What Are You Writing For?

Posted by Cila Warncke

This is one of my favourite Bill Hicks clips. I love the way his face conveys astonishment, scorn, outrage, and despair all bundled together so seamless-awkwardly it can’t help being hilarious. He doesn’t have to clap hand to forehead; the words make the motion for him. “What are you reading for?” is a patently silly question. Reading for something is hardly reading at all. Note how people instinctively make a distinction between books they’ve read and books they’ve read at another’s behest. “I read that for school,” is understood to be subtly yet substantially different from having simply read.

This, I know. Yet somehow it has, till now, escaped my attention that the same differentiation applies to writing, or any creative endevour. Hicks’ joke isn’t a mere jab at ignorance (unkindness is rarely the beginning of insight) it is about an attitude. The face on his verbal punching bag is that of righteous American productivity. The held-to-be-self-evident truth that to be worth doing something must result in demonstrable rewards. It is, at heart, an attitude that holds Michaelangelo to be important because he was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and not the other way around. Historically, our culture confuses prestige with importance, and money with success.

Art cannot breath this air.

Stumbling along, mistaking productivity for creativity, I’ve failed to write anything worth reading. Not because there’s something wrong with the way I line up words on a page (not-art can still be artful) but because my intentions are bad. If it is to be art, it must be created out of a sense of urgency; it must convey truth, or illuminate beauty; it must be profoundly selfish.

I cringe to think of all the hundreds of hours and thousands of words I’ve frittered on writing for. A deep-rooted habit, it will be hard to break. Writing for has a veneer of industry and respectability and thus serves a superficial social impulse; it makes me feel like the worker worthy of her wages. It also kills cold everything that matters. Break it I must. Now, how?

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Tate Modern: Pop Life is Rubbish

Posted by Cila Warncke

van_gogh_wheatfield_with_crows

Wheatfield with Crows

The view from the sixth-floor members’ lounge of the Tate Modern is spectacular. A cool sweep across Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the Millennium Bridge and the sludge-grey curve of the Thames. After that, walking through the ‘Pop Life’ exhibition is like touring a crypt: lifeless, rigid, ostentatious, dull.

There are scenes of a sexually explicit nature (in the demure phrase of the small black-and-white signs dotted around the rooms) but the only shocking thing about them is their banality. Jeff Koons aggrandising pornographic (self) portraits are faintly amusing only for the contrast between the unremarkable dimensions of his penis (photographed) compared to its heroic amplification in the accompanying sculptures. Around me, students scribble on notepads. Hopefully they’re writing: Jeff Koons = outsized cock.

Warhol, as ever in these tributes to shit-for-brains interpretations of post-modernism, has pride of place. One whole wall devoted to tiresome screen prints of his warped, ugly little face. I feel like Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde calf. By contrast, when I walked out of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam the sky itself seemed higher.

Take the self-portraits. Jeff Koons creates himself as a comic-book character with a giant phallus; Warhol wallows in profitable narcissism. Van Gogh looked at himself unsparingly and responded with an honesty that still speaks in every rusty brushstroke. It isn’t that Van Gogh was too unsophisticated to be commercial. He worried frantically about money and his letters to brother-patron Theo are riddled with anxious survival schemes. Yet immerse yourself in his wheat-fields or sunflowers and your mind unfurls. ‘Money’ is a tiny notion, reduced to its proper place by his swirling French skies.

It is fashionable to say that technique is unimportant, but how can anyone claim to be an artist if they don’t respect their art enough to study it? Van Gogh spent his living allowance paying models in order to hone his craft. Warhol found the easiest, most repetitive, least-demanding mediums imaginable (and was too lazy to even use them inventively). In another section of the Tate an artist whose name mercifully escapes me destroyed a bunch of his paintings in some kind of ‘performance’. How original. How irritating. How insincere. If you really believe what you’re doing is art then it must have value, must have something of yourself in it. How can you just destroy it? The corollary is if you can casually wreck something then you must not feel it truly represents you; it’s not your art. In which case, go back and try harder. Van Gogh bled for his art. He worked while confined to a sanatorium, he lived in raw poverty, he wrestled with demons. The fragmentary calm in his paintings is heart-rending because it evokes peace in the midst of passionate struggle. Koons, Hirst, et al, I warrant, never fought for anything more meaningful than a parking space.

Running to Stand Still

Posted by Cila Warncke

Blogging is like exercise: addictive, once you get the hang of it but dangerously easy to leave aside when life gets hectic. There is little to say about my several weeks’ hiatus apart from: stuff happened. Mexico. London. Ibiza. Plans made and then unmade for journeys to Ireland, the States, Mexico again. There were patches where I was seriously considering going to the nearest airport and buying a one-way ticket on the first flight to someplace I’d never been before. I got a little caught up in the idea of someplace new. A succession of adventures, coincidences, gin & tonics and long conversations with friends nudged me into the realisation that the ‘someplace new’ I need to explore is Ibiza – and my own motivations.

Home to Ibiza

Home to Ibiza

Jumping on planes is A) more fun than jumping off them and B) only very occasionally an antidote to chronic discontent. I tried it with Mexico and couldn’t, at the end of 14 weeks, figure out why the hell I hadn’t learned anything there. Why I had come back as bored and irritable as I’d left. A few weeks rattling around in the Mediterranean sun, making fantastic new friends who kickstarted my brain from its tropic slothfulness into frisky, if somewhat tentative life, suggests that my problem wasn’t where I was but how I was thinking. Somewhere between Ibiza, E17 and Merida, I completely lost my bottle. Not that you’d have noticed, necessarily. I was still walking around spouting opinions, still capable of summoning enough bravado to actually get from E17 to Merida, but there was something missing. The best lack all conviction.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, how I wanted to live or who I wanted to be. I was stumped. Then I got the following advice from a smartarse filmmaker:

Whatever you decide, feel good about it. Feel amazing about it. Feel as if you couldn’t have made any other possible decision. As long as you do that, everything will work out exactly as it should.

When I started to think like that suddenly the stubbornly wedged pieces began to fall into place. The decisions I fight the hardest are usually, in retrospect, as easy as falling over. It’s like standing at the top of a high dive. Turning, fretting, pawing at the board to buy time. Praying for a heavenly waterslide to appear. It never does. So I jumped. And my fear-hazed, pinched-in little world bloomed. There is much to be determined, questions to be posed and answered, work to be done, but it’s okay because life is exciting again.

Romancing Bond

Posted by Cila Warncke

Every once in a while someone hits up one of my blogs with a comment so fantastically stupid I sit and cackle helplessly (and then email it to my friends). Some chap happened across a few comments about sexism and sex appeal in Quantum of Solace and grabbed the wrong end of the stick with both sweaty palms.

My not-quite-coherent interlocutor is under the mistaken impression that my feminism is merely a badly sublimated urge to be swept off my feet into a Mills & Boone romance. I think he thinks I want this. Actually…

If he were crying...

If he were crying...

Outrageous Acts and Insidious Critical Notes

Posted by Cila Warncke

The irony of it needles me every time I pick up my 1983 paperback edition of Outrageous Acts And Everyday Rebellions. Inside, Gloria Steinem writes about the wastefulness of ‘valuing myself and other women according to the degree of our acceptance by men.’ Outside, the back cover leads with the critical approval of… Alan Alda. I will forever wonder if Steinem herself was insensible to this off-message inclusion (Jane Fonda’s praise is printed in smaller letters on the lower half) or whether — despite it being a book about feminism by a leading feminist thinker the publishers just couldn’t risk sending it out into the world without the seal of paternal(istic) approval.

Fellow second-waver Germaine Greer suffered the same slings and arrows as late as the 1993 edition of The Female Eunuch. Only one critic is identified by name in its half-dozen critical blurbs: Kenneth Tynan (who writes he is ‘coverted to Women’s Lib, as much by her bawdy sense of humour as by the bite of her polemic’ — did anyone still call it ‘Women’s Lib’?)

Perhaps my ‘favourite’ is the comment appended to Joanna Russ’ wonderful How To Suppress Women’s Writing (also originally published in 1983). From a Washington Post review: ‘Her polemic has all the cunning merciless clarity of fine art.’ They couldn’t have picked a finer way of illustrating Russ’ argument that once ‘informal prohibitions’ have failed to stop women creating art the patriarchy looks around frantically to see ‘what can be done to bury the art, to explain it away, ignore it, downgrade it?’


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