all storytelling is really about paradox – truths in conflict. And that, we all instinctively feel.
“All archetypal stories are journeys towards completion – voyages from darkness to light – and involve the reconcilliation of opposites… a flawed, conflicted hero goes on a journey to become whole, integrating the lessons he has learned from others on the way. Successful happy endings, both in fiction and psychology, involve the individual resolving conflicts and learning to integrate and balance opposing forces.
“Just as all stories seek to resolve order from chaos, humans seek to still the raging conflict within.”
And he quotes F Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
That series of impossible balances.
F Scott F’s greatest character was surely attempting to blaze his own mighty trail of redemption, but in the end it is Jay Gatsby’s youthful inability to face and deal with his shadows that catches up with him. And, reading the book finally this summer, it’s obvious almost a century later that The Great Gatsby was himself the embodiment of his age – its chronic inability to deal with grown-up emotional truth, ploughing on chasing illusions of power and glory, trying to make images of angels love us. A time in history that surely stands as the golden age of Americanism and all that it peaked our economic hopes to be. That world falling apart around us today, one might suggest calmly.
“Blest are those,” says Hamlet of Horatio, “who’s blood and judgement are so commingled that they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger to sound what stop she please.”
Shakespeare kinda totally got this too, see.
Which brings me to Marvel. Obviously.
A movie franchise that must surely be an economic cocaine habit for the big studios that I doubt they will ever know how to quit, short of an actual nuclear war to give everyone a bit of a break from all the endless punch-ups and explosions and render-bending CG, the Marvel universe has none the less thrived right in the massive mainstream because it is both rich in lore and intelligently written. It’s kind of impossible not to at least half like, and sqillions of us seem to just love it, built as it is on such a creative heritage of unencumbered comicbook storytelling; a medium that grew up weirdly and beautifully into something as pleasingly cerebral as graphic.
And if there is someone amid the family of loveable, supposedly flawed, heroes who has really been on a journey, it’s actually the guy we should most resent – billionnaire philanthropist genius playboy, Tony Stark.
As Alex McLevey says in the AV Club, it’s Stark everyone loves, despite being the Hollywood archetype to end them all. And while it’s Robert Downey Jr’s effortless-looking witty charisma pulling off and undoubtedly influencing those lines, Stark is a character who’s travelled the furthest. Which means we really want to cheer on the rich guy who has it all.
“The notion of a powerful man laid low by hubris, forced to humble himself and re-learn how to be moral and good, is a common origin story, but it held particular resonance for Tony Stark, a man who could already claim to have done amazing things for the world. The other heroes aren’t forced into quite such dramatic changes during their respective first films. Thor’s debut involved him learning humility in order to appreciate the powers he previously had, so as to regain them. Captain America was almost the inverse, an already noble spirit being imbued with the strength and ability to act as the hero he was. Bruce Banner’s Hulk was a man rejecting the curse of an uncontrollable power placed upon him; it didn’t change his character so much as require him to learn to live with the change. (The closest point of comparison subsequently would be Doctor Strange: a brilliant and vainglorious guy at the top of his field forced by circumstance to start anew, though a car accident doesn’t have quite the same metaphorical power as being taken hostage by terrorists using the very weapons you produced.)”
Humanity cuts through in our empathy. Which is as much about our wish to ultimately be vindicated with a massively clever series of inventions we made ourselves before the next cocktail party as it is about seeing ourselves in the challenges. The losses.
But. Much as I enjoy the endless little moments of nicely scripted banter between greatly cast characters all over the Marvel universe, and much as the individual films have some gorgeous moments of humanity intelligently all over this pleasingly pre-planned story of intersecting stories, catching up recently with the latest, biggest installment of the hero franchise of this heroes franchise Avengers: Infinity War, I did think out loud at last… what really do the Avengers have to say to us?
Should such films have anything to say to us? It’s a deftly written film in a sense, because every scene gives good time to a ridiculous ensemble of characters from different sub-franchises of the universe and it’s full of those good moments, of course. But at the end… who cares?
I mean, y’know. Really, who cares that [ SPOILERS! ] half the world disappears in a dusty puff of Thanos logic? And half the cast? I just kinda didn’t. I should have done, surely? Otherwise, where is the drama after all those on-screen struggles?
All stories speak to us. Because it’s the very implication of telling a story at all – we sit down with them precisely because we expect them to connect with us. But I think you could say, if you feel similarly meh about our beloved Avengers, our constant need for superheroes in our centrally shared stories at the moment has robbed us of the very agency such tales are meant to inspire in us. With every threat, came a bigger feat of miraculous response. From, like, every character. The bigger the squashing machine appearing suddenly, the bigger the magic squashing-machine-moving ray someone produced out of their ass to deal with it. Everyone looks sweaty and concerned during all this, but it just feels like there is no true threat to any of these flawed but still godlike heroes we hope to be ourselves, in the end. They all laudibly feel the presence of their shadows, their conflicts, so no Marvel characters are cartoons any more. But in their great quests and noble defenses, the dead come back to life easily, it seems. Leaving a whole collection of bearded hunky white lead men suddenly in the same film to work out how to subtly differentiate themselves from each other and the world’s most boring archetype. They all manage a few good wise cracks in the face of the end of the universe, of course, which is what we’d all aspire to do, I’m sure.
It’s a quality big budget film production that’s a lot more emotionally boring as a story than I think it should be. Right at the noisy centre of our culture. Like a sign we have nothing left to say. For many Marvel and comic fans, the point of these stories is not the threats their characters face but the journeys of these titans, yet their leap from page to screen where more people will enjoy them does seem to rob such legendary characters of some of their more three-dimensional life, sometimes.
Another massive box-office production, Spielberg’s film version of Ready Player One, suffered from this sort of soup of CG and architype too, yet somehow made me a bit actually angry about it, because it felt like a sort of awful millennial manifesto by the end: “All we want is to wallow in nostalgia, hiding in our games. Don’t take our games away, man – the end of the world we gave up on.”
Put joylessly like that it all sounds like the fall of the Roman empire to me… decadently overdone. Everything.
Which… um. ..Oh.
So where does that leave us in such story craving times? Are we all feeling indegestion from all that cartoonish fable? Even such post-modern wisecracking takes on it? It’s a skillful rehash of an old world view of everything, isn’t it? And it ultimately has no answers. Because it never set out to give them to us. It’s superhero stuff, man. It’s cape as comfort blanket. Except it’s not simply that, is it.
Diving into stories, binging on stories, losing ourselves in stories is not just how we cuddle away from the world around us, it’s how we make sense of the world around us. Resonnating with the truth of the world within us.
But today more than ever, there are blizzards of stories around us vying for our empathetic attention.
And when we give something attention, it works both ways. As a story we hear, read, watch, chimes within us, it’s echo back to us shapes our inner story. Like the retelling of memories – they change with the telling. And we can begin to re-enforce our character to fit the story we rather like. Or feel is inevitable.
I won’t attempt too much more analyses in Cod Philosophy Corner here, but I do think there’s something intriguing in the idea that the story we assume we are in, or adopt to be in, shapes the character we behave as – even though most of us wouldn’t explain it like that. It’s not as simple as turning into Luke Skywalker and being heroic. It’s rather more insidious than that. Partly because who can be bothered with all that Jedi training and actual putting of one’s self down the Death Star trench to risk actual death by lucky blaster cannon strike when we can get on with the real business of feeling justified, privately identifying as the hidden hero of some much grander fable than the farty nothing life of tending Uncle Owen and Aunt Baru’s crummy desert farm after all.
The insidious bit is that such private justification can have the opposite effect to running away to join the Rebel Alliance, but rather have you settle down as a nobody to await fate’s justifying call. To just hang around in your status quo hoping for the magic McGuffin that finally gets you off your arse at the computer to go and meet old Ben in the real world.
Black kids are much less likely to escape poverty and will end up in gangs. Women are much less likely to reach the board room. Gay boys are disappointments. Trans girls are unnatural. Geeks don’t play sport. Real men don’t cry. Public toilets must only be gendered. The president will change things for the better. Immigrants will overwhelm us. To be Russian is to drink vodka. To be English is to drink tea. The EU is a tyranny. The EU is a hopeful ideal. Endless unregulated free market growth is the only economic system that works. The future is on fire. You can do nothing to change it. To be creative is for arty farties.
The story you think you are in can trap you.
As The Do Lectures put it in a simple tweet: “I couldn’t never write a book. I could never do a talk in front of lots of people. I could never run a business. I could never surf big waves. The story you tell yourself in the end will become the one that either limits you or sets you free.”
It’s a bit inspirational memey, but hell you apparently need them all the time. And this one’s making a ruddy pertinent point. You decide what story you are in.
But art is very likely to have helped you find and tell the story. Shown you a world you want to be part of, given you the lexicon of the characters, or shown you your daily world from such a clear new perspective you suddenly feel you know how to tell it. How to live it.
Art, of course, helped overturn all manner of establishment ways of seeing the world, giving graphic illustration and voice to the growing socialist issues among new industrialised workers, for example. Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s famous painting, The Fourth Estate is a striking moment in artistic time that shows this, combining a very 20th century technique in the actual painting with a very 20th century subject matter – ordinary working people. Joe may have taken great care to construct the colour on the canvas with a chromoluminarist technique, building colour a bit more like print with separated dots of pigment juxtaposing in the viewer’s eye to compose the vibrancy of the pallette in-brain, all very delightfully sciency seeming in its colour theory, and the end result may be a striking bit of semi-realism striding out of the vaguely impressionist heritage lingering about it, but all you are thinking about when standing in front of it at the Museo del Novecento in Milan is: wow, these are ordinary people who won’t lie down for their bosses any more. They are ordinary people using the right of a strike to walk together out of the shadows into the bright light of midday. A significant illustration of change in the old order of things. So significant, apparently, that after years of making the thing, Joe couldn’t sell it; the rich bosses of culture thought it rather too striking.
Art here was definitely no longer just about the higher things. The Godly or aspirational things. In some ways it pushed both extremes out further, creating entirely new aspirational gods while also shining that light right down to the floor. It had journeyed right down from the heavens to the Earth. The mud. It had moved from the beatific decorative God-Christ in Byzantine churches through seemly portraits of some rich patrons of the renaissance to sinew-twisted sculptures of very earthly tactile humanity into graphic depictions of social change. Humans were using their creative storytelling instincts to try to make new order out of whole new levels of chaos and art became about ordinary people, showing them the power of themselves in whole new worlds. Sensitising more people to the potential of humanity.
Or so art appeared to claim.
Because, really, even art loves everyone to know their place.
The thing is, arguably as a natural fallout of our economically driven culture of hierarchy, boosted into orbit by such a bonkersly conceptual time in creativity as the 20th century – of sweeping ideas and grand new principles – art has been hierarchical for centuries. Managing to convince critics that anything made by proles pronging hay bales or riveting liners wasn’t really art. Or just perhaps, it could be a kind of art curiosity if the word ‘folk’ was put in front of whatever it was. Because, like a good fractal story structure, art’s hierarchy doesn’t just exist in the snobby strata of society, it has its own within itself. With priests and intercessors guiding us into the truth and quietly only letting in the qualified. People like Jazz teachers.
Current head of Momo’s horn department, multi-functioning world class talent and wonderful mate, Patrick Hayes, felt, I think, in his years at music college the need for a quiet determination about something. To fight for the need for good grooves. And good tunes.
We’re different generations but bond lovingly around Chaka Khan records as much as anything, and his natural sense of groove is only fed by his richly practiced technical understanding as a professional musician and arranger. Your fingers have got to be able to keep up with the charts, but if the charts don’t serve something infectious and inclusive and fun, what really is the point? A point still feeling a little awkward in the hallowed halls of music college, apparently. It’s always follow-through composing that feels more intellectually justifiable there, I suspect – qualifyingly clever. Because it is a music making structure that’s very Not Pop. Not folksy. Not easy to tune into. Because perhaps jazz isn’t meant to be enjoyed with your body any more – not for half a century – it’s meant to be intellectually understood – or you clearly aren’t fit for the club.
Yet, for all the people my age and older still seemingly infecting this joyless snobbery into their teaching of the ineffible wonders of music, there is a generation of graduates who just don’t need to see the world this way. As every session musician I ever met has always put it: “It’s all music, man.” It might be vital to be able to step up with your practiced chops, and to understand how music’s magic is at work in any piece. But I also privately take pride in the idea that so many great young band members have stepped into nights playing Momo:tempo’s homemade, unqualified music because it’s just so confidently fun. Which may be the one bit of qualification I dare claim, as these chaps always humble me with their generous skills.
Is good art only made by the ‘qualified’? Is that why you don’t make it? Well, I do think ‘good’ art appears so to wider audiences when it is just somehow patently confident and rich. Learned, in its own way. So there’s no escaping the need to educate and evolve in your artistic journey – and frankly, art college, music college, drama college can all be vital ways to frame your journey and speed up the vital process of bumping ideas off other humans. But no one goes to college to really get a bit of paper. And sometimes the qualifcation of your work can be that you are an outsider. A maverick. What you practice and get really good at is what will speak clearest for you, but sometimes the things you haven’t smoothed out with 10,000 hours of finger work and book reading give your voice the singular character around its confidence. Rather like, er, any human in any social situation – it’s who you singularly are that grabs others’ imaginations, not what you emptily remember. It’s what you do with what you’ve learned, and how it comes out of you.
As warm and fuzzy as this might make me feel, as broadly human as I’m blatantly preaching art to be here, the truth is. Art, man. Truly arty art… It’s not really for everyone, right? Don’t kid yourself it’s not elitism, Peach. And that you’re not fawning to get in, mate.
Well, I mean Art with a capital A really is very much a culture of its own, surely; its hierarchy is still a tower shrouded in mystery to most of us. A closed system, as remote and silly seeming as fashion – only without the high-street trickled-downs of influence. As Grayson Perry says, especially in past decades the art world didn’t really need the public – between curator, promoter, artist and buyer there was a sort of comfortable closed loop of business. Why let the proles in to bleat about how they could have drawn better and they failed their art O’level?
Is this sense of exclusivity, though, nothing to do with art? This expectation of the art world’s own culture? Isn’t this really just about humans loving to be in the top levels of things, the inside clubs, the exclusive memberships? Fine art is just another one. If so, given our times, I wonder if it isn’t therefore subject to the same slo-mo collapse of hierarchy as all the arts well ahead of it in this respect – music, film making, TV production, writing. Anyone can have a go. It’s just that, as we saw in Unsee‘s Education episodes, we are systematically across the world taught to whither and ignore our creative thinking, with twitch trigger words blocking our curiosity perhaps – the negative space of a transversal verbal inertia, if you will. So rollneck-smoothed gallery haunters holding chins at the the impenitrable pompous waffle of International Art English pomposterising the meaning of works in white cubes the world over hardly helps you feel at home in one, I guess.
Weird then that Tate Modern has been the British capital’s most visited attraction, of the century. Seems there is more of a hunger for understanding creativity, or at least in trying to get in some culture, than sniffy art mags and scoffing newspapers and stiffly academic school curriculums alike might have worn you down to believe.
And do millions of otherwise apparently normal, unpretentious people suffer a recurring disconscious kineto-parapraxis because in our uniquitous toxic pseudo-binary narratives, art still manages to look like fun?
Why did we allow in the sly implication that art is just cerebral, academic? Because it obviously isn’t if it’s dance. Not if it’s acting. Not if it’s singing. That’s all lungs and muscles stuff, pumping blood round the brain. Is performance really art, though? Well, is it an instinctive exploration of the meaning of your life? And is it creating something? Yes, and yes? Then that too is something of art, no?
Hierarchy is so engrained in us in modern times we’ve made it part of our bodies. We managed to disconnect ourselves into component parts that have different levels of importance. Like it’s not one complete system.
One of the single most significant things trying to happen around us in modernist culture is the reconnection of our heads to our bodies. Marcus John Henry Brown, writer and creative director makes the point of one his film The Secret a profound one… go for a walk. Over and over he says: “Go for a walk.”
“Get out of the office, it’s a trap. Get out of the conference room because that’s where ideas go to die… discover the serendipity of where you are.”
“Your feet are steroids for your brain.”
As another showbiz creative chum, Dave Birss, said on Front Row recently, exercise is the single best thing you can do to help your brain find new creativity. It’s a sciency boost to your divergent thinking.
This is partly just practical neuroscience. It seems it can be when we daydream that our mind slips out of gear cleverly enough to run some useful processing in the background, as a good few studies on boredom have found. You shouldn’t be tying up your processor with front-end tasks all day – you’ll essentially end up wearing down your wellbeing and getting very little done. Especially anything you really care about. As I’ve learned over years mucking about for a living while sometimes being hired to help solve creative problems with people, there certainly is always something constructive or productive you can do with a working day, but it isn’t always the thing you feel the most pressure about. The magic core idea to hang an expensive campaign off, for example, will need time to sublimate through your noggin, in between the conscious layout pad workouts and teasings-out. Sleeps. And daydreams. I’m learning to trust this idea and go with the flow of my brain, not force it, but in fact try to plan around it.
What this really means is that all this is actively boosted – mental rest, cognitive improvement, problem solving, even active emotional wellness, all of it together – by play.
Unselfconscious, physical, play.
I can’t help thinking that all grown-ups should be made to play wide games in break, every morning. If we could combine such running around, hiding and seeking, with some great cosplay storytelling we might never go back to the office and might never have been simply happier. How can we economise this?
Is it any wonder gaming and cosplay and film making and fantasy writing and all manner of creative private life stuff are a huge part of our lives outside the boring office with the beige photocopier? Nice as Tina is.
I think our inbuilt story engine running our minds actually carries within it a singular implication in line with this. And it’s bigger than recreation. Something which Neil Gaiman asserts like this:
“We all have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine.”
You. And me. An obligation.
Because all this kind of wonderful mucking about helps develop a rounded sense of confidence in who you are as a person. Body confidence encourages a whole confidence. And sometimes it is an instinct to jump into the physical arts that leads you on a path to develop such a healthy, if demanding, relationship with your body. And if art’s job in human life is as much about simply illustrating wider human truths as anything else, then the process of finding that essential confidence in creative mark making, as an artist, can show all of us something vital to our lives as humans.
Because I can’t help picturing this inevitably helping you connect better with those around you. To get a bit more sexily conscious, man. Because you’re more connected with yourself, baby.
I’m always talking about confidence in art. Confident mark making. Not just hesitantly sketching a vague pig shape, but making bold marks with your charc’ that feel like a physical pig presence, as one much-retold lesson from an illustration tutor one lacklustre life drawing class put it.
And if you are to really get in there and feel it, commit, shape the pig, there is one bit of boot camp like no other that helps turn an art student into an artist. Or an isolated player into a confident encourager. And you’re not going to like it. Because it seems to go againt every instinct in your nice private journey with your creativity.
The tyranny of The Crit.
It could save the world.
Going to art college teaches you how to fail, says Grayson Perry. Which reminds me what Caroline has always said: “It’s the crit. Having to go through the trauma of the crit – putting your work on the wall in front of the whole class – is a vital learning experience that art students get to go through that few others do in their training.”
Art is a test bed. And it refines the person, not just the idea. The crit prepares you emotionally to cope with failure and move beyond it. “I half wish I’d had to go through that” she’s said.
Think simply of the process of making art. It’s hands-on, physical, kinetic, practical, hand-eye, improvisory, innovative – it’s the synthesis of mind and body, heart and soul. It’s whole human stuff, not simply essoterric tosspottery, and most artists I know are oddly down to earth as a result. They get things done. Made. Crafted. Practiced. They just probably don’t regularly get it sold. They’re too engaged in the inspiration of making their art, and too uninterested in the process of selling.
All this, when you see it in action, is testimony to the real mystery of a true artist: Her or his confidence. Confidence in mark making. Even if they’re plumbing their insecurities. Some of it might be gift, but mostly that magic shee will be forged. In the crucible of trying and failing, holding up work and getting it knocked down… without staying down.
But. If the enemy of creativity is self consciousness, how does any young creative survive the art college crit?
If we think it healthy to foster unselfconscious play in children so strongly it becomes reflex in adulthood, how would it pass through the essential creative maturing process of any kind of art collegesque crits? In children’s training for life growing up, learning how to drive themselves, how might the freedom to play and to suggest ideas stay somehow intact, if we’re to help them grow beyond critical immaturity? Y’know, so they don’t keep telling you everything they fart is a gift to the world. It’s a grim creative journey the human has to travel between Teletubby land and Morrisseyville. But somehow, we must survive it.
Can, in fact, these two apparently opposite experiences wrap around each other on our artistic journey?
I guess it’s about confidence developing with consciousness. The curse of the adult world is forced awareness. Becoming adult is about embracing it and turning that painful forced awareness to your advantage. Education can help you understand better what’s happening to you and around you and so foster… curiosity.
What a powerful word. One singularly under threat in populist times. Which is rather the point. Fears of the unknown, ironically making us stronger and less fearful when we choose to bravely explore the unknown. Like Captian Kirk. Ironic how many populist spokespeople love that guy.
Curiosity founded in the true confidence of real consciousness would potentially make for not just a bold artist but a true human leader. An exemplar of human emotional exploration at least. Surely a type of person humanity seems desperately short of; people equipped to lead others through the minefield of doubt and fear and loss towards self possession. Surely the artist is the person for this?
Interesting that the part of human endeavour charged with the logistics of running the world – government – is, virtually by definition, the opposite of what good art college training encourages the artist to be: Agile.
And, y’know. Artists. They don’t tend to want to lead. Perhaps their empathy renders many of them too thin skinned for political combat, perhaps they’ve just thought too much about things. And their work puts them in the field of storytelling – trying to help the rest of us make sense of things by thinking more about things. Seeing things differently. In and of itself, this doesn’t get a spreadsheet of engineering works filled out. Or a political campaign organised.
“Why write a novel when a manifesto will do?” says Lauren Oyler in the NYT, implying that you could always stop mucking about and get straight to the point, if you want to really make a difference to this world, right? But that’s rather the point of artists’ work – it’s belief in action that rulebooks don’t inspire much.
Art doesn’t want to tell, it wants to show. Because it’s much better practice of the art of connection. It doesn’t want to preach, it wants to testify.
So, okay. Let’s strip this all back. Let’s ask a really dumb question. What is an artist?
“Art is why we exist, as self aware avatars of the universe, we are here to witness, enjoy, experience and learn.. Art helps with the exploration and the keeps the madness at bay… everything else is just the politics of living.” So says my mate Chris. Rather summing it up beautifully in a sudden tweet to me. Before he then added, in an immediate follow up: “Oh and it can be a load of bo!locks as well sometimes…”
If I’m going to hold court on the subject like I’m anybody and shoot my damnfool mouth off about it, well why don’t I come clean: How do I define an artist? Stop dancing around it, if you even can, Peach.
Actually, I’ve long been reasonably comfortable with how I understand the definition of the artist. I’m used to thinking that an artist is someone who instinctively processes life – makes sense of being alive – by creating stuff. Art is a by-product of someone trying to process how they feel. Because sentient, empathetic creatures apparently have to. So, if your instinct is to write, or draw, or compose little tunes, you’re being an artist. Doesn’t make you automatically a ‘good’ artist, but you are getting on with being one. Pat yourself on the back. That’s you.
Now, whether your work will indeed go on to be considered any ‘good’ or not will partly come down to how much you bother to practice doing it, but rather alongside how strong the talent is that you were dumbly born with in the first place. As with most things in the swirling eddies of life’s eternal madness, you don’t get a say over much at all, really, just a bit of influence over how you react to it all – but it’s a bit that can make all the difference to you and the poor saps who find themselves in your life when you announce your new dedication to conceptual theatre.
It might be helpful to consider that while art is honest personal self-expression, craft is learning how to do it well. Success? Well, that is deciding where you are aiming for on this scale.
Creativity, though. Isn’t that the crucial word? Can you be creative and not artistic? Well, that’s a fine slide rule of a differentiation, maybe. I’d certainly say you can be creative and not an artist because, well, you won’t feel the need to define yourself as one, for one thing. For another, uh, all humans are creative. Problem-solving is creative. Getting dressed in the morning is creative. Any damn-fool thing you decide to do out of thin air is creative. You are creative. You may simply not be used to thinking of yourself that way, and so don’t consciously practice creative thinking. Which… is culturally criminal, isn’t it? You’ve been robbed of the mindset that makes you the most conscious part of all creation. You doofus.
But I’ve come firmly to the belief that the role of art in our lives, and the reason we do it evolutionarily so much, is to help us find new perspectives on ourselves. New ways of seeing. We might be recalcitrant conservative buggers who will usually do what’s easy, not what’s culturally considered worthy, and we may like to nest in and comfort ourselves, and God knows one of the most chilling and pressing problems of our species is our terrifying gift to ignore horror… but we also have the weirdly recurring itch to know more. And between us it can keep overturning the comfortable status quo annoyingly.
If this thing we sometimes call ‘art’ is a bit fundamental to us lot as animals after all, then, is it time we retooled our understanding of it, so that more of us reacted to the whole idea of it rather less fearfully? Less mysteriously? There might be a fair number of people calling themselves artists whose smile might flicker a moment at this potential de-deifying of their role, but I think it might be long overdue.
The slurry of content washing us all overboard with the plastic waste and churning us helplessly around the world may seem like a loss of quality in art, thanks to the ubiquity of the tools to make it these days – everyone is a DJ, music producer, curator, blogger, vlogger, podcaster, photographer, filmmaker, actor, writer, presenter these days, right? And the results are mostly awful, right? Where are the true greats, you wail, from far out at contentual sea.
But this collapse of hierarchy and democratisation of the making of creative work does sound fairer, no? And it means there is nowhere to hide now – it is the power of your ideas that must speak, and of your determination, resourcefulness, open-handedness. Not power of your priviledge. ..Which sounds jolly right on but remember it’s mostly all down to dumb luck again, anyway – the point is… even you can have a go. And who knows? You might find you have something inspiring to say.
Which has lead me to ask a question: Is it high time we we subtly change our use of the word ‘artist’?
Would it be better to say: “I have an artistic impulse towards this, to do this”? God knows this sound like splitting idiomatic hairs, but as any copy writer will tell you, the power of fine-tuning words is giant in the human imagination. Just don’t also ask them about splitting infinitives, they may go off on one about something that’s JUST A LINGUISTIC CONVENTION FROM ANOTHER TIME.
Language is as mysteriously powerful over the human mind as music; we’re just used to thinking of language as a supremely logical, engineered, bolted together thing. Especially if we speak German. It’s just a code of sounds, matched to a code of marks, that helps us build iPhones so we can take selfies and make porn. But language quietly shapes our world view. So fine-tuning our words can make enormous difference. It helps if your body language isn’t especially dickish of course, as that’s mostly how you’re communicating. But the right words can change a whole outlook, by helping someone make a new connection.
I think getting used to saying: “I have an artistic impulse towards writing”, or whatever medium, would change the vibration of it in the ear of someone listening who’s not used to thinking of themselves as creative. Because it sort of levels the human talents playing field, I think.
I personally may have an artistic impulse to make up funny little tunes, to explore life through musical storytelling – it just oddly inspires me to get out of bed often. And practicing this may be emotionally cathartic, helping me work through my emotions sometimes, as well as generating excitement and motivationally stoking inspiration. The musical work I produce may even these days be okay in the general music production craft, after mucking about with it for thirty years. So in three ways you can say fairly that I do produce ‘art’ of a kind, whether many people are in the wood when the tree falls or not. It’s still an original noise.
For me, if I think of my ‘art’, music, I would do well in honest internal emotional management to depressure my expectations upon the word by remembering that my art is honest but small. The guilt of not being a ‘proper’ musician in the craft sense of specialism will linger in me forever. It’s kind of a musician’s hang-up – which is how I know I am one, ironically. It’s akin to not being a ‘proper’ anatomically competent drawer as a visual artist – there’s a craft duty, it feels, to be able to speak the core language fluently in order to be ‘qualified’ to go on and subvert all those rules. All the founding grand masters were like this, right? And there’s no hiding from how much this garners respect. But artistic reputation will still come down, in the end, to the quality of your thinking, not your fingering. Not unless your fingering is freakishly accomplished, and then you will have to be comfortable with being the highbrow equivalent of a circus performer. It all depends where you find success between being able to pay your bills and do something of your thing.
But if I, if you, think of our craft in the round of our whole human life, then there is more of an interesting story, I suspect. Because you don’t have to be a grand master to be an interesting human. How does my practiced work combine business with music making, copywriting with showing off, gallery-poking with jokes-cracking. Wife-loving with sci-fi enjoying. It’s all your life, no? Or mine. It’s all your experience. Your practice. It’s all, together, what makes your voice unique. Original. All of it together is how you are really speaking with your life. It may or may not leave interesting residue in something you can hang on a wall. And even that will never be much of the real residue of you.
My whole life makes a rather stronger story of experience, shaping outlook and values and intent, than any one bit on its own.
To resist both the temptation and the burden, the pressure, of thinking of myself and declaring myself ‘an artist’ is more helpfully inclusive for both me and those I meet, perhaps. To subtly re-word it to “having an artistic impulse to make music” reminds both me and you as I say it that I am first and fore a human being, not a pretentious arse, and not some mythical font of ideas – because implied in this way of putting it is the idea that any human idiot could follow an artistic impulse. There’s no fantastical qualification needed. This seems powerful to me.
It reminds me too that my artistic impulse, consciously embraced and explored as it is by me, is an impulse in a personal mix of impulses – alongside a slight degree of nerdy engineering, as a designer, and one of encouragement, as a bit of a joker, and of avoiding looking at bank statements, as an idiot. It’s all part of the typical spectrum of being a person. All of it together.
We all have different balances of instincts, different confidences in the exploration of them, but it’s not just creativity generally that is naturally human in universal principle – it’s art itself.
Art is everyone’s. Yours. You straight-talking non-ponse. Cliques are not everyone’s – and this is fine. You don’t have to be in every clique, but art lives in the human imagination – the human outlook – and not in any one fartistic group of smock-soiling fanatics. You are free to explore everything as you. Indeed, you must.
Art – the evidence of such explorations – that is hailed as ‘good’ after you’ve produced it and coyly hung it on a wall somewhere and had some private viewing leaflets made up which you’ve forced into the hands of your mates and your mum and dad, forced in return to accept three of your mates’ latest self-released cassettes… if it really does turn out to be thought of as ‘any good’ it is likely to be clever in some way, let’s face it. But it will surely also be truthful – true to itself. Honest, basically. Even in its fakery, if that’s its point. When a publically-sharing artist looks like they’re fooling themselves… that’s when the art is bad, probably. That might be the litmus. Too much copying someone else and not enough of anything to say on its own terms – something rather more important than craft, these days. Similar to having not enough understanding of context.
The greatest singers started life miming into their hairbrushes in the bedroom, and how wonderful. But searching for truth may be the actual artistic quest, in the end, not merely healthy creative play – and some commit their lives to it. Some use it merely as an occasional private comfort blanket, working out the emotional rub of something. It’s all good, it’s all us. Bankably good is about markets, and that’s a whole different set of expectations.
But the pursuit of exploring – of encouraging – new ways of seeing? That is perhaps the beginning of how art is actually ‘useful’ to us.
Surely art, you might say sniffily, is its own reward? Art for art’s sake. And yes – it doesn’t need justifying. Any more than the art of science for science’s sake. But just as science makes progress through a tension between pure exploration as an intellectual end in itself and hefty commissions to solve specific practical problems, the same is true of art. We aspire to beautiful, noble, pure things in our finer moments – we also want to keep food from going off. And make a call to our kids without having to master coding first.
There is a spectrum of reasons why all human creativity is ‘useful’ to us – between design and emotional expression it solves specific problems pleasingly and it helps us get our heads straight.
And if one of the biggest problems with modern life is the divorse of head or mind from body, then we really do need to find ways to remind ourselves we have to get our heads straight. Or we’ll have very serious problems indeed. We need to manage our heads to survive even normal-seeming days alive in the universe in contexts we’ve mapped enough to know comfortably. Even on a boring Tuesday in the office, our heads need managing – feeding. So in unusual times, in shifting contexts, we need the impulses of art to lead us into new ways of seeing. To make the best of opporunity.
In times of true crisis, surely the well-practiced at creative exploration should be in the mix of those trying to lead our way out of it, no? Helping us write new stories of us. In order to survive.
It’s not like this is new.
Different style of art have evolved the ages and speak especially strongly to different periods in cultural time. So much so that Aborigine art from thousands of years ago doesn’t really fit with contemporary ideas of art because it wasn’t made to be self consciously ‘art’ like ‘art’ is today. It’s something Grayson Perry highlights. But, of course, those who made the ancient pieces weren’t intending for their work to be placed in the analytical glare of a gallery and critiqued. Those artists’ work didn’t effectively say: “Look! I’m making a point!” But it surely is art – the creative product of the instinct to make emotional, storytelling, cosmic sense of their makers’ place in the universe, signalling values, identity and experience. They were surely intended to arrest attention – to speak to the viewer, maybe even inspire – and they were, as works, also crafted. Art.
And these people from an age many ages before the ages of recorded history felt compelled to give valuable time to doing this when there was, presumably, much Staying Alive to be organised – hunting, cooking, soft leaves for the bottom finding. Yet some members of the community, however it worked, prioritised art.
Today, I think it’s simply that by comparison with our early Earth ancestors we are a much more self-consciously modern society, inventing the gallery to invite in analysis and testing and burning and fusing and cursing and whithering of our self expressions – a cultural laboratory.
Banksy, of course, may be more akin in his work to those ancient artists, you might say sagely. But he has self-consciously turned the modern natural environment into a gallery. Bloody post-modernists. Always knowing what they’re doing.
The point is that all of the above is art. We simply get to choose what is also decoration. Because, angst and poetry aside, we all like to decorate the world around us. Aesthetic speaks to us.
Art is everyone’s, man.
Well, okay. Kind of. But, in reality, after this sweeping declaration of the human as artist, art still feels like something you can’t admit you don’t get. Right?
Oh, you. You’re so zeitgeisty, man.
It is, suggests Grayson Perry, the very preserve of modernism to be self conscious, and it’s a two-edged sword of knowing confidence and doubt, wounding maker and fan alike all the time. The 100 years leading up to the 1970s, he says, was a time: “When artists were questioning and worrying about what it was that they were doing; they weren’t just being swept along by tradition or belief. Self-consciousness, though, is crippling for an artist.” And this has overflowed into all our artistic tastes, consuming it or making it. “When we talk about the culture we consume,” he says, “it is often a dance around how we wish to be seen: What we enjoy reflects on who we are.”
Which means it will always be a bit elitist, won’t it? Some trends, works, artists will always be the preserve of those in the know because we all love to be in the know, and hesitate to trepidatiously declare honest love for something not pre-delineated as cool. Lord knows I’ve had enough musical reviews of Momo:tempo perenthesesed with: “I know I shouldn’t like this, but…”
And the massive intricately decorated elephant in the room is that if art in our modern times is all at once so jadedly knowing and fretsomely self conscious it can’t help but strata into elitism, then it’s never going to change the world like you’re hoping it will, right?
I can’t argue with the elitism if it’s the artworld’s prices you’re talking about. Mind boggling what an artist can suddenly be worth, and you can wonder why when dropped into their world from cold. But this isn’t about art, it’s about human economics – how we value things, and how we decide things are valuable at all. It’s fashionably crazy.
But humans are such contradictory buggers. There is no meaningful summing up of a whole century of art, or any movement. There are general cultural directions and there are noteable divergencies. Individuals. And individuality is rather the modus of inspiration behind any art – how do I make sense of me. The cliques following it all are another thing entirely.
Think of all those practical down to Earth artists we know. Just getting on with it first and foremost. Whatever the fashions of the Art World, the principle of making sense of the real world by making things and expressing feelings, of giving voice, shape, colour to our inner lives – this is core human stuff. Essential person wellbeing work. And it’s everyone’s domain, potentially. Who cares what critics would make of it? That’s never the point of responding to the artistic impulse.
The point is, you live inside you. Your innner life is the whole world, from your perspective. And if you don’t find ways to make sense of that, to manage that, the dials can go crazy. It’s nature’s dicotomous curse of making you as much a little god as a farting fluid bag of hormones. You are more than any one aspect of you. Even your art.
“Life is much more interesting than art,” said Allan Kaprow. In The artist as a man of the world, 1964, he essentially posited the then radical (to the art world) idea that artists didn’t really want to be revolutionaries after all, but rather have a nice middle class comfy life. I’m not sure I’ve ever had any illusions about this – I’ve not had much directly to be rebellious about, so never considered myself one. I’m sensible. And I grew up with doting dotty parents from the theatre. I was born very slightly outside the norm and so could afford to aspire to a midcentury home that I could keep tidy. Being angry at Thatcher didn’t feel like rebellion, more an obvious duty.
But the implications of Kaprow’s assertions here are significant, really. As Grayson Perry puts it, Kaprow: “Thought the profession of artist was not that different from any other specialized job.”
Certainly my dad broadly thought this. “It’s a proper job, it’s hard work. Don’t put it down” he’d say if I ever made a quip about drawing boxes for a living as a designer, or making goofy little tunes as a music producer. He knew the graft and skill of theatre, something that looks like dressing up in silly costumes and gaudy makeup and singing about whimsical things like fairies when you’re a chorus member in the D’Oyle Carte. And he was a working class wartime kid from north Bournemouth.
But this democratisation of art is really the thing here. It shouldn’t need it, of course, but the Art World has so annexed it, we need culturally comprehensively de-programming on it.
Yet, for all that, art has still infected us all. Distant as it may seem, it’s gotten out into the bloodstream of our culture.
Perry says that Virginia Nicholson, neice of actual bohemian Virginia Wolf, said: “We’re all bohemians now”. “And if you think about it,” he goes on, “all the things that were once seen as subversive and dangerous like tattoos and piercings and drugs and interracial sex and festishism, all these things that artists made use of to show their freedom and otherness – they crop up on X Factor now on a Saturday night, for family viewing.”
How free we all are now, apparently. How other. And individual.
I’m not, obviously.
SEEING THE HOPEY CHANGEY BIT.
My mate Chris has long collected fountain pens. Didn’t use one to write his jolly clever tweet about art, but just loves the look and feel of them. They say something to him. And, actually, help him say some things better.
“I’m a little dyslexic,” he said to me, during our latest intellectual salon time in the local coffee house, “and I often find that when I bang out a report or piece of writing on the keyboard, I look up and it’s a blizzard of red underlinings. Yet, when I write – handwrite, with a beautiful fountain pen – I make far fewer mistakes. It’s not just slowing things down to take care, my pattern recognition improves somehow. Physically drawing the shapes of the words with a beautiful tool helps me spell.”
Hand-eye stuff helps cognitive stuff – brain connecting to body. And the cleverness of a little daily slowness. And daily imagination.
Chris’ lovely pen collection is a tiny vignette of practical wisdom in a noisy world, I’d say poetically. Evidently still in pompous intellectual salon mode.
Which is all very well. But while we’re whimsically shaping cursive bowls and descenders like we’re Jane Austen, isn’t art supposed to be lighting the ruddy fires of revolution?
I think it does all the time. Some you see and some you don’t. And this is my basis for hope.
The New Exhibitions Museum in New York opened its 2018 Triennial with Songs For Sabotage, an expo of works asking: “how individuals and collectives around the world might effectively address the connection of images and culture to the forces that structure our society.”
Annie Godfrey-Larmon asks, in a BBC article Can art change the world?: “How can it participate in networks of power that its content willfully rejects? Often, so-called ‘political art’ simply aestheticises protest or resistance.” You have the teeshirt, go on. “Sometimes, it has the effect of moral licensing – instilling in its viewer a false sense of having accomplished something.” And REtweet… “Art and power have always been begrudging bedfellows. After all, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto from the comfort of La Maison du Cygne, a gilded restaurant in Brussels.
Of course they did. That’s where I’d do it.
As she says: “Propaganda, allegories, and calls to action are not themselves action, and art that represents change or resistance does not necessarily affect change or resistance.” And much disruptive art seems to have been pointed at the art world itself, rather self referencially. How post modern. And removed from ordinary life it seems.
But art is often what keeps ordinary life going, when everything is under strain, and it’s interesting that artists are often the ones persecuted in places where real disruption is needed. Music does this a lot, of course, with sound rebel legends like Fela Kuti in Nigeria, or the hugely revered Somali music scene, or the Ethiopian stars who dared to keep a cultural thread of sanity going under the Derg regime, or the Rai artists of Algeria. Or the sounds of hiphop growing out of the repressed misery of 70s New York, or the contentious contemporary funk of the favellas, upsetting all the asphaltos in Brazil today. Sounds of playful life thumbing a nose at dictatorship and convention.
So surely, any hopey-changey bit about art should simply list out tons of examples of life change by art, no?
But where to even start? I think you could mention many yourself and we’d be here for the rest of the decade listing them. There are I think, though, various kinds of ways art oils the wheels of our problems besides holding onto our dreams and identities when oppressed.
You could look to the example of some social projects, using collective creativity to reinvent everyone’s sense of local identity. Like Pintando Santa Catarina Palopó, an installation in the London Design Bienalle highlighting a project that’s using art heritage to reinvigorate a little Guatemalan village on lake Atitlán. A plan to paint the whole town, some 800 houses, in vibrant patterns inspired by local ancestral textiles, involving all the people who live there. In idea the designers and locals believe is: “transforming its economy and instilling hope for its future… by essentially turning it into a monumental artwork.”
Then there’s the way creative business can influence us. Fashion is as creative and unenvironmentally friendly as any industry could be at once, but brands like People Tree have been championing much more ethical ways of making and selling clothes for years, perhaps helping to inspire fashion start-ups like Aday. “As entrepreneurs designing for the future, we have to think about what kind of world we want to live in,” co-founder Nina Faulhaber tells FastCo. “At our core, we believe that it needs to be the healthiest planet possible, and a sustainable future where we can all live in sync with nature.”
All of which encourages fashionistas like you to curate a more ethical personal brand. Try to deny it.
Design is, in many ways, the applied end of art that will ultimately save us, trying to synthesise form and function around truly human living, as it does. And this is a whole episode to come, in a way – or just an aspect of every episode of Unsee to come. But graphic designers in particular have a beautiful potential to arrest thinking in a heartbeat. Stephan Bohle’s stunning coffeetable paw Cause and effect: Visualising sustainability is an application of graphic directness that is as backlit with purpose as any of the founding fathers of commercial art during the war, such as Abram Games. Showcasing a rich collection of campaigns, posters, infographics and installations that try to arrest the social possibilities and challenges interconnected around the human planet today, its editor says: “It’s high time for visual narratives to provide answers to questions concerning people today: What is going awry, and why? What will my future look like? What solutions are there – and what can I do?”
Then there is the simple place of art as therapy.
Finding themselves living on a symbolic front line of the economic conflicts currently pulling Europe in different directions, the Greek island of Lesvos, Eric and Phillippa Kempson have had to turn their pleasant artistic retreat into a kind of base camp for responding to the refugee crisis. And where they are, in a nexus of econo-social ley lines from across the world, it’s been a hell of a trial, I think. But amid their political battles and practical energies, one of the things they’ve felt compelled to keep going to combat the misery of the island’s camp, Moria, as they continue to pull people and bodies out of the sea, is art therapy classes for those caught there. As Eric told Newsday on the BBC World service this week: “It’s something, to try and help children and families cope with what they’ve been through.”
How many artists do I know who have used music and mark-making to help others deal with their disabilities, anxieties and mental health.
Perhaps, though, when you pull out from the true personal scale of art, its real effectiveness globally is viral. Things we are used to thinking of as separate can come together into something new through the natural discourse and curiosity of culture – and when more so than the exponentially unfathomable digital age we are now in? Name your meme, theme, movement of choice here, I dunno. I rather like the idea of Afro EDM. Very European dance music sensibilities finally being re-rooted into African soil. Who knew a sort of township Gary Newman was even possible, yet Ibibio Sound Machine annexed half the BBC’s playlists with it last year and it’s brilliant.
Then there are the moments of creative example. Where artists bring hope simply by making it far enough to turn up at all. Someone like Arthur Mitchell, who died this week, was the first African American to dance with the New York City Ballet and one of the first black ballet dancers in America. Or probably anywhere. As The Guardian shares, following his death, the dancer Misty Copeland wrote: “You gave me so much, through our conversations, your dancing and by simply existing as a brown body in ballet. But you were so much more than a brown body. You’re an icon and hero”. Hearing him talk from just earlier this year in his late eighties, he sounded as lively and lovely as a creative at the height of his powers no older than someone my age.
Or someone like Octavia Butler, African American female science fiction writer. At college during the Black Power movement years, she went on to articulate fantastical stories from a wholy different perspective to the mainstay of scifi writing up until then.
How much has science fiction especially been able to tackle such things? Just on screen, in the mainstream. Captain Jack Harkness, as regular Doctor Who and Torchwood character, is seen by many as a significant turning point for gay culture in American TV – after him, everyone wanted dynamic omnisexual aliens in their shows. Who wouldn’t? What did that do for gay people watching, wanting to to tell stories of the world from their perspective, still so often struggling to resolve into openness.
What will happen in a couple of weeks from writing this, when the first female Doctor steps into the franchise? How many supposed fans of the show will continue to feel it’s been “vandalised”, and how many new young minds will be engaged with wonder in just the same spirit of exploration and inspiration to think about the universe as Doctor Who has always so wonderfully created?
Or think of the other quiet bombshell of Rey, in Star Wars. “At last,” as I think a generation of young scifi girls cheered, “at last there is someone I can relate to in this wonderful space fantasy fable.”
And what about the movies. Because I think the single biggest centre-culture bombshell this year has been Black Panther. When Marvel suddenly took the world to school. Because for the first time, I dunno, ever, what we saw in that mainstream multiplex feature was not just a view of the world today from a genuinely Afro-centric perspective – with all it’s implications – but a vision of what Africa could have looked like without colonialism. An effortless mixing of sexual, technical and cultural equality. A utopian dream I haven’t been as excited by in… I can’t remember. Right there, in the dark heart of Hollywood.
Art, science and identity. Together, successfully aligned, they could empower us like we’ve never known, whatever our heritage.
One of the titans of cognitive ability, so sympathetic to the rhythms of art and social justice, was the daddy of all brilliant scientists, Einstein. And as he said: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.”
Unless he didn’t say that. Might have been Fake Internet Meme Einstein, but it’s still good.
There’s something lovely about the idea that to help a crucial part of the development of its forthcoming Starshade Space Probe NASA commissioned young artist Robert Salazar. A designer of origami “for an interdependent world”, he first took inspiration from the story of Sadako Sasaki who turned to the ancient paper art in hospital after the bombing of Hiroshima, as both therapy and symbolism for a much better balanced future for humankind. For Robert this lit the blue touch paper of a life exploring the delicate creative practice with a strong sense of social vision – “I recognize origami design as being analogous to living sustainably”, he says, with projects highlighting ecological social issues around the world. Now he’s helped a space agency design a giant folding shade to be launched into distant orbit so we can take much better photographs of planets orbiting other stars, in our search to resolve the question of life in the universe.
It’s something that I’m sure Carl Sagan would approve of heartily. It echoes back something of the spirit of the Voyager Gold Disks, perhaps one of the most creatively audacious works of art meeting science in history. By which I mean The.
But the story of the moment in this regard is Yusaku Maezawa. A Japanese billionnaire, founder of fashion brand Zozo – an obviously visionary name there – who has been revealed this week as the first Space X lunar tourist. Yep. Elon Musk is now planning a magic bus ride around the dark side. A keen collector, Maezawa famously paid $110m for an untitled piece by the late Hatian-Puerto Rican American artist Jean Michele Basquiat. I can’t seem to quite focus through the wincing to see what he’s apparently just paid to be on the first Big Falcon Rocket that will follow Apollo 8’s perspective-bending voyage away from Earth. It’s likely to be double the price tag on the art. But the real news in this story for me, is what he wants to do with the experience.
Basquiat was an artist whose energetic looking work: “focused on “suggestive dichotomies”, such as wealth versus poverty, integration versus segregation, and inner versus outer experience”. Maezawa, prepared to pay so much for just one of his canvases, apparently said: “What if Basquiat had gone into space?” For this is a billionaire with an eye for new perspectives. And an extensive international collection of art works has lead him to announce, with his own seat on the BFR a project called Dear Moon.
Yusaku Maezawa wants to take eight artists into space.
A painter, a musician, a film director, a fashion designer… “Some of Earth’s greatest takents will board a spacecraft and be inspired in a way they have never been before” his production says. An intro film that itself balances a quietly weird tension between almost moving and Black Mirror.
How could such an idea not appeal to the current king of tech storychangers, Elon Musk?
It’s all at once one of the most extravagantly Luhrmanesque acts of gauche fashionista folly – to almost Zoolander proportions – and just ruddy exciting things I’ve heard this century. Talk about wanting to invest in new ways of seeing. No pressure on the expo when home again, everyone…
I am, of course, biting my knuckle with great art mate Andy Robinson at the idea that someone has stolen a march on the centrepiece to our own work in The Shape of Things To Hum – his film, The Martian Artist. Before we’ve found any funding to even finish making it, the idea’s been stolen in the real world.
But, when it comes to the future, truth is certainly stranger than fiction. It’s no wonder our heads keep getting pulled in different directions at once when we think about it.
With all our longings for some hopeful new vision around the planet today, if environmental health really does equal mental health it’s no real surprise, if the interconnected challenges converging on us today are, indeed, all symptoms of one dominating human outlook – the practiced global habit of disconnected thinking. I often don’t know how anyone is really supposed to look up from our lives and find any emotional connection to such massive challenges, but I do know that our lives are shaped dramatically by those challenges, and we’re feeling the pain of them every day. So much of our human world makes us unwell, with such promise of really empowering us. And, I think deeply, we are in flux between these outlooks. It’s happening all around us – that’s what’s going on, in a sense.
What’s needed for us, I do think, is a regular hit of inspiration – regular stories of encouragement in our hopes. Which means one of the single greatest creative roles we will play in our own lives is editor. The role that makes or breaks the success of any piece of work, or in this case our wellness. Choosing what we listen to, see, spend time with, and how much of it, will shape our mental health enormously. We can switch off. Find plenty more quiet.
But whilst we will depend on each other for inspiration, like lighting regular sparklers or the occasional awesome spectacle, that mind and body connection stuff is really worked into success by something else. Practice. Physical habits.
“First forget inspiration,” says Octavia Butler, ruthlessly. “Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”
The future will be sparked by exciting dreams, but built with a lot more perspiration. We’re going to need those Global Goals to help us plan the engineering works of our new habits, if we really want that more hopeful future.
Maybe art’s biggest truth to us is this: You create your own world. What you articulate, helps make you; shapes your outlook. The more you speak it out, walk it through with your body and mind, the more real it is to you. And so, in many ways, to those around you. Who knows if Real Einstein or Fake Internet Meme Einstein said we need to ask if the universe is “friendly”, but you get to choose whether you are.
It’s something that seems to echo through Yoga – aligning body, mind and spirit, you create the world you want to live in. In a way, art coupling with science and knowledgeable practice, and really coexisting in our cultural mind together, might be how we help straighten out the antenna of our spirituality – the beyondness of us that keeps calling through the noise, it seems. Art has long been how we’ve tried to tune in to such mysterious inner longings calling to the outer limits.
It’s interesting that in trying to make solid sense of our internal emotional wiring, psychoanalysis has intertwingled with studies of language. Whether you’re analysing behaviours from a gloriously nerdy-voodo Neuro-Linguistic Programming point of view, for example, or imagining a biological root to linguistics, as championed by Noam Chompsky especially in the 60s, and pondering a sort of universal geneto-grammatic firmware in the human brain (a phrase I do hope linguists adopt, obviously) – however we follow the instinct to turn ideas into speech and form syntax between us, words just make things real to us. Speech becomes belief. I hear it even sometimes becomes action.
All through the Vietnam War, as Chomsky in activist mode has famously said, the American news media constantly described the US forces as “defending” not “attacking”. Simple propaganda, radiated into our ears enough, forms our very certain view of who we are and why we are doing anything. And for thousands of service personnel, coming home to that story from the one they’d lived through was a reality wrench that wrecked their lives.
Even just as mantra, speaking out what you want somehow helps you see it. I admit I personally have to externalise constantly in order to shape my ideas and, well, just my creative schedule. I could never work in an office again now, I fear. But in a general, slightly poetic sense, what you say becomes a part of what’s real in your model of the world. So stop telling yourself you’re a doofus, doofus.
In some theoretical physics clubs there is even baffling talk around the possibility that, in some timey-wimey sub-atomic way, life’s later actions might actually kind of echo back to life’s earlier actions. Somewhere between something Einstein called “spooky action at a distance” – which is exemplary science nomenclature in anyone’s book – and the famously weird possibilities of quantum entaglement, there is canteen chatter over the salad bar about sub-atomic particle retrocausality. And who knows how any real evidence for this might imply effects on the human mind. It’s deliciously bonkers and vague, but I think it will take more playful leaps of imagination to draw up better tilts at the theory of everything. And how ape conciousness might fit into it.
I have no idea. But while the physicists are trying to pull up the floorboards of the final frontier, I can’t help feeling it’s very akin to the exploration of art.
And in the practical world swirling around our studios and laboratories, I do believe this: Art will help us change the world not simply through inspiring us to suspend disbeliefs, or to crack open whole new perspectives, but by teaching us how to practice a more creatively healthy life. Breaking out of boxes, looking after the mind by engaging the body, encouraging playful wellbeing to encourage real personal flow. Real personal understanding. The daily practices of accepting and working with one’s self. Accepting one’s weaknesses; facing them and turning them, daily, to one’s advantage. Enabling one’s self to better connect with all the ideas and people and challenges and opportunities richly around them. Understanding the practical balance between telling new stories and showing them. If environmental health equals mental health, art can unlock it.
Writer Neil Gaiman’s point about us having an obligation to daydream. It’s actually more hefty than simple productivity, isn’t it. It’s about purpose. And it strikes to the heart of Unsee The Future, as far as I’m concerned, when he says:
“It is easy to pretend that no-one can change anything, that society is huge and the individual is less than nothing. But the truth is, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.”
That is always where it starts. You, and an idea. And having the courage to explore it. To live it.
Watching a moment in history described on the telly again recently, I found myself thinking that a towering figure of progress from the 20th century like Gandhi was hardly born to be a legend. And his success in ultimately prying India out of the grip of British occupation, so cracking open the demise of the often-sited greatest empire in the recorded human story, was not entirely down to his guile and vision, but also to how much he understood the spirit of his age – his context.
When he walked his 240mile Salt March from his then base near Ahmedabad across India’s western state of Gujarat to the coastal village of Dandi, somehow as just one skinny peasant-looking bloke he amassed thousands to fall into his gently strident pace. Because he was beautifully tapping into a huge truth shared across his country – it was time for political self rule. That he became the lightning rod for this movement, the historic turning point character, is – yes – significantly because he knew how to tell a great story, invoke imagery that would resonnate with potentially millions of Indians at just that point in time. And British – I doubt anyone in London missed his clear nod to the Boston Tea Party in his siezing on salt economics for leverage; how tax can topple foreign rule. He did train as an English barrister, after all. He supposedly even put a pointed drop of that salt he’d walked to Dandi to scoop off the beach into his first offical cup of tea with the Viceroy after he’d finally been released from prison and they began the dialogue that would send Britain packing.
He was a legend in the end, became the fable as much as the freedom for India, but he wasn’t drumming up a desire for a new product that no body knew they wanted. His almost prophet-like living out of story came at just the right time, articulated pertinently enought to… grab the imagination. Connected as it is to the heart.
Like many ancient prophets and more modern radicals alike, he paid a price for such a revolution in vision. His compassionate openness eventually saw him murdered publically by a man seemingly panicking at the errosion of some old certainties. And that assasin himself represented another spirit of the time in India, with none of the vision and wit of Gandhi, only flashing fear it seems, but one still not evaporated completely today, I think – fear of losing old architypes. All around the world today we are clinging to them like idols. Living a new vision, though, can cost you everything. But is living without one really living, I think some of these heroes might say soberly.
All I know is, Ghandi’s powerful vision of peaceful protest has left a legacy on the whole human planet. His philosophy of Satyagraha, combining truth with peaceful insistence, inspired some fearfully faithful resistance to British brutality, so shaming the Empire around the world. Gandhi even became Time magazine’s man of the year in 1930, while still in prison for salt abuse. It is said, he affected the civil rights movement in America with this attitude. Today, the most lasting effect may simply be a big country working out its own democratic future. Pluralism in India may have been delt a hard blow by partition at the inception of Pakistan, but it is a future that now includes gay people, no longer criminalised for being who they are in love, thanks to a longed-for landmark ruling by India’s high court recently.
As Neil Gaiman puts it: “In the war of ideas, art always wins in the end.”
The sweep of history isn’t much to do with the noble imagery of figures like Mohandes K or and the poetric grandeur of countries like India. Those Polish knock-offs of Beatles songs from behind the iron curtain – even they have become something oddly moving, as well as still a bit ridiculous, in the history of a country that’s been through a lot to find a bold creative future for itself. They are cultural markers, little tattoos of meaning, in the memory of the people who speak Polish, remaining long after the living memories have gone. Speaking truth from the dead.
A collective embracing of shadows.
Many people, of course, embrace their own shadows with ink. Literally and figuratively take the bodily scars of their stories and embelish them, tattooing those hard-won stripes into something beautiful. Even decorative. Creating a whole new way of seeing what’s shaped them.
As we dare to look forward, of course the truth is, there is no single new story of us to be created. The future will be a rich plurality of futures, of human stories winding us together. But I wonder, if we find ourselves around the campfire together, seeking a little comfort, a little distraction, a little hope… what story will you want to share?
That ancient arena in Verona was once a place of bodily bloodshed, drama, death and politics. And now… well, thanks to art, even seats of ancient global power can be politely been gentrified into stony seats of contemplation and more lofty entertainment. I wonder, what will satisfy human audiences in the millennia to come?
When it’s you down there on the red splashed floor of the arena, with everyone watching and no one watching, spotlights or lion gates rising, your very life at steak as you face fate, you may feel like you’ve not been thrown into all this with much. And you haven’t, when you boil it down to simplify your fearsome reality. All you’ve got is the whole world in your head and your life in your hands.
Your job is to make something of it.
Everyone copies stuff.
Here’s a nice quote from the near-futures artist Simon Stålenhag: “My personal belief is that borrowing, referencing and modifying other artists work is a very important part of art. Without it, I don’t think art would exist. If it’s done well or if it’s done badly should be irrelevant – I think it’s vital that it is allowed. Furthermore I don’t even think it should be necessary to declare your influences – most of the time they’re so many it would be impossible to do any creative work if you had to remember and give credit to every little influence that have crept into your work.”