Spitfires and the art of the passing moment

Spitfires and the art of the passing moment

Smell can be the most potent sense, bringing forgotten moments instantly back to mind, and few things from my childhood seem as vivid as the antiseptic reek of polystyrene cement. It transports me to a table spread with newspaper, the tube of glue poised at one edge, bulbous at the nozzle with the thick liquid pushed by some mysterious residual pressure to ooze onto the paper or the scattered plastic parts of whatever Airfix kit I might have been painstakingly putting together, the instructions laid out at another corner, the exploded parts with their numbers and the inexorable directive: “locate and cement”. Not being particularly deft I would simply accept the disappointment when the glue seeped out from the joints as I pressed them together, and despite my best efforts to wipe it away would leave smears of slightly melted plastic, like sheep wool on a fence, along the lines of the once-separate parts.

It seems strange now to reflect that I could leave so engrossing a pleasure behind me, and yet it happened, early in my adolescence. I kept some of the models for a while in my bedroom, those I had not set on fire or tried to blow up, stuffed with newspaper soaked in weedkiller (the explosions had been disappointing) until they seemed something past me, something gone.

In my enthusiastic years I put together many types of kit, with shifting attention to detail, but one of the first I ever made, and one I bought and remade several times, something which always took a modest pride of place, was the Supermarine Spitfire. This after all was the plane that had won the Battle of Britain, unmatched among its fighter peers for its grace and agility, something the curving lines of its wings seemed to speak of directly. I had a couple of Hurricanes too, and I knew my great uncle had flown Hurricanes, been shot down and survived, making his way across France, aided by nuns. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been to live through such times, such experiences, though I knew him only in later life as an habitual joker.

Despite the family connection to Hurricanes the Spitfire remained paramount in my imagination. I could only dream of how good it would be to have the materials and the patience to paint one of the models properly, but I had neither, so with the kit fully assembled I would just slip the transfer decals from their slimy backing paper, soaked in water, directly onto the unpainted plastic of the wings and fuselage, the tailplane, pushing them carefully with one finger into place. There was always the difficult decision about whether to fix the wheels in the wings for flight or down for landing. I usually chose the flight option: it was a little easier, and the result looked more elegant, more dynamic. I don’t know how many versions I constructed, how many times I put it together, with a late coda as my eldest son reached his Airfix moment.

On Sunday afternoon I was standing by the water’s edge on one of the beaches here in Folkestone, looking out over the sea, the air softened and glowing with a gorgeous early autumn sunlight, when a real Spitfire and its escort slipped out into the sky from the rim of the white cliffs, its Merlin engine grinding through the air. I’ve seen it often before when sitting along this coast, out for a spin, and imagine it must be some hobbyist who takes the antique plane up with his friends or co-owners.

There’s an obvious poignancy seeing it here, where once it would have flown in earnest and in the face of likely destruction, perhaps from Hawkinge airfield on top of the Downs above the town, the closest fighter base to France. The airfield was still there when I first moved back to Kent, more of a field than an airfield with a little museum attached, but it’s all been sold off now for millions of pounds and turned into a dispiriting sprawl of compressed mock-country houses, the worst of English anti-design. The antique plane in its turn has gone from the last ditch guardian of decency and freedom to become a rich man’s toy, flashing its wings over the harbour where in an earlier war thousands of young men embarked on the journey which would take them to their deaths. It’s irony on irony in this anniversary year of the First World War’s outbreak, where the insensitivity and dimness of our local burghers turned what should have been a solemn commemoration of that great and arguably pointless sacrifice into a vanity project for living egos.

Everyday experience offers us these moments all the time, moments of conjunction loaded with irony or other kinds of accentuated meaning. These heightened moments, these accidents of significance however fleeting, are part of what it is to be alive and alert to our thoughts.

Standing on the beach, separated by a sea wall from the harbour beach where Folkestone’s now infamous Triennial gold rush had its own passing moment, it was hard not to reflect on what difference we might discern if we could speak of this Spitfire flight as an “intervention” by an internationally acclaimed artist.

After all the random event of the Spitfire’s appearance has all the usual attributes of an intervention. It seems to be playing on the boundaries between location, history, personal memory and public symbolism. If an artist was involved we would probably have to say that s/he was interrogating or investigating those boundaries, but without such magisterial presence we just have to notice for ourselves the permeability of what might otherwise seem so solid in our experience.

Since the necessary answer to the question of any difference made is “not much”, and certainly nothing worth speaking of, this little accident of history only highlights the dismal intellectual slackness of the art-world’s notion of an “intervention”.

It is apparent that artworks often “intervene” in experience; it’s a way of beginning to describe the effect of art, the way it works, but it’s a way which stands in need of heavy qualification, and if all the intervention offers us is a renewed self-consciousness around what we already have, then in truth it offers us nothing.

Like so much about conceptual art, this idea of intervention seems to depend on a basic syllogism: the observation that art intervenes, and therefore intervention must be a sufficient characteristic of art. This has led us to a place where the “artist” merely has to offer a show of conscious presence in any situation for that presence to be deemed a Work. But this is mad, a risible loss of perspective. In reality pretty much everything in the built environment has to one extent or another been designed. There is conscious intervention everywhere if we care to notice it, and it’s true I suppose that most creative work starts with noticing. But it is only the beginning, can only be the beginning, and art until recently always then involved some development of whatever it was you had noticed, some transforming work in a medium to take the perception forward, to give people drawn into the work something more than the reflex of self-consciousness.

I can’t see why I should be interested in something which only offers a featureless frame for my own reflections. Nor am I fooled by a claim to “interrogate” the boundaries between this and that, when that interrogation is essentially uninterested in possible answers to its queries, when it has no means to do anything else with those answers.

I am honestly baffled that anyone should take these claims seriously. It seems to spring from a kind of cultural narcissism, which is a good epithet for conceptual art itself, an art interested in nothing but itself and determined to live in a self-constructed world where its assumptions cannot be challenged. There’s a paradox here, though one that’s more apparent then real, because much conceptual art practice would claim to be engaging with the ordinary world, and would hold this engagement in contrast to the more rarefied visual vocabulary of much previous practice.

But that’s where it misses the point, because even rarefied elements in earlier art must place themselves in relation to ordinary life and that’s where the interest begins to develop, where things go beyond whatever we already have. And by arguing implicitly that art is no more than whatever we already have, conceptual art falsely demeans what we have already found to be quite different, and better worth our attention.

It can’t be so radical or reactionary to demand an art which is more ambitious than this, a visual art which by whatever means, to whatever end, has at least been touched by the maker’s hand, with more distinguished skill than ever showed in my plastic Spitfires.

Brutal truths

Brutal truths

I caught part of a recent BBC Wales profile of Karl Jenkins, perhaps the most commercially successful “classical” composer of our times. I feel I must put in these inverted commas because the genre is not an easy one to talk about: it denotes broadly a world of virtuosity and rigour, a world of demanding music particularly in its contemporary forms. Jenkins’ music demands the inverted commas because in critical respects it’s not particularly demanding, is in fact resolutely accessible. He has his fans among classical musicians, but I imagine he’s well used to what may seem like an elitist snobbery from his detractors.

When I was a schoolboy I was interested in some of the whackier jazz fusion combos, including Soft Machine. Jenkins replaced the Softs’ sax player Elton Dean in the early 70s, and was important to the band’s evolution, but I always felt he didn’t quite fit, that there was something detached about him. It didn’t come as any great surprise when a few years later he left experimental jazz behind for the lush embrace of advertising soundtracks.

I’m not a fan, but that’s not particularly important. Praising Jenkins on the documentary the ad mogul Sir Peter Hegarty claimed that there was no greatness in making difficult music for an audience of 40 people; that truly creative people absorbed what was going on around them, and redeployed it somehow, in a way that had integrity but could appeal to a mass market (I paraphrase).

I guess it’s no great surprise to hear that coming from an ad man, but it only illustrates how denuded the idea of “creativity” is in the advertising world, which in many ways has shaped our culture, our mainstream sensibilities (entirely to their detriment).

Some great art is popular. Much of it isn’t, because, pace Hegarty, popularity or the lack of it is pretty much irrelevant to the quality of a piece of art.

Advertising requires imagination, and technical skills, but it is never creative in the way good art (let alone great art) must be. That’s because advertising is ALWAYS safe, and has to be, even when it seems to court risk (what it offers is the manner of the risky, but never its substance). Advertising is rooted in cliché, because advertising needs its instant hooks, the easy pull of the familiar; it needs to reassure even when it’s promising adventure. The focus groups wouldn’t have it any other way. Good art on the other hand, however it works, mostly takes us to places we wouldn’t normally go. It unsettles us to move us, not to buy something, but to re-experience in a new light some aspect of what we already have, or give us something perhaps we didn’t know we wanted.

Art and advertising are diametrically opposed. It’s not then surprising that in his recent TV paean to Brutalist architecture the great Jonathan Meades should in passing take a swipe at the stultifying influence of advertising. That said, Meades’ real target as so often was our cultural veneration of mediocrity, the safe, the undemanding. He traced a line from the the perceived grotesquerie of John Vanbrugh, through High Victorian Gothic, to the Brutalist design of the 1960s and 70s (or thereabouts). This, he argued, was an architecture which felt no need to apologise for itself, an architecture of ideas and the imagination, an architecture capable of refashioning the space it occupied. All this sits in contrast to the unassuming orderliness of Georgian building, beloved by the conservative mind, easily harmonious in its proportions, which some would see as elegance or even beauty, but others like Meades would find oppressive in its bourgeois lifelessness.

It would be unwise to argue that a design was good just because it was adventurous, or exciting. It might be these things and still not work, for other reasons. Assertiveness is exhilarating when you have something worth asserting; without it assertiveness is most likely to bring us bathos, or vulgarity.

Brutalism is a misleading term, suggesting something thrustingly hideous, but then what we think of as Brutalism isn’t even a style. Like most architecture it was a response to its times, a determination to find an adequate form for conflicting senses of hope and darkness, those apprehensions themselves born out of a feeling for the blankness of the natural world, the dependence on ourselves to make what meaning we could in our lives, at a time when religious faith appeared to be necessarily collapsing into the confines of the lunatic fringe. In many ways we’re still struggling with these darker apprehensions, all the more so since any optimism bubbling up around our emergence from the Second World War seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Instead we have a society increasingly polarised between the crushing and the crushed, where private and corporate wealth, protected from the consequences of its own grotesque misjudgements by public handouts, now commands shining and vapid temples to itself, the new towers of London evoking not so much awe as the vaingloriousness of San Gimignano’s merchant princes.

Through the ministries of consumerism we’re offered the consolations of constant undemanding distraction, whether through sanitised mysticism, or the forced and prurient excitement of Reality TV (never was a genre more ironically labelled).

That’s not the fault of Karl Jenkins, or any other creative soul working to do something good in these conditions; just because something’s not great doesn’t mean it can’t be good.

Unfortunately the danger seems to be more the other way round; so our apparent desire to shirk the serious or the difficult means we settle for consolation when we could do with confrontation, when we debase our own judgements to claim greatness where there’s only a kind of slavery.

I find advertising almost impossible to watch or read these days, no matter how well-crafted. I find it hard to look beyond the manipulative motives, the unsustainable pointlessness of it all, much as though this is the world in which I make my living. But at least when I’m making my living I know what I’m doing (in every sense); I’d never mistake it for something more important, something enduring. And I hope I’d never mistake the sentimental for the truly sentient, never mistake sensation for sense.

Art and difficulty

Art and difficulty

A recent piece in the Guardian newspaper asked whether smartphones were killing the art of photography. Central to its argument (for and against) was the idea that smartphones represent a “democratisation” of the art form. This argument has been made in other areas, most obviously in relation to music, where it’s been claimed that software like Apple’s Garage Band eliminated the need for traditional musical training or instruments – that now anyone could make music and this was a good thing.

It seems to me a good thing if the relatively easy availability of such tools brings more people to explore expressive media and find out what they can do. But it’s something else altogether to suggest that democracy is a good thing for art.

Strictly speaking democracy only makes sense as a political concept, as a system of government accountability. What people mean when they speak of an art form becoming more democratic is a vague notion of putting that art in the creative hands of many more people, possibly even the majority of people, and trying to arrogate the generally positive feeling most of us have about political democracy to a more dubious proposition about art.

It’s dubious because one of the things every culture has valued in art is the sense that it is something exceptional, something beyond ordinary abilities or experience. The expectation that some craft skill at least will be visible is why the ordinary (democratic?) response to much abstract painting has been “a child could do that”.

While I understand the ideas behind abstraction, and can enjoy the results, this popular response is a problem for the art world, which from time to time makes claims that visual art in particular has reached out into mass culture, is no longer tied by the patronage of the rich (though that’s a strange claim given the continuing influence of individual collectors like Charles Saatchi).

The claim about accessibility is even stranger, given that in the early 20th century art in all media began to turn away from any kind of populist pretensions just as full political democracy was becoming a reality. Art became self-consciously difficult, pre-occupied with its formal unreality, which in turn produced an exclusive focus on the artwork as object rather than representation (which is why it seems we have to talk of work being “made” rather than “painted”).

Contemporary practice has mostly wanted to hang on to the formal self-consciousness, but has become uneasy about the difficulty. Ironically though, there’s nothing more baffling to ordinary people than the art world’s attempts to find a new immediacy, through “readymade” objects, performance and so on. It’s ironic because it’s trying to solve a problem that didn’t exist in western art before the 20th century. Western religious painting was explicitly conceived to offer something for everyone, and while more aristocratic art could include elements that might only make full sense to the cognoscenti, even the least-educated might still find ways to enjoy what they saw.

The fact that any exhibition of (say) Turner is likely to be far more popular than (say) a Martin Creed show doesn’t in itself mean that the Martin Creed is worthless, but it points to a disingenuousness in the way the art world talks of itself. What’s exhilarating about Turner is partly his vision, but it’s also his mastery of his medium, his virtuosity, giving the sense that you’re in the presence of something quite exceptional. Contemporary visual art dogmatically rejects virtuosity, claiming (more or less) that it’s irrelevant to the power of art to recast and refresh ordinary experience. But there’s the paradox, the irony: in its attempt to engage with the everyday, the commonplace, contemporary visual art (and particularly conceptual art) has become the most elitist phenomenon in cultural history.

Photography, arguably, was the cause of all this, quickly forcing people to question the traditional representational value of painting, and one of the obvious things about photography as an art form is the more limited scope for virtuosity. There’s a technical element of course, particularly around the knowledge of how to manage the inevitable compromises of exposure. But then such decisions are not just technical; exposure, depth of field, focus and above all the way the shot is framed will all determine the final image, so are part of the creative process.

Even with these limited means, and a dependence on the physical world of objects (including people and landscapes), it’s still possible to produce images that are personally expressive and distinctively characteristic. But any photographer will also have to acknowledge the possibility of the usefully accidental, the unforeseen. Photography, the art of stilled life, is unusually open to the accidental, and this can be a real strength, but it’s also what makes it vulnerable to the claims of “democratisation”: anybody with the technology (ie a camera) can press a button and create an image.

Then again this has nothing to do with smartphones. It’s been true since the Instamatic cameras of the 1960s (or arguably Box Brownies before that).

Digital compact cameras replaced the Instamatic and its film derivatives, and because digital removed the cost of film and processing, it brought the possibility of the accidentally great shot within reach of everyone.

What’s different about smartphones is their ubiquity. Few people carried their compact cameras everywhere, but a phone is usually in your pocket, and social networks offer an instant virtual gallery. Smartphones and social networks have nurtured a mania for recording and presenting aspects of our daily lives, usually artlessly. While this is interesting culturally, and perhaps psychologically, satisfying an urge that has traditionally been the preserve of art, does it make any sense to call the results art?

Few people taking and showing these shots would make that claim, because few of those shots would benefit from that kind of claim, or the scrutiny that should follow.

Then there’s a technical issue. The best smartphone cameras struggle to match the quality even of a decent mid-range compact, let alone a good dSLR. I appreciate that the artefacts, the graininess of the smartphone pictures can contribute to their quality, but why would anyone choose to work with a tool that constrains your options rather than opening them up? It’s like a painter choosing to work with a ballpoint: he or she could still create images, and they could have their own interest (certainly working with constraints can be inspiring), but for most creative work it is self-evidently better to have enabling rather than disabling tools.

Far from “democratising” photography, it would be truer to say that the possibility of getting interesting images from something as crude and immediate as a smartphone challenges the artistic pretensions of the medium: if what we respect in other art forms is the sense that something special has been wrought, that difficulties have been overcome, then the push button element of photography will look as though it belongs to a different kind of activity.

But this is probably an illusion. Backgammon seems to involve a large degree of luck, but good players consistently win. Likewise great photographers take consistently great images. Their work reveals a way of seeing, a characteristic attention to certain details or ways of framing their shots. These things will come through whichever type of camera they are using, and simply having a camera does not make you a good photographer: in this light the argument that the easy availability of the technology represents some kind of “democratisation” of an art form is stupid on every level.

Paradoxically, the way smartphones, and digital technology more generally, makes it possible to record and share our everyday experience highlights the way that art, while often rooted in the urge to record and share, is something quite different and more reserved. I think if it is to mean anything, it has to denote something special, something probably founded in the everyday but which lifts us above the everyday, which demands and (crucially) rewards our attention.

A further irony surrounds our veneration of artists. Because art is something special, it’s natural enough to respect artists. Perhaps inevitably this respect has got tangled with the cult of celebrity, which in turn seems to have weakened the critical faculties of some who should know better. Not least, to do any art requires a degree of self-belief, but hearing the way many visual artists talk about themselves it’s hard not to wish they had a little less self-belief. I have been arguing that art is special, something above the commonplace, but that doesn’t mean we need to treat art as if it was exempt from ordinary critical standards. It’s pretty hard to define what constitutes art, because doing so takes you quickly into elusive abstractions, but it’s not so hard to articulate why we like some things and think others are bad, not so hard to challenge hollow pretensions and laughable posturing. There might always be room for argument, but it’s an argument worth having.