Wednesday, 21 January 2015

power for the powerful

The widely recognised failure of the major parties in the UK to offer significant change to to our increasingly broken system is well recognised. Alternative voices struggle to be heard.
All the major traditional vehicles for the expression of opinions play to the status quo. This includes the BBC (see George Monbiot's analysis in today's Guardian:

The world economic and media systems remorselessly favour:
power for the powerful;
privilege for the privileged;
property for the propertied;
education for the educated;
culture for the cultured;
voices for the voiced;
money for the monied;
food for the well-fed.

Please add to the list.

I am of course part of this system, like most of my few readers I imagine.

Some internet voices provide alternative ways of being heard - Avaaz, 38 Degrees, Change, Greenpeace,  Compassion in World Farming...  The are not the big answer, but they do provide a way for like-minded people whose voices are lost in the present system to come together and to erode the pernicious power of intersecting establishments.
I have joined the Green Party, not because I agree with all their policies, but because in the current state of flux they can provide a focus for those who regard UKIP as poisonous, and the other parties as failing to provide alternatives.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Another survey history of art?

This blog is not so much intermittent as worse than occasional. Sorry.
I always intend to respond to events in the news. But rarely do so in time.
This one is unashamedly advertising my new book.

This month (Jan 2015) sees the publication of Art in History as a print book (for £8.99!)
and an animated e-book (2 devoted to the technical issues of space and colour, and 3 with a cartoon Kemp pontificating). I will post the link to the e-book when it becomes available. I discourage potential purchasers from using Amazon, which I am boycotting because of their employment and tax policies.

Below is the intro. to the book, to give an idea of how I have tackled the barmy task of treating 26 centuries in 40,000 words. This came about as the result of an invitation from Michael Bhaskar of Profile Books. There are no works discussed in detail that are not illustrated, and each illustrated work is given a kind of traditional ekphrasis - a set-piece of word painting in the Ancient and Renaissance manner.

I wonder if overarching surveys still have a role to play. I hope so. In any event, I'm doing the round of the Lit Fests, including Hay, Edinburgh and Oxford.

 The artists and works of art in this book have transformed how art affects us. Over the ages, painters and sculptors have invited us to do radically new things.
 To take just one example, we do not know how the first viewers of Diego Velásquez’s Las Meninas reacted to his mighty canvas, but we can be sure that they had seen nothing like it before. It is recognisable as a group portrait, but does not conform to the norm. The artist is there, but we see only a portion of the back of his painting. The young princess and her entourage have assembled in the grand room. But at whom are they looking? At someone more important than us, we imagine. The king and queen are visible in the mirror. But where are they? They are the absent subject of the picture. Velásquez, in common with other great artists, presents us with a field for interpretation in which we can all play our part.
 Art in History concentrates on the triangular relationship between art, artist and spectator – frequently in the context of God and nature. This is how the present book differs from the numerous previous histories of ‘Western Art’. It looks at the varied historical notions of art and artists as categories within which art is produced and consumed. What art required of the spectator and what the spectator required of art changed radically over the ages. We will see the artist emerge as an individual who makes a distinct contribution to the development of art in ancient Greece and again later in the Renaissance. Subsequent centuries witness the evolution of the categories until they assume their modern meanings. The developments often embody the idea of ‘progress’, a powerful concept in the forging of modern economic and political systems. Indeed, every aspect of the rise of art and artists is deeply involved in material and conceptual shifts in society.
In setting art in history, a big question looms into view: is the maker of artefacts a subservient agent or an autonomous hero of creativity? Or to frame more subtle questions: how far is the art work first and foremost an expression of a series of social imperatives; and how far does it depend on the direct and timeless communication of human values from one individual to another? Can it be both of these things? I will argue that the power of images depends on both, in a wholly integrated manner.
How a work of art is embedded in history varies as widely as the works and the artists vary. A medieval Madonna and Child is directly concerned with a kind of spiritual beauty that lies beyond this world, while Goya’s painting of a contemporary massacre speaks of violent contention. What we call the ‘style’ of the work is integral to its effect. The suave grace and high polish of the Madonna would not serve Goya well. The violent colour contrasts and incendiary brushwork of Goya would not exercise the right effect on a medieval worshipper. All the works here demonstrate a compelling unity of style and content. Each of them posits their own special relationship with the spectator in the context of the society from which they emerged, and they ‘speak’ to us in a period voice. Although we can still hear them speak, we gain enormously from attuning our ears to their very varied accents.
We will be encountering our key works in a broadly chronological order, because what each artist does is articulated in relation to what went before, and affects our view of the past. As the great poet T. S. Eliot wrote in 1921, ‘what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it’.
Until comparatively recently, works of art that have emerged from the changing frameworks tell the story of big blokes – whether artists or their funders – and play to what is a familiar story of canonical masterpieces that stood at the centre of new developments in European and North American art. There are of course other stories, but the narrative I follow, looking at European and North American art, is a real and massive one, not least in terms of where the international art world is now, in China no less than in the USA. It is also the story that I am best equipped to tell but I don’t claim that it is definitely what the history of art is about. As one of the possible stories, not the least of its attractions is its focus on some of the most enriching works human beings have produced. It is also closely related to what we experience when we step into major galleries and museums.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

usain bolt and drugs

The Commonwealth games reminds me to say something I have been considering for a long time.
Sprinting events have a long history of performers whose achievements suddenly rise to extreme heights, either (or both) in terms of their own career or global performance standards. In almost all cases of such steep rise, artificial stimulants were involved.  The performances of the adored Usain Bolt, who is the biggest draw in contemporary athletics, rose with awesome steepness. See

Five Jamaican athletes have already tested positive for drugs:

The world of athletics has a huge investment is Bolt being "clean". If, to use a cliché, I were a betting man (I have never laid a bet on anything), I would not put any money any top current sprinter running below 9.80 seconds not being eventually exposed as a drug cheat, using techniques that are currently difficult to detect. I hope that this is not the case. Bolt is properly regarded by myself and the world at large as "clean" until proved otherwise. But the history of athletics, and its willingness to welcome back those convicted, does not encourage me to be optimistic that new revelations will not emerge

Gustav Metzger, major artist i

On Saturday I was at a conference in Cambridge organised to celebrate the exhibition of the life and work of Gustav Metzger at Kettle's Yard. Do I hear the question "who?", even from people who are well-informed about contemporary art.  The problem is that he has, over the course of a heroically consistent career, created works based on processes rather than the depositing of artefacts as fixed and marketable commodities. If someone asks, "where do  I go to see his works?", the question is not easy to answer. For the most part his oeuvre is known through a very patchy visual record of photography and film, and recreations of the kind in the Kettle's Yard show and earlier in the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford in 1998-9 (the publication for which I wrote an essay).

Arriving as a teenage refugee from Hitler's Germany in 1939, he studied at the Cambridge School of Art. Some biographical details are at and in the excellent publication by Lizzy Fisher.

He was a pioneer of auto-destructive art and auto-creative art, in which processes driven by technologies and cutting-edge science create results that impermanent and unpredictable. Most famous are the remarkable liquid crystal displays in which wall-size panels undergo wondrous changes of form, colour and light. I devoted one of my columns in Nature to their Oxford manifestation (reprinted in Visualizations, OUP). I include the text at the end. At least the recreation in Cambridge is owned by the Tate.

Unlike many young radicals, Metzger has never compromised to become a maker of expensive collectables. His social and artistic mission remains, at the age of 90, undimmed by time and inevitable physical frailty. This mission is summarised in the "Harmony" declaration to which he contributed in 1970 (reproduced in the book of the show). Just two excerpts will demonstrate its prophetic nature:

      "The traditional Techniques of European civilisation for control of out environment have developed to the point of creating desperate problems that cannot be solved on their own terms...
The whole enterprise of science is a branch of the apparatus of production: of commodities, of war, and of consciousness. It has more or less autonomy depending on local circumstances. Up to now its relative independence has been both a precious freedom for the few, and a convenient myth for the many."

I would now add to the second of these, which is very much of its time,  "political imperatives based on the national economic demands and the trans-national dictats of big business". Metzger loves true science, dedicated to the disclosure of the nature of things, as I try to argue in my Nature piece, below. He is to my mind one of the major artists of the second half of the 20th century.
Art that relies upon the witnessing of a process confounds our expectation that any act of making in the ‘Fine Arts’ should result in a collectable artefact - an expectation that we do not impose on theatre or musical performance. The work of Gustav Metzger is particularly infuriating in this respect. His programme of ‘auto-destructive art’, launched in his London manifesto of 1959, leaves behind no permanent object or enduring trace - frustrating mercenary dealers and acquisitive museum curators. His ‘aesthetic of revulsion’ which relishes forms and modes of expression that ‘are below the threshold of social acceptance’ insults the established criteria of those who aspire to appreciate ‘Art’. And his apparently anarchic media, such as the nylon canvases dissolved by acid spray into apparent nothingness, set him up as a prime candidate for ridicule by the popular press and those who decry ‘modern art’ as fraudulent. 

The destructive processes which form one strand of his activity are a response to the events which marked his personal and political life. Born in 1926 as the son of Polish Jews in Nuremberg and exiled with his elder brother to England in 1939, Metzger’s student years were ravaged by a war in which his parents were immolated, and the art of retaliatory mass destruction was first practised at Hiroshima. In life as in art, he has fomented rebellion. In company with Bertrand Russell and fellow anti-nuclear protesters, he was one of those imprisoned in 1961. 

Science - and this is where he qualifies for inclusion in our present context - has been a constant concern  in his art. Science is neither automatically demonised nor gratuitously exploited. On one hand, he has savaged the way that scientific technologies have ruthlessly extended man’s destructive potential, forcing the old concept of ‘Nature’, ideally inclusive of man, to become the ‘Environment’, which is to be managed from ‘outside’ by mighty human agencies.  And he bears witness, metaphorically in his auto-destructive acts, to the awesome ‘tearing apart’ and ‘annihilation’ practised by nuclear physics in its dismembering of the atom.

On the other hand, Metzger recognises that ‘each disintegration.... leads to the creation of a new form’, a transformatory process that leads logically to the other side of his artistic and social coin - ‘auto-creative art’. Setting up physico-chemical reactions to produce growth and metamorphosis, ‘auto-creative’ works exploit the potential of such physical wonders as liquid crystals and new technologies, and most notably computing, to forge art-forms that serve as theatres of natural process. A central ideal is non-predictability, resulting in ‘a limitless change of images without image duplication’.

His most prominent creations in this ‘auto-creative’ mode are his liquid crystal projections, invented in 1965 and first manifested on a huge scale at concerts by ‘The Cream’, ‘The Who’ and ‘The Move’ at the Roundhouse in London at the end of the following year. For a series of exhibitions in 1999, the ponderous 1966 programme of twelve apparatuses operated by a dozen assistants, which operated less than smoothly, has been replaced by a computerised system. Six automated projectors, equipped with devices for the heating and cooling of slides of liquid crystals, work according to a non-repetitive programme to cast images through rotating polarised filers onto the walls of the gallery. The endless sequence of infinitely varied configurations and colours pulse with similitudes of organic processes, orchestrated according to individualistic timetables. They simultaneously suggest microbiological metabolisms, geo-physical phenomena, chemical reactions, physical processes and the artificial beauties of the kind of abstract art that rose to prominence in the 50s and 60s with the Abstract Expressionists. During a sustained viewing when they were on show in the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, there were recurrent though non-identical resonances with the floating veils of colour on the canvases of Mark Rothko.

On one side of his coin Metzger displays our potential to become the agents of irreversible destruction; on the other he rejoices in our creative integration with the life-giving properties of nature. His mission fuses art and political meaning. He is intending that we should see that the choice of on which side coin falls is literally too vital be left to the short-term expediencies of commercial gain.

Thursday, 10 July 2014


Following the Snowden revelations there has been a consistent campaign by the literally unholy alliance of state and commercial bodies who profit from the excessive levels of snooping and security to which we are all subject. We are led to believe that the gormless youths in an ISIS video represent a threat to the state. We are told that Islamic extremists have new kinds of explosives. We are told that we need to switch on our phones and computers at airports. Where is the evidence of the levels of threat and risk to which we are said to be subject in our daily lives? We ask for evidence. "We cannot show you the evidence because that would compromise security". Those with huge vested interests in scaring us can't loose. We cannot trust governments in this, because any government naturally wants more information on us than it should have.
I have been told by security staff at an airport that "this is being done for your safety". I have not asked anyone to carry out expensive and time-consuming checks that are ritualistic in ineffective. I can tell anyone who is interested how to get a penknife on to a plane. Or maybe I won't because it would compromise security.
There are half a million people now employed in the security industries in the UK, costing us billions of pounds. A substantial portion of this cost represents the conjoined success of terrorist threats and the security industry. Terrorists and those employed in security thrive in their entirely symbiotic relationship.
The levels of risk to me and you of terrorist attack are infinitesimally small. There are almost 30,000 gun deaths in the USA each year, none the result of terrorist activity. The lifetime risk of being killed on the roads in the UK is an astonishing  one in 240.  If a fraction of the money spent by security cabals on combatting chimerical risks was spent on improving road safety, something worthwhile could be achieved. If a fraction of the money was spent on the poorest sector of our population, infant deaths would drop significantly.
Every time any security official or representative of commercial security is interviewed in the media, whatever they ostensibly say can be read as "give us more resources [i.e money]". They cannot loose. But we do.

Brazil and the World Cup

Another post after a long gap.
There's been much discussion of Germany's 7-1 victory over Brazil in the semi-finals. The prime reason, which seems obvious, has been largely missed.
The fervour before the game was totally excessive. The Brazilian players became so wound up that they totally lost control. The began by attacking in a shapeless and random manner. Players who were ostensibly defenders surged impulsively forwards, driven by  great doses of adrenalin. Any sense of position and team set-up dissolved in the waves of fervour. Huge gaps developed in the mid-field and defense. The Germans only needed to play a good professional game to score more or less at will.
The moral of this is that when players, supporters and media forget that sport is sport, a game is a game, grotesque things start happening. It is fair enough to feel joy when your team triumphs; it is understandable to feel sad when your team looses. As a supporter of Dundee United I have plenty of practice at the latter. But (pace Bill Shankly - ) it is not a matter of life and death. The death of one malnourished child in a Brazilian favela is infinitely more serious than Brazil conceding 7 goals.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

I was shocked and saddened to hear of Hasan Niyasi's death (see some earlier blogs and I was contacted with him initially in connection with the Leonardo portrait of a young woman. He had an excellent grasp of the key issues and more logical good sense than many art historians. My subsequent contacts confirmed that he was a better art historian than a good number who are paid money for being so. We never met in person, alas.
I am currently in dialogue with a dealer about attributions (in general). I will see if he is willing for it to be posted in honour of Hasan.
Unlike Holmes, not being a pipe-smoker, I go for the three-coffee problem.