Archive for February, 2011

How can anyone say anything about anything?

February 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Recently, the Imperial War Museum expressed an interest in working with the musician PJ Harvey.  The museum has previously commissioned war artists, sort of artists in residence who create work in response to current or past conflicts.  Now they are interested, after the release of Polly’s album ‘Let England Shake’, in working with her as a war song writer.  Let England Shake is phenomenal; a subtle, angry and loving response to not only England’s past and present wars (especially the first world war) but also the ‘decline’ of England, the loss of empire, and what it means to be English – and a reflection on her own identity in the context of the earth shattering changes that England has experienced in the 20th and 21st Centuries. Although Harvey claims she isn’t ‘political’ of course that is exactly what she is.  Even the instruments she has chosen to play allude to the constant cultural flux that makes post-imperial England so unique. Have a look at her playing a song from the album on the Andrew Marr show last year in front of an uncomfortable looking Gordon Brown.  Watch this video – Polly manages with image and sound to capture a sense of english identity (something I believe to be almost impossible) with pathos, sensitivity and humour, whilst singing about the carnage a soldier experiences on a battlefield.  And it features one of my favourite places in the world: Blackpool Tower Ballroom.

Watching this video made me think about how it can be possible to respond authentically to the big things in life like war, death, national identity.  Politics and philosophy fail us here, I think mainly because their language is too specific and, well, too motivated. One way to describe what I mean is that political language or discourse and often philosophical language too is a means to an end rather than an end in itself.  Words in politics are weapons, they are used to  persuade, to convince, to win arguments. Conversely, the language of art has no structure or restrictions.

That’s why art is so hard to talk about – what does it really mean to say you like or don’t like something, that an artwork is beautiful, or great? A major branch of philosophy from Hume onwards addresses this issue and never really gives us a satisfactory answer.  This suggests that philosophy shouldn’t be wasting it’s time trying to answer questions that can’t be, and don’t need to be answered.   The Germans in 19th and 20th Century philosophy look at art slightly differently, and in a more interesting way, as a means of responding to and engaging with life that can radically impact on the way that we think about life, the world and ourselves. This makes more sense to me.  If you are interested, you might want to have a look at this:

or this:

Art can do or be anything, and in fact (as the philosopher Adorno might say) it fails when it tries to convince us of anything – overtly political art is important, and I am a massive fan, but as art it can lack aesthetic truth because it is merely the medium of a message.  So what about artists that are ‘political’ (as if any artist isn’t…).

One of my heroes is Steve McQueen, who I have mentioned in previous posts, here he is below.  Actually he is linked to Polly Harvey through The Imperial War Museum. There are similarities in their work, in the way that they try to authentically respond in their art without being overtly political to the big things in life that make us who we are. Steve McQueen began as primarily a video artist, he represented Britain in the Venice Biennale in 2009.  In 2003 he became the Official War Artist at the Imperial War Museum.  McQueen went to Iraq and his subsequent project was about the British soldiers who have died there. He produced  photographs of a number of soldiers who died in Iraq on postage stamps and began a campaign to get the Royal Mail to have them as official stamps but they blocked his attempts, and unfortunately it has never happened.

And then he made the film Hunger, about Bobby Sands and the 1981 Irish Republican hunger strikes.  What a brave and inspiring piece of film making.  I watched the film at a special viewing with Seanna Walsh a senior republican who was on the blanket protest.  He was amazed by the the beautiful look of the film and also how realistic it was.  I was moved by it’s loving and careful attention to detail, the truth in the film, the way that it spoke for those who didn’t have a voice.  For me, apart from inspiring an obsession with understanding the struggle of the Republican movement (British people, I believe, will never be told the truth about what was done in Northern Ireland in our name and it is up to us to ensure we understand our complicity in the suffering of the people there), this is what art should do on the very deepest level that it operates.  Art should try to say what can’t be said, even though this is impossible,  it should speak for those who can’t and should explore what this means.  This doesn’t mean art can’t be fun, frivolous or ironic. It needs to be fresh and relevant in order to connect with people.  You may think I am giving art a hard task, but that is, I believe, what we need it for. Both McQueen and PJ Harvey are there on the cutting edge – exploring the complex but very exciting relationship between art and politics.


Seamus & St Kevin

February 7, 2011 Leave a comment

St Kevin and the Blackbird by Seamus Heaney

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
and Lays in it and settles down to nest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.


And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in Love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.


And here he is, reading it himself, and it is a delight, and he explains that the poem is about ‘doing the right thing for the reward of doing the right thing’.

Read more…

The true international community

February 2, 2011 Leave a comment

A lot has happened to me since my last post, but this pales in comparison to the scandalous treatment of Julian Assange over the Christmas period and the current uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.  Our brothers and sisters have gone onto the streets to say a collective no to decades of treatment by their governments that we in the UK cannot even begin to imagine.  Despite many interventions from the International Community, and so much I am sure taking place behind the scenes, it is the people themselves who are driving these revolutions, and it is up to us to support them.  Just as the case of Wikileaks has shown, popular revolts take many forms and start in the very places you would least expect them.  The true international community is all of us, we are all capable of collective action. 

One of course remembers the heroes of 1989 across eastern Europe, but more than this, I think of the struggle of the Algerian people to free themselves of the French.

Obviously there are many ways in which these events connect, but one way is through the philosopher Frantz Fanon, who went to Algeria and joined the FLN in the 1950s.  In his book ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, written in 1961, he develops his critical analysis of colonialism and it’s consequences, arguing that the only response to violent repression is violence.  This sort of thinking touches on existentialism and Sartre was a big fan.  if any book can tell us about the struggle for national liberation in north African and Middle Eastern countries  then this is it.  Even now we see the power of Fanon’s work, for example in analysis of the current situation (this article is worth a read):

The resonance of Fanon’s writing is evident in one of the most inspiring films I have ever seen, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers.  I understand that this film was shown at the Pentagon before the invasion of Iraq, as it shows what urban guerilla warfare looks like and how any resistance, in order to be successful, must have the support of the people.  This was also the lesson the British army and government learnt in Northern Ireland in the 70s.  Ultimately although the film is a call to arms, told in snapshots, following the events as both sides upped the stakes, with the French using the most horrendous torture tactics to get viable information out of detainees (also something practised in northern Ireland). Ultimately the French threw everything they had at Algeria and lost because they could never contend with popular revolt.  The French would have done well to remember that their own democracy was born from a bloody revolution, the ideals of freedom, brotherhood and the belief that a government is only legitimate if it has the consent of its people. Surely this irony could not have been lost on them.

In my next post I will continue with this theme and also say something about another very inspiring film set in Algeria, which is about a different kind of freedom.