New at Numéro Cinq

Way back in January I had a properly wonderful experience. I went to the studios of two very talented women: the painter, Miranda Boulton, and the poet, Kaddy Benyon, and spoke with them about their creativity.

The results were fascinating. Two amazing artists with two perspectives on creativity that could hardly be more different. We spoke about fear and anxiety, about process and productivity, about inspiration past and present, and about the roads their careers had taken them down.

The interviews are now up at Numéro Cinq and I think they’re both reassuring and encouraging for anyone who wants to live a creative life or simply explore their own relationship to art.

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Artful

 

So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum

in painted quiet and concentration

keeps pouring milk day after day

from the pitcher to the bowl

the World hasn’t earned

the world’s end.

Wislawa Szymborska (trans. by Cavanagh and Baranczak)

 

Of all the riches in Ali Smith’s book, Artful, this is perhaps the one that spoke to me most insistently while I was reading. We are living in difficult times and teetering on the brink of worse ones, and it is perhaps only art that has the authority and the kindness with which to remind us that it was ever so. And also to provide an antidote to all that is toxic in the present day. The Roman historian Sallust (again, thank you, Ali) said ‘these things never happened, but are always’, and if he could say that a millennium or so ago, and the World hasn’t yet earned the world’s end, well, maybe there’s hope. See, this is the paradox of reading a book that is purely, unashamedly, in fact joyfully, literary and apparently about nothing to do with the present moment at all. Art always has something relevant to say.

Artful is the compilation of four lectures Ali Smith gave at St Anne’s College, Oxford in January and February, 2012: On Time, On Form, On Edge and On Offer And On Reflection. It is not – as some reviewers seem to think – the novel that Ali subsequently made out of the lectures, but the lectures themselves ‘pretty much as they were delivered’. They are, in fact, the most original form of art criticism that I’ve ever read, being a combination of fiction and critique rolled into one big, generous, sometimes overwhelming gift of narrative.

There is a story, then, that weaves all the material together. Our narrator has been grieving for a lost partner for over a year when, in the hope of breaking the deadlock, s/he plucks a book down from the shelf at random and it happens to be Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Thus encouraged to move a chair, which in the narrator’s opinion has long needed moving, in order to get better light, s/he begins the book, and begins to think about the book, and at that point something extraordinary happens: the ghost of the lost partner appears in the doorway, dirty and torn, covered in bits of rubble and having some trouble with words, but back. However, this is not a ghost like all the others. The first thing the partner does is to sit down in front of the television (‘You came back from the dead to watch tv? I said’), and then empties a cup of tea on the floor. Before long the ghost is being quite the nuisance, stealing things and breaking things and smelling so badly that all the neighbours ring up to complain about the drains.

Interspersed with the story of the revenant are passages of literary criticism which turn out to be the lectures that the lost partner was writing in the months before dying. These lectures bring together snippets of lots and lots of wonderful works – old and new, poetry and prose, the references range from Shakespeare and Gilgamesh and Woolf and Graham Greene to Hitchcock and Saramago and Beyonce (yes, you read that right). And they are used to look at all the rich and varied ways that time and form create, sustain and renew art, and that borderlines and edges, gifts and promises and reflections all thrill and confound and enlighten us. There is, oddly enough, a hurrying quality to the literary passages, as if there’s scarcely time enough for the writer to shower us with the abundance of artful gorgeousness that s/he longs to collate together here. Sometimes the ideas come so thick and fast that you just don’t have time to make sense of them all, or to get what each little passage means. To get the best out of this book, don’t quibble. Just open up your reading arms and gather in as much as you possibly can. It’s like Ali Smith has become Ali Baba and for the time of reading, this incredible cave of literary treasure is open to you. So hurry, take all that speaks to you, knowing you can come back for more. ‘We’d never expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but we tend to believe we’ve read a book after reading it just once,’ Ali Smith writes.

Books need time to dawn on us, it takes time to understand what makes them, structurally, in thematic resonance, in afterthought, and always in correspondence with the books which came before them…. Great books are adaptable… You can’t step into the same story twice – or maybe it’s that stories, books, art can’t step into the same person twice, maybe it’s that they allow for our mutability, are ready for us at all times, and maybe it’s this adaptability, regardless of time, that makes them art, because real art (as opposed to more transient art, which is real too, just for less time) will hold us at all our different ages like it held all the people before us and will hold all the people after us, in an elasticity and with a generosity that allow for all our comings and going. Because come then go we will, and in that order.’

So perhaps you can see that the ongoing story of the ghost is a brilliant way of reflecting on the reflections on art. The ghost is the creation of the narrative – which is its own time out of time, and which has the elasticity to make anything happen that it chooses. The ghost is also a liminal element, which is to say something that hovers on the borderline between life and death, which makes us, precisely, aware of that very borderline and as such presents a hypnotic notion to our imaginations. And the ghost returns in stories in order to make the people in them reflect on their lives; this is what ghosts have, after all, a very special gift of enlightenment that can’t be given any other way.

But perhaps most of all, what we understand by the end of this poignant, beautiful and demanding little book is that art is always recompense for loss. It crystallises the lost moment, the lost experience, the lost society, the lost age. It gives us in imagination what we do not have before us in reality. And it comforts us and sustains us with the truth, told in a way that we can bear, given in a form that nourishes us. ‘All the time I read this book, I felt it was feeding me.’ (Katherine Mansfield on D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Aaron’s Rod) If you ever feel like you are losing faith in the world and in the humans who live in it, then pick up Artful. Or indeed any of Ali Smith’s works, which I love because her writing is always full of joy. But Artful will remind you why art is so necessary and so vital, today and always.

The Rest Of What We Did On Holiday

So, I had a week to amuse myself while Mr Litlove made his chair. This year we both became members of the National Trust and I was keen to get some use out of my card, especially in order to visit more gardens. I am completely rubbish when it comes to identifying trees and plants and birds and I suppose I thought that visiting gardens would bring me the knowledge by a mysterious process of osmosis.

Getting in my car for my first visit, I realised it was a long time since I’d had to drive myself somewhere new, and I don’t have a satnav. Instead, I’d studied the maps and tried to commit the route to memory, something I was a little concerned about, given that these days I barely make it halfway up the stairs before realising I’ve forgotten what I’m going up them for. But I found my way just fine to Petworth House, an imposing stately home set in vast grounds designed by Capability Brown where the novelist John Wyndham lived (and his son, Max, still does).

What I didn’t realise was that I would undertake solo sightseeing as if I were a Marine commando on a mission against the clock. Memorise maps. Check! Drive to location. Check! Get map of house and grounds from National Trust lady. Check! Three times whilst said National Trust lady was trying to explain which path I should take to the house and what time the tea rooms closed, I rather thought she’d finished (prematurely) and made to take off on my mission. Eventually she asked me somewhat drily, ‘Are you in a hurry?’ and I said, no, no, sorry, just umm… And then I shot off into the grounds as if Big Chief I-Spy himself were in hot pursuit, waving his little tomahawk with menace.

After the glories of Parham, I found Petworth rather disappointing. It was a series of large, empty rooms, their walls thickly coated with paintings that were often hung too high or in strange shafts of light that made them hard to see properly. The paintwork in every room was in desperate need of refreshment and the whole place had a dingy aspect. There was plenty that was spectacular to see – you want a Turner? here’s five in a row. You like portraits of society beauties? Here’s a gallery entirely dedicated to them. You like wood carving? Here’s a room the size of a tennis court, with walls sprouting strange excrescences like a rampant if morbid form of fungi. The part of the house I admired most was the chapel, built in but sunk down a flight of steps, meaning you paused on the threshold at eye level with the scary pictures of saints and angels. It had a shivery power, inhabited by a vengeful god with a connoisseur’s eye for art.

At the end of the corridor that led past the great kitchen (where I doubtless slaved in a past life) and the shop and tea room, there was an entrance into the small town of Petworth itself, quaint and fairy tale-ish, its narrow cobbled streets built on a steep slope. And here I struck gold – the only book shop I found during the whole week, but the most delightful indie packed with excellent stock. I could have bought up the entire non-fiction section, but even I think I have a lot of books to read at the moment. So I made a concerted effort at restraint which I naturally regretted for the rest of the holiday. I bought Diana Souhami’s Murder at Wrotham Hill, a narrative non-fiction account of a crime that took place in the 40s, and James Wood’s short collection of literary essays, The Nearest Thing To Life. I spent longer in the shop than I did in the house and grounds.

The next day I had another stab at sightseeing, this time visiting Nymans and remembering to take the camera. It was a properly hot day and it took a while to get there, half an hour or so, a journey that began to seem to me like an awful lot of bother just to go look at a garden. I do realise I am not naturally gifted with the instincts of a tourist. Still it was a very pretty garden, and I saw it when the rhodedendrons (one of the few shrubs I can identify) were in flower.

IMG_2418

I have a photo of much bigger specimens but it came out blurry! This was obviously the rhodedendron nursery.

Nymans itself was a much smaller place than either Parham or Petworth, and not many rooms were open. As we entered the hallway, the sound of piano playing floated on the dusty air, and there in the main drawing room was a little old hunchbacked lady, surely in her 90s, playing her heart out. It was both atmospheric and disconcerting. Inside the house it was like visiting your posh Granny, rather lovely portraits and small sculptures in niches, great quantities of chintz, tartan curtains, piles of books and magazines, a little too much furniture, cold slate floors but cosy throws and cushions.

IMG_2403Part of the house was a ruin, destroyed by a fire in 1947.

IMG_2406Outside the gardens were amazing, even I could understand that much. There were all sorts of features, a sunken garden, a rock garden, a long pergola, a rose garden (not yet in bloom), all sorts of outdoor rooms created cleverly.

IMG_2398I speed-walked my way around lots and lots of plants. Goodness knows what they were.

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By judicious hanging around in the shop I managed to stretch my visit out to an hour and a half. I mean, I’d looked, it was lovely, what else was there to do? Mr Litlove asked me which parts of the houses I was most interested in and would most like to take home, and I said, the stories. The history of the houses does really interest me, but Nymans had to remain a mystery, as the guidebook the NT produces was out of print and they were trying to persuade the publisher to bring it back. I bought Patrick Barkham’s book Coastlines in lieu of it, even though there was no coastline in sight.

So Thursday it rained all day, and Friday was our last, and the one I had to vacate our cottage since it was a Friday-Friday let.  On our last holiday, I’d struggled under similar circumstances, waiting all day for our journey home and then too anxious to undertake it. So this year, we booked a hotel for Friday night, so I wouldn’t have to face the M25 on its worst time of the week. And yet, still I woke that morning full of anxiety. The owners of our cottage had kindly invited me to spend some of the day with them, which I did. And then late morning I drove out to Arundel for something to do (enormous castle on a hill, its petticoats full of tea rooms), and then I drove to Mr Litlove’s workshop for the afternoon. I was very tired and very anxious by now, though the workshop was fun in its way and I was glad to visit. Anyway, to cut a long story short I was pretty much gripped by anxiety until we were finally home early on Saturday (very early, I wasn’t sleeping anyhow so we thought we might as well do the drive).

What had gone wrong? I’d been fine all week. When I saw my reiki practitioner a few days later, she suggested it was a ‘safe place’ issue, and the light dawned. Most of you fortunate, normal people out there probably carry your safe place around inside you. Perhaps what distinguishes the phobic and the anxious is that our defences feel insufficient, and some other, physical, form of protection is required to reach basic safety levels. I was okay using the holiday home as a temporary base, but stuck in limbo on Friday my anxiety began to rise. And as anyone who suffers anxiety knows, it’s all too easy to reach the point of no return. Still, you live and learn, particularly when you have a preternaturally insightful reiki practitioner. And we did have a lovely week.

Dangerous Ambition

theblazingworldI’ve been wondering whether to ditch the idea of reviewing Siri Hustvedt’s novel, The Blazing World. Not because I didn’t enjoy it or admire it – I did both. But because it somehow seemed difficult to write about. Briefly, the novel concerns neglected artist, Harriet Burden, a woman of great ambition, great intelligence and fierce drive, whose work has been repeatedly overlooked and dismissed by the critics. It is structured as a posthumous collection of disparate writings by and about Burden that trace the development of her life and her last, desperate attempts to prove gender bias by creating three spectacular shows of work that are fronted by men, masquerading as the real artist. This isn’t some pc-driven whine: in the novel it’s noted how many actual women artists were blatantly sidelined, receiving no real recognition until their seventies (Alice Neel, Louise Bourgeois) or their death (Eva Hesse, Joan Mitchell) or indeed not at all – like Lee Krasner who was only ever seen through the frame of her husband, Jackson Pollock. The art world does have a problem with women, preferring ‘their geniuses coy, cool, or drunk and fighting in the Cedar Bar, depending on the era.’

Harriet Burden is driven to the edge of her sanity by the lack of recognition her work has received, and her dangerous ploy, to create work that men agree to show, backfires in all sorts of ways. Her first chosen male artist, a newcomer to the scene, is hailed beatifically and then cannot deal with the fact that he is not the work’s creator. Her second, a gender-bending black man, is too close to the feminine to attract the serious attention of the art world, though Harriet enjoys their collaboration most of all. The last, an already-established rock star of the art world, pretentious Rune, betrays Harriet in the worst possible way. Harriet proves the sexism inherent in art criticism, but she is powerless to change anything, and remains deprived of the satisfaction she seeks.

I thought a lot about Harriet Burden while reading Necessary Dreams: Ambition in Women’s Changing Lives by Anna Fels. Fels’ argument is that ambition is useful to us – ‘coping skills, understanding of reality and sense of self-worth’ are all higher in women who have defined plans for their futures. Women who want to be ‘upwardly mobile via their own achievements’ turn out to be ‘the most psychologically well adjusted.’ But recognition – accurate, meaningful praise from the external world – is consistently withheld from women, and white middle-class women in particular are the group most loathe to go after it. Ambition is understood to be pushy, aggressive, non-feminine. Women will repeatedly say that they have nothing against ambition, that they understand it can be useful, but will stubbornly stick only to ambitions that involve nurturing others.

What I found most intriguing about this book is its insistence on the value and importance of recognition. It’s a tragic myth women tell themselves to try to come to terms with their lot that it’s all about the work for its own sake, Fels suggests. ‘[T]he recognition of one’s skills within a community creates a sense of identity, personal worth, and social inclusion – base cornerstones in any life’. The times we receive recognition are usually iconic moments we remember forever more. ‘Recognition by others defines us to ourselves, energises us, directs our efforts, and even alters mood.’ Fels argues that the times we are happiest and most engaged in our work are the times when we are most valued and validated – and alas for women, cultural validation only comes in the form of praise for selflessness, for stepping down, shutting up, putting their desires away and promoting others.

Honestly? I agree. There is so much of my own experience that resonantes here. Fels notes that: ‘When girls persist in being high achievers, they are subtly penalised by their teachers. They actually receive less attention from their teachers than any of the other student types.’ Yup, that was my experience at school. And the times I flew high and found my work easy and fulfilling were mostly during my graduate days when I had two mentors around me who encouraged me a great deal. When I began working for the university, there was no recognition to be had. In thirteen years teaching, I had two appraisals and only one sentence of praise which yes, I remember to this day (the then Senior Tutor said ‘no one can please all the people all the time, but you get pretty close to it’). The constant lack of recognition undoubtedly contributed to chronic fatigue – I paid out so much energy, and had so little re-energising sense of doing well in return. And I did indeed feel guilty and wrong for wanting recognition at all. Not least because I was aware that it’s so hard to come by. For instance, here’s an intriguing study from Fels’ book:

Two groups of people were asked to evaluate particular items, such as articles, paintings, resumes and the like. The names attached to the items given each group of evaluators were clearly either male or female, but reversed for each group – that is, what one group believed was originated by a man, the other believed was originated by a woman. Regardless of the items, when they were ascribed to a man, they were rated higher than when they were ascribed to a woman. In all of these studies, women evaluators were as likely as men to downgrade those items ascribed to women.’

Essentially, it’s the premise of Hustvedt’s book. Which of course puts women in a complicated position. What else IS there to do but try and find consolation in the practice of whatever work we do, in the full awareness that it’s the only reward we’re likely to get? Another interesting book that’s been holding my attention lately is Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Approval and acceptance are hugely important, they agree, but to jump on the bandwagon and produce commercially successful art is often to lose your identity as an artist, whilst standing out for your own vision is always fraught with inevitable misunderstandings: ‘The problem is not absolute but temporal: by the time your reward arrives, you may not be around to collect it. Ask Schubert.’ It’s a great little book, actually, that has made me laugh a lot, and has some pithy advice.

The lesson here is simply that courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts – namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work. They’re in a good position to comment on how they’re moved (or challenged or entertained) by the finished product, but have little knowledge or interest in your process.’

Sensible words, but I doubt they would have helped Harriet Burden. Ambition is like a virus, I don’t think you can just will it away, but it is also a very high-risk strategy, particularly for women and I can’t see that changing any time soon.