Tuesday 8 July 2014


Like the modest appeal printed on the old Singer needle box: ‘The manufacturer respectfully hopes that the lady will enjoy using these needles . . . ,’ the text from the Singer Sewing Machine Manual from 1949 is interesting too, in a similar manner that looks quaintly naive, ‘old-fashioned’ to us today. These words on the box look strange because they do not use the pushy, self-certain, self-assured promotional hype that is imposed on us today, a format that would tell us how superb these needles are; and that one must enjoy them because of their great quality, the world’s best ever! They will transform your life! Both of the old texts respect the person who might come to use these products, but while the box provides a gentle acknowledgement of the user, the proposition in the longer text of the manual is more forthright; more concerned with the individual’s attitudes and actions. The text proposes that one’s mental disposition has a direct impact on the quality of any workmanship. It is a theory that is not popular today, yet the traditional craftsman is said to have concentrated before starting any work, suggesting that the mental attitude was important in any outcome. Indeed, some texts talk of how the craftsman fully envisaged his work prior to any beginning. So complete is this visualisation that the reports say that the craftsman actually completed his work mentally; that his subsequent actions only reproduced what had been envisaged, merely re-enacting what had been considered, concentrated on.

As I type this, The World Today, ABC Radio RN, 3 July 2014, is reporting on the recent conviction of Rolf Harris in London. Folk are calling for his artwork to be removed; some are asking for it to be destroyed. The news of 4 July 2014 in The Australian carried a report describing how Harris’s home town in Western Australia is removing all trace of Mr. Harris – plaques; freeman of the town award; paintings will all go. The claim is that no one wants the work of a paedophile on display; that such prominence or recognition must never be given to people like him. This argument seems to highlight the assumption that there is a necessary link between personal attributes and art: but where would this situation lead us if this idea was to be acted upon in the manner in which those responding to the Harris revelation want it to be for all other perceived ‘deviant’ artists? Should all of Stanford White’s architecture be destroyed? Should van Gogh’s work be hidden? Why display the work of a man who had sex with his daughters; or that of a mentally deranged self-harmer? Gosh, one could go on and on. Where might the implementation of this strategy stop? It seems just too easy for the aggrieved to grab dramatic publicity with their demands for punishment. Why display any Picasso? He played around with women. What are the scope and limits of any assessment made with this understanding? How broad could it be; indeed, should it be?

The issue raised here has nothing to do with the Harris conviction and its circumstances, and makes no comment or judgement on these whatsoever, implied or direct. The subject involves the relationship between an artist and his work - an artist and her work. The question is: do personal traits become imbued in the work of an artist? Just look at some of the most recent art that is seen by some to promote depravity. Much is said about this work, but less is made of its creators. Consider the art of photographer Bill Henson who has had police remove his images from gallery exhibitions. Does anyone want these artists locked up? Is it that the reverberations are only assumed to carry from the artist into art, and from art into others, and not from art back to the artist? There is a strange void in this latter relationship. Irrespective of the artist and the art, there is a lingering mystery here that is not frequently discussed.

The world seems to be getting full of individuals who consider themselves singularly important, willing and able to pass judgement on any circumstance, such is their self-certainty. Each and everyone has a black hole that conceals a secret moral weakness, but the ego of the explicit extrovert seems to conceal this awareness. Just what is the relationship between singer and song; between artist and painting; between architect and building – well, architecture, because Pevsner and Ruskin saw a difference between building and architecture, when there should be none:

Le Corbusier’s chapel of Notre Dame du Haut above the village of Ronchamp in France

If the work of a believer and a non-believer in, say, church design, makes a critical difference, why is it that the chapel at Ronchamp (see: http://voussoirs.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/ronchamp-windsock-of-spirit.html  ) is so admired by all - a chapel designed by a self-confessed atheist? There is something happening in art, and architecture, that does involve something deeper than specific declared allegiances or individual categorisations.

To demand that links between things personal and outcomes as art do exist, that they are so critical as to stimulate the call for the artwork of those deemed ‘undesirable’ to be put away, destroyed, leads to a very dangerous circumstance, one that is analogous to the religious bigot who demands belief from all exactly as it is seen to be by just one - or else! The position of extremist religious sects can set the example by way of analogy to help us understand the problem of art. The issue becomes blatantly awkward and unusually unique when a singular viewpoint, a particular ideology, demands that all must be the same only because of the insistent, strict demands that frequently use force and threat to achieve preferred outcomes, driven by what looks like intolerance.

The situation involves a position that appears to be not unlike a racist’s understanding, where only a certain race is seen to be capable of providing a certain outcome: consider the white Australia policy. One could go on, for example: only those of a certain age; of a certain colour; of a certain . . . are favoured. But aren’t we fighting this discrimination every day? Haven’t we been told to try to overcome this narrow-mindedness? What kind of world might we end up with if this kind of thinking that wants to get rid of everything an individual has done because he/she is considered otherwise now – ‘undesirable’? Sadly it is this state of mind, this thinking that has seen the demolition of some of our greatest treasures, e.g. the Taliban's demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan: see -  http://springbrooklocale.blogspot.com.au/2012/08/world-heritage-at-risk.html

It is difficult - certainly no longer popular, but still critical - to understand how one could be or should be compassionate even when looking into gross atrocities. That some countries can react to terror with such a terrible escalation of terror itself sets the example for hate to thrive; for it to become the basis of all our thinking and action. Sadly the world seems to be filling with self-important, self-righteous haters, be these individuals or states; with those who love themselves and their perceptions, declaring that others must be punished for not being like them. Homosexuals used to be treated in this manner. Now it would just not be acceptable, for we have changed our understandings: but what do we do with art?

Le Corbusier brought his commitment to the world of mystery even though he disbelieved: the chapel at Ronchamp illustrates this clearly. He used tolerance, care, and concern to understand and accommodate others when he might have said, “Go away,” that one shouldn’t get involved in such hocus-pocus. So is the call to get rid of the works of paedophiles just a raw reaction? Is it part of our community awareness to dislike various folk from time to time in a manner that envisages no redemption or forgiveness - never ever?

And so to the singer and the song: are Ray Charles’ songs less because of his affliction - blindness? Does Beethoven's deafness change things? Does one shun the homosexual; the alcoholic; the coloured person; . . .  as artist suggesting that these attributes might have an impact on their work that could disseminate their ‘problems’ as if the art was infected with a virus? Should we destroy the art of the paedophile; the architecture of the child molester; that of the rapist; the deviant? This would certainly mean the stunning works of McKin Mead and White will have to be dissected so that everything White was involved in could be demolished. Does one look at Louis Kahn’s work differently once one knows that he led a double life with two separate families, and ‘irresponsibly’ died broke leaving million dollar debts?# Does one go and demolish everything he has done to erase this unacceptable ‘horror’? Should all galleries and collectors remove Brett Whiteley’s works because he used drugs? Does one destroy Francis Bacon’s paintings because of his depravity? There is something seriously astray in our present culture of self-righteousness that seeks the punishment and retribution of those who have gone astray or act differently to the expectations of the social milieu. Discipline them! Lock them up forever and throw away the keys is the cliché.

Just last night on ABC TV 7:00pm News, it was reported that Australia’s prisons are full, crowded. 33,000 prisoners costing $100,000 per year are kept locked up in crammed cells, filling our lockups to overflowing. The claim is that we need more and more prisons to be built to hold those who err, those who do not conform to the current fashions of belief: our laws and their interpretations, sometimes made or prompted by individual enthusiasts promoting their convictions. Crucifixion would be a growing business if it were considered acceptable: hanging too if it had not been banned, no longer considered humane or reasonable some years ago, like slavery, by those who cared.

So what of art; architects? The personal has a link to the work, but it is not a direct or obvious relationship. It is broader, richer, more abstract, more emotional. It is more acceptable of difference and others: more loving. ‘Greater love hath . .’ becomes a cliché refrain in this ideological struggle; but it has been given a very specific and special reference: war. Love and matters subtle in art are not given any time in our era. Yet they play an important role; but do things personal and art have an essential connection? It is the assumption that intimate matters like style and character can be problematical that opens up the next step: to argue that the works can indeed defile. Hence the scream that insists on the works being defaced, destroyed, when it is likely that the situation has more to do with one’s own mind; individual perceptions that become 'crowd-mad' than anything else.

It is indeed a very difficult subject, but we need to know more of it, both of the sense of its substance and of ourselves if we are not to become irrationally extreme like a fundamentalist in religion or an enthusiast for an idea, ideal or chosen philosophy. One religion declared love is greater than faith and hope, and yet it condoned direct action - the demolition of the tables used for usury. Just how one copes with these complexities and contrasts, and deals with the works of those whom we might dislike, or those whose actions and attitudes we despise, is indeed a very complicated issue that will not be resolved here, because to do so would be to participate in the very circumstance that is being highlighted: for one can be extreme by being in favour of something as well as against it. It is the same position mirrored.

So is there a link between a person and his/her work? Well there has to be, but the answer is both yes and no. The link is ephemeral rather than explicit; spiritual if you like - one of feeling that has little to do with how one sees another and categorises this individual. Tradition did claim that there was a necessary link. Consider the sculptor of the Buddha: there were rules to obey, not only of right proportion, gesture, etc., but also of right feeling, like the painter of an icon too. But just how this rightness might be expressed in an individual's actions at a public, personal level is difficult to determine. One could make all sorts of claims for this but remember that some of the most beautiful haiku was written by drunkards, itinerant wandering priests who spent days dozing in the shade of a tree intoxicated. Now, might one consider this a terrible example to be set; might one wish all of the poetry to be destroyed?

One needs to think more and more carefully before declaring anything of wonder and beauty something to be thrown away, dumped just because it came from . . . well, where did it come from? Does one eventually blame the muse too? It seems that the muse is more open-minded than us, able to use what society might see as a dismal failure and an inherent, aberrant weakness as the conduit for marvel. We should never forget this. We need to ask more about how we might allow the muse to use us, not how we might use the muse, because this ends up in crude amusement, entertainment for our own importance – our considerations; where our ideas get forced into self-promotional form. We must remember that true art can never be predicted, unlike the actions of the bigot. We need to keep ourselves available not only for the muse but also for the works of the muse as they appear through others, whoever they might be. Criticising personalities becomes a dangerous and very blinkered game. Tradition made it clear : inspiration comes from - one knows not where. It is just that one has to remain prepared for the muse to act whenever; wherever; through whomever. Ted Hughes’ poem on the writing of a poem touches on this subject. It finishes enigmatically with ‘The page is printed’:

The Thought Fox

I imagine this midnight moment's forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock's loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox's nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

from New Selected Poems 1957- 1994 (Faber, 1995)
- See more at: http://www.poetryarchive.org/poem/thought-fox#sthash.jwwlIHky.dpuf
(For an analysis of the poem see: http://www.richardwebster.net/tedhughes.html  )

It is really not our call to demand when or how or where or who. It is a little like prohibition if we declare some selected works to be trash to suit our choices; our whims. We must remain thankful that singers and songs do eventually meet and find each other to achieve wonder and beauty, that nebulous world of elsewhere that is so important to our being. One can never say that one has nothing to learn from anybody at all.

We are getting into very dangerous ground if we wish to set arbitrary rules for the origin of beauty. This is an aesthetic apartheid. It is creating unusual demands on something we know little about. Beauty might indeed come from filth. There are no rules that declare otherwise. To demand that wonder will never be so sourced results in individual actions that are merely spiteful: ‘mean; nasty; unpleasant; unkind; hurtful; horrid; malicious’ as the thesaurus expands this notion; yes, all of these, nothing more; nothing less. In this way one can see how terrible actions so easily breed terrible actions. Only commitment, love and a forgiving understanding can break this chain and change circumstances and understandings. We all share a world with our dark, concealed imperfections. We need to learn from others and not despise their works, whomever / whatever they might be.

Courage and compassion are needed. As the Singer Manual advised: ‘Prepare yourself mentally for . . . Think about what you are going to do.'

NOTE: All paintings illustrated here are by Rolf Harris.

# 14 July 2014
There are many personal stories in architecture that one could refer to. Frank Lloyd Wright left his wife and six children to begin a scandalous relationship with one of his client's wives, Mamah Cheney. Frank left his wife Kitty in 1909 to travel throughout Europe with Mamah. When Frank and Mamah returned from Europe, they lived together at Taliesin. Their relationship ended tragically when Mamah and her two children, along with four other people, were murdered at Taliesin.

NOTE: 6 October 2014
Reports have it that Oscar Hammerstein, the man who wrote such charming lyrics as:
Some enchanted evening
You may see a stranger
Across a crowded room
. . . . . 
used to be very blunt with any lady he might have fancied, simply asking: "Do you want to f..k?"

31 October 2019
To get a better understanding of the bohemian ways of the British art world, the role of sex and the importance of contacts, see:
Jon Lys Turner The Visitors’ Book In Francis Bacon’s Shadow: The Lives of Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller Constable 2017.

The era reads like a confederacy of those queer and quirky. Given the extremes of these times, one could claim that Mr. Harris just didn’t have the right contacts. A clever, creative colonial boy who had made his name in ‘Great Britain’ could, it seems, only be shown who was in control. His behaviour, apparently, was just not going to be tolerated.

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