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Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Review: Anna Burns Milkman

Now I couldn’t have made it up and you couldn’t have made it up which is two reasons why Milkman ought to have won the Man Booker Prize, which it did and no thanks to the prognosticators who said that it couldn’t and wouldn’t but it did so there’s justice in the world even if it is a rare thing and not to go unnoticed which this book won’t because now there will be a lot of construing of it, not that the construers will be any better than the prognosticators.

This is an excellent book even at a fairly demanding 348 pages and ten or twelve hours of my time and I don’t know about yours. The temptation will be to reduce it, annex it, to preferred themes which already existed before it was written and so it didn’t really need to be written except to illustrate those themes which it does. The smarter move is to avoid the reduction and look at what the author does and does not do.

First, the author sustains a hypnotic style which is original, quirky and a bit cracked, a bit demented and in order to give voice to a narrator who is all those things. But in case you should think the author  at one with her narrator, the author supplies the narrator with a sense of humour which could not at all belong to someone a bit cracked, a bit demented but is just very funny but of course in a way which is quirky, a bit cracked, a bit demented but does make you laugh so that really the author must be completely sane and thus in full control of whatever insanity her narrator may or may not evince which in any case is rather less insanity than manifested by the cast of characters assembled around her, notwithstanding their bogus claims to greater sanity.

Second, in anonymising place and characters – the city does not have a name and nor do any of the significant characters – the author succeeds in escaping from direct social history and political commentary, turning her very small geographical enclave– a few Catholic streets of one city Belfast – into that grain of sand in which we can see the whole world. This is where she may remind you of Kafka (mentioned once in the novel) and reminded me a bit of Ishiguro who also likes to abstract from precise details of time and place in order to produce something more let’s say imagined and leaving to the imagination.

Third, in addition to the claustrophobic band of core characters – the narrator, her ma, her maybe boyfriend, Milkman, real milkman, … who are locked in different ways into their world of perpetual conflict, the author who knows about Greek and Roman things, provides a contrast, a counterpoint, a chorus maybe in two grouped sets of characters: the narrator’s own wee sisters who are on some other planet entirely based on shrewd child understanding of the planet currently on offer, and later in the narrative the issues women, early 1970s second wave feminists, also as if on another planet where the issues are different to those recognised by the host community which they baffle. Both wee sisters and the issues women provide a great deal of the laughter which this book will yield.

Well, I don’t want to do a plot summary. The book is well-worth reading. I would have made it shorter and I would have very occasionally been a bit more careful about anachronism writing now about the 1970s. But read it, go with its flow, and don’t plonk it into one of the moulds insisted upon now by those always with us wanting to make our worlds claustrophobic, as if novels are written to illustrate trending hashtags. *

* Added 13 December 2018: As if to disagree, here is Writing Magazine (January 2019) commenting on the work of  "bestselling Irish novelist" Celia Ahern: "the stories, written with charm,kindness and empathy, are well-timed for the #MeToo climate" (page 16)

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Review: Peter Goldie and Elisabeth Schellekens, Philosophy and Conceptual Art

When I reviewed Sara Baume’s A Line Made By Walking on this blog ( 22 April 2018) it got me thinking again about conceptual art, something I hadn’t really done for twenty years – my last serious engagement, a long piece I wrote in response to the 1997 Turner Prize exhibition, the prize won by Gillian Wearing:

So now I wrote a short essay setting out my principal (and non-original) objection to conceptual art, that you don’t need to experience it first hand to talk about it – a fact which makes all the expenditure of time and effort and use of (expensive) gallery space seem rather pointless. A version of this essay appears in the bi-monthly Philosophy Now (Issue 129, December 2018/January 2019).

Then I thought I ought to find out what others had been thinking since I did my thinking in 1997 and Amazon pointed me towards the 2007 book I am now reviewing. For a collection of essays by professional philosophers, it’s really quite readable. Most contributors proceed charitably, trying to find a way or ways to accommodate conceptual art (whether narrowly or loosely defined) within the traditions of mostly gallery-based visual art. If anything, they bend over backwards to give it legitimacy.

If it is accepted that conceptual art is an art of ideas, then for example it’s possible to argue that the ideas have aesthetic value rather in the way that a mathematical proof can be elegant or a chess move beautiful – this is an argument developed by Elisabeth Schellekens (page 85 for the specific examples I have given). But this leaves the question open, Why do we need anything more than the ideas? Why do we need the installation or the performance, the bit that costs money and takes up our time and  a gallery space?

Schellekens uses the word “boldness” and another contributor speaks of the audaciousness of conceptual art. The founding work for conceptualism, Duchamp’s Fountain (a male urinal) is endlessly talked about, even now, because it took nerve and cheek to put the urinal into an art gallery, and nerve and cheek often get us talking. Lots of people could have had the ideas which conceptual art occupies itself with; very few people would have dared do anything about them in the fashion done by conceptual artists. So the embodied bits of the ideas are provocations, though it may be very unclear what they are meant to provoke. In contrast, an anarchist who throws a bomb or a terrorist who plants one usually has a clear idea of what they want to provoke.

The invocation of boldness and audaciousness is meant to give point to the installations and the performances. But Schellekens realises that this move effectively links conceptual art to things like jokes and satirical cartoons (page 86) and Margaret Boden references (page 228) the rather embarassing case of Alphonse Allais, a nineteenth century Parisian prankster who got there before the po-faced artists of the 20th century, already in the 1880s exhibiting a canvas painted entirely white and titled Anaemic Young Girls Going To Their First Communion Through a Blizzard.

I think the Allais case allows a different take on conceptual art. I think most of it belongs in the broader category of Pranks. Pranks usually involve someone in quite a lot of prior thought, maybe mixed in character and motive, and are realised by means which are intended to discomfort or shock some individual, group or institutition. The pranks performed by conceptual artists can, however, generally be grouped into a distinct sub-category of pranks  by two important features:

(1)   Humourlessness
(2)    A sense of entitlement to public funding and/or access to public exhibition space

So Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) is a contemporary prankster but not a conceptual artist because he aims to make people laugh. And only as a prank would a prankster seek public funding or an academic job or space in the Tate Gallery, but conceptual artists feel entitled to all those things. This is consistent with the claims of an institutional theory of art , which is also used  several times in this volume as justification for treating conceptual art as art (for example, by Lopes at page 241).

The obvious counter-example to my claim (1) would be Banksy’s recent auto-destructive prank at Sotheby’s which was indeed very funny. But that is in great contrast to most of the stuff the contributors to this book are labouring over.
My puzzlement about conceptual art dates back to the early 1970s when Michael Corris and a colleague from the US Art & Language group visited me in my rural Devon cottage and solicited a contribution for their new journal The Fox of which three issues appeared and are now collectors’ items. Well, I didn’t really have anything which I felt appropriate but I mentioned a draft study of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot which would have been my cover story for a second year in Paris as a student with Roland Barthes had I stayed on after my first year. But I had decided to return to England and a job, and so it had never been worked up or shown to Barthes though a version in French existed. Anyway, to my surprise it was accepted for The Fox and appeared in issue 2 with small editorial additions which irritated me. But for the life of me I did not understand how my essay fitted into their project.

That digression does lead to a final point. Perhaps the core weakness of most conceptual art is that the links between ideas and embodied work are so weak or so opaque, and the ideas themselves so often confused, that really all we are offered (in most cases) is an invitation to free associate. So I think it likely that I got an essay published in The Fox for no good reason because there was no editorial clear thinking about what they were about and free association was the order of the day.

It is notable that in this collection, even though contributors have been asked to reference at least some among a number of selected works of conceptual art, that no one attempts a serious, say, thousand word piece of criticism which brings to life and understanding a particular piece of conceptual art in its specificity. It’s my belief that most  works of conceptual art could not bear the strain of sustained critical reflection and that is a main reason why it does not happen. Of course, there is plenty of humourless prose produced around conceptual art, some of which ends up in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner.

Sometimes people know exactly what they are doing. At other times, they haven’t a clue what they are doing. For an artist, not quite knowing what you are doing is not such a bad place to be. It can mean that you are in the middle of some genuine exploration. Part of my problem with conceptual artists is that I'm not convinced that they are not quite knowing. Either they know exactly or they don't know at all.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Academic Publishing in Olden Times - and Now

I suppose everyone remembers their first time. Mine was in the pages of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research which in 1973 printed my first CV- citeable academic journal publication. Its title is perhaps indicative of how they did things differently then, “The Experience of Politics”.  I find it hard to imagine that anyone would get away with anything like that now.

Let me remind younger readers of olden times. You or your secretary typed up the paper and you (or your secretary – I had one at the age of 23, a temporary university lecturer) put it in an envelope and posted it off to the Editor, in this case at SUNY Buffalo. The journal published no guidelines for submission, other than to note that “Papers submitted for publication will not be returned unless accompanied by a self-addressed, stamped envelope, or return postage …”. Yes, that was it. But in April 1971 I did receive an acknowledgement of safe receipt and in July 1971 an acceptance – “there will, however, be a considerable period of unavoidable delay …” Not yet used to such delays, I wrote impatiently in March 1973 to enquire about date of publication; I was scheduled for June and would soon be receiving a galley proof. And June it was, calloo, callay.

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research was I thought a mid-ranking philosophical journal. (It still exists). It was indexed in The Philosopher’s Index at Bowling Green University. Since my article appeared without an abstract, I was asked to provide one for the Index and still have their proof of my text. It ends “It’s quite a good paper, if I may say so”. It had not been edited out, so I assumed my Abstract had gone unread. (I ran these little experiments in those days and have just started up again: see the Blog post on this site dated 11 September 2018 ).

 Click on Image to Magnify

I would like history to be my judge, but Google Scholar does not index this quite good paper. It may have been cited somewhere, but in all probability, not. I have no correspondence relating to it.

This I now understand has nothing to do with me; it is a quite general problem. 

The other day, I looked at one of the Word docs. on my desktop and thought it might make an academic journal article. I prospected but rapidly gave up. The whole process of submission seems to have been bureaucratised to the nth degree and I set that fact (which would raise my blood pressure if ignored) against a couple of others. Even if accepted, it is highly unlikely that the Word doc. would find any new readers, even more unlikely that it would end up being cited. I googled and the consensus seems to be that in the humanities, about half of all published articles go completely unread and about eighty percent will go uncited by anyone, not even the author’s Facebook friends. Since in retirement I am not trying to build a CV, why bother? I have no answer to that question other than, Why indeed?

And why would anyone bother, unless to build a CV? Well, there is of course a gambler’s chance that your article will be one of those that gets read and a smaller gambler’s chance that it will be cited – though, of course, there is only a fifty-fifty chance that anyone will see the citation and, worse, one of my online sources makes it the criterion for an article having been read by anyone that its first two pages should have been read. That’s tough on the citations.

There is a further reason why I baulk at the academic journal. In the past and even now, the journal took copyright. Oh, we were told that it relieved you of the burden of negotiating permissions and they threw in promises of profit-sharing. But there are two big practical disadvantages, as I have discovered. First, when putting together anthologies, editors apply to copyright holders not authors. This can mean, to give an example from my own experience, that an editor may pick an early version of something and miss out on the fact that there exists a later, more polished attempt on offer. You could have told them, if asked. Second, when in retirement you put together  a collection of your own work and try to do the dutiful bit of obtaining “kind permission” (obs. “without charge”), you discover that your journal is now owned by some conglomerate using an online permissions program which doesn’t even recognise the journal, now defunct, which it owns. More blood pressure problems as I assembled Studies in Pragmatics (2017).

As a result, you will find the recent would-be article on this Blog for 11 September 2018.