Saturday, December 02, 2006

In the room the women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo

Ibsen made the distinction between those artists who went down to the sewers to bathe and those who went there to purify. In an article in this morning's Daily Telegraph, Michael Henderson associates Damien Hirst with a loose collection known as 'young British artists' in saying that Hirst has nothing to say but he's determined to say it.

When I did a module called 'Twentieth Century Fiction' in the final year of my BA, I was taught that one of the defining characteristics of post-modernism was a tendency to blur the distinction between high-culture (ie figures in the first half of the centure, Stravinsky, TS Eliot, Joyce, Picasso) and low (or popular culture). I now think that this is one of the positive things about post-modernism. All works of art are after all, packaged commodities like everything else. As Peter Carey writes in the last paragraph of his 300 worder 'Report on the Shadow Industry':

My own feelings about the shadows are ambivalent to say the least. For here I have manufactured one more: elusive, unsatisfactory, hinting at greater beauties and more profound mysteries that exist somewhere before the beginning and somewhere after the end.

This doesn't however, prevent many 'artists' from living in a bubble of self-importance. Fame fame fatal fame can play hideous tricks on the brain. In 1988 the critic DJ Taylor lamented how the English novel was being denigrated into 'Drawing-room twitter' and how the great issues of the day were being shunned.

One artist that cannot be accused of twittering is the rock band Radiohead. Noel Gallagher recently said in an interview with The Guardian that he had no use for or understanding of Radiohead. He had grown up with the charts and wanting to be at number 1. At various times in my life both Radiohead and the music of Gallagher's Oasis have kept me afloat when I otherwise might have gone under. Both bands are in different ways, like taking a trip to the sewer, and both have the capacity to be purifying. Radiohead for their politically-charged intensity and uncompromising intellectual honesty, Oasis for the way they match reflectiveness with snarling arrogance.

As I write, 'Take That' are enjoying a nostalgic, and probably well deserved, ITV Prime-Time special. They must have learnt by now that fame has its place, but it is a sewer in that it is not in itself fertile.

The novel that I'm currently working on has a story that unfolds over two millenia and the action revolves around a sphagnum bog. It is heavily influenced by the work of Alan Garner. He is a Cheshire based novelist who has spent nearly fifty years writing fiction of unfathomable depth and is one of the most popular children's novelists of his time. I'll leave you with a passage from his novel 'The Stone Book Quartet':

And Father went out of the room and left Mary by the fire. He went to Old William and took his Ophicleide, as he always did after shouting, and he played the hymn that Old William liked best because it was close to the beat of the loom. William sang for the rhythm, 'Nickety-nackety, Monday-come-Saturday', and Father tried to match him on the ophicleide.

William bawled:

"Oh, the years of Man are the looms of God
Let down from the place in the sun;
Wherein we are moving always,
Till the mystic work is done!"

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