Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Art for Art's Sake

I've had more conversations than I care to count on the vexatious question of "what is art?" and most have them have been conducted over on wordcraft. My view, which I admit has developed over time, is simple - if the person who made it says it's art, then that's what it is. I think that any other definition is conflating the question with the entirely different question of "what is good art?" So to those who say that Tracy Emin's work isn't art – that their beds are just as messy and untidy and they aren't art so neither is hers – I say that I think that "My Bed" is as ludicrous as they do but that it is most definitely art, just not necessarily very good art. To suggest otherwise is to reduce art to an even sillier definition – "if I say it's art, then it's art" and that's no definition at all – it's simple "I have better taste than you do" arrogance.

Anyway there are many great artists who have been reviled by their critics as much as they have been hailed by their fans – probably every artist in the history of the world, in fact. I have no problem with that – only with the converse of that last definition – "if I don't like it, then it isn't art."

Probably my most consistently artistic trip was a visit to Barcelona. It took in Picasso, Dali and, of course, the eccentric (some would say raving mad) Anton Gaudi, an architectural genius whose buildings are scattered around the city. Gaudi was by any standard an unusual figure. Born in 1852, as a child he suffered ill health which prevented much of his schooling and he became interested in observing the natural shapes of plants and animals and stones. As he grew he became a good mathematician and keen student but by no means a genius. He also developed a religious streak that bordered on obsession.
As an adult much of his work was commissioned by Eusabio Guell who was his friend and patron for many years. He died, run over by a tram, in 1926 after a life in which his fame as an eccentric but uniquely talented architect had spread around the world.
So much for the extremely potted biography. The important thing isn’t the man but his work which is what many people travel to Barcelona to see. This especially true of the Japanese who flock there in droves. There are two common theories for this. One is that they have an understanding of nature and natural forms that enables them to better appreciate the baroque nature of his work. The other is that the Palau Guell, one of his most famous buildings, featured in an advertisement for a popular brand of Whisky in Japan.
I started my cultural meanderings with a visit to one of his most impressive, though unfinished, buildings, Sagrada Familia. This is a cathedral that was started (although not under the auspices of Gaudi initially) in 1882. Gaudi became construction manager two years later. By the time of his death in 1926 only a small fraction of the Cathedral had been completed and construction - to his plans - goes on today. They are planning to finish in another twenty years or so but looking at it, it seems doubtful to me that this will be achieved.

There are plenty of guide book descriptions of it and I won’t attempt to emulate them here in detail. Suffice it to say that the exterior of it is bizarre. At one end there is an extremely elaborate and naturalistic set of biblical sculptures including a huge tree on which doves are perched. Towers rise up topped in coloured balls and crosses and patterns. If ever a cathedral were required in hell this would do just nicely. At the opposite end a more cubist approach has been taken with biblical scenes rendered in a stylised and formal way by a succeeding architect based on Gaudi’s ideas.
I took the audio tour but soon discovered that inside the scaffolding and structures make it look disappointingly like a building site. Nevertheless when I looked, up the tree like branching structures of the columns were like nothing I had seen elsewhere. Their peculiar elegance of form belies a strength of structure that came from a true stroke of genius. To calculate the best load-bearing shapes Gaudi built an upside down model in string with lead shot weights. The tension stresses in the string exactly mirror the compression stresses in the right way up model so that the shapes of these columns and arches are exactly optimised for the loads they must bear.

When I had finished with the cathedral I met up as arranged with some fellow travellers - Jo, Karen and Donna, for a trip to the Picasso Museum. While the Gaudi architecture is top of most people’s lists in Barcelona, the Picasso was my number one must see attraction. We took the metro and quickly located an entrance to the museum. It was unfortunately a back entrance and we searched around for the box office. Here we found the front of the queue. We followed it back, out of the box office, through the building, across the courtyard, out through the gate and three hundred yards along the road.
There was good news though to make up for the forty five minute wait. We were there at a time when there was an extra exhibition - a further 450 caricatures spanning Picasso’s life. Had we come a week later we would have paid two Euros less but missed this splendid addition.The gallery - both the special exhibition and the regular gallery - was superb and I spent several hours wandering around it. Picasso is a “love him or hate him” figure but when you see his works in context, see how his style developed from art school experimentation to the cubism for which he is famous it all makes much more sense than when his “bloke with two eyes on one side of his green nose” (as critics sometimes put it) is viewed in isolation.

I looked at my watch and discovered that it was only a few minutes to three O’clock when we had agreed to meet up and go for a drink.

The four of us met up again and I discovered that everyone was a satisfied with the day as I had been. A couple of beers and a plate of snacks in a Tapas bar that we had spotted set us up for the next part of our tour - a trip to photograph some of those Gaudi buildings we had seen last night. Two stand out in particular. Casa Batllo has window balconies that look like eyes in alien faces and a general appearance that would fit smoothly into Rivendell. You half expect to see hobbits and elves waving down at you. Looking upwards reveals a roof of twisting fungoid chimneys and shining fish scaled ridges. Further along the road is “La Pedrera” or Casa Mila which has the same organic fairy tale appearance but seems somehow more sinister. From the ground you can just see the baroque chimneys towering above the edges of the building. Not every building in Barcelona is as interesting, much of it is an ordinary and unlovely place but a couple of hours wandering with a guide book and a camera is a very rewarding experience, even if Las Ramblas is plagued with "human statues" making money by standing very, very still. They are every few yards and, as I slalomed round them on my walk, the question of whether they were doing was art never entered my head, though I'll bet I know a few people with strong opinions on the subject.

When I had chosen this trip there were two things on the itinerary that I knew I simply couldn’t miss. One I had now seen - the Picasso Museum. The other was a visit to Dali’s house at Figueras. My four favourite artists are Picasso, Escher, Magritte and Dali. Dali above all. When I was a teenager I had one wall of my bedroom completely covered with an extraordinarily large poster of Dali’s Last Supper - and me an atheist ! Nowadays I have it more tastefully decorated with a series of smaller prints of his illustrations for Alice In Wonderland. So after a couple of days in Barcelona I moved on to the quaint and lovely town of Girona and from there I planned my trip to Figueras.
Salvador Dali was, like Anton Gaudi, either a true artistic genius or a complete raving madman. I know too little about Gaudi to have an opinion but in Dali’s case I’m firmly convinced that he was both. He was a fierce Catalonian nationalist and lived for most of his life in Figueras and examination of his paintings often reveals detail taken from the Catalonian landscape or portions of the local coastline. (As well as the nigh on universally present figure of Gala - his wife and muse.)

I took an early train, and was outside the museum at 10:15. It opened at 10:30. I was glad that I was early because there were already people ahead of me and in the quarter of an hour that remained to wait quite a long queue built up behind. The galleries occupy four flours of the building - although the third floor is devoted not to Dali but to his friend and fellow surrealist, Pitxot.
Inside, to avoid the crowds as much as possible, I adopted a simple but effective stratagem. I ignored the ground floor and went straight up to the first floor. As I had expected the majority of the people there stayed on the ground floor. There was a lot to see. There were many works that I’m familiar with from books but many others that I had never seen before. The bedroom, the first room I entered, had Dali murals on the walls and a gold coloured skeleton of an ape in the corner. The corridors were filled with smaller works (which in many ways I prefer) and the side rooms with larger ones. By the time I had was completing the left hand fork of this floor the parties of school children (some of whom had Wolverhampton accents) were already catching up to me. A number of pieces caught my eye, painted stereoscopes, a hologram of Alice Cooper, a large cross which at the touch of a button slowly unfolded into an intricate painting, superb paintings large and small. I continued on upward.

The Pitxot floor was largely deserted but this was the loss of those ignoring it rather than mine. Pitxot had a strange style. What he painted were piles of rocks but in such a fashion that when viewed from a distance they became figures - men, women, children, groups - in a variety of poses. It was clear that - Pitxot aside - the gallery was now pretty crowded so I went downstairs to the ground floor and examined the works there, including a recreation of the famous portrait of May West. The whole building is arranged in a crescent around a courtyard and the geodesic dome that tops the hall that stands between the points of the crescent lets in an astonishing amount of light to illuminate the huge Dali paintings on the walls. I was glad that I had decided to spend the whole day there rather than just the morning and it was almost three when I decided to leave and get the train back to Girona.

Back in Girona I sat in my hotels grassy courtyard and drank a couple of beers and wrote the poem that is reproduced below. What's it about? I couldn't really say. It was inspired by my Dali experience and has I hope caught a little of the spirit of it.

But is it art? (Or for that matter, poetry - we have somewhat differing views on that, too.)

Strange Empire

There are no fixed points here
In this Empire of the mind,
No guides to lead us from
The country of the blind.
The heavens hold no patterned truth.
Their mystery is a peddler's lie.
No greater world stands out of view
Hidden beyond the speckled sky.

Everything is a lie.
The words upon the page - a lie.
The ink that stains then fades - a lie.
The hand that neatly writes - a lie.
That mind that tries to guide - a lie.
There is no mind,
No hand, no pen, no ink
No words
No matter what we think.
Everything is a lie.

There are no fixed points here
In this Empire of the stranger,
No gimballed compass set in brass
To lead us out of danger.
The turned boards, the swirling leaves,
The crystal ball, the bones that fall
Are lies that act as reason’s thieves
Wise men distrust them all.

Everything is a lie.
The stars seen through the glass - a lie.
The days and hours that pass - a lie.
The masquerades of life - a lie.
The freedom of the knife - a lie.
There is no knife,
No life, no time, no stars
No matter who we are.
Everything is a lie.

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