Saturday, 29 August 2009


The first six editions of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species.
For the 200th anniversary year of Darwin's birth.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Game of Risk

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.

Albert Einstein

What do teachers mean when they ask students to take risks and more importantly, what do students themselves understand by such advice?

Risk-taking is a familiar but vital aspect of everyday life. It contributes to our deeper understanding of the world and prepares us to face difficulties and challenges with greater confidence and awareness. It adds vitality, stimulation, and excitement to our experiences and is often a motivating factor that challenges people to pursue more interesting, purposeful, and meaningful lives. By contrast, lives without risk-taking are often boring, routine, predictable, or perhaps worst of all, in the case of artists anyway, unimaginative. In fact it’s almost impossible to conceive of how an artist could function without taking risks.

Frequently I’ve heard colleagues say to students “you need to take more risks” or the more cringe-worthy “you need to move out of your comfort zone” but I’ve rarely heard a student question this advice or ask for more detail. It seems to be almost a given that everyone tends to “play safe” in life, that we’re cautious creatures of habit, tending to stick to familiar paths and rarely to wander off into uncertain terrain. So when someone suggests that we should take more risks, we simply accept the fact on the understanding that they’ve probably recognised something that we’d rather wasn’t the case: a little like when someone points out that we have a grain of rice stuck to our chin. Under no circumstances does anyone want to be seen as being over cautions, especially in the context of the arts, so to suggest that they need to “take more risks” is rarely going to be met with resistance. If you wanted an easy piece of advice that is guaranteed to apply to almost all situations then this is it, because it’s almost always true.

Or, at least that’s the way it seems: the teacher feels they have identified a weakness and provided a simple nugget of advice on how to deal with it and the student nods affirmatively and goes away with something to cogitate over and act upon. They might even return some time later and thank the teacher for the good advice. And so it goes.

What makes this piece of advice so “clever” is what also makes horoscopes popular: you can apply it to almost any situation. This is not to say that such vague statements are bad, damaging or dishonest, in fact in some cases, like horoscopes, they can even serve a positive purpose since they have the potential to frame our consideration of the future and perhaps condition some of the more difficult decisions we face.

But despite the fact that horoscopes and aphoristic statements like “you need to take more risks” can be vaguely helpful (how else could they survive?) they never go into detail about particular situations or specific needs and they rarely, if ever, offer solutions to a specifically identified problem or weakness on the part of the recipient.

On occasion it’s ok to make such vague or general statements and to allow students to extrapolate, develop and discover their own interpretation and understanding of their relevance. If Socrates was right that “an unexamined life is not worth living” then it’s probably a good thing to encourage the habit of examining creative choices on a regular basis.

But who’s doing the examining? My point is that sometimes it’s too easy - too risky even - to expect the student to do all the work. If communication and understanding have any value in education then it’s, at the very least, presumptuous to assume that students will understand what such a vague statements are intended to suggest, if anything at all. This is why the “take some risks” statement, if it goes without qualification, is actually practically irresponsible, because if advice is really to have an effect it needs to be examined not just by the student but by the teacher and this examination itself needs to be offered up for scrutiny.

It‘s not quite true that the greatest risk in life is to take no risks at all. The real risk is to fail to realise that life is already full of them (even attempting to take no risks is fraught with its own dangers), but in order to make the most of risks they must be recognised, examined, exploited and most of all learned from.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Appropriated Artwork

Information sheet displayed next to Sherrie Levine's work at the 2009 Venice Biennale:

You couldn't do much worse if you'd translated direct from the Italian using Google-Translate. It begs the question though - was the Italian text equally impenetrable?

Sunday, 2 August 2009

The Death of Life Drawing

“It’s absolute balls to talk about drawing as creative. It’s a question of being receptive. -John Berger

Recently Channel 4 have screened a series of five programmes (Life Class: Today’s Nude) which invite viewers to dig out a pencil and paper and draw alongside five different artists: Gary Hume, Judy Purbeck, Humphrey Ocean, Maggie Hambling and John Berger. I watched all the programmes on 4 On Demand in the hope of hearing something new, different or radical about life drawing, but I have to say that there wasn’t a great deal on offer.

What I did find interesting though, was just how little John Berger delved into the problematics of life drawing. Yes he talked about the poetics and this is what we have come to expect from Berger, but considering his influential Ways of Seeing in which he asks us to consider what he arranges “but be skeptical of it” maybe it’s not too much to hope that he might have opened up the debate a little more. Perhaps this is one of the drawbacks of simply being a contributor to a series rather than its “arranger”, yet I think there’s a lot we can gain from considering (i.e. being sceptical about) what was presented in the five programmes.

Everyone except Berger worked in a traditional artist’s studio setting. Berger, being predominantly a writer and critic and therefore less likely to use a studio, was set up in a photo/video studio with camera gear and black backdrop. I’m very sure he was well aware of the influence this setting would have over our understanding of the context, especially in light of his longstanding scrutiny of the dominance of photographic images and their ability to be reproduced and disseminated.

Of all the “artists” Berger was the only one who appeared to have any real discussion with his model and he also made a particular point of saying that he considers life drawing to be a collaborative process. This contrasted starkly with the Gary Hume episode in particular. Whilst Hume had a couple of fairly interesting things to say about the process of drawing what struck me most was the fact that his model was clearly unknown to him before she arrived. Kirsten Varley was introduced as a “fashion model” – tall, slim, large breasts, long curly hair etc - and it was patently obvious that he had practically (if not actually) picked her out of a men’s magazine as some kind of trophy rather than for any genuinely creative purpose. If we had any sneaking suspicions about Hume’s fawning attitude towards the fashion industry, then this utterly confirmed them.

As I’ve already mentioned, Berger made a gesture of being seen to discuss his drawing with his model both before and after the session and it’s clear that he wanted us to be aware that he considered Maria Muñoz as an individual. But despite this, he comes across clearly as the “Artist”, the active agent and the commanding voice describing what is going on in “his” mind. Maria Muñoz, a dancer by profession, was literally frozen on the spot, her voice was barely if ever heard and her professional physical voice, which requires motion and duration to express itself, was reduced to a mere phantom presence.

But, of course, this is what life drawing does – it has an artist who is active and a model who is ostensibly passive: who poses. Certainly, to some extent, posing is an active process; in fact the longer the pose, the more determination and concentration the physical act of staying still actually requires but this is a static action performed for the visual scrutiny (gaze) of others who, wittingly or unwittingly, manipulate, control and ultimately own these representations and no amount of “action” on the part of the model can really change this unequal balance of power.

But let’s leave this inequality aside for a moment, after all, models get paid for what they do (paltry though it is) and there are lots other ways to make a living – a number of which are significantly more exploitative than being a life model.

So what’s the actual value of life drawing over other types of drawing?

One significant aspect that was not discussed or even mentioned in Life Class: Today’s Nude is the unique seriousness of life drawing. Anyone who has ever participated in a life class will remember the tension of their first experience of life drawing. Like many people in tense or serious situations, some students feel an urge to giggle (which is most often resisted of course), others find it difficult to look at the model and almost everyone feels uncomfortable. Yet very quickly the process of normalisation begins: the model takes their pose, the students remain silent but attentive (each one caught up in their own private cognitive dissonance) but most importantly, the tutor dispels the tension by speaking with professional assurance and by giving the students not just the permission but the actual instruction to look at the model and to translate this looking into studied drawing. By the time a few lines have been drawn (both literally and figuratively) the students are absorbed into what seems like just a typical day at art school.

But this process of normalisation is never entirely complete. Despite the veneer of studious contemplation and creative intent, the fact remains that such situations are highly charged. In the centre of the room, a naked human being stands, sits or lies motionless, surrounded by a group of students peering at every inch of their exposed flesh. Their facial expression, hand gestures, posture, skin surfaces, muscular tensions, and underlying bone structure are all visually charted, captured, fixed and consumed. With the possible exception of medical examination and sexual fascination, no other circumstance involves such deliberate and concentrated attention to the naked presence of another human being. This tension is extremely fragile, since at its heart is a singularly exposed individual. It is therefore precisely this fragility that makes life drawing such a serious business – a seriousness that only the most formal exam situation can approach in terms of demanding respectful disciplined attention.

When I began writing this response to Life Class: Today’s Nude I had the intention of focusing my attention on the anachronism that is life drawing. It turns out though, that after consideration, I feel that life classes have some real value, not least of which that they offer artists one of the only (possibly THE only) real antidote to the sanitised, cosmetically and digitally enhanced images of bodies we are continually fed through fashion, advertising and the media.

There is something inherently dignified about the naked human body, no matter its age, weight, race, gender athleticism or distinct lack thereof. The constant sexualisation of the human body through fashion, advertising and the media does little to diminish this dignity but in its perpetuation of highly exclusive, unattainable images of the body it skews our sense of the very bodies we inhabit. This is a deeply problematic issue with far reaching social, psychological, and economic consequences. It also happens to be the formidable context in which life classes continue to exist and one which life drawing itself struggles to address as a medium, but perhaps not as an experience: as a process of active critical contemplation as opposed to simply one of observation and markmaking.