Thursday, December 4, 2014

Susan Blackmore's Delusions

If you are going to tell people they are deluded then it is a good idea to have some fairly strong arguments to defend your claim. Dr Blackmore, speaking last night at the wonderfully collegiate atmosphere of the GV Art & Mind Symposium at the GV Art gallery, disappointingly failed to come up with much argument to defend her claim that we are deluded about free will and consciousness.

Susan Blackmore's manner of delivery is well known to those who have seen her perform: the plaintively confessional account of her failed adventures in parapsychology is followed by the verbal hammer blows with which she knocks down anyone who dares to frame a vague and unpractised question. This would all be good sport if only she would follow through with some hard logical arguments to support her own position.

She started with Ben Libet's famous experiment, which I shall summarise as follows. In a laboratory setting, a person is asked to watch a clock hand going round, and to exercise her free will to move her finger at some arbitrary point n time. She has to make a mental note of where the clock hand was at the instant when she first became aware of her decision to make the move. Meanwhile, the experimenter is monitoring electrical impulses in the subject's brain and hand. What the experiment establishes is that there is electrical activity in the motor cortex half a second before the point in time when the clock hand was in the position reported by the subject. A conclusion that people often derive from this experiment is that free will is a delusion. They say that, in fact, the brain decides what it is going to do, and then it generates the illusory feeling of the mind exercising free will. On this view, the mind is a spectator of the brain's activity. Dr Blackmore enthusiastically embraced that interpretation, and told us that we were deluded in thinking that we had any free will.

Susan Blackmore demonstrating Benjamin Libet's experiment in free will

There are several things wrong with Dr Libet's experiment and its interpretation. The central one is that it does not do what it says on the tin. There are four conceptually distinct episodes in the experiment: 1. First, there is the act of volition itself, the voluntary decision to move the hand. 2. Next there is the electrical activity in the motor cortex, which is caused by the act of volition, and which in turn causes the hand to move. 3. Then there is the conscious awareness of the act of volition, consisting in the occurrence of a 'volitional quale'. 4. Then the muscles contract and the hand moves. Libet's experiment shows that step 2 occurs about half a second before step 3, but it tells us nothing about when step 1 occurs. In fact, neither Libet's experiment nor any other laboratory test can tell us when the act of volition occurs, as it is not directly observable.

In the Q&A after Susan's presentation, I raised this question. Or, rather, I got half way through raising the question before Susan's usual manner of responding to questions kicked in. As soon as I mentioned that free will caused the electrical activity in the motor cortex, her response shot out like a greyhound from its trap. She demanded to know what this 'free will' is, and what 'consciousness' is, and how could something extraneous to matter interfere with the law-bound electrochemical operations of the brain. So, I started out by saying that the conscious mind affects a non-deterministic process inside the neural networks and ... Suddenly she's off again! "Well that's not going to help you. Random nerve activity isn't free will ...". I was prepared to let her talk over me a few times - after all, it was her evening - but talking over me in order to make such a howler was a bit too much. How could a famous author and speaker on the philosophy of mind make the elementary mistake of confusing randomness with non-determinism? So, I endeavoured to point this out. I said that non-determinism exists in a physical system (such as a brain) when an event occurs which was not determined by the antecedent physical state. This is a well-known quantum-mechanical process, and apparently occurs in various neural events such as neurotransmitters jumping across synapses. In contrast, a random process is one, like white noise, in which no discernible pattern exists and which exhibits a uniform probability distribution. At this, Susan changed the subject.

We then moved on to consciousness. Here, she showed another surprising failure to grasp a basic item of terminology of consciousness studies. "Hands up who is consciousness right now", and of course almost everyone raised a hand. "Were you conscious before I asked you?"  She maintained that we are conscious only when we pay attention to our being conscious. In other words, she was conflating consciousness with self-consciousness. I have met other people who make this mistake, which I find quite extraordinary. Look, if I am savouring the taste of wine (which we did quite a lot of, during the evening) then I am conscious of the taste. But I am not reflexively conscious of my being conscious. I am not usually self-conscious when drinking wine. If while I am drinking the wine, someone asks me whether I am tasting the wine rather that just gulping it down, then I would at that moment attend to my conscious taste experience, and become self-conscious. You see the difference? Well, Susan didn't.
Susan Blackmore pondering Thomas Nagel's question: What is it like to be a bat?
She then threw a fluffy penguin at me, but I am really slow at this sort of game so I didn't react. Luckily the artist who sat on my right was more alert, and snatched the fluffy penguin out of the air before it hit me on my head.  Susan's point n this demonstration is that the brain  reacts very quickly, and reaches out a hand even before there is conscious awareness of what is going on. But afterwards the mind makes up a story of how it was conscious of watching the penguin flying through the air and reaching out to catch it. Therefore, Susan told us, we are deluded about being conscious of flying fluffy penguins. Therefore we are deluded about being conscious at all. Therefore there is no such thing as consciousness.

Did you spot the non sequitur? Yes, well done. It wasn't hard, was it? The gentleman who was sitting next to Susan also spotted it and forced her to listen to his calm explanation that, just because someone can catch a fluffy penguin on auto-pilot, it simply does not follow that we are never conscious.

So, all in all, Susan offered a rather threadbare tapestry of argument that we are deluded about having free will and consciousness - things that, quite frankly, are so obvious it is as absurd to doubt them as it would be to doubt that two plus two make four.

Susan Blackmore asking whether the spoon is conscious. Thankfully, several of us assured her that it was ...
Photographs by Londowl

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Mr Smith at the Brick Lane Gallery

Mr Smith and the reviewer, Peter B Lloyd, looking at Hyde Park 3, at the Preview of Refuge at The Brick Lane Gallery, 20th November 2013. [Photo: Reka Komoli]

Nature loves ordered chaos. But the human intellect craves cognitive compactness: small, tidy concepts that can be controlled, and put to work in the name of art. What if an artist's subject is not conceptual but is the untrammelled forest of nature's living organisms and their traces. What about art that eschews the lexicon of anthropocentric simplifications? And seeks to engage with nature on its terms? The apparatus of conceptual art slides like a sealing veil over nature's intricate textures, and a quite different approach is called for by a natural subject even so humble as a square foot of ground in Hyde Park.

Mr Smith's self-effacing artist's name reflects the graphical stance with which he engages with nature's manifold of plant debris. He hides himself. Bearing the archetypally ubiquitous British surname of "Smith", with no forename, he allows his micro-pen to map out the limitless detail of the leaves, twigs, seed pods, calyxes, and the passing Durex wrapper. With no visual composition, no narrative, no dramatic tension, no aesthetic editing, Mr Smith depicts a found scene.  What we see in his drawings are little corners of nature, raw and unedited.  Except, of course, that the drawings are not quite as pure and unfiltered as they seem to be telling us. To begin with, Mr Smith has consciously chosen these particular square patches of ground rather than any others. And, as Mr Smith told me at the preview of his exhibition at the Brick Lane Gallery, he removed some larger, distracting items from the scenes depicted in his drawings. For example, in one scene, a block of wood that was just outside the frame of the picture cast a shadow across the picture, which he feared would distract the viewer's attention and leave people wondering, "What's that?" - which might have been a more conceptual artist’s deliberate intention, but would interfere with Mr Smith's aim to show a naïve view of nature. Second, and quite obviously, the original scene would be filled out with a subtly woven tapestry of colours and hues whereas Mr Smith has drawn a black-and-white delineation of form, a graphical maze of edges, contours, and lines of texture—which omits the spectrum of colours.

Hyde Park 1
So, the drawing is not so much a representation of every detail, but rather a gesture of capturing the structure of every form. One result of Mr Smith's painstakingly picking out the boundaries of each object is to emphasise that every fragment has its own separate identity, its own origin and mode of decay—the leaves that shrivel and crack into dust, the branches that are eroded by woodlice and insects, condom wrappers that will last for millennia. Each has its separate visible form and role to play in the life of the park.  Mr Smith honours each scrap of leaf or wood with patience, attention, and reverence. He mentioned to me that he had recently been studying eastern philosophy, and certainly his drawings are suggestive of the notion found in the Upanishads of all life-forms as different faces, or instantiations, of the universal consciousness of Brahman. Indeed all objects, both animate and inanimate, inherit that divinity. It is that notion of the ubiquitous and plenipotentiary presence of spirit in every creeping thing, every twig and shrivelled leaf, that informs Mr Smith's uniformly dignified drawing of each distinct scrap of plant debris on the mud of Hyde Park. He told me that his long and patient rendering of these tableaux of natural disintegration induces in him a sense of reverence. This is fitting for an art-form that observes even the smallest fragment of life with full attention.

Mr Smith stays unprecious about the naturalness of what he is drawing. If fag ends and condom wrappers end up in the leaves then, well, he draws them too. He told me that the piles of bits and pieces the he draws had, in part, been swept off the footpath by park-keepers. Humans are as much part of the natural world as magpies and hedgehogs, according to Mr Smith.

While his drawings create a space into which the numinous aspect of nature can flow, Mr Smith's intentions are more prosaic and, like his artist's name, self-effacing. His series of drawings have some of their roots in doodles, and draw into themselves remembered imagery of vegetation, growing into a project of photographing selected squares of ground and, in the studio, drawing what was captured in the stills. It is this unpretentious surrender to the humble subject-matter that enables Mr Smith to pull in, through tendrils of ink, the spirit of the undergrowth. To paraphrase what Robert Pirsig wrote in his classic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Mr Smith shows that “the Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the crushed twigs and fag ends of Hyde Park as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha - which is to demean oneself.”

Mr Smith is not trying to make an artistic statement but, by letting his pen execute the lines that it wants, he is, in a Zen paradox, making a statement of art. 

A second series of drawings hung in the Brick Lane Gallery are the surreal spheres of undergrowth and fragments of wooden material (Transition and Refuge). These ‘plant planets’ are more artistically stated, as they depict imaginary worlds rather than the prosaic world of Hyde Park (although they still have their tap roots in unselfconscious doodles.). They remind me of the floating islands of the film Avatar, which in turn hark back to the watercolour aerial islands that adorned Roger Dean's album covers for the 1970s rock group Yes. It was one of these drawings (Refuge) that The Brick Lane Gallery used as the front image for its publicity for this exhibition.

A final series is represented by a single, and singular, drawing of an eye, whose pupil is the eclipsed sun, and the iris a lattice strung with flowering plants, surrounded by dry and disintegrating fragments. Eyes Closed offers enigma in contrast to the naivete of the Hyde Park series. Although the complete picture looks like an eye, the title (“eyes” in the plural) points to a less direct interpretation: as the sun is eclipsed, the eyes of the living world are closed; and if the eclipse were permanent, the living world would crumble away. It is a visual hymn to the sun, upon which all life depends.

Black ink on fine grain, heavy, acid-free paper, sizes: A2 (Hyde Park 1,2, and 3), 42 x 42 cm (Transition), 30 x 30 cm (Refuge, Eyes Closed).

Art and Mind is a series of exhibitions held at the Brick Lane Gallery giving exposure to new artists. The current show, Refuge, runs until 1st December. Mr Smith's drawings are exhibited alongside works by Amanda Holman, Biddy Hodgkinson, Chaowut Cholchalatan, Carolyn Nelson, DMINC, Jason Dowling, Kayla Richards, and Martyn Jones. Very reasonably priced prints are for sale at the gallery.
Brick Lane Gallery, 196 Brick Lane, London E1 6SA, telephone 0207 729 9721

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Tantra, Neo-Tantra, and Vedanta: Notes Toward Clarification

A few days ago, someone on Couchsurfing asked what Tantra was. I decided to have a go at writing down what I understand it to be. I am not an expert on this, but I have studied Vedanta fairly closely, and I came to Tantra partly because of its connection to Vedanta (and partly, of course, because Neo-Tantra has a certain frisson of excitement in it).

The ancient practice of Tantra and the modern phenomenon of ‘Neo-Tantra’ or ‘Western Tantra’ are substantially different because they are embedded in different cultures, but there is common ground between them.

Ancient Tantra is a not single cohesive doctrine, but a diffuse family of sacred practices.  The common theme was the use of ritual to channel and harness the living consciousness that pervades the universe and enters into our own bodies. 

Neo-Tantra is embedded in the Western world-view, which is dominated by the scientific concept of a solid material world that obeys fixed laws of nature.  In contrast, the ancient Tantra presupposes a world of magic reality.  It leans heavily on the fundamental notion of Maya, which is found in the much older Vedas, was refined in the Upanishads, and stated most clearly in the Vedanta: the manifest world, which seems so real, is an illusion (‘Maya’) and reality is ultimately cosmic consciousness (‘Brahman’).  While the Vedanta was founded by Adi Shankara in the 8th Century CE, the body of Tantric practices had already been established by the 7th Century CE.  Tantra can be thought of as an embodied understanding of the universe as consciousness, while the Vedanta is an intellectual and meditative understanding of the same notion.  You could say that Tantra is the territory and Vedanta is the map.

A core element of Tantra, which has been retained in Neo-Tantra, is the divinisation of the body.  Unlike many religions that relegate the body to a shameful object, or even hate it (as indeed Shankara did), Tantra celebrates the body, honours it as sacred, and explicitly infuses it with the divine.

The concept of ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ is a bit different in Hinduism and Buddhism from the trivialised and patronising concept found in the West.  For Hindu scholars and mystics, the gods and goddesses existed only as notional expressions of different facets of Brahman, which is the universally pervasive consciousness.  In the West, this has been reduced to a ridiculous system of real beings, like comic-book superheroes. Shiva and Shakti for instance, were understood not as real beings but as personifications that help the human mind grasp the active and receptive dimensions of the universal consciousness.  In Tantric rituals, the tantrika will achieve identification with Shiva or Shakti, or with other deities, and this involves divinising the body by bringing the deity into union with the body; or, more accurately, by bringing into full consciousness the qualities of the deity that are already present in the body.  For, in the Hindu thinking the body is already divine but its divinity is obscured by our ignorance or ‘avidyā’.

This divinisation of the body is also found in Neo-Tantra, although it has lost its grounding because the West has lost the basic idea of the universal consciousness.  As long as you believe that the material world is the primary reality, the Tantric notion of divinisation is going to be no more than an empty, symbolic gesture.  This is how religions lose their power: the underpinning understanding is lost, but the outward ritual persists.

As sexuality is a fundamental force within the human body and mind, so inevitably the divinisation of the body involves the integration of the sacred with the sexual.  In the original Tantra this was a natural conclusion, but in the sexually repressed West, with its long Christian tradition of despising the body and its sexuality, this is an explosive transgression. 'Sacred sex'? This is either very exciting or very horrific to the Western mindset, yet it was a natural and integral component of the original Tantra. And because of this frisson of excitement, the popular media get hooked on Tantra as being all about sex. Of course it’s not. In so far as it is ‘all about’ one thing, it is all about celebrating and harnessing the sacred spirit in the body, fully including sexuality.  It is being conscious of the sacredness of all the senses, of sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, the skin of the entire body and of course unashamedly the senses of the clitoris, the vagina, the penis, and the anus.  Everything is included, from the tips of your toes to the crown of your head.  The whole exciting nexus of sensation is perfused with the sacred spirit of Brahman, which you can harness and then incorporate into a more fully conscious, enlivened, and energised life.  Every pulsing part of your body is celebrated fully and joyously as an integral part of the divine sensorium in the Tantric (and Neo-Tantric) praxis.

The (Neo-)Tantric path is often portrayed as soft and fluffy. In fact, it is a hard road, sometimes brutally so, that can lead through desolation on the journey toward a different kind of joy.  In Tantric and Vedantic understanding, the personal ego-mind is an illusory construct that obscures from our view our true nature of our unity within Brahman.  But we habitually invest a great deal in bolstering and defending the ego, resulting in fear and vulnerability. Tantric intimacy (which may be sexual) is transpersonal rather than personal.  What it connects is not two ego-minds—which is what romantic love connects and brings with it the package of jealousy and 'ownership' of another person.  Rather, what Tantric intimacy connects is the universal consciousness that is embodied in each person.  And this is where it can get painful if you are still under the sway of avidyā, for seeing your lover in sexual intimacy with another person is a direct hit against your ego-based vulnerability, and you will fall prey to the agony and twisted thinking of jealousy.  Through the discipline of Tantra, however, you will see sexual congress for what it is, a sacred manifestation of Brahman in physical intimacy with itself.  Because of this huge shift in understanding of intimacy between human beings, from personal to transpersonal, Tantra lends itself to pansexuality and polyamory.  (Which, when viewed through the simplifying lens of Western media, identifies it with debauchery and slack living.)

A group of techniques that has survived from Tantra to Neo-Tantra is visualisation. It has changed a bit in its passage to the West. In ancient Tantra, the visualisation was centred on the traditional depictions of deities: you would, for example, see yourself in a painting of Shakti or Shiva or some other deity such as Ganesh or Kali.  Visualisation can also be done with mandalas, which are geometric symbolic forms representing the deities instead of figurative personifications.  By shunning anthropomorphism, the mandala is a purer tool but harder to master.  In Neo-Tantra, visualisation is much more free-form. Neo-Tantrikas are likely to visualise a certain colour, or a scene of a certain character associated with a ‘chakra’.  (Thanks largely to Madam Blavatsky and the theosophists, the concept of a chakra has been reduced to a ridiculous cartoon version in the West. A chakra is essentially a locus of divine consciousness within the body-image. A Tantrika creates and dissolves chakras in her body at will, as they are constructs that serve a specific purpose in a ritual.  But New-Agers are locked into the notion of seven fixed chakras aligned along the spine, spinning in some unexplained sense. Whoa!)

Yoga is really a branch of Tantra, although it has been assimilated into the West as a physical fitness discipline. There is a clue in the name, for ‘Yoga’ means ‘union’ in the sense of union with Brahman.  Not, as people often assume, in the sense of working to achieve union with Brahman, but working to realise that we are already one with Brahman although avidyā obscures this fact from our view.  Because Yoga has been Westernised into a keep-fit regime, the term ‘Tantric Yoga’ has evolved to describe Yoga that is more explicitly aimed at the divinisation of the body, and includes Kundalini Yoga, which manifests the goddess Kundalini along the spine.  Curiously the closely related discipline of Mudra, another branch of Tantra, has not been assimilated into the West as Yoga has.  A mudra is a specific gesture, normally of the hands, that channels the sacred consciousness. (You can do mudras while sitting at your desk in work, and the muggles won't even know that you're doing magick. But try doing the Asana of he Warrior in your office without being seen as a joker!)

Finally, a strand of ancient Tantric practice that Neo-Tantrikas baulk at is antinomianism, which means deliberately transgressing the rules of the social order in order to achieve liberation from human constraints.  This is done to facilitate the transcendent realisation of union with Brahman.  Tantrikas would live in a graveyard, smothered in ashes of human cremations, eating meat and drinking wine out of skulls.  The Vedic religion of Hinduism prescribes many rigid rules for the conduct of one’s life, and the left-hand path of Tantra deliberately violates the rule book.  In the West, something akin to this has arisen, but for somewhat different reasons.  So-called 'Dark Tantra' incorporates BDSM (Bondage, Domination, and Sado-Masochism) which uses intense stimuli such as flagellation, fire, and piercing of the flesh, which the brain would normally interpret as pain, to bring the mind fully back into the body and lead it to an embodied state of ecstasy.  Tantric BDSM (or ‘Sacred BDSM’ as it is called by those who eschew pretensions to ancient Tantra), shares techniques with what might be termed ‘lifestyle BDSM’.  The latter evolved as a kind of transgressive sexuality, but the focus of Tantric BDSM is more on developing sacred conscious.

Authentic Tantra is unlikely to gain wide acceptance in the West, because it rests on a conception of reality that is at odds with the deeply held faith in materialism that is common currency in the West.  Not just in the scientific community, but throughout parapsychology and the New Age movement, there is a universal and unquestioned belief that the basic reality in which we dwell is the material world.  Parapsychologists and New Agers believe there is some weird extra element—‘psi’, or ‘chi’, or ‘psychic energy’ or whatever—that is layered on top of that material world.  In fact, there is no such thing.  What Tantra and Vedanta require is a tectonic shift of understanding, in which the entire physical universe is regarded as an illusory construct that arises out of consciousness, and that all those weird phenomena—the magick of Tantric ritual, the paranormal phenomena of telepathy, telecognition, and telekinesis, and the efficacy of spiritual healing—all these take place in the undergirding realm of consciousness, which physical science is incapable of even addressing.

The techniques and practices of Tantra can be useful and enjoyable while you remain in the avidyā of the physical world, but understanding the full power of Tantra requires an intellectual paradigm shift toward Advaita Vedanta.  As I said above, Tantra is the territory, and Vedanta the map.  You don’t need the map to traverse the territory: but you won't know where you are without it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Public funding of the Arts: Thoughts prompted by Ramsey Nasr

Last night, I went to the Dutch Centre in the City of London, to listen to Ramsey Nasr, the former Poet Laureate of Holland, reading from the first English-language collection of his poems.  The Palestinian-born Nasr possesses an intelligence, humility, and erudition that makes him a pleasure to listen to. My (female) companion at the event said that he is also very sexy.

He was interviewed by Titia Ketelaar, correspondent at NRC Handelsblad, and the conversation was wide-ranging but generally centred on the arts, especially poetry and theatre.  Mostly Nasr had sensible and perceptive things to say. But there was one comment that he made that caused me to wonder.  Ms Ketelaar asked him about public funding of the arts, and Nasr replied that the arts are a fundamental good in human society, and valuable in their own right. They do not stand in need of economic justification, he said.

I don't think that that quite addresses the issue. Opponents of public-funding of arts do not, in general question the value of the arts as such. Rather, their claim is that it is wrong for the government to forcibly take money from hard-working tax payers and hand it over to artists. It is that act of forcible redistribution of wealth that needs justifying.  If you were to calculate the proportion of your tax that goes toward the arts, and withhold it -- perhaps because you would rather pay local artists directly for works that you like, or perhaps because you think the arts are a waste of money -- then you would be prosecuted by the authorities and ultimately imprisoned. Yes, we need to justify demanding money with menaces from people in order to fund arts projects.

In fact, the arts 'industry' (as it is bizarrely called in economics) is worth about £11 billion annually in the UK. And about £4 billion of that is the film 'industry', which I'm particularly find of.  A decade ago, the Arts Council commissioned Michelle Reeves to review the economic impact, and her study study shows many and various measurable ways in which arts contributes to the economy and general functioning of society. ["Measuring the economic and social impact of the arts", Michelle Reeves, Arts Council, 2002.] But seeing the arts only as a commodity whose trade contributes numbers to the economy is to turn a blind spot on the central point of the arts.  If the only function of the arts is to make money, then the intrinsic value of the arts drops out of the equation.  The arts slip down to a par with recreation and entertainment. The tension between 'instrumental' arguments for the arts and arguments from their 'intrinsic' value is one that John Knell and Matthew Taylor scrutinised in their pamphlet ["Arts Funding, Austerity, and Big Society", RSA, 2011].

But this is where the debate runs into a political impasse, which Nasr touched upon last night. For, in our egalitarian era, everyone's opinion is equally weighty.  The specific example that Nasr discussed was the hypothetical case of a rap rendition of Shakespeare.  Yes, he said, it would be great, it would be fun, it could be exciting. But it wouldn't be Shakespeare. It would not have the multi-layered depth of meaning and resonance that Shakespeare wove into his plays. He said that he knew this was the wrong answer for pleasing the crowd, but he really believed in the intrinsic value of Shakespeare's plays.

Well, but so what? I think some of the acuity of this philosophical debate is blunted by the vastness of the Arts Council and the whole machinery of tax gathering and disbursement. Philosophers like to use thought-experiments, so let's try this one. Imagine a world where the government still allocates tax money to the arts, but it is up to the individual artists to collect the tax from the citizen. So, imagine William Shakepeare (transported to the present day) walking into HMV and accosting a punter who is about to buy a copy of Grand Theft Auto.

Shakespeare:  "Good sir, I prithee give me your money. Spend it not on the video game but render it to me for my theatre."
Punter: "You what? Fuck off you poncey git. It's my money, I can spend it how I wants."
Shakespeare: "Hold you your manhood so cheap?"
Punter: "I'm a man same as what you is, mate. I got me rights, innit? If wants to spend me money on nasty little video games, that's my business, not yours"
Shakespeare: "Aye, in the catalogue ye go for a man, as hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs, shoughs, water-rugs, and demi-wolves are clept all by the name of dogs.But, if you have a rank in the file, not i' th' worst rank of manhood, say ’t."
Punter: "I'm as good as the next man, mate"
Shakespeare: "Thy horizons are o'ergrown with brambles, and thou see'st not for looking. Thou'd toss thy soul to the merchant of snake oil if he but entertain you for an hour.  Here, hand me your purse, you cur! As the osprey to the fish, who takes it by sovereignty of nature, so I commandeer your credit card"
[Strikes the punter down and takes his wallet]

And there's the rub: for, to demand public money for the sake of the supposed intrinsic value of arts is to assert "sovereignty of nature", it is to assert that the the arts community knows the intrinsic value of the arts better than does the man on the Clapham Omnibus, it is to assert that "the man from the ministry knows best".

What other option is there? If instrumentalism demeans art as a commodity., and if an appeal to intrinsic value implies that some people's judgement is more valuable than others, what other defence can there be for the public funding of arts?

I think my answer is this: The arts create the cultural depth within which all social relations can evolve, deepen, and consolidate: from commerce to design to industry, and from personal reflection to family life to societal leadership.  To paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined society is not worth living in, and the compendious and inextricably linked arts provide the lexicon and grammar of ideas with which to examine society and everything in it.  You cannot build the Shard, you cannot develop new medicines, you cannot run a transportation system, without a hinterland of shared culture. And without susbsidised arts, the enterprise of shared culture would wither.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Angelo Musco: Unfathomable Pictures

Infinitude does not lend itself to being depicted by mortal hands, but Angelo Musco’s digital photomontages stand astride of the finite and the infinite.  A common epithet applied to Musco’s art is that it is “insane” in the positive sense of the word, which captures the wildly transcendent nature of his work, in which he is inspired and driven beyond the normal landscape of artistic ideas and methods, into an intriguing world that he has created and populated with millions of souls.

Musco’s method is disarmingly simple: he takes photographs of people in the nude, and digitally assembles a montage of their bodies. But Musco has a Borgesian delight in what mathematicians call the ‘combinatorial explosion’, for in his photomontages he uses unimaginable numbers of bodily images to manifest his unique vision.  For example, in Ovum, he assembled two million nudes.  He uses hundreds of models—volunteers who pour themselves as raw materials into his artistic process—taking dozens of photographs of them in systematic poses, and then employing this reservoir of flesh as the palette for his electronic paintbrush.  

What do two million writhing, naked bodies look like? It is not something that most of us can readily picture in our mind’s eye.  It is a construction that slips out of the penumbra of the brain’s visual cognition, and glides towards the outer horizons of visual possibility, towards what can be conceived intellectually but not actually envisioned.  Somehow Musco’s mind has a grasp of this plenitude so that he can mould it into beautiful shapes on his computer.

A haunting beauty inhabits the deep and curvaceous forms that Musco kneeds from his mass of photographs.  That alone would suffice to make him an interesting artist. What lifts his work into the category of the ‘great’ is the human texture—the limitless detail of bodies, faces, expressions, and souls.  According to Musco, the atoms of his constructed world are not mere digitised bodies but the very souls that dwell on those bodies.

Who are those souls?  Why are they there?  I met some of them—indeed, became one of them—on October 19th, when the New York-based artist Angelo Musco held a photoshoot in London, his first in England. As I arrived at Sunbeam Studios, I was reminded of the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where random individuals are drawn, for reasons they cannot fathom, toward a specific mountain to meet emissaries from another world.  In Musco’s photoshoot, random individuals are likewise drawn to his visionary and vast act of creation for some reason that none of us can quite put our finger on.

During the five-hour shoot, Musco ordered the bodies into a series of structural forms.  We models formed standing walls, circular discs flat on the floor, arches and columns also flat on the floor, and long chains. He has previously said his arranging of the bodies is like knitting, an analogy that seemed quite apt.  Some aspects of the arranging were explicitly controlled by Musco, while other aspects were left to chance and the whim of the models. 

The written pre-shoot instructions advice that models should “look after your own personal hygiene”, hardly necessary for the pleasant people who volunteered to be models for the day, but it does indicate the degree of physical intimacy that strangers found themselves in during the poses.  In one pose, my head rested on the cold and flabby buttock of a hairy gentleman.  In another pose, my head ended up nuzzled between the thighs of the charming young lady who had introduced me to Musco’s web site (when we modelled together for Spirited Bodies).  It was really rather random: one moment, I was nose-to-testicle with a bony male body, and the next I was spooning a very pretty lady of a certain age.  There was polite conversation about the mechanics of lying on top of each other on the hard concrete floor: “Would you mind moving your leg a bit, please, it’s too much pressure on my arm.” At first, people seemed politely to keep their hands to themselves, but gradually as we warmed to the safe and friendly atmosphere, people draped arms and legs over each other’s bodies, which allowed both more physical comfort and greater visual interest in the photographs. Whilst it might look orgiastic in the photographs, everyone behaved impeccably with no inappropriate forms of touch.

Musco organises the bodies up to a point, but allows individual initiative in the details of limb position. When we were posed into large circular discs on the floor, our direction was to form a tight bundle, leaving no white space visible between the bodies.  People self-organised themselves on the floor, squeezing up against one another to block out the white space.  Musco’s assistants moved a few limbs to fill in small gaps that had appeared, but otherwise left the pattern of torsos and limbs to find its own way, like a many-bodied amoeba flowing into the space.  In the posing of the columns and chains, he was more prescriptive: we had to lie in perfectly straight rows, with our arms outstretched onto the next body in the line, with arms wrapped around legs to form a linked chain.  We could lie face-up, face-down, or sideways, as long as we were each a straight link in a straight chain.

As I mentioned earlier, Musco thinks of the units of his pictures as souls rather than bodies. It was therefore interesting that he gave no directions as to facial expression or frame of mind to adopt.  So people were just themselves. This randomness adds an almost fractal complexity to the pictures.  Not only are the bodies all different but each person in each pose is expressing whatever is going on in their own personal mind at that moment. There is no mechanical uniformity that the viewer can abstract away to make the pictures easy to digest , but instead an imponderable plethora of faces, expressions, gestures, each one pulling you into the unique life-story of that naked soul. In one chain-link, a woman’s head turns away from the feet of the man she is clasping; one man nuzzles his face into a woman’s bottom, another clasps his neighbour’s ankles. This haphazardness within an overall coherent structure gives Musco’s pictures their biomorphic realism.  In Xylem, for example, the bodies in his photomontage bind to each other in a directed way that is nonetheless random in its details, which mirrors the way that the roots of a tree follow their hydrotropic instincts and tunnel willy-nilly towards the water in the soil.

Who has not watched bees scurrying about their affairs, each bee seemingly running and flying at random, but all guided by a network of signals to enable the colony as a whole to function with a single purpose?  Angelo Musco is the ‘spirit of the beehive’ of his nest of models, where each soul lies down with a arbitrary placing of body parts, and yet his gentle directions steer people into the structural forms that he subsequently uses as the building blocks of his vision inside the computer.

Nature can sometimes be challenging rather than pretty. Indeed, Musco says his traumatic birth experience informs his work.  Some people have commented that Musco’s piles of bodies are redolent of the Nazi death camps; and others are put in mind of buckets of maggots wriggling over one another. The polymorphous potential of the human nude allows it to be any of these things: fish, roots, columns, archs, or maggots!

Musco’s genius lies in the unfathomable depth and scale of his constructions, as well as in the biomorphicity of his directed haphazardness—and the gentle moulding of this raw material into natural forms that resonate fractally with their tiniest details. As many people have exclaimed, his work is “insane”—but it is richly and rewardingly so.
Angelo Musco official web site:
Angelo Musco on Facebook:
Steve Ritter’s blog post on the Sunbeam Studios photoshoot:

Monday, July 16, 2012

Stonehenge in flames

Awesome beyond words: the Fire Garden at Stonehenge, which was staged by Compagnie Carabosse ( on three successive nights (10th-12th July 2012), as part of the Cultural Olympiad of the London 2012 Festival.  Music provided by O.R.L. (, stones provided by our Neolithic ancestors circa 2500 BC, and currently stewarded by English Heritage. Visited on 12th July. With an entry charged of just £3.00, the attendance was said to be around 5000.

Dithering on the road to the fire: We were staying at the Antrobus in Amesbury, just two miles from the Henge, and when I bought the tickets, I thought we should walk that short distance. But we arrived late from London, and my travelling companions (a poet and a driver for the purposes of this exercise) were not so keen on the 45-minute walk on the busy A303. The barman at the Antrobus said there was free parking in a field near the stones. This was not my recollection from what I had read on the web site, but the majority view in our party was that local knowledge trumps anything I might have read on the internet, so we set off in the car, only to find nowhere to park, and so our driver dropped us off and went to find a verge to park on, but our way on foot was immediately blocked by officaldom, so we walked back to find our driver . But he had had to take the car back to Amesbury, so after a mile we couldn't find him and yomped back along the verge of the A303 toward the entrance to the event. Our dithering and meandering to and fro before entering the Henge seemed symbolic: it was like the limited vision we often use in mundane life in contrast with the cosmic vision of the stones.

View from afar: The magisterial stones commanded the plain and wore the ring of fire in resplendance like a woman adorned with a diamond necklace. Huge shimmering spheres of mysterious fire marked out the cardinal directions around the Henge. Only when we got up close did we find each sphere comprised a metal frame holding a matrix of terracotta flower-pots, each holding a flame rather than a flower. Whenever I see Stonehenge from a distance, I am immediately struck by its enormous, resonant power. This was no exception, but now the flames lay around it in bright, pagan-like tribute.

Scissors and sizzlers: We tried to set off up the A344 on the northeastern flank of the Henge but an official dressed in black insisted that we must clamber down the steep embankment into the muddy field, which quite frankly looked like a death trap in the darkness that was made impenetrable to human vision by the glare from the Henge fires. We were told this was because of the 'scissor lift' (which the poet in our party misheard as 'Sizzler', conjuring notions of some pyrotechnic Jabberwocky lying in ambush on the verge of the A344). By the time we had finished faffing around and trying to find our driver who had shot off back to Amesbury, the man in black was gone and we decided to brave the lair of the scissor lifts and Sizzlers.  In due course the beast loomed up on the horizon: harmless enough when handled properly but capable of dismembering anyone silly enough to try to climb it to get a view of the burning Henge.

Entering the circle: I was sure that after our dithering, we had missed our 9 pm slot and would be barred entry. After all, modern life is hemmed in with petty bureaucratic restrictions. (Some time ago I was barred from New York's Ground Zero Memorial as I was one minute over my ticketed timeslot ...) I saw an open gate and we walked through. Nobody was checking tickets. Then someone called out from behind, "Excuse me, do you have tickets?", and I answered that I did and reached into the pocket to get them, but he waved us on, "That's all right, then." We were in. In fact, the officiating volunteers and staff were all supremely nice and polite. Occasionally, enthusiastic visitors would clamber onto the recumbant stones and immediately someone in a hi-vis jacket would call out, "Excuse me, would you mind awfully not stand on the stones, please!" We could walk among the stones, and hug them, but we had to show reverence by keeping our dirty boots on the ground. The fact that we could enter the inner circle and pass in and out of the trilithons was in itself amazing. This core part of the Henge has been roped off since 1978. (I first visited it in 1975, and have fond teenage memories of touching the incomprehensible megaliths.) Just to walk among the stones would in itself be worth making a nocturnal visit and paying three quid, but ... we had the astonishing Carabosse firepark all around us too! So, we crossed over the outer ditch, which was dotted with single firepots, and into the energetic 'turbine hall' of the ancient powerhouse.

Fire installations: There were several types of fire installation, all hand-made by the ten men and women who make up the Carabosse collective, based in St Christophe-sur-Roc, a remote village in France. The biggest and most visible were the balls of fire. These comprised rigid steel hoops adorned with chained slots into which terracotta pots were placed. (I call them flowerpots as that is their appearance, but in fact they are purpose-built by Carabosse as firepots.) Each pot contained what seemed to be a large rag wick immersed in some kind of combustible oil. They made a biomorphic slurping sound as they burned.

Next were the fire toadstools. Each one consisted of a plate of what appeared to be slowly burning coals, on a stand raising the burning mass up from the ground. They gave off a lot of heat, which visitors gathered around to keep warm, especially as the cold night wore on.

Looking down into the fire toadstool:

In the breeze, sparks flew into the air, tracing the flowing air currents:
What's next? The fire trees (not fir trees, nor are they etymologically related): metal columns with a fre in the root chakra. Strange symbols and writing appear on the phallic stem of the fire trees.

The most complex of the fire installations was the fire harvester: a big wheel manually harvests fire from its belly spurts it out from its chimney.

Outside the sacred circles is the fire gardener:

In front of the trilithons were the mechanical cyclists: a completely surreal and dreamlike idea: metal stick-people perpetually cycling and going nowhere but casting rhythmic shadows on the stones:

Some of the installations may, such as the cyclists, may seem very silly and not in keeping with the grandeur of Stonehenge. And yet ... one senses an implicit undertone of deadly seriousness.  I am not saying there is anything sinsiter about the metal cyclists, but there is a darkness in the starkness. This ain't no funfair. It is almost as if the cyclists and the writing on the fire trees are all a sham to keep ignorant eyes and minds away from what is really going on. -- which, if I may hazard a guess, is a recharging of the stones with fire. Like ancient fertility rites such as the maypole dance, there is a deep, dark, sexual current of energy that is inevitably conjured up by setting up fire-breathing phalluses around a megalithic temple.

Soundscape: Permeating the whole evening was the extraordinarily spacey and trancilicious music and voice of O.R.L., otherwise known as Aurélien Rotureau (France, b. 1979).  He had studied electroacoustic composition at the Conservatory of Bordeaux graduating with first class in 2001, lived in Montreal and Brussels and released a disc under the name Amodio, on the label Metak ( In 2005 he founded with other artists, the collective "Matekemata" ( And, in 2007, he went to Barcelona and started composing music for the fire installations of Carabosse. At the Stonehenge gig, he sat in a quadrilateral metal pergola and delivered a hauntingly atmospheric soundscape and filled the whole space. Why nobody was dancing, I can't explain, as much of it was eminently danceable. I suppose everyone was as cold as we were. To listen to his music, go here:

Thsi was an extraordiary event. Although its nominal role was entertainment for the Cultural Olympiade, I am sure it was also breathing a spiritual life back into the Henge and the attendant key-lines.

Carabosse will do one more event in the UK on this tour, 20th-22nd July in Milton Keynes.


Special thanks to Mary Lynne Evans and Eric Evans, my guests from Seattle, who were staying with me through AirBnB, and kindly drove us to Stonehenge:


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Delicate Power: Anne-Francoise Couloumy at Cynthia Corbett's vernissage

In this secular age, it may seem anachronistic and pretentious to speak of spirituality in paintings that are not explicitly themed on religious or spiritual practices. And yet ... 
The author studies L'atelier de La Rue Du Cherche Midi 4, 2010/2011, oil on canvas,
And yet ... we find in some artists' work a numinous quality that transcends the use of art for aesthetics, or for making statements. It is a force that seems to emerge out of the merely human construction of oil paints and canvas (or paper,or board), and confront us with something strange and moving.

For example, we find in Vermeer's paintings a peculiar potency that is at the same time both transcendent and immanent.  For it is rooted in the familiar scenes of mundane life, but it  reaches far beyond the merely visual and semantic spaces othe picture, or the quotidian nature of the subject. It is a power to transport the mind into what can only be described as a 'spiritual' space. Without being in any way religious or making explicit allusions to conventional forms of spiritual observances, Vermeer's paintings can nonetheless lead us into an engagement that is other than merely aesthetic or representational - it is an engagement of a mental faculty that would more explicitly be addressed in sacred works, but is nonetheless so strongly exercised by Vermeer's paintings that it feels natural (well, to ne, anyway) to call them spiritual.
Réception , 2010/2011, oil on canvas

Anne-Françoise Couloumy's paintings have a more than formal resemblance to Vermeer, for they invoke the same dimension of transcendence. Hammershoi and Hopper are two other artists to whom she has been compared, and they do share the same formalistic interest in surfaces and spaces, and also in the human life that is implied by the depicted spaces.  But neither Hopper nor Hammershoi reach out of the planar dimensions of the painted surface and into the dimension of the spiritual.

The modern artist who most famously uses a secular painting to engage with a spiritual faculty of the mind is, of course, Mark Rothko.  But Couloumy, like Vermeer, manages to fuse the spiritual dimension with closely observed naturalistic scenes rather than Rothko's abstraction.
The author talks with Anne-Françoise Couloumy

Couloumy (b. 1961) lives and works in France.  When I spoke with her at the opening of Cynthia Corbett's huge show of her work at Gallery 27 in Cork Street (, she patiently listened as I stumbled to express the above thoughts, between her basic functional English and my non-existent French, but unfortunately I was frustrated in my attempts to discuss these ideas with her. Damn it, I should have paid more attention to my French lessons at school.
Anne-Françoise Couloumy surrounded by vernissageurs

How can these paintings carry such a freight of transcendent significance? When all's said and done, we look but upon painted canvas! There is somehow a specialness in the intention and a genius in the moulding of paint around that intention. The reductionist instinct in me wants to analyse and dissect it, but my thoughts so far bounce off the ineffability of what Couloumy puts into her paintings. I think the magic comes in part from the composition: the depictioin of stillness in places where people have left behind traces of their activities (such as the the emptied glasses of the reception). But also from the quality of the paint itself, a particular layering of colours that triggers the mind into reverie, the paints laid down accoriding to some intuition or sixth sense that I can only marvel at. (And this of course is where she is most like Rothko.)

When she last exhibited in London, in 2008, her oeuvre was about large, empty interior spaces of buildings - homes, hotels, restaurants.They had an Apollonian clarity and precision. In her new works, there is an explosion of new subjects, but her works still achieve a sense of transcendence immanent in the physical painting and even deepen it, while the new works also bring into play a new force of poignant human emotion. Couloumy has a series of paintings of unmade beds that are piquant in their intimacy.
Lit a Rugnes 1, 2008/2009, oil on canvas

The gentle folds of soft blankets, the crumpled sheets, the casually left reading glasses and bookmarked book ("Lecture") all create a poignant emptiness. It is not, I think, a sense of loneliness or desolation as some people seem to see, but a heartfelt depiction of presence by showing an intimate absence. As if, moments before, the real subject of the painting was lying there in a nightdress, and has momentarily left - the immediacy of the departure, the ghost of the almost tangible presence - they really point to a loving embrace of the unseen subject, rather than to sadness or longing. These paintings hover on the edge between poignancy and sadness: you sense that the human subject of the painting has not gone far and will be back soon.
La Couverture, 2008/2009, Oil on canvas
In this show, the most poweful for me was "Le Lit Blanc 2", a corner of a white bed -- a formally simply study of light and dark, but one whose depiction of fathomless fields of colour into which one could vertiginously fall creates a feeling I only ever had before with Rothko. The bedroom paintings are for me the high point of Cynthia Corbett's new exhibition of Couloumy's solo show, which opened last night. See especially "Lit a Rugnes 1" & ".. 2".
The author disputes the merits of Le Lit Blanc 2 with contemporary artist Frances Treanor
 Also very impressive are the sky paintings, sober but joyful studies of cloud formations.
(clockwise) Nuages 4, Nuages 7, Nuages 6, all 2008/2009; oil on board
And I loved her gentle paintings if her paints and paintbrushes. These seem more personal than the other works that I admire here, less concerned with transcendence and more with the emotionally familiar and friendly tools of her profession.
Pinceau x et Tubes 1, 2010/2011, Oil on canvas
Of course there were also several of the big interior spaces for which she is famous (eg "Réception", see above). The show very well demonstrates Couloumy's range of genres in which she is master.  Like Rothko's field-of-colour paintings, reproductions of Couloumy's oils hardly catch any of the spiritual charge - you have to see the works in the flesh. Go to Gallery 27 and behold them. (The show runs from June 25th to July 7th.).
Celia Kinchington chatting with guests
At the vernissage

All paintings by Anne-Françoise Couloumy; all photographs taken by Jenny Chung, at the opening at Gallery 27, on 26th June 2012, and used with the kind and generous permission of Cynthia Corbett.