An antidote for visual satiety


In a world saturated with pictures, the work of artists is very vulnerable and very important –vulnerable because it is so easy to lose one’s way in this hall of mirrors, lured by money, fame and flattery into creating work that serves only the purposes of power. And important for the same reason – because, if they are true to their own way of looking, their craft and their sensibility, they are the antidote to the visual pap with which power shapes our ideas of reality. Artists with integrity are like whole food in a world of burger bars and junk.

Richard Johnson is a Scottish-Canadian artist who has been sent, first by the Detroit Free Press and latterly by the Washington Post, to Iraq and Afghanistan. There is nothing new about war artists: Britain first used them in 1916, and they have been assigned to most subsequent conflicts. But Johnson works as a ‘visual journalist’, much as a press photographer would: documenting what he sees and the people he meets in immediate sketches whose purpose is to help newspaper (and website) readers understand better what is happening now, today. His latest assignment, following the drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan, brings vividly home, and from many perspectives, the humanity of the experience. The results can be seen in a blog here.

Speaking on the BBC World Service’s Boston Calling, Johnson explained his idea of drawing’s value in journalism:

‘It’s great for telling stories where you need people to care about people who are far, far away – so, your refugee camps in Syria, internally displaced camps inside Iraq now, Ebola in Africa, these are stories I think that [drawing] could be used incredibly effectively to make people emotionally connect with what are basically just other human beings. They may not be nearby but they’re just as valid and just as valuable as anything else in your life.’

In much less dramatic contexts this is one of the founding ideas behind Regular Marvels. Art has not just ways of seeing, but ways of knowing, that it alone commands. It does not simply depict or represent: it creates knowledge that cannot otherwise exist. The contributions of the artists I have worked with on these books – filmmaker, Ben Wigley; painter, Mik Godley; sculptor Bill Ming; and illustrator, Rosie Redzia – have been integral to each one. They do not illustrate my words, any more than those words describe their visual work. They create new kinds and new levels of knowledge.

One reason for that is because they are the result of time taken and therefore they take time to understand: this is slow imagery in a world that plays fast and loose with pictures. Artists like Richard Johnson can help us go beyond being informed to empathising and even understanding what is otherwise so far from our own lives. When the imagery of war can no longer be distinguished from the imagery of video games, the ball point and the pencil can still tell fact from fiction.


Rosie Redzia

Words last time: pictures today. Rosie Redzia, the wonderful artist with whom I’m working on ‘A Wider Horizon’, has been drawing rural theatre performances, among other things. Here are some images from Stuff of Dreams theatre company’s current production, The Bricks of Burston, before and during a performance at Swaffham Assembly Hall. They catch the unique intimacy of small scale touring in a way that no photographs I’ve seen have done. This is work that really is done for the love of it, on both sides of the invisible line dividing performer and audience. No one goes to a not specially comfortable village hall on a windy Wednesday night to make or watch theatre for glory.

Over the rest of the summer Rosie and I will be seeing shows and meeting the people involved as we draw together the strands of our book about rural touring. We might see you there, but if you live in Norfolk or Suffolk, support rural touring and would like to be involved, do get in touch – either through this site or via Karen Kidman at Creative Arts East.  In the meantime, more words and pictures will be shared here.

Speaking in tongues

Albert-Letchford-Aladdin-GenieWords captivated me first: then stories. As a small child, I didn’t always follow the story or care if I didn’t understand a word. The incantatory sounds were enough to feed my imagination: Rumplestilskin, Rastapopoulos, Gorgonzola, Ali Baba, Craven A, Kia-Ora, Greengage, Long John Silver, Julius Caesar – endless spells composed of syllables.

Later, words brought me to music, through the lyrics of rock and folk songs. By then, I was committed to my adolescent quest for understanding. The (adult) world was a text to be decoded. Cohen’s lyrics meant something. They were a roman à clef or a medieval allegory where everything stood for something else. It took me a long time to grow out of that misconception.

Art exists to express things that cannot otherwise be expressed. At its strongest, that expression can create new realities. It speaks things into existence. One way of reading the story of Aladdin is to see him as an artist, polishing everyday materials to produce a powerful genie. (But if that were the only way of hearing that story, it would have died long ago.)

George Szirtes has written a fine short piece about why poetry is not always understandable in response to a challenge from Jeremy Paxman, chair of this year’s Forward Prize panel. He points out that:

Words are not stable entities you can slam down like dominoes. They carry a baggage of music, context, allusion, attachment and history. It is the baggage that produces the poetry.

Art exists to express things that cannot otherwise be expressed. It’s not that difficult to follow, expect to those who still believe that human beings are rational, that the world is controllable and that existence is understandable. Now there are some fine myths.

Authorship and authenticity

Solomon Northup In 1841, a young father and musician was kidnapped in Washington DC, shipped in chains to New Orleans and sold into a slavery that he endured until 1853 when, through the intervention of friends and sympathisers, he was rescued and reunited with his family. From that day to this, his story has been told, retold and told again.

Solomon Northup had been trying to tell his story from the moment he found himself chained in a dark slave pen. Brutal violence taught him to be silent, but couldn’t prevent him memorising his experiences in the hope, never abandoned, that he would one day regain the right to speak. When he did finally come before justice, in Washington DC, his demand that his kidnapper be arrested was rejected because a black man could not testify against a white.

Northup was reunited with his family in New York State on 21 January 1853.  He spent much of the next few months telling his story to David Wilson, an attorney, who wrote the first person narrative published in July 1853 to immediate success. Wilson presents himself as an editor, writing in the preface that:

‘Unbiased, as he conceives, by any prepossessions or prejudices, the only object of the editor has been to give a faithful history of Solomon Northup’s life, as he received it from his lips.’

Wilson goes on to explain that his words have been read, checked and, where necessary, corrected by Solomon Northup before publication. The story of their collaboration is discussed here by David Fiske, and an exploration of the narrative’s wider context and history by Henry Louis Gates Jnr., who acted as historical consultant to Steve McQueen’s recent film, can be read here.

Chiwetel EjioforThe film of 12 Years a Slave, justly feted, is the latest retelling of Solomon Northup’s story. It shares with the original book a rigorous commitment to the truth, but the role of the artists involved must not be denied. In each case one person’s experience has been imagined by another, who has then retold it to a wider public. In doing so, they have placed their craft, empathy and creativity freely in the service of another, with a shared purpose of bearing witness. In a culture still indebted to Romanticism, our ideas about authenticity can be very simplistic—but what really matters is truth.

It is truth, in all its complexity, that can be found in the work of David Wilson 160 years ago and Steve McQueen today. Solomon Northup might not have written the narrative that bears his name any more than he made the film he could not have imagined. But he is truly the author of both documents.

Music as an adventure playground

A talk on the nature and value of music given yesterday at a community music event in Gateshead

Parliament of dreams

Music: What is it good for?

In the 1970s, at a time when we were less anxious about many things than we are today, there was a vogue for adventure playgrounds in which young people could scramble about, get dirty, build dens and invent games with only minimal adult supervision. It was a good idea, I think: we all need a bit of freedom and wildness, if we are to grow. Most of the adventure playgrounds have gone or been sanitised to meet the standards of today’s more fearful culture. Music, though, cannot be tamed. It is one of our very best adventure playgrounds. Music. What is good for? Playing.

To read the full text of this talk, given at the 2014 Sage Gateshead and Sound Sense community music event, click on the link below.

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Misguided visionaries and rigid minds

From My Life is the most ambitious Regular Marvel so far, and it is already testing some aspects of the model. The issue, as so often in the arts, is money. My other projects have averaged about £10,000 including production costs, though Where we Dream cost more. It was possible because there was just me and the artist: I couldn’t pay either of us much, but the work’s interest (and ties of friendship) made people generous with their time when I couldn’t be with cash. The independence and freedom this brought has been central to the whole idea and more than compensated for the rocky parts of the road.

But From My Life is conceived on a much larger scale. It involves musicians, composers and other artists who need to be paid the normal rates (though they aren’t much to get excited about). Working between London, the Midlands and rural Aberdeenshire imposes unavoidable costs. So the budget is about £30,000, and, for the first time with a Regular Marvel, I’ve had to apply for funding. Three applications were submitted and now all have been refused. Of course, the lack of interest is disappointing, but it raises larger questions about From My Life and the Regular Marvels concept itself.

Without feedback, I can only wonder why three different bodies concerned with funding classical music saw no value in an idea that everyone I’ve spoken to about it has thought original and worthwhile. It is in the nature of artistic innovation to believe in the importance of what you’re doing, just as it is to be expected that others may not recognise that importance precisely because it is new. The problem is that you can’t tell whose judgement is right. Do you press forward in the face of indifference or opposition? Or do you listen and change tack? There are far, far more artists who have doggedly stuck to their vision and been proved wrong than there are visionaries, like Van Gogh, whose worth has finally been recognised. It’s just that no one has heard of the millions who thought they were the next Van Gogh, but weren’t.

I still love the ideas that From My Life explores. Like most people, I’d prefer to do what I believe in even if no one else does, than cut my ideas to suit the fashion of the times (especially these times). But I might need to rethink how I work on them and find a way that’s not so dependent on external funding.

Food for thought, but while I think, The Light Ships is progressing well: its dedicated website will launch on 1 May. So here’s a May Day painting in anticipation…

Whitelands College May Day Procession, 1902 by Anna Richards Brewster
Whitelands College May Day Procession, 1902
by Anna Richards Brewster


Testing the rules

Human beings exist in language. Words and people change each other constantly. The meaning of words shifts as they slip from one object to another like viruses. And then what we mean, or think we mean, changes too when we use them.

To prove something originally meant to test it, not to show its truth. The root of the word is Latin, through old French, and it signified the process by which people try to find the truth of something. But the word’s slippage from the test to the result of the test has left us with some odd leftovers, conceptual appendices that can cause problems. ‘Proofreading’ has no sense as a term unless it is understood to mean examining a text for accuracy. Bakers ‘prove’ their dough to test that the yeast is active.

And the saying ‘it’s the exception that proves the rule’ only makes sense if ‘proves’ is taken to mean ‘tests’. A proverb which is simply a statement of scientific method – that something can be accepted as generally true only until an exception can be found – has become a licence to turn that method on its head. In everyday use, ‘the exception that proves the rule’ is a way of avoiding the need to justify a wilful or aberrant idea.

We need rules. They are essential both to daily life and to the development of the knowledge that has taken humanity from the Bronze Age to the International Space Station in the blink of an historical eye. The complexity of reality would be paralysing if we did not simplify it by agreeing common interpretations and shared meanings. But one of the ways we get from the Bronze Age to the ISS is to test those rules and the beliefs they hold. Scientists, farmers, philosophers, mystics, gardeners, soldiers, artists – in every field of human endeavour, there are people who, by their exceptional capacities, prove and then rewrite the rules.

A couple of years ago, in explaining Regular Marvels to an academic, I found myself describing it as an attempt to do research using the rules of art. It’s still the best short explanation I have, though I recognise it needs unpacking, which is one of the things this blog tries to do. In using the rules of one field of knowledge to work in another, I am trying to test both – rules and fields, art and social science.

My work seeks to be an exception that proves some existing rules. How far, if at all, I succeed, and what value is ascribed to the results is for others to decide – but it won’t depend on whether I prove anything in the modern sense. I’m not out to prove, but to test. I’m doing it because I want to and because I can. There’s a lot to be said for having a title, a salary and a pension, whether in the arts world or in academia. But there are too many rules for me.


Restless meanings

Classical music is as important as photography in Terence Davieselegiac film about the people and city of Liverpool in the last century. Archive film of labouring lives, in streets and homes, factories and docks, are underscored by great washes of Mahler, Brahms. Perotin and Tavener. It’s almost always the slow movements and their juxtaposition with the images of hard lives is very moving.

The meaning, though, is ambiguous. The music is one artist’s addition to pictures filmed by other artists with their own, perhaps complex, intentions. Does its introduction signify the essential dignity of people struggling to make the most of the mean hand they’ve been dealt? Or does it inspire sadness at the waste of human potential produced by industrial society? Perhaps it’s like the Last Post, simply a requiem for what has been lost.


The music itself cannot have been familiar or valued by many of those over whose faces it plays, if only because poverty will have kept them out of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra‘s concerts. Even radios will often have been beyond their means, at least before the 1960s. And that is before the question of taste. There’s a short burst of the Hippy Hippy Shake to introduce a brief (and refreshingly unsentimental) appearance by The Beatles, then Davies explains that he lost interest in popular music when Presley arrives, turning entirely to classical work and his ‘beloved Bruckner’. But that was not the experience of most of his fellow Liverpudlians, who followed The Beatles into liberating new worlds, and it is hard not to feel that Davies is reclaiming his city’s soundscape for the music that he values.


But ambiguity is one of art’s – particularly music’s – great qualities. It keeps real art alive, restlessly shifting between possibilities, between interpretations, between meanings. So the uncertainty of Davies’ intentions (to me, not to him) is central to this film’s power. With its other qualities – its formal beauty, its passion and bitterness, its narrative subtlety – this ambiguity is part of what makes you want to watch Of Time and the City again, even as it ends. It’s one reason why the film can speak in its intensely local accents to people across the world, and one reason why it’s likely to be watched long after the pleasing but forgettable films made the same year.

Without the music, the film would be less moving and less interesting, easier to understand, but less meaningful.

RMT2 – Citation

Why do writers quote other writers? The reasons are complex, and do not preclude such weaknesses as showing off—no one can write seriously without engaging in display. But the way that academics and artists quote is very different and helps distinguish their alternative intellectual projects.

Infinte library

The literature review and source traceability

The literature review has become the foundation of all work in social science and the humanities. It is like a structural survey, done before building work can begin, and is a perfectly sensible thing to do.

It is also the price of entry into a field of knowledge or discourse. An academic’s thought is legitimate to the extent they can demonstrate a full understanding of what has already been learned and thought. So, while the literature review is unimpeachable in theory, it can become in practice a way of strengthening established power. The academy and its libraries enable a student to do a literature review and its teachers guide the investigation and assess its performance. And the price can be high: as university fees rise, degrees become less about merit and more about resources.

Source traceability has become as important to academia as it is to food standards authorities, so students are taught the correct way to label every word they quote, whether it is from recognized authorities, ‘grey literature’ (as the academy terms what it has not certified), the media or the Internet. It’s a sound system and it allows errors to be corrected.

But whom you cite is also a way of defining your position within a field. In cultural studies, how you refer to certain French theorists is a signal—to those taught to read them—of your intellectual beliefs. Authorities can be conscripted as allies and protectors.

As art teaching and criticism has become more theorized, so the adoption of such associations has increased. There are artists today whose work resembles owl pellets, so full is it of the undigested remains of their intellectual prey.

Owl reader

Artists in dialogue with artists

This reflects a change in sources of artistic inspiration rather artistic practice, which has always been in dialogue with the creative work of others. As they grow, learn and mature, all artists fall under the spell of predecessors and peers—imitating, assimilating and abandoning a succession of influences. Consciously and unconsciously their work endorses, criticizes or rejects the artistic  practices that have shaped their own imagination. That is part of what is meant when it’s said that all art is about art.

One difference between this approach and the literature review is that there is nothing methodical about it and that, far from being the weakness that would be in academia, it is part of what makes each artist’s work individual. In following their own paths through other people’s imaginations, guided by instinct, feeling and non-rational reactions, artists create new relationships with reality. They may be very rigorous, even rigid, in how they work, but they are not detached. They do not place themselves above and outside what they see, as does the literature reviewer. They are not cartographers. Uninterested in objectivity, they use their subjectivity as a resource to free themselves from itself.

The Librarian, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527–1593)

Other voices in Regular Marvels

The method explored in Regular Marvels involves frequent citation: direct, through reference and in textual echoes. It draws on a wide range of sources: Bread and Salt, for example, cites Adorno, Berger, Cavafy, Gérin-Lajoie, Hemon, Hardi, King, Padel, Russell and Stanshall among others. They include philosophers, critics, poets, campaigners, musicians, historians, social scientists and novelists (though not, I think, French theorists, on this occasion at least). Some I encountered decades ago, others only as I worked on the book. Some I know fairly well, but I have no more than a nodding acquaintance with others. I don’t agree, like or admire all of them.

But they are all among the writers I talk to as a reader and as a writer. They are reference points that define the shifting space within which my thought, for what it’s worth, ranges. They come and they go, growing or declining in importance, according to what I’m thinking about and how.

There’s nothing special or clever about this. The special and clever Pierre Bayard—professor of literature, psychoanalyst and French theorist—has some very interesting ideas about how we read. Among them, he classes books according to whether he has skimmed them, heard of them, forgotten them or never come across them. In doing so, he is courageous for a professor of literature but truthful about how our minds work.

The texts that make up Regular Marvels—printed books, PDFs and blog posts—are literary in nature and purpose. Since they are written by someone who has been reading and writing from an early age and whose university education (‘formation’ in French) was in literature, it is natural that they reflect a continuing conversation with other writers, of all kinds. Experience—my own and that of the people I meet through this work—is filtered through that imaginative landscape, formed over a lifetime by the words of others. And those words are themselves constantly changed by experience.

As a writer, an artist engaged for better or worse in a task of literary creation, I acknowledge and embrace the unending, restless dialogue between experience and art. I don’t try to control it, or even to understand it—simply to ride the current to somewhere that seems worth going towards.

Holland House Library

Richard Sennett

Philosophy Bites is a podcast that has been produced since 2007 by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton. In the spirit of the Open University, where Nigel Warburton taught until recently, the podcast brings some of the world’s leading thinkers within reach of non-specialists. There are now more than 250 short interviews on subjects as diverse as love, free market fairness and the simulation argument (don’t ask – or rather, do).

In 2012, Edmonds and Warburton began a new series called Social Science Bites, and though fewer interviews have yet been produced, they offer equally interesting conversations with some outstanding thinkers. One of the first was with Richard Sennett, an American sociologist (for want of a better, single word description), who has written on culture, cities and social relations.

The interview was published on 1 May 2012, the day after Where We Dream, and it felt like a valuable affirmation of the ideas and way of working that I was exploring. Listening to it again, 18 months on, that seems even clearer. So here are a few extracts from Richard Sennett’s conversation that were particularly resonant for Regular Marvels. It helps, of course, that he speaks with such elegant authority…

Richard Sennett in conversation with Nigel Warburton

‘The methods I’ve used in my work are intensive interviewing, which is ethnography, a standard skill set for anthropologists, and now many younger sociologists have returned to ethnography. I’m quite interested because of that in issues of, philosophically, in issues of narrative, because ethnography is all about, they are, created narratives.’

‘Some of it also has to do with a very particular concern that I’ve had throughout my life which is how to write in such a way that connects with a reader, how to revive the idea of the long intense essay which was so natural to earlier generations of social thinkers and rather died out in our time. And one of the ways to do that is not to hide behind a mask with your readers so that they don’t know who’s speaking to them.’

‘I’d say this is another enormous challenge that modern human sciences face, which is how to learn to write outward rather than to talk down to readers.’

‘To me the canons of good social research are […] that you’ve done justice to the struggle that somebody else might have to actually say what they mean. Now that’s neither true nor false but it’s a canon of probity for the interviewer, and that means you don’t take people as examples of a social condition like being a white woman working class resident of Neasden, but that they exist as a competent subject struggling to make sense of their experience.’

‘When we read writers like de Tocqueville or Weber, we don’t read them in order to know ‘well he solved that one’, we read them because they’ve been able to put their hands on really significant issues and say something provocative about them. The notion that social science solves problems, you can forget about it because we have the data, it’s kind of an imperialist recipe that is to say that you don’t have to think about this anymore because we’ve solved the problem for you, I have all the data for it.’

‘My project is to write. I don’t want to go into government, I don’t want to be an advisor to anybody.’

The full interview and transcript can be found here: Richard Sennett on Social Science Bites.