Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Danger's in the Artist's Life

A long piece this week, as more encouragement to down tools and make it to the westcountry for our telling of Parzival just a few weeks away.

I promised some time back i would put up some books i've been enjoying over the winter - so here they roll:

Frances Yates Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition
David W. Anthony The Horse, The Wheel and Language: How Bronze Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World
John Moriarty Turtle was Gone a Long Time
Ann Skea Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest
Joseph Sobol The Storyteller's Journey: An American Revival
Ed. Adam Fox and Daniel Woolf The Spoken Word: Oral Culture in Britain, 1500-1850
Alessandro Falassi Folklore by the Fireside: Text and Context of the Tuscan Veglia

PARZIVAL WEEKEND: APRIL 6th to 8th - do not miss!!! Please cut-and-paste link below for more details.


The below is from my Parzival commentary - as will be obvious, the jumping off point is from Parzival's wandering in the wasteland.

# to all painters, sculptors, genius fiddle players, loopy and brilliant actors reviving ritual theatre, and more, please note that the below is not having a pop at your good selves, more a kind of deadening atmosphere that has grown up around what is considered modern art. As i say below, there are many exceptions.

When It All Gets Flat

The grieving chest will find honey

For five years, Parzival is on auto-pilot. One battle after another, accolade for his skills falling daily on his shoulders. But always the lonely bed, the restlessness, the continual moving on. His armour is pristine, no outwards decline, but something definite happened with Cundrie, and he wanders in some vast, interior forest, sun always hid by the fog.

He is in a terribly difficult situation. How to find something by sheer will that you found by accident before? Everything outside Camelot, those great forests, is like some obscure dream, hard to steer or control (remember the earlier image of Parzival's horse leading the way?).

He’s no longer quite the boy, seeing everything with new eyes. He’s witnessed great twists in his personal fortune – feted, shamed, married, but now wandering alone through life. He is looking for something just out of view.

It seems in our own lives we can end up right where here is. We, like Parzival, may have all our armour in place, do all the right things in public, but secretly sleep in a bed of crow feathers. ‘We have lost the Huntsman guile’, says Robin Williamson. We lay the offerings, sing the old songs, but no partridge gives itself up for the pot. Things that thrilled us once, do so no longer. Everything is flat.

The wasteland can be seen as a world that has lost its way, when a culture has declined into a mass-civilisation. Those implications are vast, so vast, that I want to focus in on a smaller case of loss, one that I feel is to do with art.

As I write this, if I glance up I can see my old postcard of Bruegal’s “Hunters in the Snow” (1565), stuck to the wall and sent to me by my sister Anna. It’s very famous – three hunters with a pack of dogs returning from the forest to the village. In the distance we see the river frozen with ice, a bird framed forever against a sky threatening snow. Despite the warming red flash of a hunter's cloak, the mood seems subdued, muted. The only forest gain we can see is a scrawny fox hung on a staff, slung on a shoulder. Villagers chuck a table onto a roaring fire for warmth.

I never get bored looking at this painting. It’s a doorway; a generous mix of straight up expertise interlaced by very human concerns and wider elemental associations. I went to art school for four years in the hope that someone could help me unlock the sheer apprenticeship to paint required to handle the understory of the work – feel, perspective, handling of colour. I got nowhere near it, and neither did anyone else. If you added up the amount of focused personal tuition I got over that period, it would have come to about three weeks.

Now that degree had people with many different ambitions on it, and I have no desire to insist that everyone go through some kind of renaissance apprenticeship to their discipline. It seemed that, when all was done and dusted, the degrees handed out and the studios cleared for the next wave of students, that we were facing a wasteland. 90 per cent dropped out of making work entirely within twelve months. We had no framework and little tools. We were drip fed ambition certainly, and Warhol’s devastating, ironic, reductionist approach to making ‘statements’.

The show that established Warhol and those Campbell soup cans in the early 60s also featured the young Cy Twombly, a young painter beautifully adrift in a mythological landscape, but using a very contemporary language to express them – scrapes, blurs of cadmium red, loose sketches and half written sums, snakelike twists of prussian blue, clusters of poetry hurled at raw canvas. Next to the flatline irony of Warhol, Twombly was laughed out of the show, received terrible reviews and staggered off to Italy to recover, which is where he stayed for a large part of his working life. Recently, I watched a video of Warhol towards the end of his life, filmed in his own home. Whose paintings, twenty years on, did he have on his walls? Twombly’s. Epic, sprawling Twombly’s. Seems the dark father of pop art knew how to nourish his psyche after all, on the quiet.

I want to get back to Bruegal’s painting and the notion of returning from the forest. For these many years of peering at it, those returning hunters for me were sometimes Georgia O’Keefe, Goya, Turner or Francis Bacon. They had been somewhere difficult, dangerous; hidden to many villagers - the forest. It was a high stakes game, and you needed your hunter's bag of skills with you. That’s how I viewed being an artist.

History tells us that a pre-requisite of creating great art or culture is forest knowledge – to tear down the navigated walls of tradition into the fresh winds and creative dangers of the wild. However, with insufficient preparation we are lost to navigate the combination of artistic discipline and creative impulses that lead to Robert Graves, Titian Vecellio, Emily Dickinson and William Blake. To wander into the tangles of the visionary requires a shield, a bow, a courting flute. Why dark? Because it is connected to what we now call the unconscious, and the many dragonish energies that abide there.

There seems to be a growing lack of preparation for these journeys. By this I mean that word apprenticeship, boundaries, elders. There is almost a grim expectancy that the artist makes huge leaps without adequate grounding. Without some grounding, the tendency in the youth is to rush into waters it can’t swim in, or use drugs to mimic the experience of expansion whilst never really leaving the court at all. It’s possible to think of Charlie Parker, Paul Kossoff, Jean-Michel Basquiet, Janis Joplin, Bon Scott. Rock’n’roll eats its young. We are poised to see who will drown next. We love to feel that edge. The altar of the dead artist is inches from the altar of our dead warriors. The image of the unequipped warrior and artist entering their own private forests is a huge cultural betrayal. It points to some disturbing energy that stands behind both, polishing the red shrine.

To succeed, the artist should hold some knowledge of history, practical application of a craft, a sense of continuum in their work, an inherited legacy- not an isolation. More art schools, grants and poetry programmes are not the answer, if the fundamental relationship between inherited knowledge and occasional sparks of originality is what is being lost. James Hillman talks about this as the relationship between the senex and the puer - Greek for the old and young man. The forest eats the puer dead. But without the puer, the senex grows brittle and his knowledge never becomes wisdom - it has to be handed on for that transformation. Modern art is a puer writ large.

The senex brings hawk-like discipline and the support of history to the puer’s sparkle and sense of uniqueness. These two energies live within us: forget the old man at your peril - we float too near the sun without his ancient grip on our ankle.

Modern art generally ignores this dynamic, hence the corpses. It produces work that often lacks weight and dynamism. Other words, like irony, sarcasm, and emotional distance, replace any aspiration towards the complexity of beauty. We forget how hard it is to create beauty and how easy to create chaos. What could we possibly do with Blake in the 21st Century?

My mother groaned, my father wept,
Into the dangerous world I leapt,
Helpless, naked, piping loud
Like a fiend hid in a cloud.

The forest can be a place of lunatics, robbery, nightmare, and quick, final descents. It is not entirely sober. Not entirely friendly either. Without some agile quality of mind the hunter is simply unequipped to live in relationship to the forest. This relationship requires some diligent, repetitive consciousness. We think of Philip Guston and Franze Kline serving decade apprenticeships as draftsman before their extraordinary leaps into abstract painting. The shadow-king doesn’t want this, he wants the brilliance of youth as a frozen moment. It’s a very old rhythm, and many starving energies are leading it on.

At a recent lecture on landscape painting I attended, it was revealed that all of the artists on show painted either from photographs or from the internet. Not one of them was in a localised, primary, difficult relationship with the landscape. Brilliant exceptions to all this (of which there are always many) is the work of Cecily Brown, Olli and Susi, Tim Stoner, Lucy Gunning and Ellen Gallagher.

Expectations around what art does have changed dramatically, and if you hold old associations then you will probably feel very discombobulated. Don’t come looking for an emotional charge, a lift, a high, it’s unlikely you will find it. It could be this sense of crossed wires that leads to that rather empty feeling as we death-stagger around another private view, gallery or degree studio. We’re not even in the realm of existential angst – that’s so twentieth century. We have to give up that particular type of investment, the one that connects art to deep feeling. That train has long since left the station. Where it is useful is as a kind of snap shot of now, its disassociated undertow and occasional flashes of beauty. But beauty and emotion are not the same thing.

So that seems to me one kind of wasteland, one kind of impoverishment. It may be worth taking time and seeking out a Bruegal or Twombly painting and really studying it. Although they reproduce well, a photograph rarely illustrates its true psychic resonance. In the room, Twombly’s paintings can seem thuggish, violent – what seems like a coy blending of oils in a reproduction, is, when you are standing in front of it, a hectic blur of movement, inches thick in paint from the canvas. They are fully involved; heated exchanges, the paint refuting the ‘idea’ of the painter's composition and hurling back some other possibility. It is a shouting match with blustery energies, and requires the eye of an old sea captain to know the signs of its completion.

Recently I got into the private collection of Bruegal’s at Windsor Castle, and again, there was a restlessness I had not anticipated. Rougher to the eye than I had ever expected, they seemed bullish and dark in the wider range of the royal collection. There was a struggle in the work.

So in all of this is the good news that vast ranges of art - both intellectually exacting and emotionally stirring - wait in art galleries and museums, for the blessing gaze of the viewer. Like the elder in the old people's home, the eye of the viewer animates something in the work that is ready to step forward, to say something specific to this particular generation. In this spacious perspective we are no longer making work in the linear world of our contemporaries but part of a much wider, constant unfolding, as art reanimates itself psyche after psyche. Bruegal’s painting is saying strange things to unusual people all over the world right now. We are in wasteland thinking when we forget this, when we think that this is all from some distant past. The mood of the wasteland is of a kind of disassociated disappointment, but moods can be broken by feeling and thinking, and this is part of what the treasury of art offers.

Years ago, I worked for a very famous British artist, so famous he employed a large army of people to help him bring his ambitions to life – we often made many versions of the same idea. His ideas were smart, tough and simple in a way that spoke to millions. The part I never understood was this – he had the idea, we made the idea, the finished piece looked exactly like he pictured it. But nowhere in this production line experience did the work bite back, take him another route, force him into the uncertain ground that Bruegal and Twombly faced daily. It’s in that moment that the art lives, what we were doing was a kind of architecture. As long as he persisted in this, the critics loved it. When he finally did some expeditions into the forest himself, made one off paintings showing influences of art history – and an occasionally uncertain hand - the ghost of the critics from that old Warhol show surrounded the work and laughed him out the door. He had been a true son of Warhol, but his seemingly rash move to the oil paint brought those kings of the wasteland – modern art critics - out in droves, knives raised. He had tried to enter the old apprenticeship model but hadn’t either the practical chops or nuance of the painter's eye, and the immediacy of the works' exposure robbed it of many stages of private development.

The betrayal of apprenticeship is not just practical but soulful, it robs the student of the eye of the ‘old sea captain’, something developed by many years riding the salty waves of wild forces.

Copyright Martin Shaw 2012


Forthvalley scribe said...

An excellent post. It works for poetry too

Andreas said...

yes excellent. I find myself unable to work every time there is a new post - I have to read it all at once.

For a flight of fancy, I have heard of the "whale-road" and some scholars pointing at times to the sea being a metaphor for Grendel. What similar word play or kenning would evoke the forest? If you were to call out a kenning for the forest, what would it be? Indeed I often wonder if new-word-storytellers make use of secret kennings?

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School of Myth said...

Thank you! i'm glad some of those thoughts cross-polinate across disciplines. I'll give some thought to your notion of new word-plays about the forest Andreas. More soon,