The power to transform

Parliament of dreams


Aquatopia, the latest of Alex Farquharson’s highly original themed exhibitions at Nottingham Contemporary, explores the cultural history of humanity’s imagined relationship with the sea and, especially, the alternative world hidden from sight beneath the ocean’s skin.  The show has been justly admired by the critics and will be going on to Tate St Ives this winter. It deserves and  amply rewards repeat visits.


There is one work in particular that has wrapped its tentacles around my imagination. Atlantiques, a 15 minute video made by Mati Diop, an artist, film-maker and performer, of French and Senegalese heritage. Much of it is filmed in the light of a fire on a beach in Dakar. Young men discuss the terrors of crossing the ocean in a pirogue for a better life in Spain and the despair of being found and deported to where the journey started.

It’s impossible…

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Soup vs. Mosaic


‘Celui qui aligne, comme je l’ai fait, ses multiples appartenances, est immédiatement accusé de vouloir « dissoudre » son identité dans une soupe informe où toutes les couleurs s’effaceraient.’

Amin Maalouf, Les Identités Meurtrières (1998), 1.2

[Anyone who sets out, as I have done, his multiple belongings, is immediately accused of wanting to ‘dissolve’ his identity in a shapeless soup where all the colours are blurred.]

The division between those who accept reality’s complications and those who do not has always troubled humanity.

There is value in each worldview. Acceptance can make us complacent, tolerating wrongs that could be healed; idealism can give people hope that things can be better and drive positive change. Some of those who argued against the civil rights movement in 1960s America stood in the first camp because accepting that things were complex suited them. The inspirational voices of Martin Luther King, and others, countered that, in truth, nothing could be simpler than to fulfil the constitutional promise that all citizens have equal rights.

But there is wisdom among those who urge caution in attempts to remake the world, particularly where revolutionary zeal minimizes the costs to be paid on the way.

Amin Maalouf, who writes so profoundly of his complex personal history and the unique identity that it has given him, highlights the fear some people express about losing their own identity. That fear can lead them to spin simplifying stories to prop up an idea of themselves they believe to be under threat (although nothing is actually harder to destroy than an idea). But fundamentalists of all kinds take comfort in splitting the world into two camps: you’re either for us or against us.

The image of a human ‘soup’ in which separate identities—expressed as colours—will be lost is an old one. It underlay the racial laws of Nazi Germany, the Segregationist South and Apartheid South Africa, among others states, all of which were designed to prevent the birth of ‘mixed-race’ children. In 1969, the year after Enoch Powell’s notorious  ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, Blue Mink reached no. 3 in the British singles charts with ‘Melting Pot’, a more optimistic vision but still using the same misguided metaphor.

But the soup image is nonsense, and dangerous nonsense at that. As Maalouf says:

‘L’humanité entière n’est faite que de cas particuliers, la vie est créatrice de différences, et si il y a  « reproduction », ce n’est jamais à l’identique.’

[Humanity as a whole is made up only of individual cases, life is a creator of differences, and if there is ‘reproduction’, it is never identical.]

People are irreducibly individual, particular and unique. They cannot be blended into a homogenous—or colourless—whole. But they can and do stand together, side by side, creating something new and beautiful: a mosaic. If we want a metaphor for how to imagine diversity in the world we would do better to think of a mosaic. That would truly mean accepting reality’s complex and wonderful particularity.

Generating taste

Among the stories I heard, during my Fenland visits last month, were several concerned with artistic life in rural Norfolk before, during and after the Second World War. One person had attended a village school where the progressive vicar introduced the pupils to leading artists of the time, who happened to be friends of his. Another remembered listening to the big bands in Kings Lynn dancehalls so packed that no one could actually dance.

Billy Cotton Band 1930s-2
Billy Cotton Dance Band (1930s)

The images their tellers conjured up have stayed in my mind because they were describing experiences that were still both vivid and important to them after 60 or 70 years. Today, the artists of the 1930s and 1940s are mostly forgotten, except by those whose imaginations were fired by them in their impressionable youth. But in them—the generation academics variously term Veteran, Great or simply Silent—names like Billy Cotton and Al Bowlly have lost none of the resonance.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve also come to see that most of my artistic heroes do not have the power over younger generations that they have had over me. It’s most obvious in what is often called ‘popular culture’ but might equally well be seen as the avant-garde. In the 20th century the arts most people paid to enjoy—music, film, books and then computer games—transformed both the media of art and the messages it carried. If, like all experiments, this culture had a high failure rate (allowing for different concepts of failure) that should not diminish a culture whose innovations have been lasting and profound.

Along the way, many popular artists who were icons for one generation found themselves little more than religious kitsch to the next. But such diminution also erodes the acknowledged giants of contemporary culture. Figures such as Albert Camus or Robert Lowell, absolute reference points in my youth, are now just names, among others, on university courses (if they’re lucky). Other reputations have grown astonishingly in comparison.

The best of each generation’s artists become lasting aspects of a culture, though their meaning changes with time. My Generation Y sons have found their own ways of valuing some Baby Boomer artists, like Bob Dylan and Warren Zevon. But they hear them differently. We have a unique relationship with the artists whose time we share. We’ve seen their stories unfold alongside our own, in each successive record, book or film. Those artistic works have been the distorting mirrors in which we have found our own ideal reflections.

‘The Boy and the Distorting Mirror, Rotherham, July 1960’ - John Chillingworth (b. 1928)
‘The Boy and the Distorting Mirror, Rotherham, July 1960’ – John Chillingworth (b. 1928)

That being so, we had better be careful about how confidently we estimate the art we most believe in. It is hard to be objective about what got to us at an impressionable age: and, by extension, it may also be harder than we believe to be objective about what didn’t touch us then.