Category Archives: Visual art & artists

Go on, buy some art online: it’s safe to know what you like

Are our brains too small to understand modern art? That’s not my question. It was framed by Terry Teachout, a consistently interesting writer on culture for The Wall Street Journal.

Though I enjoyed his little speculative exercise, and though I feel much as he does about his examples selected from modern classical music and modernist literature, I think he was barking up the wrong tree. That isn’t just because it is often impossible to tell who really understands a work of art, and to what degree. What I’d like to know, instead, is how long — if ever — it’s going to take the average person to feel safe in liking what he and she does naturally and instinctively, caring nothing about lining up with either mass or expert taste.

This familiar complaint by a Simon Heffer in yesterday’s Telegraph has something to do with too many people’s fear of expressing — or acting on — their aesthetic preferences:

There was a dreadful phrase that one used to hear a lot 30 or 40 years ago, but which is now, fortunately, less common: “I know what I like.” The level of satisfaction with which it was uttered was matched only by the degree of contempt it used to excite in me. How did the speaker know? And what did it say about his or her determination to close off a no doubt underactive mind against any adventure, any new stimulus, any sense of curiosity?

While the particular form of arrogance he describes is intrinsically annoying, knowing what you like – even insisting that you do – is not necessarily the sign of a closed mind. Surely it can also be consistent with wide-ranging, possibly pathological, curiosity? A strong, visceral certainty about what one likes can be hard won – from years of exploration and adventuring.

I have been thinking about all that partly because I am still wondering about the subject of my last post. Could selling ‘fine’ art online liberate buyers to simply choose what they like, sparing them the embarrassment – or annoyance – of needing to talk about it to people who know more about it than they do? Or less?

So far, I have only had time to look at a small portion of the portfolio that Ana Margarida Johnson, one young artist who recently joined the conversation here, has put up for sale on her site (yes, with helpful price tags.) In keeping with my preference for saying as little as possible about art that I find attractive, I will only note that I seem to have been drawn to her picture titled Orange – in spite of (usually) loathing the colour – because (i) of the playful vibrance of its shapes, not just its palette; (ii) I once, long ago, enjoyed drawing and painting abstract, complex geometric constructions myself; (iii) the work of Wassily Kandinsky, which I loved in those years of messing around with paint, came to mind in my first glance at Ana’s creation (say, his Black and Violet); (v) it looks almost exactly like my conception of how human brains operate – not just in my childhood, but well into my twenties, when I continued to dismiss all scientific understanding of grey matter as hopelessly dull, by comparison.

And that reminds me …For reasons that mystify even me, a trailer for Brain Wave, a piece of performance art by the Whalley Range All-Stars, has decisively reversed a downward drift in my mood every time I have watched its excerpts, since I discovered it a few days ago. I mean that I sensed that its effect was far more complex than simply making me laugh, but without being able to say exactly why. And I would rather not know. In that respect – a delicious unaccountability – it made me think of Waiting for Godot, which somehow makes despair cheerful. It also called to mind Dada — and Marcel Marceau. ‘See wishful thinking fight it out with mental blocks and twisted logic,’ the notice for Brain Wave proclaims. I wouldn’t say that that’s what I saw – or didn’t see — in the trailer, which made me sharply regret being too far away to accept its invitation.

Do artists need any more than that from an audience?

If I went to watch that WRAS offering, I would hope to have a chance to meet the troupe’s Pig, too. This is not the only site on which that beast has been discussed obsessively, interminably, perhaps tediously, for some … but my excuse, this time, is a chance re-discovery of a truly terrible poem, my reward for tackling the consequences of a flood in a laundry room that went undiscovered for weeks:

Harmonious Hog draw near!
No bloody Butchers here,
Thou need’st not fear,
Harmonious Hog draw near, and from thy beauteous Snowt
Whilst we attend with Ear,
Like thine prick’t up devou’t;
To taste thy Sugry voice, which here, and there,
With wanton Curls, vibrates around the circling Air,
Harmonious Hog! warble some Anthem out!

from A Pindaricque, On the Grunting of a Hog , Samuel Wesley Sr., 1685



Filed under Visual art & artists

Can Google and Charles Saatchi save artists from (Damien) Hirstian self-promotion and the fate of Vincent van Gogh?

If I ruled the internet – and why not, if someone had to do the job – I might have a law requiring all artists to post prices for the paintings they exhibited online. I say this because it has been like torture inflicted on Tantalus not to know whether I can afford to buy a picture I fell in love with last week, checking surmises about the web site of Harold Francis Bell in my last post. I was wrong to suggest that HFB might have given up painting to concentrate on sculpture. There were two superb new portraits on his site, apparently of the same subject: a striking young woman in her late teens or perhaps early twenties, in a different mood in each picture. It’s the second one I specially covet, the portrait in white.

Most artists are as poor as most writers, which makes enquiries related to lucre uncomfortable in the extreme for people who, like me, detest monetary negotiations of every kind – well short of haggling. But except for the annoyance of the missing price tag – and PayPal button – not just on the Bell site, but hundreds of others, I find that I much prefer shopping for art online. No smarmy, oleaginous gallery owner or attendant stands slyly estimating my net worth as I walk around. No other prospective buyers wait for a turn at close inspection, ruffling my hair with impatient breathing. No inane comments distract me from being borne away to wherever a picture or sculpture takes me.

A discussion in the comments section among artist comrades on this very site last year taught me that many of them resent being dictated to by art galleries. So the question that interests me is, could search engines liberate both artists and art buyers from middlemen that both groups would rather do without?

The most innovative business mind sympathetic to artists’ struggles to make a living, and keen on helping, does not seem all that optimistic about the net as the solution to the problem – even though its owner has for several years had an outstanding online showcase for contemporary art. Answering questions at the Daily Beast last week, Charles Saatchi said:

The great majority of artists around the world don’t have dealers to represent or show their work. It makes it pretty well impossible to get your efforts seen, with most dealers too busy or too lazy to visit studios—[…] In reality, most dealers find new artists to show through recommendations from their existing stable—artists often urge their dealers to look favourably upon the work of their friends; furthermore, dealers usually believe artists are good judges of other artists’ work. All in all then, if you’re not in the right artistic social circles, didn’t go to a hip art school, don’t quite fit in, it can be hell to extract much interest from dealers and collectors.

Not once did he mention the internet as a meeting place for buyers and sellers. I wonder whether he has become disenchanted with the web’s potential as a marketplace cutting out dealers since The New York Times reported, three years ago, that

… he and his Internet team spend their days pondering ways of attracting more artists to [Saatchi Online]. In addition to Stuart, for art students, and Your Gallery, a separate area where artists of all ages can post their work and sell it directly without relying on a dealer or other middleman, the site offers links to museums around the world and a magazine with art world news and feature articles.

Much as I admire the Saatchi experiments, visiting sites showing works by more than one artist is, in my experience, much less enjoyable than time spent at single-artist platforms that catch my eye.

An individual showcase feels more intimate even than being a guest in a painter’s home; more like climbing into that painter’s head. It’s a chance to revel in various facets of the same sensibility; or of the same work – if, as on the Bell site, the software permits views that flicker pleasingly between a full-length picture and selected, magnified details. Whereas I clicked out of the multi-artist exhibition on the Imagekind site almost as fast as I clicked in, nauseated by the clashing colours and styles and too many images that shrieked ‘Hallmark,’ or ‘tea towel’, I lingered over the two new Bells, marvelling at how human beings learnt to depict sensitivity in a human face with thick and heavy oil paint – for instance, the tremulous uncertainty in the expression of the girl in white. Was it that same girl I was looking at in ‘Cheongsam,’ radiating self-confidence – or her sister? If the pictures were indeed two views of the same person, which expression was habitual for her? … and so on.

But how would I go about finding the Bell pictures on the net if chance didn’t put them in my way? At Empty Easel, someone advising artists about how to sell work online implies that the most important of seven tips for drawing buyers to their pictures is that these should ‘be optimized for search engines like Google and Yahoo. “Optimizing for search” just means using the same keywords in your descriptions and titles that art buyers use when searching for artwork online.’ The writer offers this example:

Untitled Fragments is the seventh painting in my series of geometric abstract artworks. I used bold colors and powerful brush strokes, as I do in all my paintings, in order to create a lasting visual impression. Art buyers (and art lovers) will see symbolic references to prominent 20th century abstract painters like Piet Mondrian and Georges Braque as I offer homage to their artistic vision through my own art. This artwork is still for sale, so if you’d like to purchase the painting just click on the buy artwork button below.”

Yes I can see the sense in that reasoning. Enabling steering by key words is probably as much as today’s search technology can help. It leaves a lot to be desired, though. Where Empty Easel’s sample of search bait mentions Mondrian and Braque, I might say Modigliani about the girl-in-white picture on the Bell site, and perhaps Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. But those names may not mean anything to someone who was never steeped as deeply in art history as I once was, or had time or the inclination to visit museums – so could be useless as both lures and guides.

What we want is a search engine you could direct by giving it the link to a particular picture, or uploading it. Starting with the image itself (rather than a description of it in words) and a simple instruction such as, ‘drawings like this,’ a searcher would receive a stream of offerings, with chances to narrow selections by, for example, dominant colours or classes of colour. I have gathered, though, that the software for image-based searching is still primitive – even if it is something of a holy grail for researchers because of the shift from text to pictorial (or video) communications that seems to be underway.

It makes me sad to say that I think it unlikely that artists linked chiefly by philosophy, or opposition to common enemies – for instance, crass art marketing and bullying dealers – could sell much serious art. In addition to the off-putting stylistic jungle I’ve mentioned in relation to Imagekind, I cannot see people as individualistic as most good artists agreeing on points as small but vital as, say, the price tags I want for works put up for sale. One collaborative, – also known as Art on the Net – specifically forbids any mention of money:

Our site is a non-commercial site and we request that artists not post prices or create commercial-like spaces here. We ask artists to not have things in their spaces such as order forms for art or commercial banners. Instead we hope artists will treat their spaces as if they were actual studios and gallery rooms.

The unseemly hawking must be done off-site:

Artists are encouraged to provide contact information for themselves in their spaces so that people interested in their work can contact them directly.

Though I find the reasons for that policy deeply sympathetic, I can’t help wondering why, since we are used to publishers and authors setting a price for books, painters should not be equally frank in stating what they consider their work to be worth.

So, to summarise conclusions from my woolgathering about the net as a virtual art gallery: in addition to price lists and swift payment tools like PayPal, I would prefer to see not collective displays but individual sites controlled by individual artists. And I want search companies to hurry up and improve their technology faster. Perhaps an ingenious startup will leapfrog over Google, inventing robust, efficient, picture-based sorting software before it gets there. . . Perhaps Charles Saatchi will finance this essential invention. Like Theo van Gogh, the art dealer whose faith in the genius of his desperate brother never wavered, even if almost no one else shared it, in Vincent’s lifetime – Saatchi does grasp what art means to artists. Baffled as I am by his enthusiasm for the stunts of Damien Hirst, I am impressed by his understanding what people good at making money seldom do, in my experience:

I hate to sound like a romantic adolescent, but I believe artists don’t generally see art as a career choice, they simply can’t overcome their desire to make art …


Filed under Visual art & artists

Editors, editing and infant mortality … (part 2)

[ Editors, editing and infant mortality (part 1) can be read here. ]


When Han Kan was summoned
to the imperial capital
it was suggested that he sit at the feet of
the illustrious senior court painter
to learn from him the refinements of the art.

‘No thank you,’ he replied,
‘I shall apprentice myself to the stables.’

And he installed himself and his brushes amid the dung and the flies,
and studied the horses – their bodies’ keen alertness –
eye-sparkle of one, another’s sensitive stance,
the way a third moved graceful in his build –

and painted at last the emperor’s favorite,
the charger named ‘Nightshining White,’

whose likeness after centuries still dazzles.


…and that’s my answer to this whinge in yesterday’s New York Times from a misnamed James Sunshine …:

‘…Your column [..] dealt with the standards of blogs, as though we all agreed on what a blog is and is not. I spent 45 years at The Providence Journal, and I still do not understand them. Nor do I like them.

Is a blog merely the private thoughts of the blogger, who has been given the privilege of saying what he happens to think at the moment without a qualified editor passing judgment on it for accuracy, taste, appropriateness and so on? …’

Don’t tell me what the dictionary says, even if it's the OED. The word twit means: someone (i) still insisting in 2010 that bloggers post nothing worthy of close reading or looking; (ii) rabbiting on about how the internet has killed serendipity; (iii) wailing that editors should be treated as protected species, under the delusion that they midwife more good literature than they stifle — in the womb.

First, serendipity … Yesterday I learnt that Yandex, Russia’s answer to Google, sent someone in Rumania to this site to look at Shawn Yu’s drawing of Bruce Chatwin — first published here. From that search result, I discovered – oh of course I read Russian, and with my eyes shut, who doesn’t? – that the Yu portrait has been chosen for nothing less than the home page of the site dedicated to the great nomad by Jonathan Chatwin, who is strangely not a relation, according to The Bibliophilic Blogger.

When I stumbled on the Yandex query, I happened to have been wondering what new work Yu and Harold Francis Bell, another artist lauded in this spot, might have put up on their sites lately. Bell appears to be in mid-redesign on his site, unless he has put painting aside to concentrate on his perceptive female-focused sculpture – if his slide show moving like a glimmering Chopin sonata is any guide. Yu’s blog says that he has just graduated from art school. It offers a fine self-portrait as compelling as Lang-Lang playing Beethoven, and a powerful nude in charcoal.

So much for serendipitous looking. As for reading, editors were on my mind when I checked the always stimulating blog of the novelist Helen DeWitt , whose reportedly brilliant The Last Samurai I have only failed to read because someone bossy, too close for comfort, keeps demanding that I do.

A brave – and much too rare – writer, she had the temerity to suggest last month that scribes submitting work to editors serving as gate-keepers and assayers should have ready access to information about those editors’ qualifications. She actually asked, in public, a question that – before the internet — could only have been put by one semi-inebriated writer to another in the darkest corner of a watering hole, and promptly forgotten about, for the security of both their careers:

Unlike the size of an advance, an editor’s intellectual strengths do not fluctuate with the economy or the sales of a writer’s last book. It would help to know what they were. […] It would be even more helpful if […] writers who had worked with an editor wrote brief accounts of their perception of the experience. […] This sort of suggestion seems to provoke suspicion if not down right hostility: wanting this kind of information was one of the reasons my last agent, Bill Clegg, had second thoughts about working with me.

[After that, she was understandably even angrier, as she explains here, in a saga that nearly had my eyes rolling out of their sockets.]

The first of two recent discoveries of bad editorial decisions revealed, about Simone de Beauvoir‘s seminal work of sexual politics, that …

Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier’s new translation of “The Second Sex” is the first English-language edition in almost 60 years, and the first to restore the material Parshley excised. In this passionate, awesomely erudite work, Beauvoir examines the reasons women have been forced to accept a place in society secondary to that of men, despite the fact that women constitute half the human race. Supporting her arguments with data from biology, physiology, ethnology, anthropology, mythology, folklore, philosophy and economics, she documents the status of women throughout history, from the age of hunter-gatherers to the mid-20th century. In one of her most interesting chapters, “The Married Woman” (a chapter Parshley particularly savaged), she offers numerous quotations from the novels and diaries of Virginia Woolf, Colette, Edith Wharton, Sophia Tolstoy and others.

Too bad that those were missing from the edition I read, years ago. As it was clear even from the hacked English edition that prolixity was characteristic of de Beauvoir’s warp and weft, why not leave well alone?

Regrettably, the work of David Foster Wallace has never lit the smallest flame under me — because I like the man who emerges in accounts of people who knew him, and have always been impressed by the huge numbers of discerning readers among his fans. Surely those admirers deserve not to have had to wait fourteen years to read this detailed, posthumous profile of him by David Lipsky that, we are now told, was spiked by editors in 1996, the year DFW’s Infinite Jest was published to wide acclaim:

[A]fter Lipsky spent five days with Wallace, staying as a guest in his house, driving and flying with him across the Midwest and interrogating him on increasingly personal subjects […] Rolling Stone killed the assignment, apparently concluding that its readers would not be interested in the author of a dense, challenging, wildly satiric, at times profoundly sad and gruesome 1,079-page novel after all.

Wallace took his own life in 2008, at the age of 46, devastating his loved ones and confounding a generation of readers and writers. The reputation of “Infinite Jest” still grows. Set in a near-future America fixated by its tools for chemical and electronic self-gratification, the novel seems more prescient with the rollout of every new compulsively entertaining digital device.

In this age of the Blogosphere, thank goodness, Lipsky could have put his rejected conversations with Wallace online in seconds and let us judge their merits ourselves.

By all means let’s have editors for the refinement of a small proportion of the finest of fine literary creations. Let them be like curators of museums guarding cultural treasures, or perhaps personal hair choppers-and-fluffers who travel with celebrities.

As for the rest of us … Every week, I seem to come across a new, unmediated, wonderful blog, delving into some subject I have always longed to know more about. I follow a few of these regularly. One-Way Street, for instance, which is mostly about architecture, has had some sharp posts on contemporary fiction, and last week offered the deftest evisceration by far – through excellent links — of the feeble responses of the Israeli government, and foreign public intellectuals defending it, to the outcry about the petrifying, unconscionable raid on the Mavi Marmara.


Filed under Editors and editing, The blogosphere, Visual art & artists

Neurons making love and art

'Dragon Boat Festival,' Fang Zhaoling, 1985

'Dragon Boat Festival,' Fang Zhaoling, 1985

It’s rutting season where I am.

Perfect, as it happens, for the question preoccupying me lately — about what conclusions neuroscience will reach on the neurological basis for the romantic temperament, its joys and vexations. In place of the asthmatic buses and jackhammers punctuating thought on my last working visit to London, I have galumphing deer clattering on the wooden planks hugging the perimeter of this house. This is something like listening to badly trained, drunken clog-dancers who lack any sense of rhythm.

Shhhh,’ I said, raising a cautioning hand at the kitchen table the night before last. I left my seat silently, snapping on outdoor lights as I went, and soon was looking down two sets of long doe ears lined in off-white fur — eighteen inches away and behind a glass door — as their owners tucked lustily into bird seed. That’s right, bird seed — where there’s no shortage of lush gardens for randy ruminants to plunder … — fallen from the bird feeder into a re-potting project.

Next morning, proof that the marauders returned …

In the morning, proof that the marauders returned …

A few days ago, I was about to post Fang Zhaoling’s painting with a line saying ‘Happy Bank Holiday’ – since the scene it depicts looked like fun unbound — until I read its caption. I remembered discussing on someone else’s blog last year the annual Dragon Boat Festival, which commemorates the death of one of the most famous poets in Chinese history. Qu Yuan (332-296 BC) was an aristocrat and great patriot with an ‘air of suffering nobility’ whose despairing love for his country led him to criticise its rulers, endure the ostracisation that followed, and eventually die by suicide. During the festival, the outstandingly practical Chinese try symbolically to ‘fish his corpse out of the water in which he drowned himself’, according to the sinologist Hellmut Wilhelm. A Chinese government site says about his most celebrated work:

Lament on Encountering Sorrow is a romantic lyric poem with a measured realism. The poet utilizes a great deal of exaggeration in portraying characters and describing objects. The assemblage of fairy tales further enhances the poem’s romantic flavour.

It was intended as a political protest. Though the poet who is its hero harnesses jade dragons to his phoenix carriage and is borne away on the wind to battle obstacles to winning the hand of a fairy, goddess or princess, Wilhelm says that the amorous quest is an ‘allegory of sensual union’ whose actual significance is political. In the ancient Chinese tradition, that union ‘was often used … to allude to the relationship between ruler and advisor.’

What interests me about Qu Yuan’s story and his epic poem is that they illustrate the consistency, across cultures, of the link between art and a bonjour tristesse view of life. The mystical psychologist Helen Palmer includes as typical of this perspective an attraction to ‘what’s missing: the distant, unavailable, and hard to get ,’ as well as a ‘sense of abandonment … impatien[ce] with mediocrity and mundane life’ ; a tendency to intensify feeling through ‘loss, fantasy, artistic connection, and dramatic acts’ – and in work, a craving for distinctiveness, for ‘creativity, even genius, an eccentric edge in presentation.’

That isn’t just true of artistic creativity, as conventional thinking has it, but of original thinking in science, too. That point is made in a mention I found only this week of The Age of Wonder by the biographer Richard Holmes:

“Romanticism as a cultural force is generally regarded as hostile to science, its ideal of subjectivity eternally opposed to that of scientific objectivity,” Holmes writes. “But I do not believe this was always the case, or that the terms are so mutually exclusive.[…]”

A biographer of Shelley and Coleridge, Holmes’s particular genius is to parse the similar philosophical concerns of both science and poetry, showing us how the scientists of the era defined the textbook Romantic temperament as much as the poets did.

I want neuroscientists to explain what drearily reductive evolutionary biologists have so far been unable to do, which is tell me why Albert Einstein, Graham Greene, T.S. Eliot, Robert Oppenheimer and Ted Hughes all had enough sturm-und-drang in their relationships to justify thrillingly romantic bio-pics — even though, because they were men, no one would a priori have assumed any interest in being ‘in love with being in love’ in ways assumed to be typical of women. Why is romantic love – the most intense, pleasurable, but also difficult kind of loving – so often part of the picture of high accomplishment in creating what didn’t exist before, when that involves imagination and originality?

What other human tendencies belong in that cluster of neurological functions or tendencies? For instance, science has found that brain circuitry fully supports the old cliché about the close kinship between the emotions of love and hate. Recently, neuroscientists have been working on a fascinating puzzle – trying to work out why cursing seems to act as a natural analgesic:

According to a study published in the current issue of NeuroReport, swearing helps to alleviate pain:

“Swearing has been around for centuries and is an almost universal human linguistic phenomenon,” said Richard Stephens of Keele University in England and one of the authors of the new study. “It taps into emotional brain centers and appears to arise in the right brain, whereas most language production occurs in the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain.”

I was thinking about all that when fragments of David McDade’s lyrics on a CD bought for a different song caught my ear (not in the overcooked rendering of the hyper-pneumatic Dolly Parton) :

Everytime the bluebird sings
My heart takes wings to the sky
With bluebird’s grace I fly
To my place in your eyes
Cause after all, I did all I could
And you did your best, just the same
Nobody won, we both lost, no one’s to blame
But I’ll find my way to you, if I’m only pretending
And we’ll be like bluebirds, live the beautiful lie
We’ll be like bluebirds, live the beautiful lie

… and when those last words seemed strangely familiar, a search engine reminded me that it was Stendhal who said that all art is a beautiful lie, or what you could see as elaboration on the romantic impulse.

What would the opposite of that be? Perhaps excessive realism – like Schopenhauer’s. He meticulously worked out how attaining our desires only leads to new desires and discontentment, and for himself, mostly rejected close human connection — preferring the companionship of a succession of poodles he owned from his student days until his death. I suspect that most of humanity would find his impeccable rationality less compelling than the grand — grandiose — delusions of romanticism. Our reach was surely always intended to exceed our grasp.

How many wouldn’t reject the chance to write impenetrably, as Schopenhauer did, …

The physical form of the principle of sufficient reason is the principle of becoming. The mathematical form of the principle of sufficient reason is the principle of being. The logical form of the principle of sufficient reason is the principle of knowing. The moral form of the principle of sufficient reason is the principle of acting.

… if offered the choice between that and being able to say, as Byron did, that

… dreams in their development have breath,
And tears, and tortures and the touch of joy:
They leave a weight upon our waking thoughts,
They take a weight off from our waking toils,
[…] they become
A portion of ourselves and of our time,
And look like heralds of eternity; …

A world-view like Schopenhauer’s leaves so much less room for believing six impossible things before breakfast – in, for instance, the existence of bird-brained, seed-chomping deer.


Filed under Insight from neuroscience, Poetry, Psychology, Visual art & artists

We few, we happy few … bloggers vs. The Guardian (which has a lesson to learn from computer geeks)

Old Media contemplating the leap into the New (Huma Mulji's 'High Rise'; Ozier Muhammad)

Old Media contemplating the leap into the New (Huma Mulji's 'High Rise'; Ozier Muhammad)

Dear Comrades
, including those of you who once blogged with me on the books site of The Guardian – whether or not we’re still on speaking terms,

…The signs point to a victory over Goliath. . . Yes, we few, we happy band of bloggers … have won, by refusing to let that newspaper shut us up — behaving just like Tony Benn resisting the BBC’s attempt to silence him in this riveting clip @Hazlitt posted here.

The incontrovertible proof of our triumph? That the moderators on that site can no longer openly ban us.

Because they couldn’t ban for instance, me, in the last half of August, they stooped to imitating Richard Nixon’s Dirty Tricks Department – remember Watergate? — to keep me out.

Why? Because we have taught the Guardian’s managers that a banned blogger quickly becomes a cause célèbre – not least because this site, with one or two others, initiated a tradition of publishing any comments censored by the newspaper’s trigger-happy moderators. (see Salvage Operation, part 1 and part 2.)

It would have been hard for The Guardian to ban me outright. Far from attacking or abusing anyone in my only two attempts at posting there as @wordnerd7 since last winter, I wrote a comment praising a piece on the newspaper’s site.

Before I tidy all that out of sight — and to ensure that the newspaper’s editors will never be able to dismiss the incidents as paranoid and imaginary — I’m summarising the sequence of happenings in this spot. On August 22, I had an automated message informing me that a comment warmly supporting an article by Aaron Akinyemi on the books blog had been siphoned off into ‘pre-moderation’. While I waited, mystified and with misgivings, I pasted in a draft of that comment on this site. On August 26, four days after it disappeared into the bowels of the online Guardian, it reappeared heavily edited – with links to two articles on this site agreeing with Aaron’s argument lopped off. Sentences of mine were slyly inserted under the screen name ‘@wordnerd’ – and not ‘@wordnerd7’, as they should have been. At the bottom of the butchered comment, a remark addressed to ‘@nuges’ was added to my words – a remark never made by me.

When I saw that on August 27, I immediately wrote a new comment, protesting about the censoring, blatant distortion and additions to my original comment — asking the Guardian’s moderators for an explanation. This attempt at posting also vanished into pre-moderation, never to be seen again. I put an exact replica of that post here.

Another wait. Then, on August 28, a comment of which I never wrote a single line appeared in the Akinyemi thread under ‘@wordnerd’. The post attributed to me amounts to a simple-minded and crass statement about racial differences at the furthest extreme from my own beliefs (……………as anyone interested will discover in reading these threads: Will Barack Obama bring back heroism? and A bit more on heroes: Barack Obama’s odyssey, part 2)

Just to be perfectly clear about what must be obvious, The Guardian has never answered my question about why the first post was censored and doctored – and it prevented my enquiry from ever appearing on its site. (I have a copy of the second pre-moderation notice.)

So that’s what I mean by ‘dirty tricks’, and I’m creating this careful record of the incidents for anyone else who might encounter the same behaviour by the authorities responsible for that site.

Now this, mark you, is a newspaper that has a whole segment of its website labelled Liberty Central, advertising the image it likes to project – and can sometimes justify, in other spheres – as a friend of freedom and the oppressed.

As I pointed out at the time, it’s clear that The Guardian is severely rattled by bloggers questioning its authority with substantive objections. There is other – constructive and heartening — proof of our arrows finding their mark. Over the last few weeks, there have been several articles on the Guardian’s books blog objecting to the commercialisation of book publishing – for instance, this one about promotional author-videos and another about Margaret Atwood.

They make a striking contrast with the prevailing opinion of the editors on that site two years ago, when they ran piece after piece endorsing book publishing’s increasing dominance by marketing executives (at the expense of literary quality) – starting with one titled Selling Yourself as a Writer. As recently as last November, strong – but politely worded — objections to that unbridled philistinism were deleted by Guardian moderators.

An entry in this blog spelling out those objections in detail seems to have been heeded: Since when was a newspaper strictly a mercantilist tool?

In effectively banning me in late August, though, the authorities concerned appeared to have had a fit of acute irrationality – spiced with malice.

Arbitrary and punishing authoritarianism is out of temper with the times, dear Guardian. We know how difficult it must be for Old Media to adjust to online publishing, which needs new rules for all sorts of processes and procedures, including the correction of errors, as I demonstrated last month.

Look to the technocrats who gave us these magnificent new communication tools to see how you should be making every facet of your modus operandi more egalitarian. Power structures are flattening out. You don’t seem to have noticed, but they aren’t shaped like pyramids any more. Last March, Scott Rosenberg, who has just published a history of blogging, Say Everything, received a grant of $335,000 from the American Knight Foundation to explore a system for correcting errors in the media that mimics the cheerfully collaborative spirit in which coders of open-source software have debugged each other’s work for decades.

Instead of getting huffy and defensive about the mistakes they make when these are pointed out by readers, in Rosenberg’s vision, newspapers and other media will respond with a collegial graciousness. As he has explained, about his test site:

We’re a place on the Web (independent and not-for-profit) where you can bring specific errors, issues and problems you’ve found in media coverage in your community and try to get them fixed.


Q: Why should I bother?

A: Because you know that good public information is the lifeblood of democracy. And that journalists are human beings who sometimes make mistakes. And that they work for institutions that don’t always respond to criticism. Instead of posting an angry rant on your blog or just shrugging your shoulders, MediaBugs will give you and those journalists a chance to have civil exchanges about the inevitable errors and problems that crop up in their work.

… As for my fellow-bloggers, with whom I began. Make sure that you have your own blog. I’d have been beside myself if I’d had no way to expose the behaviour of the Guardian’s moderators over the last two weeks. Get your own site, and think hard about commenting on newspaper articles there, not on the newspapers’ sites – to ensure that you will always own the words you write, and can make up your own rules about what you can and can’t say.

Withhold your clicks from their sites, if necessary, and put your weight behind the thrilling new democracy that the new communication technologies have brought us. And do not doubt for a second that our words are being read where it matters.

. . . We few, we happy few, we band of bloggers;
For we today who save our clicks for freedom
Shall e’er be comrades; be we ne’er so vile
Our band shall speed the media revolution:
And Grauniad moderators in their cups
Shall cry themselves a river they were so foul,
And took for monkeys commenters loyal and fair
Who looked for thanks and justice, all in vain.


Filed under Book publishing, Censorship, Editors and editing, The blogosphere, The Guardian, Visual art & artists

A serendipitous postscript to: Bruce Chatwin, blogging pioneer

A good reporter thinking in what couldn’t be deemed his finest hour was complaining the other day that the net has killed serendipity. To that I say, stuff and nonsense. The fact is, it’s alive and well and has only done a bit of shape-shifting — just as Serendip, the inspiration for that gorgeous word, turned into Ceylon and then Sri Lanka.

After I’d posted my last entry here, I got curious about how posterity is treating Bruce Chatwin. Near the top of search engine offerings for my query, I found a surprising and highly original assessment of his work by a friend of his, the composer Kevin Volans.

No, that doesn’t count as an example of serendipity, but only the equivalent of a waiter appearing with poached eggs and a double espresso because I’d ordered — gosh!poached eggs and a double espresso. I was looking for other people’s opinions of the Chatwin oeuvre: that was what I got. What did signal serendipity was that the title of the Volans paper, written for last spring’s Oxford Literary Festival, was Some Japanese Influences on Style and Structure in Bruce Chatwin’s Writing. And as if that wasn’t sufficiently delectable on its own, he explains en passant that it was ‘the compositional structure of the books that first attracted me to Bruce’s work.’

Volans’ analysis justifies an obsession of mine — that we need much more of both cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary criticism in the arts, because it’s in the perspectives of outsiders that the most illuminating insight is found disproportionately. That’s not something I can prove statistically or in any objective way, of course. But though I have no formal training in either classical music or poetry appreciation, this segment of the — rather disorganised, only it doesn’t matter — paper immediately leapt out as fresh and true:

In place of metaphor Chatwin tends to use a structure also found in haiku or its older form waka – an AB form in which the first part sets up an expectation, and the second part provides a resolution (which is often unexpected). The resonance created between the first and the second parts substitutes for metaphor. […] This is the basis of the structure of Japanese linked poetry which was developed from the 8th century onwards. According to Yuasa, ‘…each poem takes up the suggestion of the last poem and yet opens up a new world of its own, so that the reader is carried though the whole series as through the exquisitely arranged rooms of a building.’ I think this is what Bruce aspired to in his more ambitious moments.

An AB structure runs throughout Bruce’s late work in particular – the
form is so common as to almost be a personal cliché – and is used both on a small and a large scale. […]

A: “Mrs. Gandhi wore a green and white striped sari. And sat down to a breakfast
B: that never came.” [ What Am I Doing Here ]

A: “They set down the coffin with a show of reverence.
B: Then, attracted by the smell of hot bread from a bakery along the street, they strolled off to get breakfast…” [ Utz ]

A: “Olwen had kicked. The hoof caught him under the chin,
B: and the sparrows went on chattering.” [ On the Black Hill ]

I wondered what Volans would make of the Shawn Yu portrait of Chatwin that I was attracted to because it gets behind the shimmering, beguilingly fey persona that the writer created. This passage in the Volans critique led me to suspect that he just might understand my choice of image:

[Artistry] transcends ‘personality’. Personality is formed and assessed socially and is habitual […] Beethoven the personality may have driven Beethoven the artist, but it was the intellect, the intelligence and the imagination of the artist that created the realms of his music. […] I say all of this because with Bruce Chatwin it is easy to be sideswiped by the glamour of the personality and the life of the author. Indeed, I think that at times the artist and the persona in Bruce were at odds with each other.

Volans believes that Chatwin was deeply influenced by the 17th century Japanese poet Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North — particularly in the writing of his impressionistic, idiosyncratic, collage- and blog-like account of his Australian odyssey:

For me Bruce’s novel with the most interesting structure is The Songlines. In form it’s almost an exact parallel of Basho’s A Visit to Sarashina Village: first a prose narrative which gives way to a set of linked verse. Basho, in the company of a pupil, sets off to see Mount Obasute under a full moon. The piece becomes a meditation on the meaning of travel, and journeying as a metaphor for transience of life itself. The linked poems at the end are by Basho and his disciple Etsujin.


[The Songlines ] is, of course, primarily a meditation on walking, travelling and its meaning. And the notebooks at the end have links: Petrarch talks of sleeping in a different bed each night. This links to Rimbaud (asking what am I doing here) – to a sleepless night in an hotel in Brazil – to the names of 2 hotels in Cameroon, the Windsor and the anti-Windsor – which provide a link a the British ambassador in Kabul, whose contradictory initiative and insensitivity to local culture leads to a Moorish proverb on the value of men – which prompts a story of a little man who prospects for jewellery in sewers in Miami: “’It is not, I can assure you, sir’ he said, ‘ an unrewarding occupation.’” And so on. And of course, many of the notes are quotations from other people’s writings.

Another point on which Volans and I might be singing in perfect harmony is about the commercialisation of the arts — an affliction I’ve bewailed before in writing about the fate today of journalism and book publishing.

By starting his career with In Patagonia Chatwin ran into a problem: all the arts are now run by their arch enemy: Business – in this case the Book Industry. And industries love labels. Work must be classified into genres. Is it fact or fiction? Is it a novel or is it a travel book? I recall one of the judges of the Booker prize being almost more annoyed at the brevity of Utz than anything else. The book didn’t fit into his classification of a novel, and therefore he felt it didn’t belong in the competition! (Imagine Capability Brown’s apoplexy at the sight of a stone garden).

I see hyper-serendipity as one of the greatest treats the net serves up. I’d have rated my chances of stumbling on Volans’ thoughts about Chatwin before I came online at close to zero. I am unlikely to have thought of asking a reference librarian about parallels in exotic cultural traditions for Chatwin’s literary style, and as for what rhythms a composer might discern in it — no, again, not even in a dream.

Yes, I do have an extraordinary friend or two who might, out of the blue, volunteer observations from a Volans-like perspective — or opinions as penetrating from some other viewpoint entirely. But that would be serendipity, too — the old-fashioned, ante-net kind.

Leave a comment

Filed under Book publishing, Criticism, Music and words, Poetry, The blogosphere, Visual art & artists

As goes blogging, so goes literature … or, … Bruce Chatwin, blogging pioneer

Used with the permission of the artist:

Bruce Chatwin by Shawn Yu:

Mary Roach on Bill Streever‘s Cold in last Sunday’s lead review in The New York Times:

Streever himself is a scientist, both by degree and paycheck, but writing for journals hasn’t muddied his style. Phalaropes, he writes, “swim in tight circles, their heads bobbing as if connected to their feet.” […] He sculptures lucid explanations and fires them with fine writing.

A warning: This is a book only in that it has a cover. It’s structured more like a blog. There are chapters, but they aren’t united by easily discerned themes. One begins with a few pages about El Niño, followed by a section break and then “The moose is so well insulated that. . . .” I fought it for a chapter or two, and then I gave in. The book is so interesting it doesn’t matter.

Portraiture in the form of cheap snapshots became as blah-unremarkable as sneezing in the second half of the 20th century — at least for westerners –- and must have struck many an old-fashioned portrait painter in exactly the way blogs do serious writers today.

Old ideas about both the purpose of — and frame for — art have been smashed beyond repair. It isn’t just that artists are free to make art entirely on their own terms. Our uses for it are getting steadily more idiosyncratic.

Consider this:

We say that we take pictures of each other to make records of passages in our insignificant lives. But when I want to reconstitute the feelings, sensations and state of mind I link to living in a particular place – say, wordnerd7 in wc1e-7au — photographs of me outlined against Bloomsbury’s Georgian façades are next to useless. After all, I hardly ever saw myself like that – or indeed see myself anywhere I come and go at all. Nor does looking at anyone I was close to in those years against once-familiar backdrops work anything like the time machine I long for: instead, I instantly begin to think of all those people as they are today. Stupidly, it never occurred to me to create a pictorial archive of what I saw walking to work or the food shops or the newsagent’s or the Goodge Street or Russell Square tube stations.

But my lust for time travel means I’ve discovered a use for the sculptor Anthony Gormley’s prosaically wacky One & Other public art project being staged round the clock in Trafalgar Square.

In spite of my slightly slighting mention of it in my last post, I’ve found myself returning to its web site – an obsessiveness that puzzled me until I registered that my heart was skipping beats with every panning shot of the sky, or seeing the sheen of moisture on streets surrounding the plinth, or observing figures wreathed in silvery mist scurrying under umbrellas to get somewhere dry – or sunlight glinting off plane tree leaves. I remembered how intently and with what keen yearning to be out at sea or in the country I used to gaze beyond London rooftops. The webcam pointed skywards restores my own inimate, personal London to me more munificently than any device, including a passage in an A. S. Byatt novel set in the building where I, too, once occupied a rent-controlled flat.

In other words, for me, One & Other has simply been enabling a superior form of London-watching. Unlike the single fixed webcam trained on Trafalgar Square that I bookmarked in my browser two years ago, the ever-mutating Gormley installation has given me a focal point – if only rarely a wow! experience with a participant like LilacBonzai, the People’s Plinthess, a marvel of protean playfulness.

Gormley understands. Art is about audience participation, now. It’s about expertise going to bed with amateurism and staying there, not bothering to wash the sheets. Experts, whether they make a bow to classical conventions and standards or ignore them altogether, are inspired by what used to be called outsider-art, or merge their own ideas with those of outsider-artists who once had no audience not made up exclusively of family and friends. We, the audience, make what we choose to of the results — which can bear no resemblance to the artist’s stated intentions.

Digital media and digital networking on the internet have been hogging most of the credit for these changes but in fact, have only sped up the pace of the democratisation of the arts. In every branch, the direct pre-figuring of what we see and read today began more than a hundred years ago.

Henry Moore, who made Britain a power if not the ranking world power in modernist sculpture, was originally inspired in his choice of profession by Michelangelo. Later, as a quick Wikipedia check confirmed for me, it was primitive art like Mayan-Toltec carvings that helped him find his distinctive style – after he ‘became uncomfortable with classically derived ideals,’ and was also influenced by the work of Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) and Frank Dobson (1888-1963).

In fiction, experimentation began early in the 20th century – unless you agree with those who think that Cervantes, who wrote the first novel, was also the first modernist. In non-fiction, I myself first admired Bruce Chatwin’s subversion of conventional structures for the contrast that this made with the elegant, sentence-by-sentence classicism of his prose.

Others will have their own candidates, but I was ready to nominate him the First Haut-Literary Blogger after I read the original memo on the manuscript of his first book, In Patagonia, by Susannah Clapp — the exemplary editor at Jonathan Cape whose help became indispensable to his work. She has described In Patagonia as ‘an attempt to give a “cubist” picture of that country.’ Her 1976 report on the manuscript said in part:

This is very extraordinary – and a possible problem. Basically, it’s a collage-like collection of impressions, memories, histories and stories about Patagonia loosely bound together by an intermittent first-person narrative, but mostly functioning more or less autonomously … I was impressed by each bit as I read, but didn’t feel impelled forward throughout the whole 350-odd pages. . . [I]f I weren’t so impressed by the matching of informativeness with intelligent description, I would say a sad no.

Her rare literary perspicacity can be deduced from her having discerned this author’s intentions so perfectly that his scribbling equivalent of cubism became even more so in the editing of his pages. She describes the book’s

angularity, its many small scenes and surfaces – one tilting away from another. The earliest manuscript was organised in this way; and in the process of editing – during which some sections went through as many as four versions – the book became still more angular.

I’ll know more when I have actually read it, but judging from the quotation with which I began this entry, I’m guessing that the reviewer, Mary Roach, is referring to a book written in the Chatwin mould.

In arts audiences everywhere, Chatwinesque fragmentariness and the Gormley style — which I nearly described as gormless, wondering whether One & Other is more an example of creative passivity or inclusiveness — have formalists and classicists tearing their hair out in disgust and despair. Against their insistence that ‘the rot’s set in well and truly, now’ – as one friend of mine put it grimly only last week, I’d suggest that it’s too soon to be pessimistic about artistic evolution in our time.

It’s a time of creative ferment. ‘To obtain perfection’ in growing a certain white wine in the district of Saumur, Isak Dinesen writes in one of her gem-like Seven Gothic Tales, the local inhabitants put off picking grapes until they ‘develop a peculiar condition which is called in the French pourriture noble, or in German, Edelfaule.’ That, she says, flavours the wine with what could turn out to be ‘the true odour of sanctity, or it may be the noble putrefaction, the royal corrodent rust of a strong and rare wine … or … both. . . ’.

That is what fermentation is. You cannot know which of its results are going to be bad or good – until you do.

Onward! the blogging revolution.


1. Only @exitbarnadine, posting until recently under the screen name @BaronCharlus, has so far come up with anything resembling a precedent for Harold Francis Bell’s sculpture of a woman in deep thought, Paulinewhich looks more and more as if it might be unique in the known history of western art. I recently encountered another self-portrait by a woman painter – the 17th-century Dutchwoman, Judith Leyster. Not as striking as @eb’s find, Artimesia Gentileschi, and not a patch on Bell’s thinker. In both self-portraits, self-consciousness unfortunately gets in the way of insight.

2. I sorted through all the choices Google Images offers for a portrait of Bruce Chatwin. Nothing appealed until I found the strikingly intelligent picture I’ve pasted in today. Quick sleuthing led me to the site of Shawn Yu –- who I was surprised to discover is only twenty-four years old. He’s a freelance artist.

Unlike all the other portraits of Chatwin I’ve seen, which celebrate his blond-god looks, Shawn’s drawing stresses his keen powers of observation and analytical turn of mind. I also seem to remember being told about Chatwin’s diminutive size, something that has somehow never been clear in other images of him.

I zapped the artist a note and was thrilled to receive permission to put his drawing here:

sure man, thank you for featuring my work.


Many thanks, Shawn, and best of luck with placing your work.


Filed under Book publishing, Editors and editing, Social trends, The blogosphere, Visual art & artists