Archive for the ‘Art’ Category


As a writer I’m a reader. All writers are readers, from their youngest years. And we amass shelf after shelf of volumes, comprising a vast seminar. I don’t doubt it’s an ego thing: “Look at me, I’m so-o-o literary!” But those books represent a world of knowledge. Knowledge, and a real joy in the reading of it, in immersing  yourself in the work of others.

Chethams Library, Manchester. My book shelves are, er, not quite like these. Similar in function, but … *

For those of us of a sensitive artistic nature there is also the aroma of the printed page: The printer’s ink, and the odor and texture of the paper, and its tactile pleasure. Admittedly it’s more expensive than golf, but carries fewer frustrations.

Books. At home I have close to 2000 books distributed in 14 bookcases throughout the house. Plus shelves, tables, chairs, and ultimately the floor. The house is a two-bedroom bungalow. We are surrounded by books of every possible genre — history, biography, westerns, who-dunnits, adventure, humour, lots of humour. Surrounded by books in almost every room in the house, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve read them all, they’ve been a part of my life since my late teens, which is quite a long time ago. To live in a house in which there are no books is absolutely unacceptable. I wouldn’t be able to live without seeing books everywhere I look in the house.

But they are a form of sickness.

Library, Durham University, 1842

Unfortunately, books, to some of us, are as much a pernicious drug as alcohol or heroin. Neither quite as expensive nor as physically or mentally detrimental, they are nevertheless a drug. Read one, buy two (or acquire two; vast numbers are available free from neighbourhood libraries, culled from the librarys’ shelves). Before you know it you have a shelf of books waiting to be read. In one of my bookcases there is a shelf of “to be read” books. There are 40 books on that shelf. As I say, it’s a sickness.


* Photo: Tom Jeffs.


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Abstract Art(?)

I read somewhere that a Warhol painting of a coke bottle — nothing else, just a black and white rendering; you could have produced the same thing with a 1930s Kodak box camera in exactly 45 seconds — was offered by a prominent auction house for an asking price of $20 million. Dollars, that is. Can’t remember if it was US or CDN, but (small laugh, bordering on hysteria) does it really matter? I don’t know if they managed to flog it for that price, but that too doesn’t really matter. Just the fact that a respected auction house felt that there was some idiot wandering around out there with $20 million in pocket change he didn’t know what to do with … that is the seminal fact.

I believe I read somewhere that this work, though not abstract art but an example of grossly inflated price tags, was valued at $50 million (now in the Neue Pinakothek, Munich)

Just staggers the mind, doesn’t it? The same auction house (must really be a winner, this outfit) was offering a painting (artist’s name omitted to protect the guilty) for a little over a million dollars. The painting showed a simple royal blue ground. On closer inspection you would find the work was divided into a number of squares, each of a subtle change in hue. And that was it: Artistic expression.

An artist friend of mine once wisely said: “Artists must be allowed to paint whatever they like. Scrap iron, soup cans, giant hamburgers, anything. Just call it something else. Don’t call it art, because it’s not.”

I have not added illustrations of these artworks. Being fairly recent, they are so buried in copyright restrictions that it simply isn’t worth the legal hassle.

I think there are many who could make a strong case that this art situation illustrates what’s wrong with our society, that it’s obscene that there are so many with that kind of discretionary income ready to buy what a lot of us would charitably label “so-called art.”

Munich Gallery (the Neue Pinakothek) *

But that’s the problem with art, isn’t it? Good art might be worth those millions; bad art wouldn’t. And we are then faced with the question that has exasperated us since the beginning of time: Given that art is a subjective thing, who decides what’s good and what’s bad?

No one can. And while the critics will fight that attitude like tigers, it’s an immutable fact: One critic’s meat is another critic’s poison. You want proof? Just read the critics.

So there it is, the really sad part of the whole problem: Because no one can say what’s good and what’s bad, the artistic doors are flung wide to every charlatan in town, who offer us utter garbage and call it “art.”

Fortunately, the choice is still ours to accept or reject. Perhaps leaving it to the marketplace to decide is, in the end, the wisest move.


* Photo: Nicholas Even

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About bars and taverns: I remember my years in Montréal, living with an Italian family (1953–55). They saw me briefly Saturday mornings, but didn’t see me again till Sunday lunch where I usually joined them with a hangover. Saturday was my day: A late lunch in my favourite tavern downtown, read the newspaper, then spend the rest of the afternoon visiting half a dozen second-hand bookstores. Then a late supper, and a night of friendly bars. In those days, long ago, I would come home in the small hours of the morning loaded — with at least a dozen wonderful books, many of which I still have in my library, mementoes of an extraordinary time of my life …

William Shenstone, 1714-1763

Taverns and their like have always seemed to play a part in my life. Something about alehouses in general seems to reach out to writers of every kind. Poets, particularly, are enchanted by taverns. The 18th century poet William Shenstone said:


“And now once more I shape my way

Through rain or shine, through thick or thin,

Secure to meet at close of day,

With kind reception at an inn.”


John Gay, 1685-1732

Oliver Goldsmith, 1730-1774

I’m not a fan of Shenstone’s “poetry” and I don’t think many are these days. I don’t believe many were in his day, either. Writing in the mid-1700s, he fell under the long shadows of a number of superior poets — Goldsmith, Burns, Pope, Swift, Gay — heavy competition. And, like Shenstone, none was a stranger to the tavern.

Robert Burns, 1759-1796

Yes, well, poets may have loved the tavern, but then as now the tavernkeeper wasn’t all that happy with poets. Most poets were (and are) long on drinking but short on paying.

But before we lay a large knock on poets and their parsimonious ways tavern-wise, we must remember that though life has improved immeasurably for just about all of us, absolutely nothing has changed for the poet. He was penniless then and he’s penniless now; his only wealth the power of his pen, his only sustenance the crumbs of press he might receive.

But he soldiers on, proving once again what I’ve always maintained: Poets are crazy.

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Poet or Proseur?

Do they make a living?

Well, poets we know. Those guys never make a living, not as poets, and because their poetic nature is not too keen on work, they don’t make much of a living in other areas either.

But the “Proseur” is another animal all together.

The proseur is the author who finally makes it: The multi-million-dollar author who now swans around, living so high on the hog he needs oxygen equipment.

The poets are reduced to tears of frustration to see these no-talent louts gaining royalty cheques that make a king’s ransom look like the revenue from a kid’s lemonade stand.

The Gutenberg Bible, c. 1455, the first book printed with movable type. *

You have to ask, if you’re inclined that way, why this vast difference in appreciation and compensation? Check out any of the recent novels: Do they project a degree of skill, imagination, creative expertise, treatment, and/or unique concept, that would warrant such mind-bending rewards? Okay, it’s also true that the current crop of poets doesn’t seem to be paying attention either; their work all too frequently exhibits the grasp of a three-week-old child when it comes to skill in treatment. Skill, and the time it takes to apply it, seems to be in short supply these days. When countries like the Phillipines alone send out hundreds of billions of text messages a year, to seek skill or even the merest hint of intelligence is a mug’s game. Before we know it the world’s proseurs and poets will be writing to the literary level of texters and textees. Something to look forward to, isn’t it?

Still, we mustn’t forget those glass houses, must we? Today’s proseurs would be wise to avoid criticism of poets and poetry, and poets would be better off spending more time on their poetry than moaning about the compensation of others. Between them there are a lot of glass houses out there …

The Crystal Palace, the ultimate glass house, built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, England.


* Photo: K. Eng

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In any artistic field, at some point you will run up against the critic, the so-called expert who knows everything and wants to explain it to you — never using a one- or two-syllable word if he can avoid it. Here’s an example:

Give some people a pen, and right away they’ll write a critique on what others have written with it. *

“Abstract Expressionism was largely divorced from the traditions of geometry. The relations of this new movement to surrealism, and particularly organic surrealism, are obvious. (They are?) The essence of abstract expressionism is the spontaneous assertion of the individual. (Couldn’t have expressed it better myself) At the moment when the movement was being recognized on a world-wide scale, it was actually — at least in its most accepted form — in the process of change and even decline. (Hey, too bad; hardly started and already it’s going downhill).”

Did you find you had to read some sentences more the once? You’re not alone, and that’s a pretty mild example. Some are so unbelievably confusing they are raised to the level of art … if I can use that expression.


Go ahead, make anything out of them **

The spiral animal that walks by itself ***

It’s almost refreshing to pick up a child’s plastic toy, a dog or a truck, stylized, but still recognizable — as if seen through the designer’s eyes — as the animal or truck, and without a moment’s hesitation or confusion it entertains the child, and us too, and needs not a single word of pedantic gobbledygook.


* Illustration: www.ClipProject.info

** Photo: Priwo

*** Photo: R.McLassus


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Poetry without form is like a car without brakes.

“Naw, I don’t do form or metre or any of that stuff. They’re like brakes, they only slow you down.”

Well … yeah, I guess brakes do that, don’t they …

Adherence to form does act that way. Many of today’s “poets” don’t want to have anything to do with form. Too many restrictions; you have to work to follow form. For many of these people, work is a four-letter word, unacceptable in today’s poetic circles.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744), satirist

The poets who do not embrace the views of those work-less poetic circles are seen as squares, literary dinosaurs. Today’s poets, like people everywhere, seek instant gratification. Immediate success. They recognize, as the old adage tells us, “Nothing succeeds like success.” To carry, casually (but conspicuously) a slim volume bearing your name and poetry (even though produced at your own expense), is manifestly Success with a capital “S” (I guess). Oscar Wilde, however, put it better, and more appropriately: “Nothing succeeds like excess.”

John Wilmot (1647-1680), another poet with a sharp pen

To observe form, to follow metre, to seek a satisfying rhyme — classical stuff, involving thought, care, deliberation — are all aspects of work and entail time and effort. But to spend time and effort takes, understandably, a lot of time and effort, and is thus anathema to these poets.

I would perpetrate one of those so-called poems to illustrate what I’m saying, but my ego won’t allow me to be seen doing that. I don’t have much of a reputation, but it’s all I’ve got and I’d like to hang on to it.

John Dryden (1631-1700), satirist and leading literary critic of his day


Satirical poets and critics from Pope to the present have gained a great deal of notoriety, not to say amusement, from lampooning the pompous. They would have had a lot of work today.

A real poet once told me that the product of many recent poets is as if they had put a bunch of words into a hat, gave it a shake, and spilled them out onto a page, added a title that had nothing to do with the substance of the work, and proofread it assiduously to ensure the line breaks made the piece difficult to read, and voila! — a poem, and it only took five minutes and no effort, and its incomprehensibility would be sure to please the editors of the modern poetry magazines.

No wonder these poets can produce a 150-page volume of poetry every six months.

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Writers don’t seem to be quite like other people. They are different, no denying that; not negatively (well, not much), though they do often put on airs, not overtly swanning around, but definitely conscious of themselves.

The difference, I think, is one of aura — and aura really does sound like swanning around, doesn’t it! — but aura in the way a supremely self-confident person radiates power, aggressive control, invincibility. I believe all writers are like this, from the lowest most humiliated hack churning out press releases, to the world-renowned author who still hasn’t cashed last year’s multi-million-dollar royalty cheque.

Odin, god of gods, and Brünhilde, one of the Valkyries. I don’t think a writer would find difficulty seeing himself as Odin. Snappy wingèd hat, gorgeous woman, macho biceps tattoo, impressive spear for unappreciative publishers …

AJ Liebling, one-time journalist and memoirist of the first half of the 20th century, once said that it never occurs to a writer that anybody could have wanted to be anything else.

He also said that this attitude marks an excess of vanity coupled with a lack of imagination. The first part of that remark, at least, is true.

I think writers are thrilled beyond measure by this view, and agree utterly. They see themselves as a race apart, striding across the world like giants, unique. I certainly do, and every writer I know feels the same: Blessed, honoured by Fate or genetics to be one of a race above and beyond the common herd. Almost … gods.

Conceited? Of course. But then (I casually flick a speck of lint from my lapel) we have a lot to be conceited about.

Only one problem, and it’s a perennial one:

(sigh) I just wish it paid more.

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