On Beauty


“To argue with a dead man is embarrassing and not very loyal. It is all the more so when the absent one is a potential friend and a most valuable interlocutor: but it can be an obligatory step. I speak about Hans Mayer, alias Jean Amery, the philosopher who committed suicide and a theoretician of suicide …” Introductory paragraph of chapter 6 entitled “The intellectual in Auschwitz” from the book “The Drowned and the Saved.” By Primo Levi

“Late one night, Chris was summoned to ‘headquarters’. That was how people in camp referred to the small house at the foot of the hill on the edge of the settlement. In this house lived the investigator who handled ‘particular important matters’. The phrase was a joke, since there were no ‘matters’ that were not particularly important. Any violation of the rules or even the appearance of such a violation was punishable by death. It was either death or a verdict of total innocence. But what man lived to tell the tale of such a verdict?”

Opening paragraph entitled “Handwriting” from “Kolyma Tales” by Varlam Shalamov.

Twin events recently have started to reshape how I feel about my work, and maybe how I start to revalue it. I don’t really think of this as a Damascene moment, for if truth be told I have been hesitating at a metaphorical crossroads for some time. The choices that seemed apparent to me weren’t clear, but weren’t not made for fear of wanting to move and engage with a medium that has held me in thrall in ever increasing amounts since before these studies began, although accelerating now.

Primo Levi, who studied chemistry at the University in Turin, a skill that helped him survive Auschwitz, was able to describe that horrific experience by writing beautiful prose that, translated into the English language, enabled me to reflect on man’s inhumanity to man. I was drawn into Levi’s experience by the means of his beautiful use of language. Similarly Shalamov’s book of short stories, connected only by their telling of tales from a Soviet forced-labour camp in North Eastern Siberia under the reign of Stalin. Neither of these books are easy reading, but their prose, and that of their other works delivers the readers to places that might be too difficult to reach without those words chosen to be read in an order that helps the reader to understand, to comprehend. John Glad, the translator of the “Kolymar Tales” says in his introduction.. “If you are about to read the stories of Varlam Shalamov for the first time, you are a person to be envied, a person whose life is about to be changed, a person who will envy others once you have forded these waters.”

I agree with Glad that I do envy those who haven’t stepped into that river yet, because, as he also suggests elsewhere in the same introduction, ‘you can’t step into the same river twice’, the river has moved on, flowed away.

Siegfried’s video from the Thames Valley study day shows the difficulty I felt/feel about my work. I had envisioned that the ‘pretty’ images that I brought to the event would entice, but I gambled on the audience reflecting, like me, that their substance was insufficient to warrant much discussion. And yes, there was a reason to talk about them at the same time as trying to talk about the other ‘documents’ that I had taken to present and it was that they linked to the later presentation on transition.

I was frustrated that I didn’t manage to convince the other participants of how I felt about my work, at either the review or the transition stage. And I don’t think now that the audience were just being nice – at least I hope not. To say that I have thought about this ‘prettiness’ issue for some time would be to underestimate it by some margin.  That their comments haven’t stopped ringing in my ears would also be equally true.

“What’s wrong with a pretty picture” was and has been suggested to me a great many times, and the answer is of course nothing. Nothing is wrong with a pretty picture, these conversations about the worth of an image, a song, a poem which delights in the moment. They should be celebrated, they generally make us feel good, they make me feel good. Feeling good is good, what could be wrong in that? Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater Nisi Dominus Rv 608 : Cum Dederit Dilectis has me singing at the top of my voice, that it was used by Sarah Moon as a sound track to her film Mississippi One perhaps heightens it a bit for me, but I get the same buzz from listening to all sorts, though Vivaldi’s treatment of the Stabat Mater isn’t one that moves me to religion, I love it in the moment, it doesn’t have any discursive value for me; I am where I was before I started the cd spinning. The same isn’t true however with John Grant’s painful description of his lack of love for his father in “JC hates Faggots” from the album “Queen of Denmark”. They are things of beauty, some with and some without depth and I love signing with them (though it has to be said no-one likes me singing). Tin pan alley produced songs for the machine that was the music industry, there are many landscape and portrait photographers who produce images for the same reason and good luck to them, I wish them all well.

Tom Hunter, at a recent study date, described how he knew he had to engage with an audience, otherwise how would he ever hope to deliver anything to that audience. If a visitor to an exhibition isn’t attracted long enough, if a viewer to a web-site isn’t drawn to linger then the effort to create whatever narrative, however noble, will have been in vain. If the intent of creating imagery is to provide a platform or arena for discourse then it needs to deliver the primary function of being noticed, of capturing the attention. Hunter mentioned that his work stems from a documentary perspective and his need to want to engage with an audience was palpable, he spoke of making the “ugly” “beautiful”, I’ve had similar thought about Brent Stirton’s documentary work. About how the photographer takes a theme and in transfiguring the image the artist stands a chance to open a discourse into the area that concerns them. For Hunter it is the community in Hackney (now maybe he is venturing further afield) for Stirton there are many peoples around the world that have felt the effect of his lens.

I have though, thought about other artists who haven’t sought to engage with anyone perhaps but themselves, the likes of Francesca Woodman, Duane Michals and so on. For these artists maybe the internal conversation was all that mattered, maybe it didn’t matter to them what anyone thought about their work. Not entirely sure.

But I do know that I feel that I have to get over this ‘prettiness’ thing. I have strong feelings about certain subjects that I want to communicate, and in doing so I will need to draw people into that conversation. To help them to help me in a discourse about an area that concerns me and I can’t do that without a correspondent.