Tuesday 10 January 2012

Memory, art, politics: notes

Here's a conundrum: people produce 'art' - by which I mean, all of it - literature, painting,sculpture, dance, pottery, opera, song, mime - go on...add on what you like. People also produce 'criticism'. Criticism has different levels: the stuff we say to each other as we come out of a film, articles in papers and magazines, the books we might study at school or university, 'learned journals' and so on. Now, most of the written criticism is based on an assumption that I've always adhered to: that it should look closely at what's being said, how it's said, what it feels like to 'read' or 'view' or even be 'in' the piece of art. If necessary, this criticism requires me and anyone else doing it to revisit the piece of art and to read what others have said about it, usually on the same terms - that they are referring closely to what they have just seen.

So, in a way, apart from anything else, there is an in-built chronology to what we understand by 'criticism'. That's to say the critic has 'just' seen it, or is in the process of studying it or that they have lived adjacent to it for a good deal of their lives, they are particularly familiar with it because it's in the near-present, recent past in their lives. This is the nature of the 'discourse' around criticism and I've been in and out of that world in one way or another since school. And - in case any of the next bit appears to be contradicting it - enjoy it, am fascinated by it, and will go on doing it. For good reasons.

However,let's raise another possibility: not only do we go and experience art and have immediate experience and very recent memory of it, we also have memory. And memory works in a different time-frame, and in different ways. At least, I think it does. Consider the experience we all have of sitting thinking about stuff. At some point, and in unpredictable ways, bits of art-stuff intermingles with all the other stuff. So, we might be thinking about going to the bank and anything from a Dutch painting with money it, Shylock, Scrooge might come to the surface (as we say), in a flash (as we say). At other times, we might do something more contemplative about the piece of art itself. Our mind rests on a moment in a book or a painting or, very commonly on a chunk of a song and stays there, running and re-running this moment.

What I'm saying is that art exists in this environment and time-frame as well as in the immediate, close attentive looking, listening etc. In fact, I could make an argument for saying that across a lifetime, this is how art works. And yet what we call criticism very rarely takes notice of it. It has another job to do.

So what would happen if we, on occasions, consider how a painting or a story or dance has 'stayed with us'. And what would happen if we compared the way different pieces of art stay with different people. At quite a chatty level, this is what people do when they sit around talking about their favourite films. Though usually those conversations whisk by a bit too quickly to rest on how those memories interweave with other parts of our life, or with other pieces of art. This would mean sometimes approaching a piece (or pieces) of art via something else altogether - a tree being chopped down or some such. At other times, looking specifically at one's memory of a piece rather than going back to it. What would that throw up? Would it tell us that the things we sometimes think are important about a piece at the time of viewing aren't actually as important as other parts? And why would that be? I suppose that's in part an explanation why certain films which got panned by the critics, got lousy audiences, slowly develop into a cult and then into mass popular films.

A film I've seen twice and often remember is 'The English Patient'. At the time - both times - I was moved and amazed by it. I loved the emotion of it, the sense of impossibility wrapped up in the Ralph Fiennes character. (see I've forgotten his name. Perhaps he doesn't have a name! Ah, yes, at one point he doesn't have a name, I think...) In fact, the impossibility of who he was and indeed how it was impossible for him to be loved, seemed to be emotional and political. That's to say, part of his 'problem' ( I think) was because he was stateless. He wasn't of one nation, on one side.

That's the general stuff.

But also what happens in my mind is that scenes from the film just float into view (and of course hundreds of them don't) - the cave, the mummy-like figure on the bed, the Indian guy on his motorbike...the posh Brit club somewhere 'out there' where Empire types were hanging out joshing each other. But again and again the  drama of the cave. Being left. Someone going to get help. Not getting back.

I could go on but it's incoherent. And some of it is 'wrong', you or I might say and part of me is self-conscious about writing down stuff that is 'wrong' even though that's how it might sit in my mind. It goes against the grain of the critical process. And yet, to repeat, this is how we are. We are all walking about with these fragments of art in our minds, some of which critical thinking would describe as 'wrong' or inaccurate. And yet, if it's there, it must be there for a reason. We must have selected it (and on occasions mis-remembered aspects of it) always for a reason. And aren't these reasons important?

I mean they're important in our own personal histories. But if you combined them, or shared them, in a room, in a journal, in a piece of research, say, wouldn't they combine to say something quite important both about the piece but also - more importantly perhaps - the piece in the context of that particular group of viewers in that particular time and place. Wouldn't it in effect be a kind of sociology of the memory of art? Or a sociology of response? Or a different kind of politics of art?