Sunday, 31 January 2016

Joseph Beuys and the Mystification Project

Joseph Beuys, who died 30 years ago, was unmistakable – both the man and his art. I met him only once - in 1970 - when he was performing and showing work at Richard Demarco’s Strategy: Get Arts at Edinburgh College of Art.  Lurching towards me, there was no mistaking the man and his complete shamanic costume: the hat, the boots and the fishing vest.

He said very little but his impact was huge. He was a couple of years younger than my father, who also was a veteran of WWII. Did I see a distant reflection of my father in Beuys? Or, was I looking for such a connection? Looking back it seemed more likely that I was seeking some kind of a blessing – and I got it. 

I had arrived a little too late for the Beat Generation but had read about the ‘happenings’ generated by Alan Kaprow and others in the US and I  knew about Beuys’ association with Fluxus, which had extended  the anarchy of happenings, while doing something very different.
Beuys was the first famous artist I had met. Mysterious yet open; imposing yet approachable:  a truly enigmatic act. Maybe it was the act that attracted me. 

Andy Warhol was still going the rounds, quietly spoofing the whole idea of the ‘live artist’. But who knew if Andy was the ‘real thing’ or indeed if there was any ‘thing’ there at all. Then along came Beuys. Everything about him was carefully crafted. An act (and I use the word advisedly) with real substance: magical.  

Perhaps that special brand of magic explained the attraction. My grandfather (the original 'Phil McLoughlin')  had been a music-hall conjuror and ventriloquist – the Great Lockhart.  Even as an old man, long retired, he could still captivate people.Even as a boy I knew it was just trickery but that never detracted from my appreciation of the act itself. 

Beuys was not the originator of installation and performance art, far less its roots in happenings and conceptualism. He was to become, however, by far its greatest exponent – indeed the key populariser. Alfred North Whitehead famously said that the European philosophical tradition consisted merely of a “series of footnotes to Plato”. In my view almost all contemporary art is indebted to Duchamp’s influence, but the Turner Prize short lists and their inscrutable and oftem childlike ilk – especially the theatrical and the bewildering - are mere footnotes to Beuys.

Through his personal mythology Beuys wove layers of myth and symbolism around and throughout his work. The significance of his choice of felt and fat as key materials may well be that they could muffle and suffocate. If Beuys’ work could speak for itself – rather than only through his voice - it would be impossible to hear what it might be saying.

I never really understood what Beuys was doing, or what works like ‘The Pack’ – which I first saw in Edinburgh – meant.  I very much doubt that anyone did - they needed to be told what it was all about. I suspect that everyone – critics included – were simply captivated by the mysterious doings and potential multiple meanings. Beuys cannot be held responsible for all the ‘art’ that has followed him, especially the glut of so-called conceptual works - much of it trivial and juvenile. However, he may have, almost single-handedly, shaped the ‘mystification project’ that now stands in the centre ground of contemporary art: the ‘art’ that is distinguished by its unintelligibility.

Almost 20 years after his death Beuys is still regarded as one of the most influential artists of the late 20th Century. Yet, what his work was really ‘about’ is still disputed. Gene Ray’s edited text - Joseph Beuys: Mapping the legacy - showed just how little agreement exists regarding his ‘legacy’, even among his devotees. Beuys placed mystification and bewilderment at the heart of his work. He needed his audience to struggle to comprehend what was going on so that he – and a cavalcade of art critics or historians – could explain it to them. That clever form of condescension is, perhaps, his most lasting legacy.

It is impossible to separate Beuys the shaman from his work. Without his story (or one of his many autobiographies) his work would be meaningless. Imagine some future inhabitant of Earth discovering a Beuys work in an attic space (aroll of felt, some fat and maybe a sledge or two). Without the context – the gallery, the catalogue and 'learned' reviews by eminent critics – all that would be evident would be some felt, some fat and some snow vehicles. 

If the same person was to come across a battered panel, in the same attic, by an anonymous Flemish master she might, at least, stop to wonder at the discovery. That moment of 'awe' is - to my mind - the nub of the artistic experience. To know that we have come across (or encountered) something that (for now) lies beyond our comprehension, but still captivates us, defines the real 'art object'. The cavalcade of critics and learned commentators merely underline the obvious. 

The life histories of artists did not get too much attention until Picasso and Gauguin began the cult of artistic celebrity. Van Gogh might be a better example but his fame – and subsequent influence - was wholly unintentional. He just wanted to make art: the events of his life just took over. 

Looking back down the history of art, most of the great names remain enigmatic. It does not really matter if Caravaggio was a murderer or if Leonardo was gay, their works speak for themselves. Warhol may have invented the shallow form of celebrity art culture but Beuys became famous by twinning the roles of fabulist and mystic. Like a medieval alchemist Beuys sought to imbue his work with depth and complexity. Not surprising that he was such a devotee of homeopathy. 

Beuys was infamous for tinkering with the facts of his life. Like a character from a postmodern novel Beuys blended blend kernels of truth with truckloads of fiction. His most famous fable involved his ‘rescue by Tartars’ and the crucial role played by felt and fat in his recovery from injuries sustained when his bomber plane crashed near the Crimea in 1944. This story has been widely exposed as a marvellous piece of auto mythology – wildly at odds with his less exciting recovery by German commandos and subsequent treatment in a military field hospital. Later, Beuys offered several different versions of this ‘story’, eventually claiming that his version was an ‘interpretive solution’ to his work. 

Why did Beuys’ go to such lengths to distort the facts of his wartime life? Was this, as some art historians have argued, a ‘myth of origin’ – the wellspring for Beuys’ subsequent artistic persona? Or was he, as Hans Peter Riegl’s recent biography claims, lying for much more unsavoury reasons?  We shall never know.

Most people re-invent themselves in one way or another and are usually loath to explain why – perhaps for the simple reason that they don’t really know.  With hindsight Beuys’ personal mythology may have been just a clever strategy (an anticipation of ‘Strategy Get Arts!) to make both him and his work more enigmatic. Certainly, his fable helped to re-birth him; splitting him off from the harsh facts of warfare (bombs and guns), in favour of the timeless organics of felt and fat.  

Although usually attributed to Mark Twain, the saying - ‘never let the facts get in the way of a good story’ – is undoubtedly Irish in origin. My ancestors have been manufacturing myth, to great effect, for centuries. Beuys too was fascinated by Ireland and Celtic mythology. Maybe he was an Irishman at heart. The truth may well set us free but myth, however fanciful, makes us appear more interesting.  

It has been 45 years since my encounter with Beuys and I remain more than a little enchanted with the man and his myriad myths. Like many historical characters I doubt whether the ‘truth’ – whatever it is – will ever be established. Joseph Beuys was who he said he was: period. The stories were what made him. 

If I had got to know him would I have liked him? That is a very good question. Would I have enjoyed the company of Caravaggio, Leonardo, Gauguin or Van Gogh?  Who knows? Heroes in art carry the same problems of heroes in other walks of life. As Sheldon Kopp said – “If you have a hero look again: you have diminished yourself in some way”. As a very young man I might have needed someone to look up to. With every year that passed, that need faded. I grew up.

I have lots of reservations about Beuys and his work, but I don’t care in the slightest about his life-story. I find his work interesting but the more I read about it – from historians, critics and Beuys himself – the less interesting it becomes. My approach to a work of art has always been to encounter it and engage with it, in the hope that I might discover some ‘thing’ in the work that I can take for myself. Not-knowing – a kind of purposeful naivety – is the way to make genuine discoveries. This kind of natural science is surely preferable to using a script based on someone else’s discovery.

I fear that the meaning of Beuys’ work is to be found (only) in exhibition catalogues, or critical reviews or a distillation of the countless interviews in which Beuys talked about his work. It is well nigh impossible to follow my art appreciation method lest all that is discovered is felt, more felt, fat and disparate, dusty artefacts. 

This is the mystification project writ large. All very good for catalogue, magazine and book sales, but a killer for the kind of purposefully naïve engagement with the art-object that has served us for thousands of years. Art has become part of the entertainment industry and very few people understand why they are laughing.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Leonardo's smile

Leonardo represents one of the most recognisable, yet least known, figures in history. The wisdom of all the ages of man radiates from his self-portrait in the Turin Royal Library. But is it really Leonardo? If so, what do we really know of him?

Leonardo remains the perfect icon of the celebrity hero. Long after his death, figures as diverse as Vasari, Goethe, Michelet, Pater, Valery and, most significantly, Freud, claimed to know something of the un-knowable. That of which we are uncertain we are obliged to invent. 

Such is the nature of mythology. The drive towards such inventions implies motivation. RichardTurner – in his book Inventing Leonardo – wondered what, exactly, each of these authorities gained from pretending to know someone whom they had never really known? “Was it that each writer needed something from him?” Such pretence has become central to everyday modern life where we deceive ourselves into thinking that we might actually know who famous people are and, more importantly, what are the motivations that drive their successful lives.

His sheer ineffability makes Leonardo a useful symbol for the mystery of what it means to be human. Leonardo’s story throws down a provocative challenge: something that intrigues yet, at the same time, generates fear. 

 In his notebooks Leonardo wrote: “do not reveal if liberty is precious to you”. All the evidence suggests that his resolve never wavered. So resolutely did he repel prying eyes that they fell, perforce, to elaboration, extrapolation and invention. His copious notes recorded over more than 35years – some in his noted mirror writing – were designed to reveal nothing of their creator: nothing of his personal feelings or daily schedules and certainly nothing of his relationships with others. 

The universal man displayed his penetrating brilliance only in some areas, keeping all else in the obscurity of silence. Even the image of the aging, tired man with the flowing beard of the prophet is, almost beyond doubt, not that of Leonardo. This is the ‘too-good-to-be-true’ Leonardo: the embodiment of wisdom in the shadow of extinction. This may not be the waning genius, stricken by a cerebrovascular  accident, trailing silently around the Doge’s Palace. Rather, this is the icon that all post-enlightenment minds wanted to be Leonardo.

We shall never know for certain? What we do know is that one of his biographers, Freud – the ambitious social scientist – saw fit to turn a blind eye to mis-translation and errors of historical fact, to reinforce his allegiance to an essentially intuitive diagnosis of Leonardo’s homosexuality.  Freud’s essay on Leonardo sets the scene for almost all biography and hagiography. We have a deep desire to know others and, at the same time, a need to fulfill ourselves through the explication of others. Often, however, what results is not so much an image of some ‘other’ but a distorting mirror of our selves. We invent other people, usually by attributing our undesirable characteristics  to this alien ‘other’. 

The greatest irony of the Leonardo myth is that in the Mona Lisa he created the most iconic human portrait of all time: an image that is now to be found in adverts for everything from toothpaste to hair styling. Everyone believes that they know her but no one really knows her. Even art historians dispute the name of the sitter. Others, hot on Freud’s tail, claim that if not a portrait of one of Leonardo’s male lovers, it is probably a self-portrait. In either case not a femme-fatale after all.  

What does the enigma of Mona Lisa tell us about portraiture in general? Since we have never met any of the famous people whose portraits adorn the walls of galleries the world over, we must take it on trust that these are likenesses. But how much does verisimilitude matter? Is the portrait not meant to suggest something of the person beneath the skin, behind the bone structure: something beyond a mere likeness? Does the portrait – as opposed to the snapshot – not seek to touch the soul itself?

Leonardo’s Giaconda sits head and shoulders above every other portrait chiefly because of her status as an enigma. Whoever is Mona Lisa – rich or poor, woman or man – we are drawn to the personhood. The portrait tells us little about who (s)he might be. At the same time it is almost as if she is laid completely bare. We recognise her – not from the myriad reproductions, copies and pastiches – but as if we have always known her. 

It seems unlikely that Leonardo intended this work to become a popular icon. He might have been vain about his dress and appearance but vanity was hardly one of the hallmarks of his work. Perhaps Leonardo did actually paint a self-portrait – but not one of his physical self. Instead, he may have offered a reflection of his private identity. Leonardo has safeguarded Mona Lisa’s own ‘precious liberty’ in much the way that he guarded his own. In appearing to reveal all, he reveals almost nothing. 

 If we ever were to doubt this, the enigmatic smile completes the picture. “You think you know me?” she appears to say. 

Oh, only if we could! 

Friday, 30 October 2015

The artist at the university of life

I was 14 when I got my first job - two weeks on the back of a tractor, planting potatoes. It was a fine way to spend Easter. My second job was as a labourer on the site of a football stadium. I was 15 and still at school. My classmates had gone off on ‘cultural visits’ to Paris and Rome but my parents thought that, if I wanted to go on to college, I should learn a little about the ‘real world’ first.  It took me a long time to realise how right they were. 

My father was a furnace man and I spent my last two years at school working every school holiday at his iron foundry – Easter, summer and Xmas. 12-hour days were spent mixing sand for the moulds, helping pour the castings and then wheeling the steaming sand back to my mill to start all over again the next day.  The foundry was an image lifted from Piranesi crossed with a scene from Dante’s inferno.   

This was the first of several hard and dirty jobs I did - my first term at the University of Life.

I did go on to college but did not graduate. But I did carry on at the University of Life for several more terms – as a railway porter, chicken factory worker, jute mill worker and road mender – before I took a job as a psychiatric nurse. That last experience transported me (eventually) back to academia and (even later) a long career as a university academic and psychotherapist.

I didn’t realise it at the time but my short career as a psychiatric nurse completed my graduation from the University of Life. 

Previously I had simply been grafting with my hands – getting sweaty and dirty. In my time in psychiatry I could stay clean and gain privileged entrance to the worlds both above and below the grind of everyday life. Here I was granted access to the assorted hells that passed for ‘ordinary life’ – all conveniently passed off as one form of ‘mental illness’ or another. Later, a wise old friend reminded me that the mind is just an idea – and cannot be sick, other than in a metaphorical sense. I realised then – and know very well now – that ‘mental illness’ is a metaphor for everything that we might find disagreeable in life – whether in ourselves or others.

I was reminded of all of this when I re-read Brendan Behan who said that “people who say that hard labour is a good thing have never done any”. I can’t recall the last time I met anybody who, as my father might have said, had ‘done any real work’. Most of the people I have associated with over the past 30-odd years have been dying of exhaustion because they had to meet a publishing deadline or give an extra lecture.  But, I must admit to having used much the same excuses. I need to remind myself that I never really had to 'work' – at least not in the sense that my father understood it. Instead, I did ‘occasional jobs’ and then got an opportunity to do something that interested me and ultimately fulfilled me. That kind of 'work' can never be called ‘labour’.

Of all the jobs I have done in my life, being a low-paid ‘nursing attendant’ was both the hardest – and the easiest. Hard, in the sense that I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing and easy, in that I finally realised that all I had to do was sit, watch and listen – waiting was something that came naturally to me. ‘Thirty years later I had written umpteen books about ‘just sitting and listening’ but none of them really captured the essence of the ‘thing’ itself. I can feel the memory now, but I can’t tell you – in words – what it is. If you had the time, I might be able to take you to that realisation.

None of this has much of anything to do with art. No. I am wrong - it has everything to do with art. Art is about expressing that which cannot be expressed in words. Wittgenstein famously said “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”, prompting his friend Frank Ramsay later to say - What we can't say we can't say, and we can't whistle it either."  

Wittgenstein was a philosopher who understood that language – however sophisticated - is overrated. Although not an artist, Wittgenstein had the ‘vision thing’.

We may not be able to say it – or whistle it – but we can paint it, or shape it in clay, stone or metal, or pull together a bunch of objects that might signal ‘that of which we cannot speak’?

The only thing that interest me is the ineffable – that ‘thing’ which is beyond words. Maybe that is what interests all visual artists.

The work I do as an artist can sometimes be frustrating – due to my own temper or lack of skill. Sometime it can be demanding – when someone pushes forward a deadline. But it cannot ever be called ‘labour’. If approached properly the ineffable will speak for itself through the work. All the artist has to do is have the patience to allow this to happen.

And so I am back where I started all those years ago – waiting.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Dunfermline’s own Phoenix

There is no shortage of metaphors involving fire. The vital spark that first ignites our interest, lights a fire under us and soon we are burning with desire or ambition. We, or others, fuel that ambition until we are almost literally blazing. The idea that a few moments ago was just smouldering can be fanned back into flame and, given the right support, will spread like wildfire among all those around us.

It is no accident that these metaphors are linked, so powerfully, with creativity – a legacy of our ancestors’ discovery of fire and its potential – for good and ill. 

The shadows thrown up on the cave wall from our ancestors' early fires probably sparked the idea of intentionally marking those walls - and so the mural was born.

Of course fire is something to be feared. What can warm and comfort can also consume us if allowed free rein. So, at some point, our ancestors devised what we now know as the extinguisher. Another classical element – water – provides the simplest means of cooling the heat, dousing the flame and ultimately extinguishing the fire.

 But the last thing we want is for our creative spark to be dampened far less extinguished. The great fear for all creative types is that the slowdown in generating new work will turn into a ‘creative block’ that, eventually, will signal the first stages of burnout.

All this considered, it was great to discover that an old fire station, used for generations to fight fires, had been transformed into an arts hub, dedicated to lighting and fuelling the creative sparks of a whole community of artists – and all those interested in the art they produce.

FireStation Creative opened this summer in Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland. Built in 1934, James Shearer’s ‘international design’ for the original fire station became an icon of progress in the town before lying empty for over five years. Now, the old fire station has been transformed into the thriving hub of Fire Station Creative - a charity and social enterprise set up to renovate the building and then to help fuel the creative appetites of the community as well as its artists - a Phoenix rising from the ashes of its own history.

With over 20 studios, a classroom, gallery and café, Fire Station Creative supports existing artists as well as inspiring the younger creative community.

I am proud to say that I was born and grew up in Dunfermline and used to pass the old Fire Station every day on my way to school.  When travelling abroad I am often  asked where I come from. Without hesitation I always say that I am from Dunfermline -  ‘the capital of Scotland’.  OK, I may be a few hundred years adrift but it still feels like a capital to me. The combined efforts of Ian Moir and his colleagues, along with Sarah Young, John Gibson, Billy George and many others, is restoring some of that capital feel to the Auld Grey Toon.

It is interesting that, on the day I first visited Fire Station Creative, I came across the out-of-print autobiography of my mother’s cousin, the Scots sculptor Harry Bain

Harry called his book  “The Fire Within: Life in sculpture”. 

Now that is what I call synchronicity.

May all the fires of all the Dunfermline artists never go out!