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Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo da Vinci

In an early chapter of his interesting new book, Symmetry: A Journey Into the Patterns of Nature, Marcus du Sautoy describes a visit to the Alhambra, the great Moorish palace in Granada, Spain. He and his young son spend an afternoon identifying 14 different types of symmetry represented in paving patterns, ornamentation, and tile work. To the layman, the patterns may look simply like pretty forms, but to du Sautoy, who teaches mathematics at Oxford University, they are expressions of deep geometries that have their own names: gyrations, *333s, miracles, double miracles.

Du Sautoy’s book is about mathematics, but his excursion to the Alhambra is a reminder that symmetry has always been an important part of architecture. Symmetry appears in small things and large: Floor tiles may be laid in symmetrical patterns; the design of door paneling can be symmetrical, and so can window panes. In frontal symmetry, the left side of a building’s facade mirrors the right (the entrance usually being in the middle); in axial-plan symmetry, the rooms on one side of the axis are a mirror image of those on the other. If the women’s restroom is on one side, chances are the men’s is on the other. Sometimes not being symmetrical is important; the fronts and backs of buildings, for example, are intentionally different.

Symmetros is a Greek word, and ancient Greek architecture used symmetry as a basic organizing principle. As did Roman, Roman-esque, and Renaissance. Indeed, it is hard to think of any architectural tradition, Western or non-Western, that does not include symmetry. Symmetry is something that Islamic mosques, Chinese pagodas, Hindu temples, Shinto shrines, and Gothic cathedrals have in common.

Architectural Modernism thumbed its nose at tradition and firmly avoided symmetry. Being symmetrical was considered as retrograde as being, well, decorated. All exemplary Modernist buildings celebrated asymmetry: The wings of Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus shoot off in different directions; the columns of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion are symmetrical, but you can hardly tell, thanks to the randomly spaced walls; nothing in Frank Lloyd Wright’s pinwheeling Fallingwater mirrors anything else; and Le Corbusier’s Ronchamps dispenses with traditional church geometry altogether. The facades of Philip Johnson’s Glass House are rare instances of Modernist symmetry, although all the elements of the interior—kitchen counter, storage wall, and brick cylinder containing the bathroom—are carefully located off-center.

Yet some Modernist pioneers did eventually recognize the evocative power of symmetry. After 1950, for example, Mies’s designs are increasingly symmetrical, both in plan and elevation. The Seagram Building is rigidly axial in plan—and has a front and a back—just like McKim, Mead, and White’s Racquet and Tennis Club across the street. Louis Kahn is a late Modernist who eschewed all architectural traditions except one; he returned to the symmetry of his Beaux-Arts education in the planning of his buildings. Eero Saarinen’s Ingalls Rink at Yale is axially symmetrical, but then hockey, like basketball or football, is played within symmetrical bounds.

Yet today’s expressionist fashion demands architectural asymmetry at any cost. That’s a shame, since architects sacrifice one of their art’s most powerful tools (not all architects—Norman Foster and Renzo Piano often use symmetry to great effect). Without occasional symmetry, all those angles and squiggles start to look the same. The hyperactive geometry of Daniel Libeskind’s addition to the Denver Art Museum, for example, can quickly become tiresome. The fey asymmetry of SANAA’s much-heralded New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York loses its impact after several viewings. A welcome exception is Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. While the exterior and the lobby are whimsically composed in standard Gehry fashion, the hall itself, like most concert halls, is perfectly symmetrical about its longitudinal axis. I don’t know if this was done for acoustical reasons or because the architect recognized the inherent calmness that axial symmetry affords.

Why is architectural symmetry so satisfying? As Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing demonstrated, it reflects the human body, which has a right side and a left, a back and a front, the navel in the very center. Du Sautoy writes that the human mind seems constantly drawn to anything that embodies some aspect of symmetry. He observes that “[a]rtwork, architecture and music from ancient times to the present day play on the idea of things which mirror each other in interesting ways.” When we walk around a Baroque church, we experience many changing views, but when we walk down the main aisle—the line along which the mirror images of the left and right sides meet—we know that we are in a special relationship to our surroundings. And when we stand below the dome of the crossing, at the confluence of four symmetries, we know we have arrived.

Witold Rybczynski


Excerpts from an interview with Spiegel magazine and Olafur Eliasson:

Spiegel: And you are about to embark on your final victory march in America. No one will be able to overlook your four gigantic waterfalls, up to 40 meters (131 feet) high, in the East River.

Eliasson: Well, people who want to see everything will have to travel all the way across the city. We’re installing these waterfalls in very different parts of New York — under the Brooklyn Bridge, for example. The water will generate a true fog everywhere, and the pumps will be very loud. After all, real waterfalls make a lot of noise.

Spiegel: But why does the city need its own Niagara Falls?

Eliasson: I was interested in bringing life to a space that constitutes a non-space in New York, a space that simply doesn’t count. Wall Street is traditionally more important there that the water. In other words, I wanted to draw attention to something that has always been there and yet goes largely unnoticed.

Spiegel: Do you always emphasize strong sensations?

Eliasson: Yes, because physical experience makes a much deeper impression than a purely intellectual encounter. I can explain to you what it’s like to feel cold, but I can also have you feel the cold yourself through my art. My goal is to sensitize people to highly complex questions.


Eliasson: Reality is confusing. That’s what I want to demonstrate. There is no fixed interpretation of my works. Everyone experiences and understands them in his own way.

Eliasson: Christo is an amazing artist. But the way he exploits his projects and markets them so extremely, that’s not my style.

Spiegel: But you too have crossed the boundary into commercialism. For instance, you designed an “Art Car” for BMW.

Eliasson: Well, I do want to participate in the world, as it is. But look at it more closely: My art isn’t exactly market-friendly. Who buys a rainbow?

Spiegel: Still, do you have the feeling sometimes that you are getting your fingers dirty? Proximity to business is frowned upon in the art world.

Eliasson: This world of art and of museums can also be unbelievably elitist. But it isn’t a parallel world, where the laws of the market are somehow suspended. Artists don’t live in a space apart from politics and the market, and in many cases they even have very good strategies to market themselves. It would be hypocritical to claim otherwise. But believe me, my fingers are clean.

Spiegel: More than two million people went to see your “Weather Project,” a colossal sun sculpture, at the Tate Modern in London four years ago last winter. The minute an artist reaches large numbers of people, he is accused of going mainstream. Is that a problem for you?

Eliasson: Appealing to many people isn’t a problem for me. I don’t happen to be one of those people who climb up on their avant-garde stools and look down on others. We should stop nurturing this naïve cliché that says artists are beings from another planet. It wasn’t God himself who hung art in museums. And yet the museum directors create precisely this detached impression. It would be much more honest to talk about the many connections and influences, because they exist. The market exists, and so do ideologies.

Spiegel: Your art, which is in tune with nature, is often associated with your native Scandinavia and its landscape.

Eliasson: Yes, but this relationship should not be understood as a key to my art. The circumstances under which I grew up in Denmark are more important than nature: in a society that was shaped by pseudo-Protestantism, and by the ideals of the middle class and the welfare state. The individual was less important than the community. Recognizing this, identifying it as a source of tension, has influenced me. Besides, it is also typically Scandinavian to think: I am nothing, and nature is everything. Of course, I too had this attitude. My parents are Icelanders, and Iceland, which I visited regularly as a child, is a unique natural experience.


It’s time to challenge “long-held and cherished views about what it is to be an artist and what art is”, Brad Haseman [of Queensland University of Technology] says, but that does not mean it is no longer worth pursuing art for art’s sake.

“There’s still the expectation that you have to be poor and struggling to be an artist,” Haseman says, “and then there are many young people who want to pursue art for the celebrity very often, so this is all very vexed.

“What we do in the arts is so important and significant that we shouldn’t get too anxious about the diversity of applications in which we work. If we think of art practice as an ecology, there’s a place for people who want to pursue art for art’s sake and those who want to broker their skills for commercial and national benefit…”

“The latest thinking is that innovation isn’t linear,” Haseman says. “It operates in a complex system, and that’s where artists live and work. Innovation is what they do with the symbolic forms they create, and artists also have greater understanding about risk taking, about analysis and interpretation, approaching it quite differently from the way science approaches risk, for example. It’s the way artists engage with curiosity that make them innovative.”

Haseman has traced the shifts in arts and cultural policies back to the “first national cultural policy in our nation’s history”, Creative Nation. Written in 1994, Creative Nation explicitly stated that a cultural policy was also an economic policy, but while it said “Culture adds value, it makes an essential contribution to innovation, marketing and design,” it underplayed the link between the arts and innovation.

“The idea has been there from the beginning (when Creative Nation was written),” Haseman says, “but over the past 14 years innovation has been linked to science, technology and engineering.

“It has been seen only as an economic benefit, but there is the idea now that benefit is a quadruple bottom line, not just economic. It must also capture social equity, social justice and sustainability.”

Across 17 policy documents, reports and reviews, Haseman traces the tentative rapprochement of arts and culture on one side, and research and innovation on the other.

“They have been allowed to grow together (a little) and apart (a lot),” he says. Now that the Government is focusing on innovation, the arts must nurture the relationship and prove that it is a symbiotic one, rather than marginal or optional.

“I’m working on a fabric metaphor to present at the workshop,” Haseman says. “If you look at the arts and culture policies over the years, it’s brocade, while technology is white-coated, sober. There has been the odd stitch between the two fabrics, but we, the humanities and social sciences, remain on the margins of the innovation agenda, and the arts are on the margins of that marginal group…”

Haseman says that one of the reasons the idea of art as innovation has not secured traction at a policy level is that people have tended to “bundle up” the arts within the wider definition of “creative industries”, where they are subsumed.

“We need research and attention to what’s specific in the arts,” Haseman says. “We need to find out how we can set up training schemes to commercialise arts practice, which leads to entrepreneurship and creative enterprise which compliments skills in the art form.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a sellout or a dumbing down. The arts are too durable to be hijacked by anyone.”

Rosemary Sorensen
The Australian

Courtesy of Amy C. Elliott/Public Art fund

For more than a century, the majestic Brooklyn Bridge has straddled the East River, linking the piers of lower Manhattan to the brownstones of Brooklyn Heights.

Now, under the hand of the Danish-born artist Olafur Eliasson, the national monument is passing into a second, and temporary, phase: that of hulking, stone-and-steel canvas.

Beginning this month, the Tishman Construction Corporation will install four electrically powered waterfalls, arranged on skeletons of exposed scaffolding and ranging in height from 90 to 120 ft. One installation is scheduled for Governors Island in New York Harbor; two more will sit on either side of the East River, in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The fourth will be mounted on the underside of the Brooklyn Bridge.

In an e-mail message, Mr. Eliasson said he hopes the scale of “New York City Waterfalls” – among the most ambitious projects in recent memory – could help spur a revitalization of New York’s waterfront.

There “have been attempts, of course,” he says, “but I want to push that further.” If it is a triumph, “Waterfalls” could prompt tourists – and hardened New Yorkers – to reengage with one of the world’s most iconic skylines.

“Waterfalls” also ushers in deeper questions about the role of public art in urban life. Apart from the inevitable flood of media attention, how do we judge whether a public project has been successful? The ultimate test, experts say, may be a work’s ability to forge connections – by reaching out to its viewers and engaging them in their environment.

Historically, public art has forced “you to reconsider your relationship to that site. It shocks you out of your complacency,” says Noah Chasin, assistant professor of Art History at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Rochelle Steiner, director of New York’s Public Art Fund, a major backer of “Waterfalls,” hopes Eliasson’s project has precisely that effect: “People will think about the city, the East River, and nature – particularly water as a natural resource – differently after having seen them…”

For a city, of course, success is often gauged in more tangible terms: Public-art projects can generate an incredible amount of community revenue.

In 2005, for instance, the European artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude erected more than 7,500 saffron-colored nylon banners across Central Park for two weeks. According to Kate Levin, commissioner at New York’s Department of Cultural Affairs, “The Gates” generated approximately $254 million.

“New York City Waterfalls” is expected to bring New York roughly $55 million over three months – a figure based on tax revenues “that the city would not get otherwise,” says Ms. Levin. The figure includes tourism-related spending and income from increased use of public transportation near the site.

Eliasson and the city are also hoping to usher in long-term financial benefits that may be harder to quantify. Consider: The stretch of Manhattan abutting the East River has historically been thought less desirable than the opposite bank of the island. A waterfall constructed on Pier 35, near Rutgers St., will, Eliasson hopes, prod visitors to contemplate the developmental viability of the area.

“New York City is an island city, and our waterfront has for a long time been neglected,” Levin says. “Waterfalls,” may help pull foot traffic toward the East River.

“Waterfalls are spectacular in themselves. In that way they suit the skyline,” Eliasson says.

The next question: “Can we go beyond the spectacle?…”

But Janney [“public art” artist] and others are quick to point to the ways in which public art can be unsettling or disruptive. Many art lovers remember Richard Serra’s infamous “Tilted Arc,” a magnificent wall of undulating steel that bisected Federal Plaza in lower Manhattan. Almost immediately, office workers were in an uproar. In 1989, eight years after its installation, the $175,000 commission was removed and junked. Serra had intended the piece to be permanent.

“That really marked a sea change,” says Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTnews magazine. “Even though it’s understood that you’re not going to find a piece that all people will like, there’s a real sense of trying to make art something the public can connect with – even if it might have some kind of edge.”

Acknowledging the complexities a public artist must navigate, more art schools, such as USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts in Los Angeles, are offering programs in public-art studies and practice. “They recognize it is a discipline that requires special training,” says Janney.

Public art is markedly different from a private gallery show, admits Steiner, since it can “make ripples in the life of a city and impact people who see it.”

One of the intentions of “Waterfalls,” she says, “is to intervene in the city such that people are inspired to reconsider their environment, both built and natural.”

Matthew Shaer and Teresa Méndez
Christian Science Monitor

Courtesy of Skarstedt Gallery

Bigger names have come and gone, but few careers in painting have been more consistently interesting over the last 25 years than Carroll Dunham’s. Mr. Dunham, who is 58 and lives in New York, is known for his cartoonish paintings of blockheaded men with penis-shaped, bullet-firing noses, who star in hectic stories of sexual conflict and global warfare. Driven equally by rage, anxiety and hilarity, his paintings deliver an uncommonly potent combination of formal punch, narrative intrigue and metaphorical resonance.

It all began for Mr. Dunham back in the early 1980s, when he discovered plywood: from 1982 to 1987, he painted on ordinary pieces of laminated pine and later on panels covered with more exotic veneers, creating abstract, funny, strange duets of grainy wood and polymorphous paint.

Now a selection of these breakthrough paintings is on display in a vibrant, must-see exhibition, “Carroll Dunham: Paintings on Wood, 1982-87,” at Skarstedt Gallery in Manhattan.

Like a teenage stoner doodling on his classroom desk, Mr. Dunham painted in response to the natural patterns and textures of his wooden surfaces. In different places he would copy the grain pattern in paint or trace it in pencil. He would draw circles around knots and then connect the knots with rubbery, tubular forms. Most conspicuous are brightly colored, bulbous shapes suggestive of sexual and digestive organs, gnarly tree branches, tumors and fungi.

While many elements seem to arise from an instinctive, quasi-primitive intuition, other parts suggest a more intellectually sophisticated play with the codes of Modern painting. In some works organic forms are entwined around straight-edged, horizontal stripes. In others there are passages of brushy Abstract Expressionistic marks or lines defining Cubist spaces. Confettilike fields of colored dots hark back to Pointillism, while cartoon outlines of bulbous forms evoke Pop Art’s appropriation of comic books. R. Crumb’s underground comic drawing is in the mix, as is the classic Surrealism of Dalí and Miró.

What these paintings add up to is a kind of delirious, barely contained psychic pluralism. Various dualities and contradictions play out: between wood and paint; abstraction and representation; geometry and biology; the phallic and the vaginal; body and mind; nature and culture.

In contrast to the monochrome painters of the ’70s (Brice Marden and Robert Ryman) and the Neo-Expressionists of the ’80s (Julian Schnabel and Anselm Kiefer), Mr. Dunham did not try to achieve formal or stylistic unity in these works. Painting was a joy-riding vehicle for realizing and delighting in the contradictions and complexities of consciousness.

This exhibition offers a revelatory window into an extraordinarily fertile time in recent art history, yet the paintings don’t seem at all dated. Exuberantly alive to their own possibilities, they feel as fresh as if they had been made yesterday.

Ken Johnson
New York Times

Photo: Michael Malyszko

From a review of Mary Jo Salter’s latest volume of poems, “A Phone Call to the Future”:

Back in the 20th century, when such things seemed to matter, poets argued about the virtue of meter and rhyme. Occasionally the debate produced insights of lasting consequence, like Robert Frost’s snarky metaphor for free verse (“playing tennis with the net down”) and Charles Wright’s brilliant response: “the high wire act without the net.” But the debate was perpetuated more often by tribal loyalties than by artistic necessity. An argument that forecloses possibilities for art — that says X is good because Y is bad — can rarely be trusted.

Mary Jo Salter came of age as a poet in the 1970s when two tribes, the Language poets and the New Formalists, were sparring. The Language poets (named after a magazine called Language) represented a new surge of experimental writing, while the New Formalists (with whom Salter was associated) wanted to resist the influence of modernism, re-energizing poetry’s relationship not only to traditional form but to narrative. Like Salter, many of the New Formalists modeled their work on a strategically narrowed version of Elizabeth Bishop, a poet who wrote both free and formal verse with homespun virtuosity. But while Bishop continues to be read, the polemics associated with both the New Formalism and Language poetry feel dated, part of the niggling history of taste rather than the grand history of art…

We grow wise when we ought to be depressed, said the philosopher E. M. Cioran; wisdom is a way of controlling or defending ourselves against grief. But the kind of technical mastery cherished by the New Formalists may too easily foster a taste for emotional mastery. The impressionable ear gets used to the sound of well-turned conclusions. Questions are foreclosed; satisfaction sets in.

This is not about subject matter: Bishop’s domestic vignettes feel as spooky and harrowing as Hecht’s poems about the Nazi death camps because she resists all opportunities for emotional closure, preferring to dwell on what she called the “surrealism of everyday life.” In contrast, the new poems collected in “A Phone Call to the Future” feel comfortable with their conclusions, content with the maturity acquired through their realization, however rueful the feeling of lost youth: “You reach an age when classics / are what you must have read.” The satisfaction embodied by such quips seems coercive.

Only a few poets transcend the history of taste to participate in the history of art — and only in a handful of poems. Salter has been struck by lightning more than once, and “Another Session,” from her 2003 collection “Open Shutters,” suggests she’ll be struck again. In this sonnet sequence about depression and its aftermath, a patient confesses to her therapist the need “to be praised / for forcing these indictments from my throat. / For saying them well.” All of Salter’s poems are well said. “Another Session” is, like “Elegies for Etsuko,” a disorienting work of art.

James Longenbach
New York Times

Photograph of Inga Saffron by Ryan Donnell

Inga Saffron isn’t just a critic — she’s a reporter and, often, an advocate in her weekly “Changing Skyline” column. Those roles muddy the journalistic waters at times, but in a city with a planning agency that’s asleep at the wheel and a tangled, ineffective zoning code, her words carry great weight. She not only applauds forward-thinking projects, like an aggressive remodeling of the Kimmel Center to draw more traffic, but pursues a vision of what Philadelphia could become. When Saffron wrote a five-part series on development along the Delaware River, she didn’t simply check off all the obvious blunders and squandered opportunities there — she saw lessons in how Louisville and North Jersey transformed their waterfronts, and took aim at a seemingly immovable object, Interstate 95, calling it a noose around the neck of Penn’s Landing. It’s not just architecture and aesthetics she’s writing about, but how the “built world,” as she calls it, affects us all in very real ways. Absent are the haughty academic pretensions some critics rely on. She knows those wouldn’t play here; they don’t for her, either. Instead, it’s her passion for cities — for this city — that drives her, making what could be a dull subject seem vital, demanding higher standards, and sending a message to every developer whose vision ends at the bottom line and every architect who plays it safe: Build at your own peril…

Her power, though, lies not so much in her willingness to eviscerate ugly buildings as in what she believes is at stake: the future of the city. “Philadelphia can’t be satisfied anymore to just build new,” she wrote in the Symphony House critique. “The city needs to build well, with taste, integrity, creativity, and, whenever possible, real aesthetic ambition”…Saffron doesn’t simply consider design and aesthetics when she evaluates a building. The first criterion is urban value — what does this tower or condo or retail space do for the neighborhood? Does it create life by inviting foot traffic and interaction with passersby, or is it sterile? Then there’s formal value, a structure’s beauty and craftsmanship. Her final consideration is a cultural one, and her toughest call. What does this edifice say about our times and our values? To consider how the 975-foot Comcast Center compares to similar buildings, Saffron studied the New York Times offices in Manhattan. “It was like, pow!” she says of that 856-foot skyscraper’s impact on the ground. “It was full of energy. I realized that Comcast’s setback [from the street] sort of saps the energy…”

That might sound like architecture-snob shop talk, but Saffron’s criteria reveal an attempt to balance artistic concerns with practical ones, without getting swept away in highfalutin design-speak. That’s partly out of necessity, since Saffron herself isn’t fluent in the sort of language you’d hear at an American Institute of Architects lecture. She doesn’t have a college degree in architecture or urban planning, or anything else, actually — after high school in Long Island led her to New York University, she studied in France for a year, then left for Dublin without graduating. In Ireland, Saffron found her calling in journalism, writing about the arts for local papers and stringing for Newsweek for two years before returning to the States to find work at a major newspaper…

In a perfect newsroom, Saffron would be either an architecture reporter or a critic, not both, and some say the latter role is a bit beyond her reach…Design legend Denise Scott Brown of Venturi Scott Brown agrees that Saffron isn’t equipped to discuss “high architecture,” or to compare the rebuilding of New Orleans with that of London after the Great Fire of 1666, as Scott Brown has done. But that’s not necessarily what this city needs. “The critics with formal training have other problems,” says Scott Brown, who insists that Saffron’s lack of academic jargon doesn’t make her less effective. “The French talk about education as formation. But it can also be deformation. She has brought up some important issues in Philadelphia…”

“Architecture is unavoidable,” [Saffron] says. “If there’s a painting on a wall that offends you, you don’t have to go back and see it. But our built world is something we share…The building is part of our lives. It’s how we define ourselves as a city.”

Richard Rys
Philadelphia Magazine

Seamus Heaney thinks that poetry has a special ability to redress spiritual balance and to function as a counterweight to hostile and oppressive forces in the world. He calls this “the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality”. Heaney’s personal mantra is a phrase by an earlier Nobel prizewinner, the Greek poet George Seferis, who felt that poetry should be “strong enough to help”. He wasn’t calling for straightforwardly uplifting verse, but saying that he valued poetry’s “response to conditions in the world at a moment when the world was in crisis”. This is what Heaney means by redress, whereby “the poetic imagination seems to redress whatever is wrong or exacerbating in the prevailing conditions”, offering “a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances.”

David Constantine developed this theme in his essay The Usefulness of Poetry, showing how Bertolt Brecht’s dogmatic requirement that lyric poetry should be “useful” was subverted in his own work. The effect of Brecht’s poems on the reader is not an engagement with his political ideas, says Constantine, but rather “a shock, a quickening of consciousness, a becoming alert to better possibilities, an extension, a liberation”, for such poetry is, “to put it mildly, a useful thing if, when reading it, we sense a better way of being in the world”.

This is the perspective we need in considering the so-called “role” of poetry in the ecological debate: a “way of being in the world” or what Auden himself called “a way of happening”…As the world’s politicians and corporations orchestrate our headlong rush towards eco-Armageddon, poetry may seem like a hopeless gesture. But if Seferis and Heaney are right, poetry can at the very least be “strong enough to help”…poetry’s power is in the detail, in the force of each individual poem, in every poem’s effect on every listener or reader…

In Ireland people still think poetry is important. If our own politicians spent just a couple of minutes each day reading these kinds of poems, they might be better fitted to carry out their duties more responsibly. We might even be able to trust some of them then to act in our interest in what they do to tackle the problems of environmental destruction and global warming.

George Szirtes [author of the 2005 TS Eliot lecture, Thin Ice and the Midnight Skaters] wrote:

“‘If poetry makes nothing happen what use is it?’ scoffed a recent letter in a serious newspaper…What does music make happen? Or visual art? The writer might have been thinking of social change.”

Listing various poems which had worked towards such change, Szirtes continued: “The subject of poetry being life, and politics being a part of life, poets have written as they thought or might have voted. Whether they actually made anything happen is not clear. The quotation about poetry making nothing happen is, in fact, half-remembered from the second part of Auden’s In Memory of WB Yeats, that goes:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper; it flows south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

“Those who want poetry to make things happen forget the last line of the above: that poetry is itself a way of happening. But what does it mean to be ‘a way of happening’? Does it mean anything at all?”

Auden wrote his elegy after Yeats’s death in January 1939, as the world was preparing itself for war. In his book The Poetry of WB Yeats, written during the conflict and published in 1941, Louis MacNeice wrote:

“If the war made nonsense of Yeats’s poetry and of all works that are called ‘escapist’, it also made nonsense of poetry that professes to be ‘realist’. My friends had been writing for years about guns and frontiers and factories, about the ‘facts’ of psychology, politics, science, economics, but the fact of war made their writing seem as remote as the pleasure dome in Xanadu. For war spares neither the poetry of Xanadu nor the poetry of pylons.”

Writing during the Irish Troubles in her study Poetry in the Wars, Edna Longley observed that all Northern Irish poetry since 1969 had “shared the same bunker”:

“Thus what Derek Mahon calls ‘An eddy of semantic scruple / In an unstructurable sea’ might as well concentrate on ‘semantic scruple’. Neverthless MacNeice, knowing Yeats and Ireland, did not follow Auden into his post-Marxist conviction that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’: ‘The fallacy lies in thinking that it is the function of art to make things happen and the effect of art upon actions is something either direct or calculable.’ [The Poetry of WB Yeats, 1941]. Yet Auden’s own phrase in his Yeats elegy – ‘A way of happening’ – defines the only social and political role available to poetry as poetry.”

Neil Astley
The Guardian

Part 2 tomorrow…

From an interview with art critic Matthew Collings:


You could have said 50 years ago that the equivalent people in charge of modern and contemporary art packaged it for the masses because they thought it was good for them, or it would save society, or it was against fascism, or something. But now they don’t even pretend it’s out of decent motivations. It’s just for commercial reasons. In any case, I don’t care about any of that. But as I said, I only think those types of things when I’m being extreme.

The fact is, I am interested in what the grain is — the grain of contemporary art. But I don’t think that to be involved with that, you have to be involved in a zombie way. I think you can be involved in an intelligent way, and that might mean being sceptical. It might mean thinking against the grain. But that’s only because you’re thinking about the bigger picture…The equivalent in our time is young British art, (the yBas), full of nihilism, satire, surrealism and decadence. That stuff can be pretty good, and I am sometimes interested in it. But again I would feel like I was suffocating if I thought that was all art could be. And because this art is so popular it’s like there’s no air. We’ve got to hear all this mind-destroying stuff all the time about the very narrow issues and concerns of this art, and of the art of the recent past, like Warhol and Bruce Nauman, and so on, that’s supposed to have begun it all. So when I’m gooning on the TV in front of the Turner Prize, and ironically indicating a bit of disapproval, while seeming to be blindly following the agenda; and then in interviews like this actually being quite explicitly aggressive toward the contemporary scene; it’s just to let in some air.

I don’t really mean that I hate those artists or even those moronic zombie curators, with their ghastly pc homily ideas. I went to art school to be an artist. For one reason or another I fell into this journalistic world. But I thought I was just explaining stories about what I knew to be the codes of the art world. I didn’t necessarily agree with the codes, I just felt I could describe them, because I knew them well. I never had the remotest interest in making this contemporary art scene that we now have, which as everybody knows is mostly just crap, accessible to an audience who has no real interest in it anyway….But I now find myself to be this person who meets strangers in the street who say ‘I really liked your programme’ — about art I actually might not have much interest in – and they say: ‘And it really opened my eyes to it!’ It’s rather moving to be praised like that, or acknowledged, or whatever, but it’s confusing. I don’t revere the art world, or at least certainly not the contemporary art world. But I learned to think in an art context. Art school was my higher education. So all that is an explanation of what I do.

3:AM Magazine