A Material World

Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? 26 x 25cm, Richard Hamilton, 1956, Tubingen.

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This very small collage ostensibly showing a muscle-bound man and a pin-up girl with sequinned breasts is usually thought of as representative of Pop Art but it also bears some influence of Dada with its photo-montage. It was exhibited in 1956, in an exhibition in London called, This is Tomorrow.

British artist, Hamilton selected images from magazines which represented different aspects of modernity – tape recorder, vacuum cleaner, television, cinema, pornography and so on. Many art commentators think that the artist was approving of consumerism but surely he was being at least slightly tongue-in-cheek, especially with the title? Be that as it may we can certainly consider it in an ironic light; what can it tell us about the values and drawbacks of consumerism? First of all, let’s take as given the many advantages of living in a consumer society compared with living in, say, 1800.

Let’s start with the collage, then, and investigate what is actually there. Firstly, are there any signs of actual human beings anywhere? I hope you’ve answered in the negative! Both simulacrums of humans are commodities – the man from a men’s health magazine and the woman from a girlie magazine. Is that a lamp shade she’s wearing? If so, more evidence of Hamilton’s humour and irony. I’ve also read that the two figures could represent a modern Adam and Eve surrounded by modern temptations!

Oops, sorry, there is a woman using a vacuum cleaner at the top of the stairs. But, wait; isn’t she a role-figure, a stereotype, a housewife, and therefore not a living flesh and blood human. Perhaps she is an android like the housewives in The Stepford Wives? You see how Hamilton’s world is slipping remorselessly into unreality? What else can we see? There is a tin of ham on a coffee table. The single item which isn’t manufactured is a plant behind the pin-up figure. Everything else comes from a factory assembly line whether it is made from wood, leather, nylon or plastic.

So much has been written about the ills of consumerism that it is difficult to know what else to say. Perhaps I should take a hint from Hamilton’s collage and collage a few random, but relevant, ideas together.

  • Recently a children’s publisher excised these words (among others) from a dictionary: acorn, swallow (as in the bird), snowdrop and substituted words such as I-Pad and emoticon

  • There are hundreds of people sleeping rough in big cities world wide every night

  • People walking on their own in the countryside today are often regarded with suspicion

  • Many people are so cut off from the natural environment that they have no idea of basic astrophysical facts such as what causes the length of the day, month or year! (See Richard Dawkin’s The Greatest Show on Earth)

  • At least17% of forests has been destroyed in the Amazon in the last 50 years. Does the meat from cattle grazed on the newly created ranches end up on our supermarket shelves?

  • 15 million tonnes of food and drink are wasted in the UK every year (Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs)

  • Between 1970 -2014 breeding birds on farmland in the UK declined by 50% (RSPB)

  • What about those indigenous people who are uprooted from their native settlements and end up in reserves as addicts or alcoholics, all because of the greed of multinationals?

  • Viruses are mutating to resist antibiotics……

Shall I go on? I haven’t even mentioned climate change!

Some of these collage items are obviously symptoms of something going radically wrong but I’d like to consider chiefly how our consciousness may have changed for the worse, mainly due to consumerism.

It is often said that consumerism has lead to a commodification of life. We are so used to paying for goods that we take the ‘transaction model’ unconsciously into areas such as personal relationships. We see everything in terms of how much satisfaction can be obtained, rather like in Mick Jagger’s song, although he actually is giving it a negative spin so his is more akin to the Buddhist view. It is as if consumerism has put the finishing touches to our view of ourselves as separate egocentric beings facing the world to see what we can get to our advantage. No wonder alienation is the defining characteristic of modernity.

It is important to realise that the problem here is not merely with the accumulation of material goods; it is also to do with psychological ‘goods’ – my status, my success, my relationships, my career. Investment in such concerns takes up an extraordinary amount of time and effort and they are perhaps more difficult to let go of than to let go of material goods. I am not suggesting that we all become hermits, only that we can shift our reasons for being alive from ‘what’s in it for me?’ to ‘what is good to do in these particular circumstances?’ And ‘am I ceasing from causing harm in my speech, thought and actions?’ The bottom line, according to Buddhism, is that egocentric craving is the cause of our mental dis-ease. The opposite of craving is ‘aversion’ – a hatred of something; wanting things to be different to how they are. If we can change something for the better, all well and good. But often, things have endless multiple causes so we are better accepting that we cannot influence those situations very much, if at all.

Buddhism’s idea of anatta can be translated as no-self. We believe there is no such thing as a self or soul which is unchanging. This conclusion is corroborated by some neurological and psychological experiments. In Bruce Hood’s very readable The Self Illusion, after he has spent over a hundred pages describing such experiments he writes:

These studies reveal that the vast body of evidence undermines the notion of a core self, but rather supports the self illusion. If we are so susceptible to group pressure, subtle priming cues, stereotyping and culturally cuing, then the notion of a true, unyielding ego self cannot be sustained.

Needless to say, most of us rebel in the face of such conclusions. We like to think we are very much an individual with strong character thank you very much!

Hood goes on to describe an extraordinary case from the tragedy of 9/11. Tania Head had been on the 78th floor of the South Tower when flight 175 slammed into the building. She was badly burned by aviation fuel but managed to crawl to the stairs and climb down. She even encountered a dying man who managed to give her his wedding ring. She was eventually rescued by a fireman who himself lost his life by returning to the burning tower. Tania’s fiancé was in the other tower and she later learned he had died. Like other survivors Tania felt afterwards she needed to do something to deal with her own emotional turmoil and that of others. In spite of being disfigured she set up a survivor’s group and championed the group’s right to visit Ground Zero. She became a figurehead and a symbol of the human spirit . . . the only problem was that she had never been in the Tower. It was all a lie!

What has this to do with consumerism? Poor Tania Head felt so alienated from society that she had to create herself like Walter Mitty. We all have our life-narratives but if the evidence in Hood’s book is anything to go by even they are pure fiction! I would suggest that our consumer society has exacerbated this need to create and promote our fictional stories, perhaps because we feel so much adrift compared to ages where religious faith provided meaning. And I’m convinced that we have lost a connection with the rest of nature by abandoning rural life and moving into cities. That was the warning of the Romantics and there are many strands to it, even now some of the consequences of urbanisation are unrecognised and need to be investigated further.

However there is a ‘positive’ side to the doctrine of anatta or no-self. If our selves are ‘self-invented’ and we can be self-aware, we should be able to allow for our conditioning and prejudices and hence be more peaceable and non-confrontational. Also, this view does not go against having distinct personalities. We are not saying that Jones doesn’t have an earthy sense of humour, that Smith isn’t quick-witted! We can still contribute to the common good through our personalities. But we no longer have to feel threatened by others or indulge in one-upmanship. And perhaps, we may even begin to put Gandhi’s statement into action: there is enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.

William Blake

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While I am waiting to see if my first book finds a publisher I’m writing a second one with the title, Agony and Ecstasy in Modern Art. I am looking at works of art from 1800 onwards and analysing them in terms of modern anxieties and relating them to how we can live more meaningful lives. Here is an extract on Urizen, one of Blake’s symbolic figures.

UPDATE – JAN 2017 The second book is in ‘cold storage’ as I am now working on a book about Blake’s Book of Job and Buddhism.

William Blake will be a significant figure throughout this book and representative of my overall thesis. The titles of his hand-made illuminated books alone signal one of my fundamental themes: The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, and Songs of Innocence and Experience. The idea of ‘contraries’ and how to reconcile them is crucial to understanding Blake’s work. This idea of contraries is very similar to the Buddhist warning; “When the opposites arise the Buddha Mind is lost.” (Eihei Dogen – 1200-1253). Admittedly this is difficult to put into practice but it is undeniable that much of our personal suffering comes about through our clinging to pleasurable experiences and mentally fighting against unpleasant experiences. Buddhism has a third position which some think is near to Kipling’s advice in his poem, If. We treat the pleasant and unpleasant in the same way, as equals. If I find an art gallery which rejects my paintings then that is the reality; it is no use me railing against the gallery or harbouring resentment. No profit, in me taking it personally.

The complexity and richness of Blake’s world make some contemporary artists and writers seem somewhat asinine and anaemic. His personal mythology requires detailed investigation; the meanings are not immediate. It would take a life-time to understand even a fraction of his unique vision. The best we can do here is to take a few of his images and texts and analyse them in terms of my overall thesis.

I’ve chosen this first image as it is so iconic and an arresting design, rich with symbolism. The figure is Urizen who is represented as a demi-urge dividing the world with his compass. Elsewhere Blake depicts Newton wielding compasses. The obvious symbolism is that the rational mind divides the world and experiences into abstractions and thereafter these symbols are taken as reality and become falsehoods. As, always with Blake there is more to it than that!

In their extraordinarily insightful commentary on Blake’s, Book of Urizen, Kay and Roger Eason use the phrase ‘spiritual travel.’

In The Book of Urizen Blake depicts the state of consciousness which opposes spiritual travel in the character and actions of Urizen. In so doing, Blake provides an extraordinary statement in apophatic terms about the state of consciousness spiritual travel requires. . . to discover how to initiate a spiritual journey, we must first recognise the adversary who prevents it. Blake’s Urizen is the adversary; through Urizen Blake exemplifies all the errors of a reasoning mind and the reality it builds, the fallacious reality which obscures and obstructs the path to infinite perception. Urizen represents a state of consciousness. . . derived from the separation of body and soul which. . . generates a world centred in corporeal needs and desires.

(Compare this to modern interpretations of the nature and action of mind which show how we construct our worlds through our senses, thoughts, past experience and desires.)

Clearly the Easons are using the term, ‘spiritual travel’ as an equivalent of my term, ‘self-inquiry’. They, and Blake, are interested in the metaphorical spiritual journey, exemplified by Joseph Campbell, spiritual teachers of different contemplative traditions, and by many others.

‘Urizen’, when spoken or pronounced sounds like, ‘your reason’ and ‘your horizon’. Blake sees a fundamental error in taking what we experience through our senses as the whole truth or reality of existence. That is the horizon of our experience unless we are aware of our prejudices, biases and recognise that the sensory world alone presents a false picture. Interestingly Buddhism calls the senses, the Six Thieves, because our attention goes out to grasp whatever the senses latch onto as being desirable! (In Buddhism thought itself is the sixth sense). If we simply live from our opinions and sense experiences, the senses in this understanding are stealing our original serenity and contentment.

Famously, when Blake was asked about his inspiration he replied, “I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would question a Window concerning Sight. I look through it & not with it.”

He also wrote, the fool sees not the same tree as a wise man.

This is easier to understand but perhaps difficult to actualise in everyday life. How many times do we have a knee-jerk reaction to beauty? “Oh, what a fantastic sunset!” or “Aren’t those flowers lovely?” We are not really looking with our minds. An artist sees everything as if for the first time. That is why a landscape painter will notice every tone of green, every shape and every texture even if she is ‘off duty’ and simply out for a countryside walk.

The devaluation of human potential could also be illustrated today in the claustrophobic world of consumerism. The sensory life, even one where relationships are elevated to the ultimate purpose of life, is limiting and hardly superior to animal existence. Again, this is similar to the Buddhist, samsara: the endless pursuit of happiness with its attendant frustrations, pain and creation of false desires (a world ‘centred on corporeal needs and desires’). Non-Buddhist readers may be wondering, at this point, how we break the ‘habit-circuit’ and live with greater awareness. In a nutshell, by meditating; but more about this as we progress.

Some readers, alternatively, may be thinking, what harm in the sensory life? The distinction between living a life based on sensual stimulus (this includes thought and feeling) and one based on what I’m going to term holistic-present-moment-awareness is crucial to my thesis. More about this as we make headway. What Buddhists and Blake agree about is that the world we think we inhabit is a false construction (also borne out by much psychological and neurological research). One simple example: you are in a room with people you’ve never met. As you talk together you take an immediate dislike to Jones. You don’t know why! However, if you practised mindfulness/self-inquiry, you would realise he reminded you of that bearded man at college who humiliated you. Alarm bells would ring and you would be alerted and make allowances for your prejudice. Multiply this example thousands of times and you may get a sense that we each live in a limiting, subjective world of phantoms, where we react unconsciously to events triggered by our individual quirks and past experiences.

Blake identifies Urizen with the law makers of religion. God knows ( forgive the pun) what he would make of ISIS! Perhaps he would say, “I told you so”! Urizen is the partial rational mind and that is why he is so convincing and dangerous. We can see him at work in government manifestos, international affairs and authoritarian parenting. Blake has him as a ‘fallen angel’ who used to live with the Eternals where contrary states co-existed in harmony.

There is a church in Newcastle upon Tyne which seems to exemplify Urizen; I wonder if he is the pastor there! It has a slogan above the door, Hate Evil! No: love evil; otherwise you will end up projecting it onto minority groups or the ‘other’ in a foreign land. See how radical Blake (and true spirituality) is? Blake ridiculed and castigated institutional religion, and who can argue against the awful facts of the many atrocities carried out in the name of God? (By loving evil, I don’t mean become a serial murderer; I mean recognise the Shadow in yourself – hatred, greed and delusion in Buddhist terminology – and do something about it; start to convert and cleanse these poisons. Even that nasty thought you have about the woman your husband spends time with is there to be acknowledged and let go of! Nurture compassion towards the anger within; like a loving mother being patient with her unruly child.)

Blake sees a marriage of heaven and earth -where opposites co-exist – as being essential to living as a fully conscious being. To quote from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to human Existence. From the contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive which obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy.

Urizen is there as an example of how not to live! He took up arms and fought ‘immorality’ as a nineteenth century Christian missionary (thou shalt not!) who hated sex, dancing and freedom of expression; in a word, the life-force. Modern day Urizens, people, who would rather reform others than themselves, can be seen in cult leaders, other religious leaders, some politicians and in psychotic murderers. However we do not need to look at these extremes to see Urizen at work all around us! And not many of us ever expected a President Urizen to be voted into office in the USA, but it has come to pass.

And Urizen, craving with hunger,

Stung with the odours of Nature,

Explor’d his dens around.

He form’d a line & plummet

To divide the Abyss beneath.

He form’d a dividing rule:

He formed scales to weigh;

He formed massy weights;

He formed a brazen quadrant;

He formed golden compasses. . .

On False Perspective

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Most writers and poets say a poem should stand on its own without reference to an image, if that is what triggered the poem. While I agree, I find this drawing so fascinating, I have no hesitation in posting it with my poem! No doubt my attempt doesn’t do justice to the drawing, but there you have it. The technical term for poems which re -interpret other works of art is, Ekphrasis.

On False Perspective

After William Hogarth

See how our concave faces confront contradiction,

we can never read what’s inside; each daily meeting

gouges a deeper groove. Lets face the facts

to avoid false perspective: from a mile away

a man lights his pipe from a candle

held by an apparition leaning from a window next to us.

Sheep grow as big as cows as they wander into the distance;

we stand still as the path beneath our feet speeds along;

a rock face descends as we cling to its cragginess;

horses stand while the bridge moves under their hooves.

*

Two-faced Phil folds into a clock tower; waits his chance to strike.

*

The moon in a dewdrop shows its full face

yet we can’t see both sides of a church

if we stand in one place. Two-faced Phil

jumps out and strikes his lover dead. The murderer’s

reckless act can only return to innocent reflection

in the moonlit depths of a puddle.

Remembrance

Just in time for Remembrance Sunday. I took some lines from the following writers to compose this flash fiction.

Remembrance & Redemption

Apologies to St John of the Cross, George Herbert, George Barker, George Macbeth, Edward Lucie-Smith, David Holbrook and Jack Clemo.

In the darkness I crept out, my house being wrapped in sleep.

I am the man who has seen affliction. My enemy has driven me away and made me walk in darkness. He has made my skin and my flesh grow old and has broken my bones.

I leaned into the driving sleet. I found them between far hills by a frozen lake on a patch of deep snow. How could I have been the only witness? Whoever lived in that house must have seen what I saw and heard. So severe the black frost that it bent the white burden of the bracken. Only one red shoe and a discarded glove showed through the snow. I had a vision of the world’s dark deeds. I could smell incinerator smoke; I saw bodies shovelled into dark pits. Children buried in a frozen lake. How long must I bear the unbearable; how long in this shadow of death? I retraced my steps but only succeeded in going round in circles.

It goes, the fever leaves me – my clumsy tongue no longer bursts my lips. I wore a black band on my arm. I thought they’d crucify me; I heard howling throughout the dark night.

Two of them came like bears out of the white forest; one held me in his arms. Dead wood with its load of stones brought to life again. He touched me lightly on the cheek. I lay quite still. I threw away my care and left my fear and trembling behind. Bright sun flooded the forest floor.

I rose up from my ancient grave. Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright!

Design for Life

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My book (not yet published) is very much along the lines of Alain de Botton’s and John Armstrong’s Art as Therapy. In their book they unashamedly posit the idea that art should be didactic. What they mean is that contemplating visual art can help us to live more meaningful lives. They believe art appreciation should not just be an aesthetic experience but an existential one where questions such as, who am I? or, what really matters in this life? can be asked.

The two authors itemise some psychological frailties they think art can help ameliorate. Among these frailties are

  1. We forget what really matters

  2. We tend to lose hope and all too easily get mired in the negative

  3. We feel isolated. (“Living lives of quiet desparation”?)

  4. We lose sight of the fact that we are each a community of selves and respond by default to situations as if our likes and dislikes were fixed

  5. We are hard to get to know and are mysterious to ourselves

  6. We reject many experiences because they don’t fit into our self-images

  7. We are taken in by the glamour of the contemporary scene.

They offer the counterparts for these frailties and educate us in how to look at art with new eyes and minds.

I deliberately left off reading their book until I’d finished writing mine; I didn’t want to plagiarise their ideas! Now that I’ve finished my book I can see how mine overlaps with theirs but has a completely different orientation. Mine is a more in-depth meditation on self-inquiry and the other big difference is mine is in the context of Renaissance art.

Reading Art as Therapy reminded me of another wonderful book by Bruno Munari, Design as Art.

It is a modest paperback of some 200pages. Like de Botton and Armstrong he delights in the well-made functional object of everyday life. Like all artists Munari has an original take on things. Here he talks about an orange as if it were a man-made object:

Each section or container consists of a plastic-like material large enough to contain the juice but easy to handle during the dismemberment of the global form. The sections are attached to one another by a very weak, though adequate, adhesive. The outer or packing container, following the growing tendency of today, is not returnable and may be thrown away.

His point is that designers can learn from the natural world, which is not an original thought but he champions the simple and the functional as opposed to the over-elaborate and expensive status symbol in so many examples. This Penguin Classic is full of his own quirky and amusing drawings; for example he has 7 pages taken up with drawings on ‘Variations on the Theme of the Human Face’! (See image at the head of this post)

What these books have in common is a belief that we can live in an environment where we don’t waste resources or exploit others, and where we can enjoy the appearance of things. Both books insist that we are not educated enough in how to distinguish the ugly from the beautiful; that even architects, for example, too often go along with fashion and expediency.

Next time you see a new housing development see if the materials and design are harmonious or is it a matter of cheap, mass produced ‘little boxes’ for our little consumer lives? Why aren’t all new domestic and public buildings fitted with solar panels? Expense? Use some of the money from cancelling Trident!

The Murder

This is a poem in memory of a girl whose life was sadly cut short. It happened near to where I live but is all too frequent a happening world-wide. (James Bowman is a counter tenor who sings Dowland (1600s) songs among others. They are very melancholic which was an acceptable and fashionable state of mind in Elizabethan times. )

Outside, the street’s festooned with police incident tape;

inside James Bowman sings “Can She Excuse My Wrongs.”

A knock at the door at midnight; routine questions

from a CID man in a suit. “Sorry for the late hour,

I’ll only keep you a minute.”A few doors away

a 22yr old girl lies unable to excuse any wrongs.

Police cars arrive (headlights dipped) and block

entry and exit to our street. They are still there

in the morning. Policemen appear shamefaced

neighbours stand at front doors unsmiling.

Each of us knows how far we’ve fallen short.

Inside,  “Flow My Tears” is on repeat.