Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The Perishability of Language and the Self

“But there is one other crucial thing to be mentioned. The tumour that will destroy me is in the proximity of my speech area. But I am also a word-earner. I have been doing this all my life as an adult. And I still survive as a language-user – speaking, listening, reading, writing – over the past two years. Or, rather, I survive in fluctuating ways.”

I’ve been reading and re-reading Tom Lubbock’s haunting and bewildering account of his gradual loss of language to a glioblastoma multiforme tumour, published 10 days ago in the Observer and subsequently on the Guardian website.

“It's not possible to get any distance from my project: being alive. Objectively, from the outside you might say, my life is terrible, unbelievable. And it's true, I hate this. I hate the way I am at the moment. But there is no objective view, I am here, in it, and there is nothing else, and this fact brings with it many things that make it of course easier. And beyond that there are many other things to think about.”

I’ve met Tom on a few occasions, being somewhat distantly a friend of friends. Even so, we’ve barely exchanged words, although we once had a brief discussion when a friend brought Tom by my studio and he showed a genuine interest in a couple of postcards I was working on. He even took some away with him.

Tom was a speaker at a conference at the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh some years ago along with Nathan Coley (“The most boring artist in Britain”) and Tom Eccles. The theme of the conference was the Monument in Public Art, and he spoke memorably of the distinction between monuments which are built to endure and monuments that he described as “perishable”, which he suggested offered a more fitting way to mark the passing of the people and things which claim our affections. In order to move on with our lives we often need to forget. Our memories are porous and our lives are likewise transient, so it makes little sense to ossify memories that might distract us from new and equally important experiences and encounters. In many ways the richness of life is this very exchange between memory and forgetting. But, of course, this is the preserve of us for whom memory is a resource which is relatively easily accessed and utilized. As Tom’s article shows, our commonsense notions of the unity of memory and recall are far from providing us with a revealing picture of how memory actually works.

During one of the breaks in the conference, as people were busy networking away, I noticed that Tom had disappeared. He returned just as the presentations were due to recommence and when one of the organizers politely enquired where he’d been, he replied: “For a walk around the grounds. I don’t really feel comfortable in these situations.” This characteristic combination of humility and an unflinching willingness to explain his alternative perspective has always marked Tom out as an exceptional thinker and it’s all the more disturbing to literally see the signs of this ability ebbing away on the page before you.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Only Artists Make Art

Joseph Beuys famously repeated “Everyone's an artist”, thereby acknowledging that creativity is a universal human tendency. It’s a liberating idea, but in spite of its egalitarian directness, which can be traced back at least as far as Novalis (from whom Beuys reputedly borrowed the idea), the familiar old hierarchies continue. It's almost taken as a given that printmakers and painters are artists, but when it comes to photographers, opinions are less certain. According to one of my old student notebooks it was the gallerist and curator Graeme Murray who, during a group tutorial at Glasgow School of Art, once said: "Painters make paintings, sculptors make sculptures, printmakers make prints and photographers make photographs, but only artists make art." It's a little pedantic perhaps, but for a young fine art student working with photography, it struck me with the force of a revelation.

It’s not your medium that defines you, but what you do with it.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Something for Nothing

Trap (after MD), ©Jim Hamlyn 1990

One of the most extraordinary things about art making is the degree to which serendipitous, unexpected and illuminating connections and discoveries occur unbidden. But can we really claim authorship for things which are not wrought by determination, vision or technical mastery? Is this not a deception of both ourselves and our audience and is it not, likewise, a duty of all creative individuals to fashion significance from the raw materials of their craft and to prove themselves worthy of all they conceive? If so, then surely no discovery, of any kind, can really be claimed or attributed to the ingenuity of human agency. Most artists would argue that it is the sensitivity which they have sharpened over years of practice that allows them to "see" the connections and make the discoveries for which they claim ownership. This sensitivity then, is one of the principle skills of the artist: the ability to perceive and to ensnare the fleeting fortuitous miracle of chance - the intangible breath of inspiration as it glides almost imperceptibly by.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Utter Bollocks - An Essay

I've had another online essay published over at It's on the subject of swearing. I'll post it on this blog too sometime, but for the moment you can only read it by following this link.

Monday, 1 November 2010

The Pleasure of Knowing

“I don’t know much about Art, but I know what I like”

This phrase juxtaposes two kinds of knowledge: knowledge about something and knowledge of something. I may know of your best friend but this doesn’t mean that I know about them. If I knew about them I might like them, but I can’t really like anything much (apart perhaps from the most primitive pleasures) without further knowledge.

The implication of the phrase is that knowing is somehow opposed to liking or that liking precedes and is superior to knowing. This isn’t just anti-intellectualism but a privileging of sensory pleasures over cognitive ones. There’s knowing and knowing. The more we know, the more refined our understanding and the greater the scope for pleasure.