Can art save us from the chaos of life?

Currently I’m reading this book: At the Existentialist Cafe, by Sarah Bakewell.

My current book

I am struggling to put this book down. It has become my bible of the moment. I first came across it when it was in hardback. I saw it in Waterstones. I picked it up. I put it down. I picked it up again. I put it down again. I left the shop. Then I encountered a reference to it on Twitter last week. Someone I follow on Twitter was about to read it. I saw that as a sign. So I decided to buy it. I’m so pleased I did. I believe in signs. It came at the right time for me to read it.

Today, a piece of text I read in this book included this question: can art save us from the chaos of life?

This is a really good question, which I have been pondering ever since I read it. So I ask here: can art save us from the chaos of life? Art in this sense includes drama, film, fine art, performance, literature and poetry. Basically, ‘art’ here is anything creatively enjoyed or creatively persuaded. 

Life is chaotic. That’s a truism. We all feel the emotional highs and lows of just living. Life can be exhausting. But, the question is, can turning to art, help us get through those highs and lows? The ‘us’ here is you, me, the man next door, John Snow, the postman and the man I walked past earlier today. To me, the answer is obvious.

There is another dimension to this question: can art save us from the chaos of life? This time, I mean the chaos of the macro: politics, economics and society. Can art save us from that chaos as well? ‘Us’ here being the wider definition of the term: the community ‘us’ which includes me, the man next door, John Snow, the postman and the man I walked past earlier today. Art has got this particular ‘us’ through many a prickly situation before, world wars, dictatorships, civil wars, famine, earthquakes and the like. So surely the answer is again a resounding ‘yes’. 

In 1966, Saul Bellow talked about the role of art in the midst of chaos: Art has something to do with the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos…Art has something to do with an arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.’

Oscar Wilde, was also of this persuasion: ‘The temperament to which art appeals…is the temperament of receptivity. That is all.’

Oscar Wilde with his pussy cat

For me, when I am feeling the chaos of my life taking over, I feel compelled to read, paint or draw. Reading helps the least, painting the most. However, for me, the relief is deep yet it is fleeting. When I stop, the chaos returns. Sadly, I can’t just paint. I have to earn a living. Art is my drug of choice but it stays in my bloodstream just but a moment.

As for the wider chaos of life, I firmly believe that art will save us every time, whatever is thrown at ‘us’. The anxieties and paranoias which every generation views as unique to its era are anything but. However, there are ebbs and flows. Whenever the political system gets out of hand, when it turns uncanny and when the balance is out, artists draw, paint and write. They do so in the face of opposition. They do so with a greater awareness of what they are fighting against and in greater quantity. They can’t help themselves. This art, I think, stays in the bloodstream for longer than the fleeting moment. It sticks.

This is a good thing.

Keep creating, people. I could not conduct my life without art, I am sure of that. So even in the face of an outer adversity, as well as my own inner turmoil, I will keep going.




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The avant garde paradox

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the impossibility of being labelled as ‘avant garde’ in art. I’ve been, very slowly it has to be said, reading Peter Burger’s The Theory of the Avant Garde and despite the challenging language of this book, I kind of get most what he is talking about. At first when I pick him up, I get cross with him. Then I re-read him and I get it.

The Book

One of his arguments is:

Avant-garde works only help to stabilise the status quo, specifically, the conditions against which it protests.

In other words, if you try to break the system, you just end up becoming the system. Therefore breaking the system permanently is an impossible task.

This makes me think that perhaps the goal of every artist (or at least every artist who defines themselves as a contemporary artist) is contradictory and will never be resolved: to be radical and misunderstood but also to be accepted and to connect. How can those two things happen simultaneously? They can’t.

Umberto Eco has previously argued that if you create art that nobody understands, then you have succeeded and once your art is accepted, you have failed (I read that somewhere but I can’t tell you where). This might be true if we take the definition of success to be mass acceptance.

Umberto Eco and his cat

The contradiction that bedevils the avant garde artist is therefore obvious: if you succeed through acceptance then you haven’t ‘succeeded’ as an avant garde artist. The mark of success for the avant gardest is to be completely obscure. What is ‘success’ if nobody sees it or spreads it? It isn’t success as most people know it. However, once you are accepted and popular, your ‘original’ and ‘radical’ idea is no longer original and radical. It is accepted and copied and morphed and loved.

It’s a loose-loose situation.

I feel this push-pull myself. I want to create art that is exciting and uncanny. I want people to misunderstand yet try to get me. I want to confuse and confound, to some degree. However, I also want people to relate and be excited by my art. People who feel confused and confounded will turn away and then the artist is left sitting in their own bubble of original thought that only they appreciate. Relation and excitement will turn into popularity and dilution. Dilution sounds like a bad thing. Is it?

So what’s the solution? I have yet to discover it. Perhaps the solution is to remain in silence. I don’t like the sound of that.

I need to keep looking.



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What is the place of place in the future?

Today I came across this quote by artist Mark Leckey: ‘Technology has put us in this strange place where we are never fully present in a strange sense, or our presence is distributed’. (Frieze Magazine, September 2017, p. 15).

I’ve thought a lot in the past (and in this blog) about what technology does to our relationship to ‘things’ but I haven’t previously thought about what technology does to our relationship to ‘place’. It could be argued that ‘place’ is just a big ‘thing’. We have memories associated with place just as we do with a thing.

We are addicted to the feelings that we get from memories and we have always wanted to capture those memories so we can recreate how we felt at that time / in that place at a future date. With the aid of art and then photography and video, we have been able to capture our memories of place so that we can return to them and share them with others (when we are back home from our holiday or when we have moved on to a different place).

Now, in the Internet world we can record those feelings by a more constant, rapid capturing of ‘place’ than we could previously. We capture place with our smartphones as it changes during the day, as we move around it and as time flows while we are there. We then upload the images on social media. We do this to cement the memories in our mind and to, perhaps more importantly, share our ‘good’ feeling with others. It is the 21st-century equivalent of the holiday slide show party, only now we all get an invite whether we want one or not.

So what does this do to our relationship to ‘place’, both while we are still in the place in question busy taking selfies of ourselves with the place in the background and afterwards when we are looking back at those photos, and counting the number of the likes and smiling at the comments. Are we able to enjoy the moment of being in the place in the same way we did before the Internet and social media? Does the memory of place change? Will our memories of the place, the images, the comments be stronger than the memory of the physical place and the related experiences that don’t include the act of sharing on social media?

An example of my own capturing of a memory of a place and posting on social media: ‘eating chips on the beach while watching the sun set’.

Related to this, another question is how do our memories and our experience of memory change when we can readily access the images of ‘place’ from our past experiences on the Internet? For example, recently, I was able to find images on the Internet of the inside of my grandparents’ house. The house’s interior looked completely different from my memory of it as it had been decorated and changed many times over the years, yet seeing it and accessing the images so easily, gave me a really unsettling feeling. I’m not sure I liked the feeling. Suddenly, the images in my head of the house morphed and changed. They became tainted by the images I saw on the Internet. I immediately regretted looking for the house. My notion of place in this case, came out of my memory and into the open, virtual world. I know it is obvious to state that my experience of this place isn’t my own, of course it isn’t; it has been shared by many. However, seeing this ‘place’ from my past on the Internet made me feel the intrusiveness of other people sharing my memory.  I didn’t like that the image of this particular place that I had held for so long had completely changed and no longer existed. It is a bit like Trigger’s Broom, or the Ship of Theseus paradox. The question I was asking was: is it the same place? The answer is both yes, and no, just like Trigger’s Broom. I’ve already written about that though.

Trigger’s Broom

This time, however, I am thinking more about the impact of the Internet on memory and place. If our sense of ‘presence’ in a physical place is less intense, then are we simply displaced? Do our memories scatter across the ether? Do we simply float around on the edge of the virtual world, skirting the real one at the same time? Are we no longer able to attach our memories to place? Are they now attached to our recording of the memories? I imagine myself floating just above the real world, attached to this beautiful, shiny and perfectly-formed bubble that floats in the sky and is carrying me further and further away.

I wonder whether it is possible whether the physical ‘place’ will disappear from our lives completely. I hope not. Perhaps, more likely, it will just get gradually shaved, or diluted, but it will never disappear completely, a bit like Zeno’s Paradox of the Tortoise and Achilles.

As an addendum to this blog: I’ve just come across Zeno’s Paradox of place: if everything that exists has a place, then the place has a place, and that place has a place, ad infinitum. Go forth and contemplate that!


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Can you be an ironic existentialist?

Over the last few hours I’ve been thinking more about this quote, which I came across yesterday.

Opposites, all the time

I couldn’t sleep last night and when I can’t sleep I am cursed with a brain that struggles to shut down. In my busy brain state, I decided that there are in fact many similar opposing, contradictory forces in our lives, in addition to the desire to communicate and the desire to hide. They act to inspire and repel us at the same time. They drive us and terrify us. They must have a purpose (or do we just notice them?). Perhaps they are spin-offs from the notion of the good and the bad, the angle and the devil, the should and the should not and the yin and the yang.

This drives us all in our actions and reactions

Related to this idea of the opposing forces in life is the prevalence of irony in life. Irony is everywhere. Irony is about opposing forces. What is irony? Irony is, to quote Ethan Hawke in Reality Bites: ‘It’s when the actual meaning is the complete opposite from the literal meaning.’ Clever cloggs, he is.

This man knows what irony is

However, as I see it, to quote Winona Ryder in the same film: ‘I know it when I see it.’ I love irony. I see irony all the time. It follows me around. It jumps out at me. Perhaps I have an irony-dar. I like to use irony in my art in some way (remember those abandoned balloon bits and of course repetition was all about irony). Often I think I use irony without realising it, ironically. 

I believe that there needs to be more acceptance of humour in art than there currently is. A couple of years ago I saw an exhibition at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery that explored humour in art and it was very inspiring and, not at all ironically, very funny. Artists often use humour in their art and this should be recognised more. Humour is perhaps more frequently used than realised to explore the human condition in all areas of creative pursuits. Artists are often stereotyped to be depressive existentialists, exploring the point of existence through creativity, but with a heavy heart. Can one be a funny existentialist? Absolutely, yes. Look at Monty Python, they were funny existentialists extraordinaire and they were very, very creative. They were definitely ironic, depressive artists.

He won’t haggle!

I wonder if perhaps for many creative people, being funny acts to deflate from the depressing reality that there really is no meaning to it all and all you do is die in the end, alone. You have to laugh about it or you’d just live in a well of despair and nobody wants to do that if they can help it. I certainly don’t.

I hadn’t quite thought it through before but perhaps my irony-dar is part of my desire to find meaning and my desire to feel better about the lack of meaning when perhaps there really isn’t one.

Ironic, eh?


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Self-doubt – do all artists, all of humanity, suffer?

If I’m an artist then this is me all of the time: torn between wanting to communicate something inside me that is exploding to come out and wanting to hibernate from the world.

Opposites, all the time

(But I never really know whether I am an ‘artist’ or not, whatever an ‘artist’ is and whether it is in fact something in all of us (which I actually believe to be true).)

Thinking of the concept of an ‘artist’, then I’m struggling at the moment with overwhelming self-doubt with that identity and as, also, more importantly, as a ‘good enough’ person. I don’t feel like I’m doing a great job at this humanity lark right now. I accept this doubt though as ‘normal’. I know we all feel it at times. We don’t say it to each other enough.

Joseph Beuys had it right: ‘Every human being is an artist’.

I’m an artist, are you?

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The futility of no narrative

Just under two years ago, I wrote a dissertation for my fine art degree about whether it is possible for art to exist without narrative. I talked about still-life art and the ‘narrative turn’ in the digital age and I concluded that I didn’t think it was possible to have art without narrative despite many 20th-century attempts at creating narrative-free art. 

Two years later, I have been thinking about this again, and I haven’t changed my conclusion.

Everything we do has a narrative. Every day is a narrative. Every hour is a narrative. Take today for example: ‘I woke up at 7.54am and realised that I had to get up soon as I needed to get some ham, cheese and bread with which to feed our guests. I eventually rose at 8.20am after having a much-needed cup of coffee and a much-craved browse of social media. I decided to wear a stripy polo-neck top and black skirt. It was supposed to rain later so I didn’t expect it to be hot. For breakfast I had a roll with cheese and ketchup and a glass of orange juice.’ I could go on but the story of my day (at least the start of it) isn’t terribly exciting. However, my point is that it IS a story. There is a narrative. I’m not sure that I have the audience gripped here, but there is a narrative that someone somewhere can relate to (perhaps someone who also likes cheese and ketchup for breakfast).

Staple breakfast fodder

Later on today, as I was about to watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones (which, let’s face it, is pregnant with narrative), I was thinking about the lives of myself and a group of friends of mine. I was thinking about how myself and these friends have recently had some hard issues to deal with and how we have knitted these issues together without realising it into the fabric of our changing relationships. The last few months of our lives, intertwined as they have been, have been tough. Our lives, bonded together like this, and if told out loud, sound a little like a soup opera. Is that a good thing? Totally, it is a normal thing.

The narrative that the people of the year 2017 are lapping up like thirsty puppies

In soup operas, people eat, drink, love, fight, sleep, tangle, die, marry, divorce, and so on. This is just like our lives.

Everything is a narrative. Every trip to the shops, every conversation, every night out and, as I argued in my dissertation, so also is our response to a piece of art. Paint a picture, post it to Facebook, show it to someone, they will give it a narrative. Trust me. They will. Do it. I know, because they recently did it to me. I liked that they did this. This to me was A Good Thing.

It is hard to argue against the ‘search for a narrative’ argument for a picture that shows a scene, an image or even a shape or line. How about paintings such as this one?

Malevich’s very famous Black Square

Surely, no narrative can be conjured up from this? I disagree: the absence of an image is the narrative. The discussion about what it means, what the response is, is the narrative. The emotional reaction one might get from staring at this painting is itself part of the narrative, or perhaps the start of a narrative.

We find narrative comforting. We cannot live without it. Why? That is what I’m not sure about. Without narrative we feel great anxiety. If we feel that our life has no meaning, no direction, no future, no narrative then we feel anxiety. It is the lack of a narrative that we perceive and it is that lack that makes us feel uneasy and unwell. So if we see no narrative in art, we can’t cope. We search for it desperately, even in a black square, to bring us back to somewhere where we feel grounded again.

We look to art to provide us with narrative when we feel there is narrative lacking in our lives. If we can’t find that narrative,what is left? Empty black space for eternity. Nobody wants that, surely? Even black space has a story to tell.



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Now it’s your turn, Grayson!

I now can’t imagine writing a normal review ever again. I think this is the future for me.

Grayson Perry

The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!

8 June–10 September 2017

Doodles pregnant with meaning on pots, prints and tapestries, this collection speaks loud. Angry about Brexit? Look, ponder, and reconsider: leave feeling renewed empathy for those you might not agree with. Quirky, colourful everyday objects amuse and entertain: gain insight into the artist’s serious yet fun take on this world.

Here! Here!

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