Monday, 26 July 2010

The Deity of Artists

This deity of all artists sits in quiet judgement expecting no less than our very best efforts and exerting an irrepressible influence over all of our thoughts and ambitions. It is felt as a profound but invisible presence by every artist in every facet of human creation. We offer up prayers to this being in the form of sketchbooks, maquettes and rehearsals and we maintain a habit of daily practice which, when neglected, we feel a crippling guilt and anxiety for our lack of constant vigilance and commitment.

We make regular pilgrimages to cathedral-like edifices to admire the many offerings and sacrifices made to this god, and special ceremonies are regularly held in these buildings where a select congregation are administered wine in a ritual of celebration and respect.

Children are inculcated into the rituals of this religion from an early age but significantly we spare them from any mention of its god. Perhaps like the Jewish god Yahweh, this deity is simply too sacred to be spoken of in anything but the most solemn and serious of terms.

When a select few of these more adept devotee's choose to embark upon the higher study of the faith there is a unexpected change. No longer is the real emphasis on practicing the rituals (although many backward clergymen continue to teach in this mode) but suddenly these novices are expected to interpret and speak the language of this god, a god they’ve barely seen and only vaguely recognise.

Art is clearly the religion, but what name do we give to this sacred being which strikes fear, guilt and confusion into so many? The deity of all artists is Meaning.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

The Myth of Genius

"I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious."
-Albert Einstein

Let's think about this for a moment. What do we mean by genius? Someone who consistently creates objects or ideas of sheer brilliance in great flashes of inspiration or skill, or someone who works doggedly at something, making multiple mistakes and iterations to eventually arrive at a successful outcome? Presumably the former. But who fits the bill? Nobody, absolutely no one.

Everything of substance which we use, read, see or listen to, which has been wrought by the hand of woman or man, either sits firmly atop a mountain of forgotten or concealed failures, or has been encircled and elevated by culture and history to such a degree that it is invested with an almost sacred aura. 

But what about Mozart you may ask? Well, if he'd stood before he crawled, or ran before he walked (metaphorically that is!) I would probably have to agree with you, but that doesn't appear to have been the case.

Certainly there have been, and continue to be, individuals with prodigious talents, but it is only through the deft concealment of support, determination, hard work, frustration and a plethora of failures, that anyone might be seen to be a genius. And it is thus that there appear to be no contemporary geniuses despite the fact that by all probability, there should be significantly more than ever.
 History has a canny knack of casting a soft veil over the many toils and disappointments in the lives of our heroes and in so doing it gently polishes their lustrous portraits whilst our own more contemporary representations either sit in dusky corners or reveal their countenances in high-definition with every lurid pixel an embarrassing imperfection.
“The myth of the artistic genius serves to de-socialise the production of art, to disguise the facts of privilege and convention which regulate access to training and advancement. A product of a classed and gender-divided society, this idea of the artist is a veil for the inequalities which sustain its elites.” – Griselda Pollock
But this is great news - not because the idea of genius has turned out to be a fabrication and a delusion, but because now the peak of the mountain is clearer for us all to see and since it’s a mountain of our own making, it should be even easier to climb. So, let's just make sure that each failure is a genuine and dogged attempt to succeed. Then fail, fail, fail again.
"If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward." -Thomas Alva Edison

Sgurr a' Bhealaich Dheirg (Rocky Peak of the Red Pass) © J.Hamlyn

Griselda Pollock in R. Parker & G. Pollock (1987). "Framing Feminism". pp. 84-85
Gleick, J (1992). Genius, The life and science of Richard Feynman. New York: Vintage Books.
Imaginary Boundaries blog (specifically this post).

<iframe src="//;byline=0&amp;portrait=0&amp;badge=0&amp;color=ff9933" width="500" height="281" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen></iframe> <p><a href="">The Long Game Part 2: the missing chapter</a> from <a href="">Delve</a> on <a href="">Vimeo</a>.</p>

Sunday, 18 July 2010


Aspire = to breathe

Expire = breathe out

Inspire = breathe into

Respire = breathe again

Transpire = breathe across

Perspire = breathe through

Conspire = breathe together

Ben More, Mull

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Philosophy is Quite Useless

I went on a boat trip yesterday to the island of Staffa off the west coast of Scotland. During the trip the skipper asked me if I knew how Columbus had deduced that land was ahead when he was approaching the Americas – what 3 things had Columbus noticed? I had a hunch about one (sea birds) but it seemed pointless to offer just one when three were required. The skipper looked at me with a grin and said “Ah, you see, we had a good education on the island of Iona!” The answer, he told me, was birds, driftwood and cloud formations, at which point he indicated the distinctive clouds hovering above the distant islands of Coll and Tiree.

Of course this isn’t philosophy, it’s knowledge, lore and understanding. It’s the application of observation to the realities of life and the struggle for survival. It’s empirical and testable and reliable and we call these things "facts".

There are two types of facts which are interesting to think about here: facts which are like tools - which allow us to achieve other things, to recognize that certain clouds indicate the presence of land etc - and facts which have no obvious utility. These useless facts are observations of simple patterns, affiliations and connections between things; the way’s things appear or interrelate. Whilst these observations may have no immediate or obvious utility it’s still the case that useful facts have frequently emerged out of these apparently useless ones. Certainly not all useless observations are destined to become useful but we are nonetheless programmed as beings to notice patterns and connections between things, despite our accompanying (but complimentary) tendency to doubt, question and test the fruits of such observations.

But since it’s both a natural tendency to observe and speculate about our observations and since utility occasionally emerges from such speculations, we should be unrepentant about our enquiries into things which, to some people, might seem senseless or purposeless nonsense, since who knows from whence the next important discovery will emerge from the fog of uncertainty?

Staffa, Fingal's Cave, JMW Turner, 1832

In his 1773 descriptions of Scotland’s Western Isles, Samuel Johnson devoted a single paragraph to the Island of Staffa. It begins thus:
“When the Islanders were reproached with their ignorance, or insensibility of the wonders of Staffa, they had not much to reply. They had indeed considered it little, because they had always seen it; and none but philosophers, nor they always, are struck with wonder, otherwise than by novelty.”

Staffa, The Clam Shell Cave, James Valentine, Undated

(This post originated from a discussion on Sean's Reflective Journal blog here)

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The Tact of Teachers

I've had another short piece published online over at It was originally written about the subject of criticism in the context of teacher authority, but I soon realised that it applied to all people in positions of authority so I've changed the title to "The Tact of Leaders". Anyway, you can find it here.

I've also previously written about tact, criticism and teaching here. It's a really interesting subject I think and surprisingly under-examined.

Friday, 2 July 2010

The Hubris of Teachers and the Uncertainty of Learners

"One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision." -Bertrand Russell
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio

In that all too familiar book of desert fables known as the Bible, Jesus is claimed to have said "Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed". What a wholly nonsensical statement it is to suggest that belief in anything unfounded by experience is preferable to empirical fact - he could just as well have said “Blessed are the ignorant, the misinformed and the impressionable”… oh, hold on a minute - he did say that. I don't really want to get caught up in a debate about religious scripture here but I do think there's a crucial difference between belief and scepticism which isn't simply a difference of quality or character but rather one with ontological implications: they affect people's being and their ability to both learn and to teach.

To believe something is to have certainty, and that certainty allows us to make further claims about things of which we are unsure. It allows us to establish firm foundations on which to build new knowledge and understanding and it gives us confidence to embark on unfamiliar journeys into more distant territories.

Scepticism leaves us wary, it asks us to be prudent and cautious and to avoid rash assumptions or decisions. It asks us to think carefully and to question and to test our conjectures. Scepticism is an energy intensive process but one from which we have a great deal to gain.

There’s a common perception about the innocence of children which suggests that they’re open to everything. Childrens' openness could equally be seen as an attitude in search of conventions and boundaries. Children constantly push boundaries of all kinds, they experiment, play and question incessantly and these forms of enquiry accumulate understanding based on testing and empirical experience but most particularly repetition and reinforcement. As children grow older they only remain open to everything in the sense that everything has the potential to reconfigure and recalibrate their understanding more accurately, and this is very similar for the rest of us, though, as adults, we tend to be a good deal more resistant to things which question or appear to threaten our hard-earned beliefs. Unlike children our beliefs and opinions are the product of a more extended process and are therefore necessarily things which we have greater difficulty in relinquishing, especially when we have invested time and effort in their establishment.
“The human understanding, when any preposition has been once laid down, (either from general admission and belief, or from the pleasure it affords,) forces every thing else to add fresh support and confirmation; and although more cogent and abundant instances may exist to the contrary, yet either does not observe or despises them, or gets rid of and rejects them by some distinction, with violent and injurious prejudice, rather than sacrifice the authority of its first conclusions.” – Francis Bacon
What is an argument but the contest of two differing opinions? If we have invested a great deal in the opinions which we hold dear then it’s not surprising that we should be unwilling to relinquish them. In an argument, we each seek to convince the other party of the superiority of our own beliefs. In a sense we seek to teach the other party and they us. In such highly charged situations, unless they're simply the product of misunderstanding, there's always either a victor and a vanquished or else two unreconciled positions.

Both children and students rarely argue with their teachers because, for the most part, their beliefs are too uncertain. That children are not good teachers is also due to their uncertainty, but children are undoubtedly the greatest learners because they have an appetite which makes a virtue of uncertainty and the insatiable quest to overcome it by all means at their disposal.

We may gather from this then that certainty makes a confident teacher… but not necessarily a good one. We might say that good teachers are people who are confident of what they know and who employ the most certain methods. But we might also say that the best teachers also know when to acknowledge uncertainty and to offer it up for scrutiny rather than concealing it beneath arrogance or a demand for blind faith.