Views from a French Lavatory
Back in the eighteenth century, Jonathan Swift said “man is never so contemplative as when he is at stool”. In such fundamental matters, people don't change, and much of my thinking and most of my reading takes place on the lavatory. Of course the venue is important, and my favourite one is out here in the French Pyrenees. It is an outdoor affair, just a metre square, set directly over (what was sold to us as) the house’s fosse septique or septic tank; which is however, as far as I can see, merely a hole in the ground. The flush is a combination of a foot pedal which operates a little trap door at the bottom of the bowl, and a hosepipe which you direct into it. Actually, it is quite sophisticated, firstly because you can sit down since it is not a “footprint” lavatory; and secondly because you don’t have to empty a bucket. But its real advantage is that it is so beautifully French, combining basic functionality with semi-dilapidated aesthetic charm. The cosy little wooden hut (the French word is cabane, which, for an Englishman, carries homely log-cabin associations), with its flaking white paint, is set down some steps in the garden, flanked by rosemary, basil and thyme, which scent the air magnificently as you brush by them in the dew of early morning. Compare that with an aerosol! As you peep out through the cracks between the boards, the view floats across woodland to a hamlet set in pastureland on the other side of the valley, and onwards and upwards to the high mountain peaks of the Spanish border. And the only sounds (other than lavatorial ones) are cowbells, crickets and birdsong. It is the place for contemplation par excellence.
Much of my contemplation, since I have been here has, naturally enough, been about the difference between France and England; the French and the English. One has to be careful though, for France is not really one country, nor the French one people. Historically “France” was the Ile de France, a little area around Paris. The rest of France was a loose association of dukedoms which more or less, and sometimes less than more, owed allegiance to the French king. The kingdom’s boundary was extremely vague. In some ways it might be said to have spread up into England after the Duke of Normandy defeated Harold at Hastings. Certainly the English kings who followed William continued to consider they owned land in France and crossed the channel to fight for it. Down here in the Pyrenees the boundary was equally vague, crossing backwards and forwards into Spain. Whilst Aragon might now be largely a historical curiosity, Catalonia and the Basque country are certainly not. In the thirteenth century, Gaston Phoebus, Count of Foix, tried to unite the Pyrenees under him as a kind of independent kingdom, and would probably have succeeded, had he not died while hunting when he was in his sixties. His view of the Pyrenees as something apart from the rest of France continues to this day.
A few years ago, there was a petition in our local village of Oust against plans to take an electricity line across the mountains close to us into Spain. The proposed line was the result of an EU directive which decrees that countries within the Commune d’Europe have to make a certain proportion of their resources available to neighbouring states. I happened to be in the village petrol station, a kind of Aladdin’s cave, which sells everything from wine, to electric fencing, to books on local history and local dialects. It is owned by the mayor, but run by his mother (who, one suspects, also runs the mayor), a delightful, lady, diminutive in stature, but large in other directions, particularly personality, and with a very determined disposition. I asked her if she was worried about the proposed electricity line.
“Pas du tout!” – “Not at all!”, she replied, “We won’t have it here!”
“But how will you stop it?” I asked.
“The same way it was stopped in the middle of the Pyrenees.”
“How was that?”
“It’s simple, they erected the pylons and we blew them up. If the French Government want to sell electricity to Spain, they will have to take the cables round the coast under the sea. We won’t have them here!”
And indeed, they have not materialized.
Two things struck me about that conversation. The first was that Madame la mère du maire did not refer to “the government” (as we might do in England), but to “the French government” (again as we might do in England). It had no more to do with the Pyrenees than it had to do with Peterborough. The second thing that struck me was that her attitude was what we used to consider “British”. It was independent; it would stand no truck with bureaucracy. It is an attitude we British have lost as we have veered closer and closer to German submissiveness. Or rather we have passed beyond the German love of order and regulation. Some years back my wife and I hitched a lift from France into Spain with a German driver. As we approached the border control I started to put my seatbelt on. “Oh, don’t worry about that”, he said. I then reached for my passport. This time his response was, “What do you want that for? This is Europe!”
this part of Europe which is also not part of Europe because it is only
dubiously French - in the Pyrenees - how welcome are the British? Before
my wife and I bought our house out here, she asked if the locals
objected to foreign intruders (she is Welsh, so was a little worried
about incendiary consequences). The reply she received was, “So long as
you don’t come from Paris, it doesn’t matter.” Certainly we feel that we
were very quickly accepted as “locals”. Perhaps that is because this
part of France is as far removed from the Ile de France as it
was in the Middle Ages; or perhaps it is simply that we have not tried
to “improve” our lavatory.
Today, my lavatory is not congenial. The weather is foul, and wind and rain are driving through the cracks between the boards of the walls. Far from being able to peep between them to see a beautiful view of the mountains, if I do not end up with an eyeful of rainwater, all I can see is that dreadful wet greyness which has washed the colour from the landscape, and all I can watch is cloud after cloud rising from the valley bottom to add to the all-pervasive cloud above. The rosemary and thyme outside the walls fail to scent the smell of the septic tank next door, which in true French fashion was connected to the house without a soil-pipe. In consequence the fumes which rise from it are unable to penetrate and dissipate into such a heavy leaden sky, and have invaded my airy little hut instead.
Under such circumstances, France deteriorates and England improves. The grass is greener on the other side of the Channel. The French, yesterday so independent, so right-minded, now show their true Revolutionary colours in their obdurate socialism. Through one of the cracks in the wall of my abode I see two neighbours making their way down the path to their house, and realise that I always thought that the wife looked like a knitter. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité ou la Mort!
The rain continues to fall and there is yet another grève (those things we used to have in England before the Blessed Margaret, patron saint of capitalism performed her miracles). Once I was stranded in France because of a lorry drivers’ strike which prevented fuel reaching the filling stations. When it was over, a cartoon in La Dépèche showed two lorry drivers passing, giving each other the “thumbs up.” The caption read “same time next year!” So the French know what they’re like. Perhaps they just strike to get time off, for despite the enormous number of holidays (almost any Saint’s day is an excuse for one) if such a day falls within the week, they have invented the pont, the “bridge” between that and the weekend, since it is not worth the bother of going to work for just a day or two. And the pont is not a matter of personal whim; it is State practice. The rain, I suppose, brings out the Protestant work ethic in me (my miserable side). The French were never plagued with it, possibly because they moved from Catholicism to atheism in one short, swift stride.
Or perhaps the problem is that such a huge part of the population are fonctionnaires which we, with singular inappropriateness call Civil Servants (since they are never servants and rarely civil). On a French government reckoning they take up over 20% of the population - nearly twice that in Britain – but the French government, like all governments, is good at fiddling the facts, and in order to keep the number that low has strangely ignored a good proportion of its employees – such as the armed forces, SNCF (the railway network, which is state owned) and RATP, Paris’s massive transport authority. It has been estimated that if you add on those receiving social security, over half the French population is living off the State. The rain continues to fall, and I become grimmer.
Speak to any Frenchman who has tried to set up his own business and you will see how unhelpful the State can be. And when it is helpful, it’s helpfulness is bizarre. I know a man who went on a (State run!) business course. He told the civil servant running it that he found it impossible to make a living. The civil servant was very understanding and advised him to indulge in black-market activities; to work, as they put it out here, “on the black”. He then gave the example of a hotel he had inspected where he noticed that the disclosed number of clientele bore no relationship to the huge number of serviettes ordered. “ I told the hotelier” he said, “that I quite understand that if he is to make a living he has to take money on the black – but he has to be consistent; and fair. He must also pay his serviette supplier on the black.”
At that point, the sun begins to return, if only metaphorically. Despite the dreadful lack of logic, and despite the appalling consequences that such an attitude must inevitably bring in the end, the civil servant’s attitude is at least human. In England, there would be more logic, but more rigidity; certainly far less humanity. In addition to which, no English Civil Servant today would be either willing or capable of acting on his own initiative.
But it is getting chilly here, and I will go indoors.
Sitting here this morning, with the sun once more shining through the cracks, it occurs to me that you might like to know how I came into possession of this delightful abode. It is a long story, and might last several sittings.
It all began when my wife was invited to the wedding in Barcelona of an old school-friend who was going to marry a Spanish vineyard owner’s daughter. As you might imagine, the wedding was a quite remarkable affair, though my memories of it now are a little hazy – or perhaps I should say, fuzzy. I do recall that the guests at the reception were seated at tables of six, each setting being arrayed with a large range of glasses of varying sizes which reminded me in their number of ones on which a publican I knew used to give splendid renderings of the “William Tell Overture” with a teaspoon. There was a veritable platoon of waiters, I believe eight to a table (though it is possible that in view of the nature of the event, all numbers should be halved.) The wedding began at 4.30 in the afternoon and ended at 4.30 the following morning, by which time all the wedding photographs were on display and breakfast was practically ready. At the time, I was a full-time farmer, though I had just started to become a part-time sculptor (roles which have since been reversed), and my wife and I had been seated next to an old farmer from Wales. He looked down at his hands, and then cast a glance at all those around him. Finally his gaze fell on me.
“Look at those hands, boy!” he said, pointing at mine. “They’re not like the others. They’ve got musss-els! They’re like sausss-ages!” It was a compliment I was particularly pleased to receive, since not long before leaving for Spain I had been berated by another farmer’s wife, who had expressed severe doubts at a meeting as to whether I could in fact be a farmer, on the grounds that my feet were too small.
But this is a digression – the sort to which the mind is prone at such a time in the morning, and in such a place.
As the wedding was in Barcelona, we had decided to follow the event with a walking and hitch-hiking holiday in the Pyrenees. It was May, and we had hoped to take a high route from the Ordessa Canyon on the Spanish side over to the Cirque de Gavarnie in France via the Brèche de Roland, a stunning natural gap 40m wide and 100m high in the rock wall, reputed in legend to have been cut by Roland after his defeat at Roncesvalles in an attempt to break his sword. Late snows unfortunately prevented that particular crossing, but we had a wonderful time, and hitch-hiking led to some interesting encounters. At one point we took a lift with a German artist, who had transformed an old Spanish barn into living accommodation. He told us that such places were very cheap, and that houses in deserted Spanish villages were even cheaper; and he invited us to come and visit him if we happened to pass by close to where he lived.
On our way back to the airport in Barcelona, we did in fact pass close to him, and decided that we might pay him a visit. We tried to ‘phone him several times without success (we were to discover later that this was because we were dialling his post-code!) At this point, I was for abandoning the attempt, since it was late in the afternoon the day before we were due to fly, and we had some way to go from our hotel to the airport. My wife, however, felt we should try to find him, and, being a woman, she can be quite persuasive. Reluctantly I agreed, and we set out on foot in what we thought was the vague general direction. After about half an hour, we were greeted by shouts and gesticulations from a Spanish farmer. Being a farmer myself, and guessing what I must have looked like to him, I assumed we were trespassing, and took out the phrase book to try and work out an appropriate apology. Using that and sign language, it soon became apparent that he was merely concerned that we were lost. We managed to convey the fact that we were looking for a German artist, and his face (and mine) lit up as he told us he would take us there. He then went to get his van; a true farm vehicle held together with baler-twine. “Like some old Castilian poor noble” he graciously ushered my wife into the back and shut the van door. He then seated me beside him in the front, probably because I was the one with the phrase-book. Like the noble in Byron’s simile, the concession to courtesy did not disguise the Devil. As we bumped our way along a very rutted excuse for a track, he kept jerking his thumb over his shoulder towards the van compartment, uttering guffaws of laughter. Quite a while passed before he stopped outside another farmhouse, knocked on the door, and after chatting with the occupant, made it clear to me that this was in fact to be a relay. He released my wife, who was bundled into a second van much like the first, and we set off again. Eventually, now miles from our hotel and with evening turning to night, we were told that here we were at the home of the German artist. Before I could even ascertain if he was in, the farmer had unloaded my wife and disappeared on his route home. Fearing the worst, I knocked on the door, and was hugely relieved as I heard footsteps on the inside coming towards it. It opened to reveal a man’s face - which I did not recognize.
“We’re looking for the German artist?”
“I am the German artist.”
Wrong artist. But at least he spoke English. I explained our situation and he said, “Come inside and we will see if ze air can be defogged.” Which fortunately he was able to do. He was the wrong German artist, but he knew the right one, and he took us to him. It was now quite late, and despite this ultimate success, my wife and I were both concerned about the impropriety of our late intrusion and anxious about how we would get back. But there was no need to be. We were given the warmest of welcomes and a lovely impromptu meal. The barn was a delight; a beautifully timbered stone building full of character which was enhanced by its owners. We sat and ate and drank in the warmth of a Spanish May night, and listened to a nightingale – the first I had heard – singing outside the open windows. Had it not been for a business appointment the next day, our host would have driven us the considerable distance to Barcelona. As it was, he took us back to our hotel in the early hours, where, Spain being Spain, we had a last night-cap in the bar at 2a.m.
We found that we had loved the Pyrenees, both for the beauty of its scenery and because of the many friendly people we had met, and we decided to return the following year, in June, in the hope that late snows would not prevent our crossing the mountains on foot.
Yesterday, I thought that today I would continue to muse on how I arrived in this part of France; but morning contemplation is a strange thing. “The wind bloweth where it listeth,” particularly on a lavatory, and one has to follow the spirit of the day. So I will interrupt yesterday’s narrative in order to muse thus:
I was travelling between the Alps and the Pyrenees, when I was confronted by one of those large electronic motorway signs that span the carriageways and which are designed for warning motorists of accidents, bouchons (bottle-necks) and the like; though they sometimes merely tell you what the temperature is or the time of day. On this occasion, however, it read Je suis Charlie – I am Charlie. A little later, I was confronted by another, which announced Nous sommes tous Charlie (we are all Charlie). Baffled, and wondering whether the French had really become a load of right Charlies, it was not until I got home and listened to the news that I discovered what it was all about; the dreadful murders in Paris of the employees of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by Muslim extremists.
As the days and weeks past, the slogans became ubiquitous. They appeared in the corner of the television screen as a permanent feature; they were hung in shops and cafés and adorned tee-shirts. A relative who also spends much of her time in France expressed her approval of the French attitude. In England she believed such feelings against extremism - if people had been brave enough to enunciate them - would have been dumbed down if not swept under the carpet; and of course she is right. When French farmers take to the roads to express their dissatisfaction with government legislation, they bring things to a halt. When English farmers attempt the same thing their efforts are law-abiding and half-hearted. The French believe their actions can make a difference; the English know they won’t.
And yet I am not at ease with Je sui Charlie; and my lack of ease was augmented when I heard of a school-girl who posted on Face-book the statement that she was not Charlie and was in consequence visited by the police. She was correct and the police were not – she was not Charlie. It would be linguistically and logically acceptable to say that you supported Charlie, but to say that you are Charlie when you are not makes no sense. It is the difference between saying you are Christian and that you are Christ. Not that Charlie Hebdo is Christ – far from it. Satire has a very useful function, and can be socially and politically constructive; but when its aims are destructive it is worse than useless; and Charlie Hebdo’s satire has been destructive in the worst possible sense from its inception as the magazine Hara-Kiri which was banned briefly in1961 and again in 1966 after readers complained that it was bête et méchant (beastly and nasty.) In 1970 it mocked the death of De Gaulle. I do not think much of De Gaulle. He was rudely ungrateful for all the English did for him during the war; Churchill had no time for him, and when the Prime Minister was ill after a minor stroke and De Gaulle wanted to visit him on political business, Churchill initially refused to see him. On being told that this might cause some political problems, Winston eventually acceded – but only on condition that he was given time to change into his most outlandish and repulsive pair of Chinese pyjamas. Arguably, the only good thing De Gaulle did for Britain was to keep us out of the Common Market for so long. The direct result of that is that it probably helped to keep us out of the disastrous euro-zone –but that was all luck rather than benevolence. Nonetheless, the magazine’s satirical “joke” about the death of De Gaulle was inexcusable. Reflecting news-coverage of a fire in a night-club where 146 people died eight days before the President’s death in his home town of Colombey, the magazine ran the headline “Tragic Ball at Colombey, one dead.” It was an insult to De Gaulle, to his family and to the families of the 146 who were burned to death. It was thoughtless and hurtful, and the magazine was banned again.
If a name becomes unpopular, the best thing to do is change it (as the British government changed Windscale to Sellafield in order to minimise attention to the nuclear disaster there.) So Hara Kiri was resurrected under the name of Charlie Hebdo. But the magazine, like the nuclear site, is in fact the same and has continued to have constant criticism of its tasteless and insensitive sense of humour. Recently, because of considerable opposition to its insults to Islam, it responded that it is perfectly even-handed and insults Christians and Jews in like manner; which is perfectly correct, but only a justification if you think three wrongs make a right.
So why was there such an incredible association of the French people with a magazine that so many of them had so justly complained about? It would be nice and it would be simple to think that the French were “Charlies” and that the English, in spite of reticence and cowardice were not, but I believe that we have in fact seen a directly comparable example of this type of thing in England. At the end of August 1977 Princess Diana was killed. As with the Hebdo murders, it was a sad and unfortunate event, but the reaction from the public and the press was out of proportion. Suddenly the Princess was a saint. Yet a week before, travelling on a ‘plane between England and France I had read in a newspaper vehemently adverse comments about her behaviour, and the indiscretion of her love-affairs, particularly with Dodi Al-Fayed. Yet now, day after day the newspapers were full of the most obsequious veneration. Within five days, Mother Theresa died. She probably was a saint, yet she hardly made the news, let alone a headline. She certaintly didn’t fill the streets with thousands of weeping mourners who didn’t know her.
Mass hysteria is hard to understand. It is impossible to tell whether it is media led or whether the media is merely following what the French so aptly term the foule (the crowd). But it is something to beware of, for it is yet another form of extremism which can only act as fuel to that ultimate and most evil extremism which is a denial of freedom and the value of individual human existence.
Our return to the Pyrenees the following June (I will resume my narrative today) did not enable us to make the mountain crossing we had hoped for, since the snows were still later. However, we discovered a somewhat lower route which ran parallel, called “the Valley of the Flowers”, which was open. The name did not belie its beauty. It began with narrow winding paths flanked with beechwood and box, crossed pretty streams where there were indeed beautiful flowers, and opened up into wonderful mountain scenery. At the highest point we looked down on the valley from which we had ascended, and watched its course as it ran on towards France. And then we experienced two of the most extraordinary sights I think I have ever beheld. The first was a belt of cloud in the valley below, which turned into a thunderstorm that we were actually able to view from above as it progressed down the valley. It was an amazing sight. But then, suddenly, the storm changed its mind and rose, and shortly we were surrounded by dreadful ferocity, with forked lightening striking all around us. This was quite frightening, and we took shelter under a large slab of rock. Not being sure of how good a conductor aluminium is, I took off my metal-framed rucksack and threw it out into the rain. We even took off our wedding rings. This might seem a trifle alarmist, but I have since discovered a small and lonely, rusty old iron cross whilst picking bilberries in the mountains, which marks the place where an eighteen year old was struck by lightening and killed in the 1860s. After our experience, it was a surprisingly moving encounter.
Eventually the lightening eased a little, though the rain continued to lash down. We noticed that there was a wall of rock ahead of us with a gap in it, and the other side of the gap the sky appeared to be clearer. Grabbing our baggage, we decided to risk making a dash for it. Somehow that rock wall was indeed holding the storm contained, and we stepped out into dryness. More extraordinarily, we stepped out onto a road. Both the storm and the wilderness had come to an abrupt end. And then, as we started to walk down the road, which led to Gavarnie, we saw the second extraordinary sight. We were not the only ones to find the gap in the rock wall – the storm found it too, and suddenly pushed its way through, crossed the road, and fell into a deep valley on the other side. It was like watching a waterfall. However, we didn’t stand and watch too long, because after a few minutes, the cloud and rain decided that the road was another means of descent, and chased after us. We were very quickly soaked to the skin before a very kind motorist who didn’t mind getting his seats wet, gave us a lift into Gavarnie.
That holiday continued in like manner. Day after day it rained and we were driven further and further eastwards as we tried to find somewhere drier. Eventually we ended up in Ariege, where the weather improved a little, and which we thought the most beautiful part of the Pyrenees we had yet visited. High, but not as awe-inspiringly high as the centre of the Pyrennees, it was also homely, and for us, had a wonderful feel about it. One day, walking between St. Girons and Foix, we saw a house for sale on the side of the road, and out of curiosity, and recollecting what the German artist had told us, we took the name of the immobilier, the estate agent, just to see what it might be worth. On reaching Foix, we did indeed visit the estate agent, where a delightful lady called Monique asked us what sort of sum we might be prepared to part with. On being told that it was “as little as possible” and knowing that we were travelling on foot, she said that if we turned up on any afternoon, she would take us around the properties she had on offer. We turned up every afternoon for a week, and we had a guided tour of the Ariege. At the end of the week, my wife, who had been left some money by her father, put in an offer for three walls and a roof, and we returned home. At Christmas, the sale fell through, since the vendor didn’t actually own the property. When the news came through, my wife took one look at me and said accusingly, “You’re pleased, aren’t you?” To which I discreetly replied with a lie.
(Today's reflection was published in the Salisbury Review under the title of The Myth of the Artist.)
This morning, I am constipated, and therefore am likely to contemplate for some time, and with a degree of gravity suitable to the occasion.
A little while ago, I visited the Abattoir, the new museum of contemporary art in Toulouse. A magnificent building architecturally, it was spoilt only by what it contained – the pretentious vacuity of the type of mainstream art which has plagued us for nearly fifty years and still considers itself to be fresh.
At every corner there was an “installation” (in my ignorance, I once thought most art was installed). As with a similar installation in the nearby church of Les Jacobins, these consisted of mixed horrors in darkened rooms, accompanied by moans, graunching sounds, wails and cries, quite fitting for a former abattoir. They were a kind of intellectually sterilized ghost train, attracting serious looking people. Young children were not allowed near some of them. A four year old did, however, approach a piece of contemporary sculpture made of fairly hefty hunks of stainless steel. He found it quite attractive and thought it would be worth a feel. His father is a sculptor (me!) and he has learned that sculpture is tactile. An attendant rushed up – ’Touche pas, ’Touche pas! - The thing was indestructible, but of course, it was Art. Yet outside, at the entrance to the gallery, children were crawling all over a Henry Moore.
So, what is Art? Ever since Duchamp exhibited his urinal in 1917 we have been told time and again that it is whatever the artist chooses to call it. Logically, that is the equivalent of saying that a farmer who builds houses across his land still has a farm when it is a building site, because he chooses to call himself a farmer rather than a developer. Linguistically, it turns the word art into a ludicrous back-formation, derived from the word from which it is derived.
With time, the meaning of a word changes. The difference that we see today with such change, compared with the past, is that it is determined not by the organic growth of language, but the decision to call one thing by another name, because it seems desirable by certain individuals or groups to do so. So polytechnics become universities, homosexual people are gay, and artists are those who do not necessarily have any skill, but wish to be categorized as a certain “type”. Skill then becomes not merely unnecessary to the artist, but an impediment; his lack of it is an indication of his artistry. As Stephen Farthing, Master of the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford has said, “artists have become ideas people. They have more or less detached themselves from crafts and getting their hands dirty and have placed themselves in an executive, white-collar class.” He claims that “a craft based on a dream of creativity” is a cul de sac. “At the end of the twentieth century few artists think that the dream is worth the risk, and quite clearly the audience and collectors no longer require them to take it.” Socially, we might see this renunciation of skill as linked to the western world’s movement away from manufacture towards service industries, and thence (as even these are relocated in the east) towards a condition determined by and committed to the production of legal constrictions and their enforcement. Under such conditions, artists such as Tracey Emin and Damian Hirst can be seen as the natural products of a society that produces nothing.
It would nevertheless be surprising to see much contemporary art called art if it were not for the fact that “mainstream” art is determined by institutional buyers, or by individual buyers acting like institutions, with their eyes projected on monetary value and therefore on trends rather than personal taste. Taste, of course, can be dismissed as something relative, but before we do so we should reflect that the painting of the Sistine was commissioned by a man rather than an institution and that St. Peter’s was determined by individuals rather than “the Church”. Arguably, the notion of chacun à son goût resulted in such work because it was unaffected by the vagaries of group decisions and media hype which are such determining factors today.
Taking a longer view of the situation, our idea of art has also been conditioned by the lingering effect of the Romantic movement. Romanticism liberated the artist from servitude to the patron (or so it seemed). When it didn’t really work, the artist starved in his garret – not of course because he was a bad artist, but because he was misunderstood. Instead of the Renaissance man, who at his best was “not of an age but for all time,” we have the man who is so far advanced beyond his own time that his own time does not understand him. Instead of the admiration of the past (both distant and recent) which we see during the Renaissance, with an attendant desire to improve even upon that, we have the abandonment and dismissal of the past, culminating in the denial of the value of a person or what he produces simply because he is dead, as in Aragon’s compliment to Rimbaud, that “he did not allow anyone to salute the dead in his presence.”
One problem about such rebellious attitudes to the past is ahistoricity. When the Primitives at the turn of the last century could ignore or dismiss the original primitives’ own values and considerations in their art in favour of the “relevance” of that art to the modern artist, it showed the extent to which our age was becoming one fettered by its own ignorance. When, in 1977 an “event” took place in which prayer books and registers from a synagogue were torn up and thrown on the floor, that ignorance manifested itself in the excuse that the artists had not understood the significance of the books. Ignorance and Sin are traditionally and justifiably represented as twins. But that still leaves the question as to why the relatively modern kind of artistic rebelliousness arises, for it is generally not for a cause, but for its own sake. Hans Richter, writing about the origins of Dada, said, “We were all propelled by the same powerful vital impulse. It drove us to the fragmentation or destruction of all artistic forms, and to rebellion for rebellion’s sake.” This is the type of rebelliousness that is associated with adolescence. One of the worst aspects of puberty is the self-centredness which is a natural product of biological self- awareness, and that is precisely what we see in the rebelliousness of contemporary art. Egocentricity and self-consciousness are two sides of the same coin, and there is little difference between shyness and self-assertion. Both are destructive unless they are outgrown. The first tends to the destruction of individual potential; the second to destruction of the past, and it is destroyed in the name of progress. Keep going forwards, because it is inconceivable that you can go back – even if you are heading in the wrong direction.
“Every artist,” Stephen Farthing says, “must be able to ask themselves [sic] when they complete a new piece of work a set of questions. Is it any good? Is it new? Does it achieve the objectives I set myself or go beyond them? Is it just a remake of something I or someone else has made before? What will my audience, my dealer think of it? Will it extend my audience? Will it add to my reputation? Will it make me famous?” The need to ask these questions appears to go beyond the natural concerns of an artist-patron relationship to an unnecessary concern about what other people think, and as such is akin to adolescent self-consciousness. The desire for novelty, reputation and fame is simply pubescent self-assertiveness. The implication of much of what Farthing says is that for the artist today the artist is more important than his art. This is a natural corollary of the philosophy which was engendered in France in the 1960s, which devalued creativity, and upon which conceptual art and post-modernism were founded. “Deliverance from the confines of the studio frees the artist to a degree from the snares of craft and the bondage of creativity,” wrote Robert Smithson in 1968. “Ideas alone can be works of art,” wrote Sol LeWitt in 1969.
The creation of Adam has been represented countless times over the centuries, important to artists as a symbol of the creative act. Today its symbolism shows just how different the contemporary artist is from his predecessors – not different in degree but different in kind. The story represents a God who has an idea, a concept, but until the point where he actually makes a man in the physical world, that man is not a reality. Once man is actually created, he takes on an existence outside his creator. Only then can God communicate with him, because it is only then that he has a life (if disobedient) of his own. The story is a paradigm for every act of creation, whether of a child or a work of art. The act of creation liberates the created from the creator. A work of art which remains an idea is unborn. Conceptual art is therefore a contradiction in terms – unless you have made the decision to call one thing by another name.
This distinction between the created work and the author was described by E. M. Forster, when he said that the artist will look back on his work “and wonder afterwards how he did it.” Wonder at the creative process is lost on an artist preoccupied by himself. Because of that preoccupation he can also dismiss the art of the past because it is not his. But as Forster said about artistic appreciation, “we must come back to love. That alone raises us to the cooperation with the artist which is the sole reason for … aesthetic pilgrimage.” Or as Irving Stone put it in his novel about Michelangelo, “every act of creation is an act of love.” To dissociate the act of art making from the wonder and love of creativity is to produce a sterile art devoid of value. That is what has happened with works like Gilbert and George’s Spit on Shit or Serrano’s Piss Christ . Their objective is to shock and disgust, to desecrate and devalue. The choice of words for the titles is enough to show that. Coleridge could have done the same thing when he described the beauty of candle light reflected in a chamber-pot of urine, but his description is their antithesis; a celebration of beauty in all things, of earth as the footstool of God, and consequently of man as imago Dei. Perhaps the problem at the root of post-modernism is that it is dehumanising. With destructive self-assertiveness, it paradoxically applies its nihilism even to the artist himself, following the Structuralist philosophy on which it is based; that “French Theory” of deconstruction, semiotics and lengthy neologisms which replaced the author by “the text”. Initially, Foucault’s comment “What difference does it make who is speaking?” does not seem very different from Forster’s “The demand that literature should express personality is far too insistent these days.” But when Forster continues, “and I look back with longing to the earlier modes of criticism where a poem was not an expression but a discovery, and was sometimes supposed to have been shown to the poet by God,” we see the difference. For Foucault, the author “is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction.” The insignificance of the author relative to his inspiration is replaced simply by the insignificance of the author. The concept of inspiration, like the concept of creation has been destroyed. So what are we to make of the self-publicising yet self-denying, uncreative, uninspired people who go around calling themselves artists? Instead of making something, they intellectualise endlessly, generally falling into the Swiftian trap of the Huynhnnms, that super race of purely rational beings, devoid of sympathy and therefore of morality, who impressed Gulliver rather more than Swift. Whether these post-modern artists are as intelligent as Swift’s horses, however, is open to debate.
Words, like people, have a history, and we change or destroy them at our peril, as in doing so we destroy our past and our heritage. I am a sculptor. I have no wish to be called an artist. I shape things, like the Anglo Saxon poet, the scop, and my humanity is enlarged if I can do so as if in the image of ælde Scyppend, the Shaper of men, the Creator. Artist is a more recent word, the meaning of which has become increasingly corrupted. Originally, it meant one skilled in the arts and not just the fine arts to which it later became restricted. During the nineteenth century it attained the status of myth with the concept of the poet seer, and the mythology has continued to develop whilst the word itself has lost the connotation of skill, and along with the word art has become so vague as to be meaningless (“The one thing to say about art is that it is one thing. Art is art-as-art and everything else is everything else. Art as art is nothing but art. Art is not what is not art,” said Ad Reinhardt). It is unsurprising that the contemporary “artist” no longer has to make anything. He has become his own raison d’être, and his own myth.
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