A caution, dear reader, a warning from the outset that this post is a return to the characteristics of my earlier writings on this site; scenic route verbal meanderings. However, do not despair though, as I do, as always, eventually get to the point. You see, I agree with Mary Oliver’s observation that “attention without feeling is only a report.” You see, there must be an “openness”, an empathy, for me the attention must matter.
Impartiality is something I have struggled with in the academic world. Impartiality is just not me because I am certainly no removed observer. The reality is though, that none of us are. We colour everything we see and experience with…well, ourselves… and who we were and who we are and who we are to become. There must be an openness about how we affect what we report, and I’m not even talking about empathy here. Our points of view are unique and there is no impartiality. We need to admit that.
My art practice is definitely evidence of this, with my body and lived experience always being at the centre of it. Therefore my attention to even an academic field of study is coloured with feeling, not merely a point of view but my feeling! This translates into my writing, which although academia has often frowned upon it, I have pushed the limits of by embracing the personal. My Master’s dissertation is an example of this.
You see, if personal writing is telling one’s story, then academic writing analyses and evaluates that story and comments on it. “I” is at the centre of storytelling while in academic writing, the “I” is observer and commentator. I never could understand why the 2 could not live in harmony in academia. Certainly personal writing contains the writer’s experiences and personal views and feelings. But I believe academics were fooling themselves when they believed in an objective observer and writer. Hell, artists having been saying for years that art is subjective, and feminists supported this, claiming that the actual body is political.
Fortunately, academia is changing and becoming more inclusive and accepting. You see, there is very little point in writing something if nobody is going to read it. Imagine reams and reams of postgrad dissertations yellowing, gathering dust and fishmoths in every academic institution’s archives across the world, most only being read whilst being assessed and then never again. So there is a movement now to make academic writing more readable and more relatable. So less jargon and less dense convoluted thinking and sentence structures, and more involvement, and, you guessed it…emotion! More relatable! This does not mean that as academics we cease to gather information from other sources in order to support and provide evidence of our personal points of view. We do, but now we are acknowledging the personal.
“Learn a little about the man and I guarantee you will look at his art differently,” I said that, and that is the value of writing critically about art, especially one’s own art. To quote one of my favourite authors on what he has to say about personal writing, Neil Gaiman:
Honesty matters. Vulnerability matters. Being open about who you were at a moment in time when you were in a difficult or an impossible place matters more than anything.
Having a place the story starts and a place it’s going: that’s important.
Telling your story, as honestly as you can, and leaving out the things you don’t need, that’s vital…Because we all have stories. Or perhaps, because we are, as humans, already an assemblage of stories. And the gulf that exists between us as people is that when we look at each other we might see faces, skin color, gender, race, or attitudes, but we don’t see, we can’t see, the stories. And once we hear each other’s stories we realize that the things we see as dividing us are, all too often, illusions, falsehoods: that the walls between us are in truth no thicker than scenery.
I always hope that my writing is evidence of how to write reflexively and with emotion. Certainly my battles with my academic lecturers/mentors/assessors have left me with the self-belief that, for better or worse, I do write mostly with a pen that has been dipped into my innards. This is not to say that I do not adhere to the rigours of academia. I most certainly do, and thrill at the challenge. To be honest, the identifying of a problem and constructing a way to possibly solve it, and then arguing the hypothesis, is something I have become addicted to. In fact, having just completed my Master’s I am already contemplating my doctorate.
In the past, the study of Latin was considered the best suitable foundation and preparation for a life in academia. In fact Latin was once the universal academic language in Europe, and was even taught in middle and upper class schools to those who aimed for the highest level of education. Even today this so-called dead language continues to haunt Western academic traditions like some musty old ghostly schoolmaster. Many of our schools are emblazoned with Latin credos (even out here in Africa). Think of that movie with Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society, and the Latin phrase, carpe diem. Even the working class high school I attended, Queensburgh Boys’ High, incorporated a Latin word, conabor, in its badge. A verb, first-person singular, future active: I shall try; I shall attempt.
Despite it being described as a dead language, Latin didn’t actually die. It changed, evolved, as languages do, in this case into the so-called Romance languages: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Romanian. So why was it still taught at schools? Well, largely to instil academic rigour. Firstly, learning another language teaches one to understand one’s own language “better”. Having studied Spanish I can certainly attest to this. So learning Latin was important because it taught one to read, write and speak English “better”. Studying Latin forced one to focus on grammar, syntax and parts of speech. These are things we do without any reflection because we have learned to speak English from birth by imitating. Latin, however, is an exercise in concentrated thought. It has a rigid sentence structure and rules which must be applied: nouns are declined, verbs are conjugated, and adjectives must agree with the nouns they modify in gender, number and case. Therefore for every sentence we must consider whether a word is a subject, a predicate, a direct object, an indirect object or part of a prepositional phrase. In short, we have to learn sentence structure and parts of speech, and have to therefore use the language reflectively, with consideration and forethought, rather than intuitively. Awareness of language and how we construct and express our realities through its structures is at the centre of most modern/postmodern thinking.
Many of Western civilisation’s schools of thought originated in the cultures who spoke Latin. Philosophy, medicine, science and art as we understand them today all sprang from Latin’s users and were expressed through its structures. In this soundbite, screenshot, image-grab, social media-obsessed, contemporary society we live in, many people confuse information with knowledge. In an era where we have such easy access to vast amounts of information our attention spans have drastically shrunk, and therefore our ability to focus for any extended period of time. Knowledge is the casualty. As a lecturer I have been witness to this through my students. Believe me when I say that I do not mean to imply that they are stupid, no! But intelligence is no guarantee of wisdom, or knowledge. I hear of these matriculating high school kids receiving multiple distinctions at year-end and I am very sceptical. I believe that they are learning to regurgitate information rather than gaining any real knowledge, or in fact, instruction on how to think, to analyse, to critique. I have had to deal with what I call the cut&paste generation in my tutorial groups. Both visually (in their making) and in their writing (essays) this lack comes across, and as a result I often I struggle to see the person, the artist. It is all very superficial, surface level stuff. My immediate admonishment is always, “make it personal”! I want to see the artist/author in the making and in the writing. Reflexive, self-aware, authentic creating is what I want to see, and I don’t just talk the talk, I walk the walk because I hold myself up to that standard as well.
And here is my point, dear reader, Latin was exercise for the brain, in the same way that working out with weights exercises your muscles. Similarly I like my art to be rigorous and to provide me with a workout. If it’s not doing that, if it’s not challenging me, if it’s not taking me out of my comfort zone and transforming me as well as others, then it’s likely to be decorative and mundane, and that’s not the type of art I want to be making. Hell, I will be the first to admit that I’m not always successful, that sometimes I crash and burn! But I always try, yes, conabor (I will try), and I make wonderful mistakes, glorious in fact, because I don’t hold back! To quote that most celebrated of Latin aphorisms: Carpe Diem! Seize the freaking day indeed!
This echoes my celebrated buddy, Neil Gaiman’s exhortations:
I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful…And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.
You see, making any good art, or any real art, is about a conscious ignorance. It’s about knowing that you do not know and the wonderful irony/incongruity of that. And then going out there and, more than just learning from, but growing from, glorious and fantastic mistakes!