BOOK REVIEW: Business for Bohemians, by Tom Hodgkinson

In George Orwell’s Keep The Aspidistra Flying, the main character Gordon Comstock declares a ‘war on money’, devoting himself to loneliness and poverty in order to pursue his dream of being a poet. Comstock’s predicament represents the doomed aspirations of any artist in a commercial world, caught between the machinery of wage slavery on the one hand, and the alienating bitterness of rejection and poverty on the other.

For Orwell, there is no inbetween. Comstock’s desire to live a bohemian, free and creative life eventually gives way to inevitable capitulation to commercial values. It becomes simply unsustainable to live at odds with the wider social values.

Tom Hodgkinson’s Business for Bohemians, offers a third way, a middle path between alienated artistic destitution, and corporate enslavement. Hodgkinson is the managing editor of The Idler and has written a series of books on the importance of Idling – living a life devoted ‘bohemian’ pursuits. The central aim of this Idling Philosophy is creating freedom to develop a rich, fulfilling life.

Bohemianism, according to Hodgkinson, is not about dropping out and being a careless gypsy. It is about carving out freedom for yourself and living on your own terms. One of the hardest messages of the book is that being bohemian means becoming a businessman.

The difference between you and the hurried, stressful corporate world is not that you reject money, systems and routine. It’s simply that you create your own systems, rather than be dictated to by the systems and routines of larger, faceless entities.

‘Bohemians often are excellent salespeople. This is because they believe in what they are doing. And whether you are the editor of the new-agey Resurgence magazine, Satish Kumar, or Damien Hirst, or hedge fund manager Crispin Odey or the headmaster of Eton, your job is the same: asking people for money so that you can continue to do what you do. Enjoy it.’

Hodgkinson gives us some uncomfortable truths, based on his own mistakes trying to manage a business by being the laid back, ‘nice guy’. You have to learn how to use a spreadsheet, and you have to learn to love sales. You also have to be prepared to be the tyrant boss sometimes, to avoid being screwed by pseudo-bohemian losers who will inevitably see your creative values as easy prey for their lazy, hustling ambitions.

At times, it sounds like Hodgkinson is telling you to give up the very bohemianism he is supposed to be helping you foster. However, the truth is that living a bohemian life has nothing to do with being ‘anti-business’ or looking down on marketing and disciplined book-keeping. It’s not about declaring a ‘war on money’. It’s about freedom.

In a world convinced of the Marxist view that we are either enslaved or the enslaver, the idea of becoming a shop-keeping petty-bourgeoisie is far from cool. It fits into neither the romance of poverty nor the worship of material success. However, argues Hodgkinson, it is the only way to live an independent life.

He refers to Lenin, who thought that anarchists and individualist bohemians were merely bourgeois exploiters in disguise. This probably accounts for the continued suspicion of artists trying to make money and run a creative business.

There’s a reason why the petty-bourgeoisie shopkeeper types are hated by the rich exploiters and the Marxist revolutionaries alike: they don’t follow the crowd. They are loners, they hate ideologies and have no interest in joining anyone’s club. This kind of independent thinker is what Hodgkinson is trying to persuade us to become.

The point of bohemianism is to live a free, creative and self-determined life, and we can only do that if we, ironically, are prepared to put the work in. Idling is not about being lazy, it’s about being truly yourself.

‘Your business is a way of communicating an idea and creating a living for a group of people. It is a shared endeavour, a collective enterprise. Therefore, it must provide freedom and fun for the people you work with, as well as for you. After all, what is the point of it? If you just want to make money, then don’t start a business. Go and work for some awful money-making machine and wallow in your own amoral wretchedness. Join a corporation, climb the ladder and enjoy paid holidays and multiple departments.’

The fundamental point of this book is to show you the basic, unavoidable aspects of business that you must force yourself to love, before you can carve out time to live the Good Life. We must become practical in order to become creative. We must become disciplined, in order to be free.

Those who reject this call to arms as a kind of ‘selling out’ are in fact tacitly standing for the values of wage slavery and exploitation. They are basically admitting that the only people who can afford to be free and creative are those with established wealth.

‘It would be easy to grumble about all of this [becoming a creative entrepreneur] – to think that it is all beneath you. But this aristocratic contempt of the lowly tradesman will get you nowhere. And aristocratic contempt for trade is itself absurd. For the aristos, whose ancestors were royal lickspittles, murderers, thieves and rascals, to look down on those who choose to open a shop and sell stuff is patently ridiculous. It’s all right for the aristos to be anti-materialistic and scorn trade when own 20,000 acres and have a ton of serfs paying them rent every month. Does that give them the moral high ground? No.’

Hodgkinson’s point is that the creative life is available to us all, if we simply master a few basic tricks of the trade. You don’t have to declare ‘war on money’ to become free. You don’t have to avoid business to salvage your values from the corporate monster of modern life. You just have to be smart, knowledgeable and willing to do some heavy lifting in order to liberate yourself from agendas that are not your own.

You can order a copy of Business for Bohemians at idler.co.uk

A new online course is now available, with Tom Hodgkinson guiding you through the main principles outlined in the book. You can book your place here 

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EXHIBITION REVIEW: Sixty Years at Tate Britain

Sixty Years at Tate Britain is a journey through the events of British post-war history, seen refracted in the prism of work by artists from 1960s to today.

The opening blurb tells us that each piece in the collection is a response to narratives and issues such as ‘immigration, feminism, racial and sexual identity, AIDS activism, music and club culture’.

The show is explicitly political, and political in a very particular, post-modern sense. The Britain presented here is not the Britain of Churchill, empire and high gothic ambition. Each piece appears to have been chosen for its explicitly non-historic, anti-patriotic sensibility.

Jon Savage’s Uninhabited London series is a strong example of the kind of searching, slightly nihilistic eye that this exhibition wants to celebrate.

His pictures show empty back streets, overpasses, rail bridges and derelict housing blocks, all in black and white and all of them devoid of human activity or the comfort of identity.

The photos were taken between 1977 and 2008, in and around North Kensington and west London, and they show a London still peppered with bomb sites, still reeling from the damage of war.

This could be East Germany as much as London. There is no civilisation here, but only concrete and the carcasses of Victorianism, the bland, hard edges of dreary development.

This is a London that is somewhat unrecognisable today. However, following the horrors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in Kensington, you do catch yourself searching for anything that might resemble that building. There are skylines with high rise blocks, and the general texturelessness and loneliness of the landscapes presented here does speak to this recent trauma.

However, much of these areas have probably been gentrified now, and the London we see through Savage’s eyes is only one side of the city – there is no creativity, no bustling energy of optimism. All you are allowed to see is the forgotten, vacant lifelessness of desolate alleys and parking lots.

The pictures themselves, however, are clean, well composed, and show a technical control for depth of field that allows for maximum impact in conveying the shape and form of the city Savage was trying to present.

Cunt Scum (1977) by Gilbert and George, presents a similar face of London. We are still seeing a dour, post-war Britain, only this time with slightly more explicit political flavour.

Gilbert and George give us the prophetic images of what we will come to know as ‘Thatcherite Britain’. Working men in crowds, Bobbys on the beat, homelessness, inner city high rise developments.

The photographs used are not as technically pristine as Savage’s, but the over and under-exposed quality of the shots deliberately contrast the stark light and grim shadow of a Britain gutted of its identity.

If anyone still has doubts about the power of Abstract Expressionism, and the thrust of its techniques, they should look no further than Ataxia – Aids Is Fun (1993), by Derek Jarman.

Almost certainly the most moving of the works in this exhibition, Ataxia hits the viewer in the most vulnerable aspects of the subconscious. No amount of description and campaigning can compete with this image of the fragmentation of the nervous system caused by AIDS. It is a terrifying work, that leaves no one in any doubt about the meaning.

AIDS was not just a cull of gay men, it was, and still is, a tectonic natural disaster for every individual affected. This painting is hard to look at – violent, uncompromising and entirely precise.

Hommage a Chrysler Corp. (1957) by Richard Hamilton, is possibly the most technically impressive part of this show. A masterpiece of negative space, and a proto-Pop Art achievement, the work explores the sexuality of women and motorcars – a staple of pop culture already by the time it was painted.

In this painting you see so much of modernity captured in the slick curves and urbane textures – everything from Kerouac, to the Velvet Underground to Madonna’s aggressive slut-empowerment in the early 1990s.

As a primary source, this painting will communicate to future historians unspeakable truths about the post-war age in the west, so much more than the nihilistic trends that emerged from the 1960s.

Michael Fullerton’s portrait of disc jockey John Peel (2005) opens this patchy exhibition, and it’s a brilliantly understated and traditional work.

A reference to the portraits by Thomas Gainsborough in the 18th century, this work captures the loveable paradox of Peel. He was on the frontlines of counterculture for the best part of four decades. However, he was a national treasure, as well-known and loved as the Queen herself, by the time he died.

Painting him in this way, allows the viewer to see Peel and all that he represents, through a lens of continuity and cultural endurance. The other works in this exhibition lack this sense of connection.

Peel’s love of the underground was not a post-modernist quest, but rather and desire to keep the tradition of British art alive and thriving. To be counter-culture, for Peel, was not to be anti-culture. He was a kind of spiritual patron, rather than an iconoclast or revolutionary. We see Peel here where he belongs, in the Pantheon of British creative innovators and leaders, not as some snotty champion of disaffection.

Fullerton’s portrait reminds one of Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington’s Oscar Wilde portrait (1884) also showing in the Tate. The same deep colours, the same ironic, but accessible creative expressions on the subjects.

There is a deliberate dislocation of Britain from its past in this exhibition which seems designed rather than simply observed.

Taken on their own, each piece has something important to say about this country. However, there is a disingenuous agenda in the collection, as if the only things relevant to post-war Britain were issues of immigration, sexual health, gay rights and feminism.

Britain is a divided nation, and in some sense that divide runs down the fracture between a historic past, and a post-Thatcherite economic identity.

Explicit in the form of this collection seems to be the assertion that nothing of Britain’s past is fit for purpose, nothing about the identity formed over centuries up until the 1960s speaks to the issues that face the country today.

Sixty Years presents a cultural orthodoxy which is itself archaic and mismatched to the reality of the times. The creative disgust of punk and post-modernism are far more connected to time and circumstance than their advocates would have us believe, and the idea of being liberated from the past is no longer the seductive, working class utopian vision it once was.

Far more powerful, would be an exhibition that tried to link the fractured world seen in the works of Savage and Gilbert and George, with the through-line of art history in Britain.

The moral eye of this exhibition is bankrupt, and the forms have become fetishes.

This dislocation was painfully available to us in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. Protestors and rabble rousers leaped upon the deaths of impoverished families, as if they were somehow catapulted back to 1981, to a world of miners strikes and the Falklands war.

In trying to present a distinctly modern Britain, this exhibition comes off as suspiciously nostalgic for a time when a clear, Marxist model of social forces was convenient and offered clarity in an era of confused, class emancipation.

Sixty Years goes out of its way to avoid any sense of continuity. For a worldview obsessed with identity, that very concept of identity itself seems incredibly impoverished. Beauty is seen as something representative of the evil establishment, a veneer of the old guard.

It may or may not be true that the classical beauty and Victorian baroque of British art is linked to its imperial past. However, what Sixty Years shows is that the fractured aesthetic of sex-club fetishism and class-war concretism is dangerously anachronistic and ill-fitted to meet the challenges of contemporary Britain.

Even seen as a retrospective, this exhibition is curiously limited, confined to one narrow view of Britain’s recent history. For all its celebrations of alienation and working class anxiety, the world view implicit here could only emerge from someone on the affluent sidelines of the culture, frustratedly clinging to an academic model of urban Britain that is simply not relevant any more.

‘Equal marriage’ is a phoney emancipation for lifestyle activists

After the weekend’s LGBT marches in Northern Ireland, and the German parliament’s vote in favour of gay marriage, the great non-issue of ‘equal marriage’ is back in the headlines.

Writer Colm Toibin, in a recent interview, said that the referendum vote in the Republic of Ireland a couple of years ago, marked a historic moment for gay people like himself. In a religiously conservative culture, the acceptance of gay people’s right to marry in a church, said Toibin, is final proof of inclusion for LGBT people.

It is certainly part of civil freedom to allow any one of us to declare love to another person in any which way we want, and have that recognised and protected by law. One thing the reactionaries like the DUP have right, is that marriage is a vital force of social cohesion.

When we make a commitment to another person under the law, we promise to invest the power of our citizenship in their lives. We are making a symbolic gesture of the very meaning of citizenship itself, that with one’s freedom comes a responsibility to protect that same freedom for another. Marriage is a very intimate way of expressing that responsibility.

There are differences between marriage, civil partnerships, and civil marriages. However, these differences are purely material. What each contract embodies, is the same level of freedom to love and the duty of care that involves. Whatever imbalances may exist between civil partnerships and Christian marriage, these are not matters of human rights, but legal procedure.

Colm Toibin may be right in claiming that allowing gay people to marry in church is profoundly symbolic, especially in countries where the church has wielded serious political clout. If that is true, then it should be permitted, without question.

However, the idea that this campaign is the new civil rights question of our age, or is a matter of ‘equality’ and human rights, is tiresome and fatuous. The hard political battle over LGBT rights has been won. The reason that it is still treated like some great fight for emancipation is because it makes people feel like revolutionaries, without actually calling on campaigners to expose themselves to any risk.

The recent resignation of Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron shows how twisted the issue of ‘equal marriage’ is. Farron is a typical Westminster centrist, and a committed human rights advocate. His own personal beliefs about the nature of marriage are of little consequence.

Part of what it means to be a liberal, is an ability to separate questions of civic justice, from personal conscience. The balance of liberty can only exist if we tolerate opposing views on what constitutes the moral good, while we protect each person’s right to determine the answers to such moral questions on their own terms.

‘Equal marriage’, as it is pompously called, is a perfect way to see into the heart of modern liberalism. We can see why the free press and free speech are issues treated with contempt by the left. Liberals have no interest in allowing people to form opinions based on personal conscience.

The ‘good’ in society is prescribed before one’s conscience even comes into play. If you fail to fall in line with what has been determined as right thinking, you are branded a bigot, excluded, just as gay people were ostracised before 1965.

The DUP in Northern Ireland are indeed wrong. They are stunting democracy and imposing their own views by abusing their veto on gay marriage. However, this is the very same tactic used by many of the LGBT side, especially those who called for Tim Farron’s resignation.

Liberty means that no one’s personal whims can be imposed on the constitution. The benefit of this, is that we are all free to express love, hate and indifference to each other as we please, as long as that doesn’t amputate aspects of each other’s citizenship.

‘Marriage equality’, bears no resemblance to any case of emancipation.

What are the core features of a real act of emancipation? The first has to be that there is some form of social and conservative oppression. The great trick of the modern left, of course, has been to redefine ‘oppression’ to be so broad, so abstract and invisible, that it exists everywhere. But the real moments of emancipation – the freeing of slaves, the civil rights act, the legalisation of homosexuality – conversely, happened against the backdrop of identifiable crimes.

To go out and protest these crimes meant you were up against an infrastructure of repressive state violence and corruption, and this meant a direct threat to one’s physical safety and livelihood. Speaking out meant ostracisation, blacklisting, or being beaten up.

The second feature of authentic emancipation is a clear and tangible miscarriage of justice. What’s interesting about the great movements of emancipation was the fact that they involved fighting an internal contradiction between the proposed values of the state, and the way the state was actually behaving.

Today, protesters and activists are not going up against miscarriages of injustice, so much as claiming that the very structures of society are unjust. This must be treated with suspicion. It’s not enough to mouth off about ‘inherent privilege’ or contort everyday unfairness into some evidence of hidden structural inequality.

Real emancipation can only happen when real violations of basic rights have occurred. In the case of marriage, it’s not a right. So it cannot, by definition, be an issue of equality. The only question of rights would be whether people are free to declare their love to each other without fear of persecution or danger.

Yes, it is wrong to stop people from using their Christian faith to declare their love. But allowing this to happen is not a matter of human rights or justice.

The final feature of an emancipation is that it radically alters the society from a restrictive one to a free one. Can we really claim that allowing ‘equal marriage’ does this? Is there some great attitudinal shift at the heart of this issue? Are people who were once deprived of basic human dignity now tasting the fresh air of liberty?

The only people who are actively against ‘equal marriage’ are evangelicals and reactionary conservatives. These people are a laughable minority, and their views have no hope of oppressing anyone politically, or violating anyone’s human rights in a legal sense.

And yet, the social justice movements, and the triangulating politicians that feed off such movements, give the impression that the bowler-hatted 50s Tory is still the great threat, that we are still fighting forces of establishment aristocracy and Victorian conformity.

These activists need to invent an archaic establishment to fight against, and refuse to see the massive social changes that have happened since the 60s. The bowler-hatted man is dead. And the stuffy, bourgeois conservatism that was so dangerous to gay people, has been deposed.

This is the problem with the Left in general. It has been ossified, trapped in history and over-saturated with 1960s iconography, to the point where it is wildly ill-equipped to identify the real, modern battles for justice, and to see new challenges and new forms of oppression when they present themselves.

And the new establishment of the Merkels and the Camerons and Mays love this delusional kind of activism, because it acts as no real threat. As long as people mistakenly battle against an idea of the establishment that died years ago, they pose no danger to the yuppy, neoliberal, corporate globalism that is doing the real damage to people’s lives.

You can tell this is a non-issue by the feebleness of those objecting to it. The celebrations, protests and marches are completely disproportionate to the moral and political victory that is supposed to be had by making equal marriage legal.

Protest has become a lifestyle choice. Since Apple Mac’s ‘think different’ ad campaign in the late nineties, freedom-fighting has become a kind of branding, a social status symbol, rather than a moral necessity.

Essential to this neutered, narcissistic version of emancipation is the fighting of causes that have little or no impact. Nothing substantial is achieved by allowing gay people to marry in churches. Most people, gay or straight, probably get married in civil ceremonies anyway.

Virtue-signalling about ‘equal marriage’ is an easy way to give yourself a moral high-ground, but the truth is it has little to do with gay rights, gay health, or the well-being of individuals struggling against religious fascism or political persecution for their sexuality.

There is no need for barricades, no long nights starving in the flanks. There is no danger involved. It’s a false issue. A great way to make yourself seem like a revolutionary when what you are is really the worst kind of bourgeois sheep.

All the while gay people are thrown off roofs in the middle east, and the best they can hope for from their LGBT brothers and sisters in west is the signing of a few petitions and some Facebook outrage.

Why ideas matter in a mechanised culture

An idea is the opposite of automatic thinking.

Human beings are clearly more than just higher order apes, and it is our capacity for ideas that helps us rise above the purely instinctual. Ideas are the opposite of inevitability.

The easiest place to see this is in our sexuality. Human sexuality has become so much more sophisticated than procreative instinct. It certainly emerges out of whatever imperatives exist in our biology, but the diversity and confusion, the whole range of sub-cultures from fashion photography to the nudes of Rubens, all the way up to the decadence of Oscar Wilde through to modern transsexuality, reveal that much more is going on than just a quest for survival.

There is something essential about being human that doesn’t fit into a simple reduction to the procreative instinct. There is something unique and beautiful about human beings that marks us out from the instinctual world completely.

Ideas are what create the space between our instinctual imperatives, and our free choices in the world. To create this space, an idea doesn’t need to be philosophical, or literary, or even conceived in language at all. An idea is simply that which stops us being prisoners of inevitability.

Great works of beauty, sweet melodies and even the heartfelt intimacy of a truly loving kiss, all these are forms of ideas, because they convey something to us that stops our instincts in their tracks.

Ideas don’t matter because they perform a function. They are not practical or utilitarian. Ideas matter because they take us out of the trap of automatic, reactive thinking, out of our programming.

To do this, an idea doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. It doesn’t need to be new, it just needs to be fresh, to create that space between you and your instincts. There is no way of preconceiving what such a thing might look like. The only way you can tell a powerful idea from a bad one, or from a lack of ideas completely, is whether or not it frees you from automatic thinking.

When George Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language, warning of the way political language degrades public dialogue and therefore human potential, he was not being a grammar nazi. Neither was he, as some have mistakenly thought, asking for constant originality in language. All language is a product of other language, just as all culture is a product of yet more culture.

Orwell’s concern in avoiding cliche was not about avoiding what had already been done, so much as avoiding anything that narrowed the scope of human thought, that trained the human mind to reduce the possibilities of individual potential.

Orwell’s project was to encourage fresh thinking, a way of using language that was the opposite of propaganda, or reactive, ideological behaviour.

Advertisers and PR managers and political spin doctors are heavily invested in automatic thinking. Orwell could see the dangers posed in an industrialised society, to language use, critical thinking and private agency – all the things he presumably thought democracy and egalitarianism were supposed to promote.

Today, Orwell’s fears are playing out for us, but not in the fascist nightmare of 1984. Rather, they are being manifest in the erosion of private reason, narrowing the space between our sense of who we are, and our instinctual and automatic biological programming.

Some may respond by saying, ‘of course ideas matter, you are not saying anything new’. But most probably what they mean by ‘ideas’ is just ‘clever solutions’. Ideas have been reduced to problem solving. What is generally meant by a ‘good idea’ in this sense is something like the Iphone, or the Uber taxi app or Elon Musk’s Tesla cars.

These are indeed the products and examples of good ideas, but they don’t embody the whole of what a good idea can be.

Far more powerful examples of ‘good ideas’ are Magna Carta, democratic sovereignty, or the truths conveyed in the famous soliloquy of Hamlet.

These are not necessarily ‘solutions’ in the local, technical sense of helping one get from A to B while overcoming an obstacle. They don’t necessarily offer mind-blowing answers, either.

Magna Carta was a revolutionary idea because it conceived of the state and justice system as more than the mere limbs of sovereign power. In Magna Carta we have the first instance of a state’s power being there to protect the people from the whims of a king, rather than just consolidating the entitlements of that office. This puts a space between the society, and its leader’s personal ambition.

Human instincts and biological programming seem to suggest hierarchies will always be the product of human relationship. Magna Carta marked a shift in human society by freeing us from that inevitability. Human civilisation stopped being the product of instinct, and became a way of distancing ourselves from it.

The dangers of a technologically driven society are that automation becomes not just function the culture, but the desirable end of it. Technology helps us satisfy our basic needs in constantly revolutionary ways. However, we forget that a great part of human progress is not just the fulfilment of our desires, but our ability to be free from them.

Ideas are not a form of technology. They are ways in which we create space between our evolutionary needs and our higher-order culture. If human life was about survival only, we would not have created religious culture, democratic societies and any heritage of beauty and art. We would not be obsessed with making a meaningful life, only a long one.

The dogma of the day is that humans are merely sophisticated apes, and our programming is so strong that we are bound to destroy ourselves; the cruel irony of our survival instincts being that they conflict with each other, and our desire for survival leads to a desire for power, which leads to a desire to destroy.

This view of human nature fits conveniently into the ideology of technology, because it means that a culture of automation is not foreign to us, it’s not troubling or dangerous, because our whole instinct is towards automation and complex problem solving. Technology is just the advancement of our instincts by other means.

Viewing ideas and civilisation in the way being laid out here, however, disturbs the convenience and comfort of this modern ideology.

The aim of human life is not to fulfil our animal needs, but to rise above them. Instinct and survival programming are strong, but this is not the complete picture of what humanity is, or is capable of.

Consumerism, technological thinking, marketing, Public Relations and political propaganda, are all mechanisms of automatic thinking. They are the enemies of ideas. So it follows that much of what we call modern culture is also the enemy of ideas. Much of what we see in the public sphere, from textureless glass-box buildings to monotonous popular music and simplistic debate in online media, reflect this anti-idea culture.

The way to fight this, is to insists on creative thinking, in constantly refreshing our capacity for ideas, clearing a space between our instinctual programming and our dreams for ourselves and each other. Technology is great, only if it is matched with equally strident experimentation and advancement in ideas.

If technology advances faster than our capacity for ideas, or worse, if it actively erodes our ability to develop them, then the Darwinist nihilists will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. We fight this by resisting automation, inevitability and capitulation to instinct. This resistance is the secret behind the achievements of Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Steve Jobs. It’s also the secret to becoming a truly free human.

 

Michelangelo: His Epic Life (book review)

The greatest strength of Michelangelo: His Epic Life, by Martin Gayford is the way that Gayford distills the sweeping genius of Michelangelo into accessible, journalistic prose, a style of writing directed at the curious layman, rather than the pontificating specialist.

Like all young artists, Michelangelo faced severe, sometimes, physical resistance to his choice of career from his family the Buonarotti. Gayford demonstrates the timeless struggle of artist versus bourgeois security in a clear and contemporary way.

‘We read about the ‘rise of the artist’ in Renaissance Italy, but of course such changes are not homogenous, any more than the causes of racial and gender equality have been in our own times…. Not everyone was so admiring of artists and the arts. The Buonarotti brothers, it seems, saw nothing but painful social slippage. A clever boy who might have become a bishop was determined instead to become an artisan who worked with hands. They probably felt it was their duty to try to beat it out of him.’ (pg45)

Gayford is an aproachable storyteller, able to get out out of the way of the story, while at the same time succinctly brief us on the context and background of the drama of Renaissance life.

He brilliantly sets up Michelangelo’s place in his time, capturing the way the man was both a product of the society into which he was born, but how he fought against these circumstances. It is this paradox of inheriting the ambitions of his forerunners and his patrons, but not being content to follow their script that makes Michelangelo worth returning to for biographers.

‘One day when he was high up in the mountains above the town of Carrara, looking down at the peaks and valleys below and the Mediterranean in the distance beyond, “he formed the wish to make a colossus that would be visible to mariners from a afar.” In other words, Michelangelo wanted to carve a chunk of mountain into a human figure. One guesses, though the subject is not described, that he had in mind a naked male body.’ (pg 211)

Storytelling clarity and accessibility are pre-eminent in Gayford’s short discussion of Michelangelo’s early painting copy of an engraving by Martin Schongauer – The Temptation of St Anthony.

‘Schongauer’s St Anthony was a powerful example of a new medium which some people were probably already hanging on their walls as an affordable substitute for a picture. The thirteen-or-fourteen-year-old Michelangelo was therefore doing something shrewd and timely by transposing it into colour. It was also a bizarre phantasmagoria of an image which it is easy imagining appealing to a teenager. In modern terms, as art historian Keith Christiansen has put it, this is “a Star Wars picture.” “…a fastidious sense of line and form, a willingness to work ferociously hard to produce as sharply telling as possible and an overpowering urge to compete.”‘ (pg 59 and pg 61)

Michelangelo comes across as exactly the temperamental genius we always assume him to be. However, his irascibility, his grumpy egotism and aggressive ambitions, don’t take away from the essential lovability of the man. Gayford calls him a ‘….hugely talented, neurotic, complicated, curmudgeonly but ultimately engaging man…’

Gayford is never shy of demonstrating the man’s limitations emotionally, nor his lack of hygiene and his manifestly anti-social character. What’s strange, though, is that the overall result of Gayford’s portrait is not an artist whose arrogance and violent moods make us hate him, but a brilliant and sometimes unstable genius whose volatility was necessary to his achievements.

‘[Ascanio] Condivi reported some thoroughly insanitary habits: “When he was more robust he often slept in his clothes and in the boots he had always worn for reason of cramp, from which he has continually suffered, as much as for anything else. And sometimes he has been so long in taking them off that subsequently along with his boots he sloughed off his skin, like a snake’s.’ Vasari had little more information on that last, revolting, point. The buskins were dog skin, worn next to the skin, with which they bonded.’’’ (pg228)

Gayford points out that the more Michelangelo complained and threw tantrums against his family, friends and even his patrons, the more brilliant and historic the work he must have been working on.

This offers a point worth considering. Mood swings and aggressive paranoia do not, as we often lazily suppose, go hand in hand with creative ability. There are plenty of stable, compliant and socially adaptive people who are creative, and man great artists who are too.

However, visionary power, the ability and proclivity to see beyond your times, to entertain impossible feats and to have the obsessive, arrogant and hubristic determination to carry them out – these qualities seem necessary linked to some kind of peculiarly neurotic genius. Civilisation comes at a cost, and that cost is very often an epic and violent discontent, both within the artist, and his surroundings.

Michelangelo was a malcontent, oblivious social norms, gentilisms and social expectations. His only considerations of class seem purely egotistical, given his desire to elevate the status of his family name through his achievements.

Gayford illustrates this brilliantly by contrasting Michelangelo with Raphael:

‘Raphael’s art projected just this sense of mastery with ease, whereas Michelangelo expressed heroic effort and passionate vehemence. A sixteenth century critic observed that Raphael painted gentlemen but Michelangelo’s figures looked like porters. Clearly, Raphael had the manners of a courier himself. It was rumoured that Leo X intended to make him a cardinal, but was prevented by Raphael’s early death. This, too, emphasizes the contrast: it is impossible to imagine Michelangelo as a prince of the Church – a hermit or a mystic, perhaps, but not a cardinal.’ (pg 257)
One of the mysteries of Michelangelo is how he was able to sustain his characteristic levels of physical and mental concentration. From an angle of pure physical labour, the Sistine Chapel is a superhuman accomplishment. And that’s before we consider the grandeur of the aesthetic achievement.

The decision by Michelangelo to include scenes from the gospel that had not been covered by the existing frescoes on the lower walls of the chapel, is probably the key to what makes the work truly great, rather than just a work of genius. As a simple depiction of the Apostles, the project could have had no particular interest to Michelangelo, it was a decorative assignment. But with a multidimensional creative design, suddenly the rolling and shifting challenges of cramming so much poetry into the limited designs of the architecture of the ceiling, must have given Michelangelo enough sense of shifting possibilities, to make it worth the blood and the sweat.

Gayford’s Michelangelo is gruff, anti-social, cruel and egotistical. Yes, he’s a product of his times. Yes, he’s a deranged genius. Yes, he’s a self-mythologiser, and all the things we have come to associate with the self-aggrandising Renaissance man. However, the sincerity of the man, and the limitless poetic ambition of imagination are what redeem him, and it is this crucial element in the Renaissance and in Michelangelo, that is often forgotten in the impersonal, critical hindsight art history that seeks to reduce individual greatness to impersonal forces.

Michelangelo: His Epic Life by Martin Gayford (Penguin) is available on Amazon

 

‘Love and peace’ is not enough: We must show them who we really are

Our enemies think of us as a decadent race. They think they have the advantage over us. They believe that they have a passion and a readiness to die for something greater than themselves, and we do not. They believe we are ripe for the plucking, because we are on the turn.

We need to show them that we too are friends with death. That we are not hiding our faces from the devil. That we are not so conceited that we live in some cartoonish, deathless world of consumerism fuelled by infantilism, just as they believe we do.

We must reject the critique of western civilisation, that it is somehow all simply founded on exploitation. That is self-hatred, and a gross oversimplification. Unfortunately, all societies, all nations and civilisations have exploitation and bloodshed in their history. The human DNA is packed full of trauma, and each of us has inherited monsters, rapists, abusers and warmongers. We are, without doubt, descended from tyrants and imperialists.

However, that is only a fraction of the story. The history of civilisation is a history of man’s battle with himself. Everything from Greek democracy right down to the speeches of Martin Luther King Jnr, through Michelanglo’s David, is a catalogue of desperate self-transcendence. Whatever our faults as a civilisation, the need to overcome our animal impulses is a defining feature of who we are, and what we have become.

Western civilisation is not decadent. Western culture is not the product of empire. Western civilisation is not the preserve of fat, white, iphone-addicted MacDonalds-munching morons.

No, our civilisation, with its secular ideals, its love of beauty and the belief in man’s capacity to overcome himself, is the product of the essential evolutionary impulse, the knowledge that culture can conquer death. We must get back the deeply understood knowledge buried in our biology, that we are parts only of some greater whole, some greater potential and cosmic project.

This knowledge is our greatest weapon against our enemies. They have missed this crucial piece of the battle plan. They have missed it because they are incapable of understanding it. Their minds are swept up in the passionate, bloodthirsty conviction of moral righteousness that attaches itself in desperation to anything that resembles the finality of truth.

They are convinced that this conviction and zeal gives them the upper hand. That they alone have the capacity to sacrifice themselves for a higher, divine order. In their narcissistic lust for martyrdom, they have blinded themselves to the fact that civilisation has the advantage. That they are fighting a losing battle.

However, it remains for us to reconnect with the beauty and brilliance of what our forebears have bequeathed us. It is time to stop apologising, to stop navel-gazing and indulging in guilt over our power and history. It is perfectly possible for us to extend the powers and privileges of our liberties and freedoms to those who were previously exploited, while at the same time salvaging the best of our inheritance.

Every family has a history of abuse and trauma. But every family equally has the assets of survival, struggle and overcoming that can be harnessed by its young. To salvage what is best in our culture, without guilt, without shame, without self-flagellation, does not mean we live in denial of the crimes of the past. It simply means we understand the context of those crimes, and we make sure that whatever powers we glean from our past are not excluded to the least among us.

And like our forefathers, we learn too to see this inheritance of survival and self-overcoming as the very blood of our culture, it is the means by which our genes survive.
We are not impressed by the supposed self-sacrifice of our enemies. We are not intimidated by it. Because, contrary to what they tell themselves, we are entirely familiar with it. We have seen it before, we too were once a culture that delighted in the egotism of a death wish. Some say that our culture is done for, that we are living in the last days of Rome, that the empire is collapsing on itself. History is repeating, and we are prisoners to inevitability.

Such gloom and self-hatred is the work of false prophecy. No culture before us has survived its own crimes of slavery and exploitation, no culture in history has triumphed over its own savagery, the cults of nationalism, pathological war, like the culture we call our own.

The 20th century is a blot of demonic shame on the history of human life. However, we came through it. And not only did we survive it, we learned from it, we grew, we innovated our way out of the squalor.

Rather than merely rise from the ashes of our unthinkable past crimes, we have emerged a resilient and loving people, willing to extend the hand of brotherhood to all who may wish to join us.

However, somewhere along the line we have convinced ourselves that we need to abandon our past in order to be free of its crimes. This is to give the enemy a free pass. The crimes of our history are not the products of our culture, but aberrations of it. It is our democratic values, our humanism, our love of beauty, truth and the ‘known rules of ancient liberty’ that define the best of our inheritance, not the many instances of our failure to live up to these ideals.

Our enemies are counting on us to hate ourselves. What they don’t understand is that civilisation triumphs over warmongering every time, because civilisation is never undermined by its own failures, and neither are we.

These people think they are the only ones with a cause. They think they only have the zeal and fire to die for the sake of their future generations. They think they and they only have the capacity to face horror, death and the monster of malevolent darkness. They think they have the upper hand because they write us off as scared, spineless, self-consumed animals, buried under technology, privilege and wealth.

They lack the intelligence to see what we are. To see that we are the product of Hellenistic democracy, the Renaissance, the birth of science, the emancipation of slaves, the suffrage of women. Our past is full of war crimes and slaughter. However, through all the struggle and blood we have bequeathed to the world landmark innovations of human progress that our race will never be able to undo.

We need to let our enemies know that if they go to war with us, they go to war with history itself. That even if they kill us, they cannot kill what we represent. That they may be able to rob us of individual life, but they will never rob us, or the world, of the indefatigable victories of our culture. And we must let them know that we too, then, have a creed worth dying for, and that we too are willing to sacrifice comfort, ease, and privilege to ensure that the triumphs of our civilisation also triumph over their boring, childish, conceited barbarism.

Some thoughts on the #FreePress

 

The idea of the free press emerges out of the belief that government should have no official say on what gets published. The free press cannot exist if certain ideas and writers are prohibited from their independent voice.

The dominant publishing industry, the mainstream press and now the corporate nexus of social media giants, are all in contravention of the fundamental ideal of a free press.

Free speech matters only in conjunction with a free press. One of the most common arguments against complete, unlicensed free speech, is that some speech does more harm than others. Debate is fine, but only if it doesn’t give a platform to ‘hate’, and the definition of this special form of speech varies from discussion to discussion.

This is a weak argument, but it continues to be the central strategy of those who think they know best when it comes to speech. The reason for this is because the notion of the free press has been discredited for decades.

This process of discrediting is in no small way the fault of individual journalists, who have betrayed their readers by breaking the law and taking no interest in the quality of public life in the west.

However, these individuals are given license by a culture that emerges out of the monopolised press, whereby a kind of mafia control of news raises them and their employees above the law.

We saw this during the Leveson Inquiry depositions in the UK. Private Eye editor Ian Hislop said in his own deposition that the phone hacking scandal at The News Of World occurred not because of a lack of legal control, but because huge press companies were so close to government that they were able to act above the law.

We already have laws that protect citizens from invasions of privacy and harassment. Good laws, in fact, that allow for the context of the crime to determine the nature of the charge.

Press companies like Associated News and News International, are able to get away with degrading our public space and turning the news business into a showbiz, lowest-common-denominator freakshow, not because the laws and protection don’t exist to challenge them, but because those in power jealously seek the favour of these press barons.

Free speech must be total, because the free press must be total. A brief course in the history of printing and publishing will drive that home sufficiently.

The idea of the free press emerges from the confluence of rights around speech and religion, ensuring that no one idea dominates the market of thought, and that the state is limited from imposing one idea on the country at large.

Monopolies are a violation of this, and they allow press barons to behave as if they are above the law, just as kings and Popes did prior to the Reformation.

Hateful or destructive ideas can indeed damage people. Words have the power to ignite wars, to rob individuals of their dignity. A passing knowledge of psychology and history tells us this is true.

However, whether we are talking about the rise of Hitler or emotional abuse of small children, the answer is not to sanction the use of words. The answer is always to widen the market of ideas and words available to the victims.

Totalitarian propaganda requires the control of the media to work. Emotional abuse uses gaslighting tactics to disarm the critical abilities of the victim.

Controlling words in order to protect people from these assaults only serves to centralise the very powers that can do the most damage.

The value of the free press is that it is essentially the anti-centralisation of power. It ensures that citizens determine what enters their minds on the basis of their own critical, independent thought only, as opposed to the careful sanctions of higher-ups, however benevolent these higher-ups claim to be.

In the late nineties, the great promise of the internet was that it was going to fully realise the democratic idea of the free press. And there is an argument to say that it has. Each of us can run a media company, each of us is a reporter. None of us is forced to fall back on mainstream sources of knowledge.

However, in the last ten years, the centralisation of power in the hands of Google, Apple and Facebook, presents the same challenge as that of the hegemony of UK press barons.

A centralised press is never free, and the current state of the internet means that all the gains of independent publishing add up to a negative for independent thought. If anything, we are more hungry than ever for a mainstream, for a central authority to help us navigate the uncritical online space.

The great irony of our age is that total democratisation silences real dissent better than any totalitarian regime. A challenging voice is robbed of its danger if it is just one voice in a cacophony of 80 million other voices. The mainstream consolidates itself as the gaggle of commentary grows on the internet.

A voice can only truly be dissenting if it actually impacts the mainstream.

This may leave us feeling depressed. But the real challenge to the free press is not cultural overload. The facts of life in a social media world only make dissent impossible if we cave in to apathy and frustration.

What we often forget is that the free press is part of individual rights. It guarantees us a right to not only say what we want, but to have our voices heard – if we are prepared to do the work.

A free press requires us to take the risk of failure. It means a long-term battle, a war of attrition with the centralised status quo. In that sense, the state of the free press is as it was in Milton’s time, a dangerous, arduous fight with no guarantee of victory.

All that is different in our age is that we apply social media values of instantaneity and popular trend to measure our impact. None of these have anything to do with the free press.

If the free press is under threat, we only have ourselves to blame. We must be aggressive, disruptive, unapologetic, dissenting and above all things LOUD. We must not let the internet fool us into the current, yuppy version of dissent and cultural disparateness that results from the overpraised democratisation of the media.

Yes, write your blog. Yes, start a YouTube company. But the mere existence of your independent voice doth not a free press make. Like all rights, the free press must be active, we must insist on being heard.