Monday, 18 August 2014

It’s not ‘what’ any more, but ‘how’

I am one of those poor saps who is remarkably slow on the uptake. That’s an honest admission. But however slow on the uptake I am, I find it immensely useful. not to say remarkably helpful, to listen to folk - the conventional term used is ‘experts’ - who know what they are talking about and from whom I might pick up this and that.

A few months ago I watched an interesting three part-series on TV called High Art Of The Low Countries in which a chap - an expert (he said in that faux dog-in-the-manger way he has adopted to feign humility while trying to disguise abject ignorance - I am the very original cultural scavenger) - called Andrew Graham-Dixon trotted through the art of what several centuries ago were known as the Low Countries. These days we know them as Belgium and Holland (aka The Netherlands i.e. the Low Countries).

He began in the 15 century, but I, for the purposes of this entry, shall draw your attention to just one painter a Dutchman called Piet Mondrian, who was born in 1872 and who died 72 years later in 1944.

If, as I contentiously suggest, there is a spectrum of the arts ranging from pure sound - music - at the one end through to pure line, shape and colour - painting - a the other, and if, travelling from the one - contentious extreme to the other - we pass from music, to poetry, writing, theatre, cinema and then onto the graphic, plastic arts - sculpture and ‘pure art’ - I am more inclined to music and words (their sound, meaning and ‘import’) rather than painting. I like going to exhibitions of this, that and t’other, and do so quite often (so to speak), but I feel closer to sound than I do to line, shape and colour. So that is why I enjoy listening, invariably on TV, to people like Graham-Dixon who know a lot more about it than I do and can illuminate it for me.

For the purposes of this entry, though, I shall concentrate on just one thing: the artistic progression, or if you like the development, of an artist, in this case Piet Mondrian. Below are five paintings by him, in reverse order - I believe - of creation.

Mondrian, a Dutchman, was originally (so Graham-Dixon tells me, I should not like to give the impression I know more than I do) a rather conventional painter, but took off on his own unique trajectory after visiting an exhibition of work by his fellow Dutchman van Gogh.

I have reproduced the five works in reverse order to try to make a point. Here is the first:

What, you might ask yourself is so ‘special’ about this? Before I watched the TV progamme by Graham-Dixon, I had seen it (or more probably works like it) before and thought ‘hmm, nice enough, but not in my book outstanding in as far as it looks like any number of works produced by any number of art students’, though consider that when it and its kind were first presented it would have looked rather more unusual. I cannot, in all honesty, stress - and admittedly to my very untutored eye - how ordinary this looks compared with, say, any number of pieces of what one might call ‘corporate art’, pictures bought by the yard by firms for the foyer of their headquarters to persuade you that simply making money is not - honest injun! - all they are interested in, despite your gut feeling.

Nevertheless . . .

What I didn’t know, and what Graham-Dixon informed me, was that it was a development from this:

You can see how it might have developed from one to the next. Mondrian, we were told, spent the war on the coast of Holland and noticed a number of wooden posts which had at one point supported a, now non-existent, pier. That is what is was trying to show. But even that was a development from this:

which was itself a development from this:

And that was a development from this painting, inspired - quite obviously - by van Gogh’s work.

So what has all this got to do with the title of this entry, It’s Not What Any More, But How?

It’s actually quiet straightforward: just how many more times do we have to be told that horrible parents can fuck up their children? That man’s inhumanity to man is beyond comprehension? That there’s nowt as queer as folk? That the lot of those at the bottom of the pile is shit times ten?

What Mondrian is doing above is replicating an aspect of the world in different ways. And as for writing, to put it ostensibly very obscurely but actually very directly: it’s not the joke, it’s the way you tell it.

So my contention is that ‘the story’ is now quite possibly a thing of the past. In fact, it always was: it’s the ‘how’ we tell the different stories, the ‘how’ we manipulate language, it is perhaps, pace the very first Mondrian image reproduced here, the language itself, its use and the manipulation thereof which must now take centre stage given, as I suggest, there’s really not that much new under the sun. And ironically, it has always been that way, not just for the past 20 or 40 years, but almost forever.

The problem is, of course, that all of us are so familiar with language and its myriad usages that it is too immediate. We cannot, or can rarely, stand back and try to view a particular usage in what might be a new way. Paint is different: apart from painters none of us is familiar with paint. So when we are confronted with paint being used in a new, novel way, we are quite possibly alert to that new usage.

But I now sense I am on very shaky ground. So perhaps I should come to an end here and not risk making an even bigger tit of myself by blathering on yet again. As always, the proof of the pudding is always in the eating. And I also sense that the few ports I have been drinking while writing this entry might well mean it needs another entry to clarify it all a tad.

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