In my last post about Diogenes the question was raised: is stealing, embalming and displaying a dead tramp art? Tilda Swinton in a glass case, a video of David Beckham asleep, sound installation, performance art, embalmed sharks, embroidered tents and unmade beds, modern artists have repeatedly challenged what it is that can be regarded as art. What counts as art? How do we judge its value? Who is in a position to tell us what is good? These are among the vexed questions of aesthetics.
Edwin McKenzie, of no fixed abode, was painted many times by the artist Robert Lenkiewicz, between the late sixties and early eighties. Because he lived as a vagrant in a circular container overlooking a rubbish tip in Plymouth Lenkiewicz renamed him Diogenes, after the Greek philosopher who lived in a barrel. Diogenes’s philosophy was “live while you can and live in clover, when you’m dead, you’m dead all over”. He was born in 1912 and claimed that he had smoked a pipe since he was twelve, was a former lightweight boxer, designed and built the Plymouth Civic Centre, had won the Derby twice and the Grand National once, had played for Arsenal, and built the Tamar Bridge. Diogenes stood sentinel at a desk at the door to the artist’s studio demanding 10p for entry claiming the title ‘secretary’. When Diogenes died in a Plymouth hospital in 1984 Lenkiewicz and several of his children surreptitiously gained entry to the hospital morgue, wrapped the corpse in a winding sheet and stole it away. He was embalmed the next day, encased in transparent resin and remained under the bed of Lenkiewicz’s son for some weeks while he was revising for his A’ levels at an adjacent desk.
Rise from your bed of languor
Rise from your bed of dismay
Your friends will not come tomorrow
As they did not come today.
The poet of many voices Stevie Smith was an English original, both child-like and un child-like. Bordering on nonsense her poems roll with a jaunty sing-song timbre and a kick in the groin at the last. Continue reading
Don Quixote goes mad in the second paragraph of his own story. This madness, diagnosed by Cervantes, flows from the belief that everything he has read in books of chivalric romance is literally true. He fails to distinguish fiction from reality. His madness is therefore not chemical, nor genetic, nor the result of abusive nurture, but stems from too much reading and, more precisely, too little ability to read what he is reading. His is a literary ailment. In a book of chivalric romance this knight-errant would be quite normal. In a realist novel he is mad; a character who falls frequent prey to his delusions. Continue reading
What is luck? The dictionary definition is “success brought about by chance rather than by ones own actions”. To the religious mind nothing can be occasioned by luck because all is within the compass of a providential God. In Christianity what others call ‘luck’ is instead called ‘grace’. The Greeks believed in the randomness and pointlessness of luck, but they ascribed it to the capricious will of the Goddess Fortuna. Fortune was experienced as capriciousness but lay ultimately in the lap of the gods. To the secular mind the possibility of chance is an affront. To surrender to the idea that life is underscored by meaningless, pointless contingency is, for some, too brutal to be contemplated. Therefore instead, for the secular mind, providence is smuggled back in and called behavioural determinism or karma or destiny or fate or some such retrospective self-deceiving comfort. Let us steel ourselves and remain with the definition of luck as nothing more than pure mundane chance. Continue reading
A recent book celebrating the artistic spirit of resistance by the Syrian people has made the news. Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline is a collection, translated into English, by over fifty artists and authors who confront violence in their country with poems, songs, satirical cartoons and political posters. It gives voice to the silent and tells an unheard story. It was described in a review by A. L. Kennedy as a “wise, courageous, imaginative and beautiful response to all that is ugly in human behaviour.” The book was a winner of the English PEN award, and its publication supported by the British Council and the Arts Council. It celebrates openness, tolerance, creativity and freedom. Continue reading
The displays at the Musée de l”Homme in Paris are organised around these three questions from Gauguin’s famous painting. The museum has reopened this week after a six year closure and a 92 million-euro renovation. One of the key exhibits in the museum is the skull of the French philosopher René Descartes. Continue reading