Absurdism, Art, Marcel Duchamp

What is art?

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.

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Absurdism, Art, Rhetoric

Diogenes

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.

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Art, Books

Windmills of the mind

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

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Art, Film

Barry Lyndon*

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

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Art, Books

Don’t judge a book by its cover

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

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Art, Books

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?

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

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Art, Books

Surrealism sans machismo

Leonora Carrington (1917- 2011) was the last of the great surrealists. Her paintings can be found in the collections of the Prado Madrid, MOMA New York, in Buenes Aires, Washington, the Guggenheim in Venice, Tokyo and Mexico City. She significantly influenced the painters Max Ernst and Remedios Varo. In Mexico she is a household name, where before her death she was regarded as the finest living painter. Salvador Dali called her “the most important female artist”. In 2005 her painting The Juggler sold for the highest price ever paid worldwide for a living surrealist painter. She was also a wonderful writer and her comic novel The Hearing Trumpet (published by Penguin Modern Classics) is a riot of English irony. It is a narrative, written in the 1950s, that uses magic realism long before Marquez. She wrote an absurdist and fantastical play called The Invention of Mole (1957), and also collaborated with Octavio Paz. André Breton included one of her short stories in his seminal Anthology of Black Humour (one of only two women and the only English writer, save for Swift, Lewis Carroll and Arthur Cravan). Björk sings praises of Carrington’s humour and lawlessness. Between 1937 and 1940 she wrote literal and surreal fairy stories in French that were circulated in Surrealist publications. Bunuel once said of her work “it liberates us from the miserable reality of our days”. Continue reading

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Art, Books, Film

Deux Anglaises et le continent

Recently I watched for the first time the film Deux anglaises et le continent (1971) directed by François Truffaut, and then I wrote this.

Truffaut, the key figure of the French New Wave, directed in 1962 the film Jules et Jim. Set in the first years of the twentieth century it examines whether love can find more success outside the bourgeois couple. It was based on a novel by Henri Pierre Roché who had lived a three way, non jealous, open love affair of serene turbulence with the German writers Frank Hessel and Helen Grund between 1907 and the early 1920s. The film explores passion and abundance, misunderstandings and missed opportunities, couplings and decouplings, silent tenderness and hesitations: three people trapped in love but remaining individuals with no wish to hurt the others. Truffaut was the master of films that show the tragicomic consequences of restrained impulse. It was, he said, a ‘hymn to life and death’. A dynamic and vivid film interweaving farce and pathos, reflection and slapstick, anarchy and tragedy; it rolls with a subtle disruptive energy. It is a film about love and tolerance and its morality is for nuanced understanding, never condemnation. Unusually it is a period piece that opens the door onto a summer of modernity. It is my favourite film and I have written about it before: La vie obscure de Henri-Pierre Roché. Continue reading

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Art, Books, Law

Rabelaisians

The prototype of French comedic excess is François Rabelais with his gross, bawdy, scatalogical, jesting, fantastical narratives that pushed back the frontiers of decency. His two classics texts Pantegruel and Gargantua (both 1530s) reveal him to be a moralist in the French sense, inclined to paint folly than inveigh against it. Knowing that humans are not at ease with their condition or sexuality, bodily functions or death he asserted that laughter was the “property of Man”. In doing so he gave us the term Rabelaisian, defined by the Oxford dictionary as “an exuberance of imagination and language, combined with extravagance and coarseness of humour and satire”. Continue reading

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