An Addendum to Ruskin: Didactic Art and Climate Warming.

global warming

To put Ruskin into context regarding the purpose of art, it has to be recognised that art has had a didactic purpose for thousands of years since the very origins of art. Prehistoric cave paintings almost certainly had a ceremonial or spiritual purpose. Some are in such dark inaccessible tunnels that they must have had a ritual meaning. [They were not ‘on show’ as in a public space.]

Religious art has always been made to communicate and promote the doctrines of the religion. On a more sinister note, totalitarian states have used art as propaganda.

The earliest Christian art is to be seen in the catacombs of Rome, dating from the third century. These are underground tombs where families buried their dead. There are over one hundred images of the ‘good shepherd’ in these catacombs; probably influenced by earlier Roman and Greek images. In the Christian tradition it is a symbol of protection in the afterlife.

Later on Christian art was made for cathedrals, churches, palaces, public spaces and private homes. And we mustn’t forget the rich tradition of Illuminated manuscripts. Not so well know is the fact that Illuminated manuscripts were also made to illustrate secular subjects, such as fables or medicinal cures; and there is even one illustrating a game of chess.

In the Mediaeval Period books were hand-made to prepare people for death. They were actually called The Art of Dying manuals! In them, the dying person had to look at pictures representing temptations and, each day, determine to overcome them in order for their souls to ascend to Heaven.

It is often said that Christian imagery in churches are ‘books for the illiterate.’ The origin of the idea, when the majority of the population was illiterate, goes back to Pope Gregory the Great (590 – 604). He wrote a letter to Bishop Serenus in which he says, ‘ What writing does for the literate, a picture does for the illiterate looking at it.’ and ‘Painted likenesses are made for the instruction of the ignorant so they may understand the stories and so learn what occurred.’

As Christianity developed elaborate altarpieces were constructed and painted for churches. They usually had side panels and predellas (a panel beneath the main picture-panel) so that the whole Christian narrative could be told by opening and closing certain panels on different occasions. Private homes would have smaller versions for private contemplation.

Buddhism, particularly Mahayana Buddhism, is rich in iconography. Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism has a large cast of Bodhisattvas, each representing a particular spiritual virtue such as compassion, wisdom or determination. Again, many Buddhists have altars in their homes with a Buddha statue as a central focus to aid meditation.

Let us return to the Ruskin quote. He does say that art is there to ‘please.’ so he isn’t saying all art should be didactic. However, he does say it should ‘exalt and refine.’ Now a quick look in my Oxford dictionary has this entry for ‘exalt.’ 1, praise or regard highly. 2. raise to a higher rank or position. 3. make noble in character; dignify. Now, one phrase which has characterised modernity is ‘the disenchantment of the world.’ [I forget who coined it] The idea is that with the ‘death of God’, and the moral vacuum left, the world has fragmented and art inevitably depicts the subsequent anxiety and alienation. All well and good; we can all respond to Munch’s Scream. However, the danger is that the status of the human being is diminished, we become cogs in an impersonal machine. To go back to that little word, ‘exalt’. One thing most of us will agree about is that we don’t dignify what it is to be human; we hardly ‘raise to a higher rank’ or ‘make noble’ our humanity. If we think of Tracy Emin’s Bed, for example, we can see that we ‘make ignoble’. Many artists glorify, or seem to celebrate our depravity; our various hatreds, greeds and delusions. Ruskin would despair if he returned to our times.

So, what am I suggesting? Is there a place in the twenty first century for a didactic art with a moral purpose? I definitely suggest that there might be. The challenge could hardly be greater. Annihilation of vast numbers of the global population through climate change. Can artists address this problem? Why not? There could even be a ‘re-enchantment of the world’ if such a movement went hand in hand with practical/political change.

Christianity managed to convey a unifying message with its millions of art works created throughout two millennia. Imagine if artists now united under a banner of ‘artists against climate catastrophe’ – how energising and positive such a project would be.

 

 

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The Visitors

Side view of lonely old woman in wheelchair in front of a glass windows corridor

This piece is based on something that happened to my mother in her old age. This is a stressful time of the year for lots of people especially those who live alone. Our society is dysfuntional in so many ways; the increase in social isolation and the way the elderly are regarded are symptoms of a deep malaise.

 

When you find yourself automatically turning on the television for the six o’clock news, when you become aware once again of the dull throb in the left side of your head, when you stretch your right hand down to rub your aching thigh, when you decide it’s time to shuffle towards the kitchen and see what’s in the fridge, when you scrape off the morning’s coagulated porridge from the saucepan and empty it down the lavatory, when you slowly eat your solitary microwaved meal, when you return to your sofa and continue to watch the television, when you find yourself drifting off to sleep; you come to with a start – then suddenly you feel there is someone standing behind your sofa.

 

The visitors are here again. Although you are not sure if they are the same men as before, you think you recognise the taller one. He has a moustache and black hair. As you get up from the sofa the men turn to face you and edge round the furniture. The smaller of the two, the one with the shaved head, crosses the room to sit in a chair opposite the sofa. You feel agitated and find you cannot focus on the intruders sufficiently. The smaller of the two is speaking and his words sound loudly in your head. You look to see where the tall man is and cannot quite make out a figure in the darkness of the hallway. You decide to speak.

I’m alright you know. You don’t need to worry; I have two sons who visit me and a nurse comes on Fridays.”

The bald man is speaking again in a low voice now. You can only catch some of the words,

Trying to. . worry. .keep the door.. . .safety.”

You have the front door key and can’t understand why the man is talking about the door.

You start to feel anxious and snap,

Get out, get out!”

You see quite clearly the tall man walking past you towards the front door. When you look around for the bald man he is not to be seen. Then you hear a voice but you are not sure who is speaking.

We’ll make sure you are ok.”

This does not make you feel secure and now that the men have left there is an empty silence.

 

You sit down on the sofa with a loud expulsion of breath and notice your right hand is shaking.

Why, why?” you say out loud, and again,

What would Albert think about me talking to strange men?”

You get up with some effort and walk slowly towards the kitchen to put on the kettle. As you fill up the kettle you wonder how the men get inside your flat. You drink the hot tea and wonder if they are from the council, and that you probably forgot that you let them in. You sit down and notice your hand has stopped shaking.

You retire to bed earlier than usual. It is half past nine. You notice you haven’t put the pile of washing in the washer. You tell yourself to do this tomorrow morning and move the pile to the kitchen.

 

It is six o’clock the following evening. You have had your meal of mackerel and mashed potatoes. You are watching the six o’clock news. The body count from Syria doesn’t register and the latest plan for improving the NHS somehow gets mixed up with statistics about prisons. You press the remote control eager to find something less confusing. You find a nature programme about badgers when you hear the doorbell. You get up and see two men in the hall. You wonder if they are from the council. You haven’t seen them before. The tall one has a moustache and black hair. . .

 

 

 

Homeless Again

homeless

It is that time of the year again when politicians will talk of the scourge of homelessness but do little to solve the problem. This is something I wrote a couple of years ago when I was in a writing group: I seem to remember I recited it as a semi-rap. A couple of centuries ago William Blake talked of how the church and state needed the poor so we could feel good dishing out ‘charity.’ An audio file of me reading this is on my FB page.

NOTE: If you see someone sleeping rough and you are concerned phone -0300 500 0914 – in the UK. They should send someone to speak to the person and arrange emergency accommodation.

 

Regeneration

Please keep our streets clean

5000 people sleep on ’em;

Lets rally round, lets turn the tide

and restore national pride!

It’s the end of austerity –

so our PM said with due temerity.

So – Please keep our streets clean

5000 people sleep on ’em; lets not be mean.

There’s no room to swing a cat

in a cardboard box but perhaps a rat.

Private development equals – cardboard

encampments along embankments.

Public space isn’t aesthetic– its tragicomic

not economic – there – that’s rhyme,

rhythm, deception, division.

Please keep our streets clean

5000 people sleep on ’em.

The recession and no-choice austerity’s

like an infection – not good for your complexion;

a national disgrace – is it too late to save face?

Home is where the heart is -what happened to common land?

House of Commons – fit for purpose? Social Housing for the commoner?

You say they’re scum: I say we need a civilised outcome –

a cool solution to this obscene disconnection,

protection-no-protection and disaffection.

There’s incomprehension- disconsolate empty buildings,

standing there while fattening speculators

go on long self-promotion A-list vacations.

Please keep our streets clean

5000 people sleep on ’em.

At number 10 talk of legislation to

dispossess squatters’ rights (desperation)

sick people dying in the shadows

there ain’t no regeneration once your dead.

Save upmarket properties from desecration

while bloated billionaires aren’t there

to see the aggression of the recession

casting shadows in Parliament Square.

We can’t afford to be doctrinaire

but each of us can say a heartfelt prayer.

There are corpses on the street but please don’t stare.

That homeless upstart has a heart – he’d like

a part in this re-gen-er-a-tion just to

live a good life free of temptation,

frustration and consternation –

four walls and roof over his head.

Please keep our streets clean

5000 people sleep on ’em.

There’s no re-gen-er-a-tion once you’re dead –

only speculation, desecration and recapitulation.

Let’s restore national pride:

for too long duplicity and iniquity

have despoiled our green and pleasant land.

Please keep our streets clean.

 

 

Extinction [No Longer]

no longer

[Part 1 – Items from a zoological survey discovered in a derelict Unesco library]

Darwin’s Frogs no longer leap in the shrinking wetlands of Chile

the Formosan Clouded Leopard no longer hunts in the mountains of Taiwan

the Sri Lankan Spiny Eel no longer swims in the rivers of Sri Lanka

the Eskimo Curlew no longer calls over the snowy grasslands of Greenland

the Santa Cruz Pupfish is extinct to be confirmed

the Western Black Rhinoceros no longer trundles across African plains

the Angel Shark no longer swims in the Black Sea latest data 2023

the Crescent Nail-Tailed Wallaby no longer lopes across the Australian Outback

the Giant Golden-Crowned Flying Fox no longer gorges on figs in the forest of Panay

Pallas’s Cormorant no longer fishes in the polluted rivers or toxic lakes of Russia

the Labrador Duck is extinct dead as a Dodo

the Javan Lapwing no longer flaps its wings in Indonesian skies

the Tahiti Sandpiper no longer plaintively pipes on the river banks of Tahiti

even our house sparrows are in the shit

[Part 2 – Gleanings from Professor Avaritia’s papers found in her desiccated garden shed]

there’s a sapient product of natural selection who

no longer harnesses wind-power or utilises solar energy

no longer holidays in the Bahamas or Thailand

no longer cultivates his own garden

no longer considers the categorical imperative

no longer gets the bullet train to work

no longer measures the rise in average temperature

no longer checks-in at the inter-city-airport Terminal

no longer rushes home to watch the World Cup

no longer develops a military capability second to none

no longer speculates as to whether she is a brain-in-a-vat

no longer does the school run before nine o’clock

no longer views the Holocaust exhibit of discarded shoes

no longer speculates whether the table still exists if there is no one to see it

no longer does the night shift on the maternity ward

no longer prepares ingenious explosive devices

no longer validates cogito ergo sum

no longer orders ‘seed potatoes’ early from a first-rate suppliers in London

no longer tackles the problem of social isolation among the elderly

no longer checks in at the local gym or does press ups before breakfast

no longer sets a moral compass in line with the Golden Rule

no longer scans next year’s seed catalogue for new variety perennials

no longer formulates any messages of reconciliation or peace

no longer takes the dog for a walk in the park

no longer asks if the ‘free-will defence’ is adequate to account for the problem of evil

no longer speculates what it is like to be a bat

no longer puts flowers on the family headstone

[Part 3 – Requiem]

no longer reproduces

no longer eats

no longer drinks

no longer sleeps

no longer laughs

no longer cries

no longer questions

no longer loves

no longer hates

no longer creates

no longer dreams

no longer breathes

Note: It is frightening but true: Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day [1]. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century.

1. Centre For Biological Diversity

Remembrance

cenotaph

My father lost two older brothers in the war; both were in their early twenties. This must have had a profound effect on him which at the time I didn’t fully appreciate. As far as I can tell he wrote this poem in his late sixties or perhaps even in his seventh decade. It was published in a Quaker booklet in 1975. (He and my mother joined the Society of Friends [Quakers] in the 1950s.)

Remembrance Days

The toy soldiers stiffly stand

the picture horses prance;

Established Persons of our Land

assume the ritual stance.

*

As dank November drizzle falls,

Cenotaph an ageing ghost,

sharply a brazen bugle calls

living and dead to a Last Post.

The stale and spectral pageant past,

strained puppets break their string;

the tired flag creeps up the mast,

and swinging London resumes her swing.

*

But a distant summer day I see,

an anxious schoolboy, when my mother

steadied a hand against a tree

and told me I had lost a brother.

So comes it every drear November

I cannot stiffen to command;

so many days when I remember

a mother’s voice, her deathly hand.

 

Fred J. Nicholson

1903-1990

Walt Disney, Big Brother & Fake News

disney

“Minnie Mouse” in Tokyo-Disneyland, Japan

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno see progress as a kind of trap in which we ensnare ourselves. Discuss these thinkers with others who also see progress as a trap.

If an alien landed on Earth today it would observe that the most dominant life form on the planet has appendages growing out of its ears and that one hand has morphed into a non-organic shiny oblong.

The majority of people who spend much of their waking hours using smart-phones do not consider that they may have been enmeshed in a technological trap all in the name of progress. On the contrary, they believe they are exercising considerable freedom and that they are engaging in quality communication, even if that communication is with a computer algorithm.

This paradoxical nature of modernity – that global, technological progress also results in a form of oppression; a kind of cultural own goal – can be witnessed in many areas of life. Recently, to take one example, Facebook has been indicted for allowing personal information to be available to third parties. Another example is the phenomenon of ‘fake news.’ We live in an information overload era when it is extremely difficult to sort the truth from half-truths and lies. Donald Trump is, of course, the expert manipulator of facts to fit his own agenda. In his world facts are no longer what can be verified by intellectual investigation; they are whatever he wants them to be- he’s just like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland. We may smile at his crassness but lots of people seem to believe what he says. The globalisation of mass media not only allows this but promotes such aberrations.

None of this is really new, however; George Orwell had his Newspeak, Ivan Illich had his Deschooling Society and Paulo Freire had his Pedagogy of the Oppressed. They, along with Horkheimer and Adorno, critiqued modernity in terms of how we all participate in our own oppression.

In 1947 Adorno and Horkheimer published Dialectic of Enlightenment which opens with an indictment of the West:

Enlightenment, understood in the widest sense as the advance of thought, has always aimed at liberating human beings from fear and installing them as masters. Yet the wholly enlightened earth radiates under the sign of triumphant disaster.”

They wonder how Kant’s ‘dare to find out’ – with its call to defeat ignorance – can also produce a world where we become cogs in a ‘megamachine’ and where genocide and exploitation are rampant.

It is foolhardy to select a single cause for cultural tendencies but it is undeniable that since the Enlightenment science and rationalism have been the engines for progress and imagination, ethics, intuition and subjectivity have been sidelined. The destructive forces of technology were devastatingly demonstrated in two world wars. Would it be possible to develop nuclear bombs, for instance, if empathy for fellow human beings and ethical considerations were paramount? The scientific project has resulted in more and more specialisation; a by-product of this tendency has been a kind of existential emptiness; a fragmentation of the psyche. Some commentators have referred to this as the ‘disenchantment of the world.’

When Adorno went to live in the USA he was appalled by the materialism and consumerism he witnessed. He called Walt Disney ‘the most dangerous man in America.’ This comment reveals more than mere cultural snobbery. He was rebelling against the postmodernist agenda of moral relativism and the commodification of everything including human beings. The proliferation of multinationals in the entertainment industry as well as in manufacturing and retail are part of that mega-structure of domination.

Adorno wrote:

Everything has a value only in so far as it can be exchanged, not in so far as it is something in itself.”

This would seem to echo Marx’s critique but Adorno wasn’t interested in class struggle as such. He foresaw how, for example, the media world would become such a force of domination; he criticised the art world in terms of the art object becoming a fetish and market forces destroying the genuine aesthetic experience of the art object.

Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) was another key figure who described media-culture as consumed, “by an effect of self referentiality.”

He goes as far as to say much of the media world no longer refers to any reality outside itself. ‘Simulations’ have replaced ‘normal’ reality, rather like in the film, The Matrix. In The Evil Demon of Images he writes:

It is the reference principle of images which must be doubted, this strategy by means of which they always appear to refer to a real world, to real objects, and to reproduce something which is logically, and chronologically, anterior to themselves. None of this is true. . . images precede the real to the extent that they invert the causal and logical order of the real and its reproduction.”

Frederic Jameson (Born 1934) goes further in that he does not hide his disgust with the superficiality of mass media/culture. As an example, he contrast the painting of Peasant Shoes by Vincent Van Gogh with Diamond Dust Shoes by Andy Warhol. While Van Gogh’s painting is embedded in a real, social context, Warhol’s, in contrast, is of shoes not derived from an actual context; they are merely decorative like a glossy advertising image. The method of screen printing is impersonal and in Jameson’s view reflects the anonymity of cosmopolitan life. What Warhol sees as a celebratory reflection of pop culture Jameson sees as a debasement of art. His critique should not be seen only in terms of art criticism; his point is much broader; that we are in danger of being swamped by flashy images and hyperreality. He thinks it important to have a historical perspective, and that our image-obsessed culture ignores historical context and is overtly ephemeral.

Like Adorno, he sees the Americanisation of the world as problematic:

For when we talk about the spreading power and influence of globalization, aren’t we really referring to the spreading economic and military might of the US? […] Looming behind the anxieties expressed here is a new version of what used to be called imperialism.”[From Globalisation and Political Strategy, New Left Review (2000)]

What we see, with these thinkers, is a common denominator: impersonal forces are at work which result in our oppression in some form or other.

It is difficult to see how we can resist all of these forces of insidious control. Perhaps the recent examples of ‘people-power’ (for example in Catalonia or the protests in the UK against Trump) show that not all people are content to remain passive. On the other hand, climate change, populist movements of exclusion worldwide, genocide, human trafficking, population displacement and fake news suggest that perhaps we have reached a critical point in a downward spiral. Perhaps things need to reach a nadir before they can rise up in a new form which pays responsible heed to a fragile Earth and our fragile lives.

References: Postmodernism, Glen Ward, Teach Yourself Books, 1997.