Szott, Gove and noticing things

I like Randall Szott’s blog – Lebenskünstler – a lot. He writes provocatively and with a great deal of well-placed skepticism about the art world.

In a recent post of his – I keep finding myself thinking/feeling that all of the things that distinguish an art project from some other thing/experience in the world are all of the things that make it less interesting, not more, that make it less vital, less luminous, less magical. – Why I wish art was more like National Lampoon’s Vacation – some sh*t I said to someone way more interesting than me – he quotes extensively from his own conversation with American artist Sal Randolph.

Here’s a bit:

My problem is that I find life so full of amazing poetic moments that I don’t need or want someone to go about trying to create them for me. Aesthetic experience is everywhere and I’ve found that art is too often about pointing to that experience, describing that experience, dissecting it on the latest critical altar, documenting it…

I like Szott’s provocation: if we are able to pay attention, to notice the things around us, then why bother with art at all?

The problem is, I suspect, that our innate ability to pay attention – to notice the “poetic moments”, and to taste “aesthetic experience” – is compromised as we leave our childhoods.

In an ideal world I imagine that one of the important aspects of learning about artistic experiences and ideas at school is that it values paying attention to what is around us.

The current UK Government’s Secretary of State for Education – Michael Gove – is placing such extraordinary emphasis on education being about getting the facts right (see, Polly Toynbee’s thoughts here: In Michael Gove’s world Jane Austen, Orwell and Dickens will die out that art, design, dance and drama – the very subjects that should welcome and nourish our ability to notice – are in deep danger of disappearing from high school curricula.

This is an ideological attack. It is a concerted attempt to devalue aesthetic experiences of all kinds because such experiences are related to our capacity to question and challenge the world we notice.

liberal education

I read Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind in the late 1980s. My very close friends and I were in our early 20s, and together we found its mix of (mostly conservative) ideas about personal responsibility, education and relationships provocative and demanding of serious thought. We were, after all, the University students Bloom was describing and I seem to remember thinking of the book as a kind of call-to-arms.

I happened to pick up my copy this morning and read the following in the Preface:

Fascination with one’s students leads to an awareness of the various kinds of soul and their various capacities for truth and error as well as learning. Such experience is a condition of investigating the question, ‘What is man?,’ in relation to this highest aspirations as opposed to his low and common needs.

A liberal education means precisely helping students to pose this question to themselves, to become aware that the answer is neither obvious nor simply unavailable, and that there is no serious life in which this question is not a continuous concern. Despite all the efforts to pervert it … the question that every young person ask, ‘Who am I?,’ the powerful urge to follow the Delphic command, ‘Know thyself,’ which is born in each of us, means in the first place, ‘What is man?’ And in our chronic lack of certainty, this comes down to knowing the alternative answers and thinking about them. Liberal education provides access to these alternatives, many of which go against the grain of our nature or our times. The liberally educated person is one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration.

— Bloom (1987, pp.20–21)

If you can put aside the painfully gendered language (and that’s quite a large if) then this piece of 26 year-old writing remains relevant.

I remain convinced that my role as a teacher in higher education is to encourage students to ask difficult questions, and to imagine that complex solutions might exist beyond the narrowness of our own thoughts, experiences and histories. And yet I also feel that this role is under considerable threat from bureaucratic and political systems that seem to want to homogenise the feelings, doubts, interests and needs of current undergraduate (and to a lesser extent postgraduate) students.

I want to celebrate our chronic lack of certainty, and I care deeply about alternative solutions to our complex problems of personal and cultural understanding.

face to face

Face to Face is a Roundtable discussion between Emilyn Claid, Carol Brown, Efrosini Protopapa and me, and hosted by Roehampton Dance’s Centre for Dance Research.

We are going to talk about collaboration, and choreographic research, and the things that currently seem important to us as artists (and scholars).

It’s on at 6pm this Tuesday 5 November in Michaelis Theatre, Roehampton University, SW15 5PJ.

Blurb here:

Face-to-face: form, relation, apparition

I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me

— Virginia Woolf

We will sit facing each other and draw on our individual, current choreographic research projects to think through the uncertainties of presence in collaboration, and the ways in which as artist-scholars we extend out into the world.

Given the social nature of choreographic practice, we seem ready to be ‘made and remade continually’, as we encounter the other in the excessive nearness of friendship (Giorgio Agamben). We alternate between form and formlessness, as we engage in fragile processes of collaborative making.

If we accept that different practices of relating start shaping the various choreographic contexts we work in – be they aesthetic, pedagogic, theatre, video, writing – at what point, we might ask, do we turn into some kind of hard-to-see apparition?