1. Spending last week in Madrid (21st — 26th March, 2016) I was reminded of the rejuvenating and inspiring effect of visiting a major global city. This must be a common feeling among those who travel in search of cultural nourishment. For me, such a journey provides a much needed counterpoint to the day to day grind of institutionalised learning and teaching. There is something about travel that resets the capacity to experience the joy and inspiration that art and culture bestows. It is far too easy to underestimate ones’ freedom to travel. Indeed, the possession of a British passport and the economic means to effectively use it, is perhaps one of modernity’s golden tickets. It is ironic that within an increasingly globalised world, with its unchecked flow of capital, and the possibility of communication to anyone anywhere, physical travel across socially constructed national borders has become highly surveilled, restricted and politicised. The possession of an internationally accepted form of identification therefore affords one a powerful position within new globalised hierarchies where the provenance of ones’ geographical origin equates to social value. Holders of a British passport like myself have won an accidental birth lottery informed by a weighty yet dubious historical legacy. On top of the structural inequalities inherent in the concept of the ‘freedom to travel’, the realities of an individual’s fiscal autonomy are also central. To be able to put a week in Madrid on a credit card (or just to pay for it outright), for no other reason than the pure cultural experience, is a luxury so unfathomable that to think about it for too long could perhaps render one paralysed by first-world guilt (this is without posing the environmental question). An awareness of such tensions is perhaps the only form of self-reflexive mitigation one possesses, no matter how inadequate.
2. The value of cultural rejuvenation cannot be understated. It seems that my own subjective response to the privilege and experience of travel is to search for and embrace such renewal. For me it simultaneously provides a sense of newness and change while being a reminder of the core purpose of being. A grand statement to be sure. Rest and relaxation in order to attain, even for a fleeting moment, a lightness of being, are just as vital, particularly in attempting to break from the oppression of the rat race. However, the intoxication of inhabiting an unfamiliar space, one of architectural and artistic beauty, or for that matter historical or political significance, can create a unique feeling that integrates the material and the cognitive. It is as though the energy of the space itself can potentially seep into ones’ perception of self and manifest a physical and emotional restoration. The effect of this on me is a reminder of the intellectual and creative potential of simply being alive.
3. Perhaps then, moments when we appreciate our material position within, and relationship to, space itself could be a starting point to understanding what it means to be human. It is difficult not to open up a philosophically slippery Kantian can of worms regarding the nature of being; how much is the experience of humanity in thrall to the fallibility of our physical senses? Strolling through the streets of Madrid, admiring the grandeur of the palaces, the sleepiness of the parks and the liveliness of the cafés, is like wandering through history, or perhaps more precisely it is like navigating the shifting imprint of civilisation of space and time. The effect of this experience, the experience of a new material environment, a new spatial rhythm and of course a new set of visual and aural cues, underpins a pleasure of foreignness. Of course the connotations of the very notion of foreignness I imply here belie the hierarchies of acceptability that assert, foreignness for most people, as perhaps an entirely other experience.
4. It is perhaps more specific to say that my craving for cultural renewal derives more strongly from the emotional and intellectual pleasure of engaging with art. Literature and film are the two staple forms that constitute and shape my life (in vocational and personal terms), however with travel comes the potential to expand my emotional and intellectual interest in painting. For some reason I find artistic modernism the most engaging and inspirational form of art. It is the notion of an aesthetic and political break with the classical that impresses me, in tandem with the overlap of conceptual ideas between painting, photography and film. In any case, one of the drawbacks of this interest is the constant reminder of my lack of knowledge. Any inspiration or pure aesthetic enjoyment is tempered by the nagging feeling of being a long way below the educational curve when it comes to the history and philosophy of art. Having gone through a vocational and intellectual transformation to becoming (in the loosest, broadest sense) an academic, I am still constantly gripped by a potent imposter syndrome. That perennial anxiety is paradoxically inflected by the inherent obstacles and dissatisfactions of working within the confines of a university institution. Again, in writing this I am having to be mindful of the immense privilege embedded in the previous sentence. The status and security, not to mention the personal fulfillment, of teaching and researching in a university is unquantifiable in the positive effect on my life. Yet through a temporary escape from the confines of the formalised structures and increasing commodification of knowledge, a free and fluid engagement with the cultural world opens up. This imbues a sense of freedom. A freedom of the mind to both absorb the emotional and aesthetic possibilities of culture, and the freedom to be inspired creatively and intellectually.
5. Traveling to Madrid there were two particular masterpieces I wanted to see: Las Meninas by Velaquez and Guernica by Picasso. These are two paintings of which I have some knowledge having used them as examples in discussions with students about the conceptual relationship between reality and representation, and the notion of artwork’s aura. I must say that being in the material presence of these two pieces, works which I previously knew only through viewing their digital reproduction, had a visceral effect. This reaction caused reassessment in my mind as to the possible validity of the notion of artistic aura, but at the very least affirmed the sense that there is an ineffable link between humanity and art. I don’t want to suggest here that there is something super-naturally spiritual that is produced when oil is applied to canvas in an aesthetically pleasing way. Indeed, visiting Madrid to see these paintings confirmed that it is the constructed contexts surrounding the certain works of art that affirms their historical, economic and, in turn canonical value. Perhaps it is the very process of my cognitive internalisation of discourses surrounding the artwork’s authenticity, technical achievement and cultural importance, imbued further by its spatial placement in El Museo del Prado (Las Meninas) and El Museo Renia Sofia (Guernica) respectively, that defined my reaction to these paintings. However, such awareness and mitigation does not undermine the impact I felt standing there, for the first time, contemplating the work, but also understanding the spatial situation and process of my contemplation. The aura of the work of art might thus be described as the coming together of aesthetic judgement, aligned with a knowledge of what the artwork represents historically and conceptually, refracted through the prism of ones own subjective material presence and experience of the work. These three aspects triangulate to form an emotional effect that can be perceived as auratic.
6. It would seem to me that true art is infused with politics. I don’t mean that all real art must have a political subject-matter, however it should challenge, critique and question rather than just represent. Furthermore, the challenge should be aimed both at the real world and at art itself. Walking through the vast rooms of Madrid’s world famous galleries, looking at some of the greatest achievements of the Western canon one cannot fail to be astounded by the level of technical genius. How is it possible that the human hand and mind can combine to produce such perfection? What level of commitment, dedication and talent is being reached? Why then, does much of this classical art, leave me cold? Perhaps it is the endless portraits of rich elites who have used art as a means of displaying and confirming their status. Maybe it is the incessant bleakness in the innumerable images of pious religiosity, the depictions of the spiritual failure of humanity, the fetishisation of original sin, which seems to be motivation of so much artistic ‘greatness’. However, it is the tyranny of the canonisation of these works that I find most alienating. Perhaps again this is evidence of my own lack of knowledge but on both an instinctual and intellectual level, it is the overtly political art of 20th century modernism and its overt rejection and implicit critique of mimetic pictorialism, that attracts me and inspires a particular way of thinking about art and the potential for being creative.
7. My thoughts about the relationship between art and politics was brought into sharper focus with news of a terrorist attack on Brussels on Tuesday 22 March. Having another major European city being bombed, and with the knowledge of previous attacks on Madrid itself, one is affected by a range of thoughts not least of which is what the fuck am I doing wasting time wandering around art galleries? Indeed, having an acute concern for the state of the contemporary world can produce a sense of generalised despair bordering on nihilism, but at the very least it provokes a questioning of the validity of what one does. Why does art matter? Is teaching students about film the most superficial of vocations? Walking around the Reina Sofia however, which houses a permanent collection of work produced by the post-war avant-garde art movements, the absolute necessity of art was there right in front of me. Art is the expression of the absolute vitality of the critical, creative mind; a mind that engages in a fight for freedom of emotion and freedom of thought. If art constitutes a direct political intervention through its content then of course that is a valid and important response. But so is art for its own sake. I am at the risk of being contradictory here. In the previous entry I suggested true art is political however it is perhaps more accurate to say that the artistic act itself is inherently political, one must aspire to use the act positively.
8. The contradictions and questions thrown up by digital culture are a minefield that is almost impossible to navigate, conceptually and practically. At the start of my trip I vowed to undertake a digital detox. No laptop or social media. I still had my phone but this would just be for emergencies or to shut out any unwanted noise on the flight. Writing and reading in their purest form was my high-minded aim. Perhaps my reasoning was that shutting oneself off from the virtual, will facilitate a return to an elemental state of experience and therefore clear a pathway to true thought. Certainly, when watching the unbridled narcissism of selfie culture I couldn’t help but bask in a wave of superiority. Yet, is there any value in this kind of resistance? Is such a gesture just a combination of pretentiousness and nostalgia that denies the realities of digital encroachment and its effect on contemporary experience? Paradoxically it was viewing the expressions of avant-garde art that undermined the notion that there could be a pure or singularly correct medium through which to express ideas. The very notion of avant-garde is to be at the absolute cutting edge of artistic and cultural possibility. Therefore to disavow what is the most significant technological, social and cultural shift since the industrial revolution and the birth of modernity itself constitutes a kind self-defeating luddism. Indeed, if the works of modernist and conceptual art influenced me in any way, it is to embrace the contemporary as both a form of expression and an object for critique, build on what has gone before by challenging it, and look at the future as a form yet to be shaped. The inspiration I draw from Picasso, Miro, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Pollock, Gris, Braque, the Bauhaus etc etc (not to mention all the modernist filmmakers) is the constant experimentation, the analysis of form itself, and the progressive look forward rather than longing for the past. Digital culture is inherent to the artistic forms, social context and cultural content of now and it will shape the future of knowledge and creativity.
9. How can one realistically assert a notion of influence from such revered and significant artworks without seeming at best ridiculous and at worst utterly pretentious. First of all I am not an artist. I write, but the gesture of calling myself a writer is infused, in my mind, with an abhorrent self-regard. I find it somewhat like awarding oneself the title of genius. How might one contextualise the inspiration of such art so that it makes sense. Well for me it is twofold. First, it is the influence on the potential to be creative itself, in whatever capacity or form that might manifest itself. It rejuvenates the possibility that one can do more and, in turn, be more. Perhaps ironically, it shows that the avenues of creativity are not confined to a set of techniques and forms that are only available to the limited elites. Such work reminds me of the relationship between art and knowledge, that they are not mutually exclusive categories. Second, that in seeing and learning about the process and mechanism of artistic practice it doesn’t seem so alien and impossible that one’s own potential can be realised. It might not necessarily be in the artistic field directly, but in the renewal of the commitment to one’s chosen field or one’s capacity to open up new possibilities.
10. When experiencing art, it is easy to become overwhelmed and intimidated. I often feel reminded of the gaping cavern that is my lack of knowledge. This can cause a paralysis that becomes too much of an obstacle to ever utilise any feelings of inspiration. There is also the profound sense that I have precisely zero innate artistic talent and all that I could ever do is contribute to the annals of bad art. There is a terror in starting something in the first place, it somehow requires either a confidence or a naiveté. Perhaps a sour cocktail of both. The potential, and indeed likelihood of failure, or worse, embarrassment, lurks incessantly around every corner. This feeling is a chimera and has to be fought. For myself, I do that by entrusting in an ability to read, understand and even deconstruct ideas. That is the starting point of a process, not only of learning but of potential creativity for me. My sense of basic observation and critical thinking have become the underpinning to a creative form of writing and the way into other forms of creative expression. The jump from intellectual abstraction to potential creative production has undoubtedly been made possible in my own mind through engaging with modern art. Indeed, it has imbued a powerful desire to be creative. Such a desire is not wholly separate from a sense of what the potential outcome may be, yet the simple idea of leading a creative life is the fundamental aspiration from which all possibilities can emerge.