Have you ever wondered where we gain our inspiration? I am told that some of the greatest artists need a certain level of noise, or warmth, perhaps even the sound of someone’s voice before the Muse strikes them. Others can find inspiration in a cup of tea and a biscuit, and then write one of the most intriguing and expansive works of literary fiction imaginable. For me it tends to be a word or an idea put down in writing, or something that I see which brings a piece of text to mind. My Art, as I am sure you appreciate, is the written word, so textual Muses are generally what grab and hold my attention, and make me think creatively. There are some, of course, who do not consider letter writing one of the Arts, but that merely because it is not a great work of literature – in their opinion – merely communication between two or more people, and thereby forget the mass of ideas which are generated by writing letters, the passage of information which inspires others and, of course, the social historical value of what has been put down on paper.
When a man practises several arts he usually finds that he is considered a lightweight, respected perhaps for one achievement, the others being dismissed as hobbies. A reflection, perhaps, of our age of specialization.
So wrote Theo Crosby in the fourth issue of Uppercase, an arts magazine of the Sixties, when describing the work of the Scottish artist William Turnbull, then, then only thirty-eight years old and approaching the height of his fame. These words awoke my interest, as much as the small magazine itself which I had inherited from my father many years ago, and was today moving from one shelf to another, and caused me to look further. I discovered that Turnbull had exhibited sculptures at the Biennale di Venezia in 1952, along with seven other artists (all male), under the title New Aspects Of British Sculpture, which brought them a strange group name, through Herbert Read’s catalogue description of the show:
These new images belong to the iconography of despair, or of defiance, and the more innocent the artist, the more effectively he transmits the collective guilt. Here are images of flight, of ragged claws ‘scuttling across the floors of silent seas’, of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear.
Thereafter they were called The Geometry of Fear Group, but they vanished as a group within a decade as artistic tastes moved on and into the realm of the abstract. Their inspiration came from the Holocaust, from Hiroshima and many other events which caused fear, despair, desolation or destruction. They, in their turn, also inspired other people to create and, undoubtedly, put many ideas about art and expression into the heads of countless people who saw or came into contact with their work. And now, nearly sixty years after this small magazine was published, it falls into my hands once more, and inspires thoughts o the creative process, coupled with the thoughts and explanations from your own letter.
The difference between what we do, taking inspiration from all around us to produce our art, and the jack of all trades described by Theo Crosby is the end result. We take all our inspiration and channel it into a letter, into a poem, into a short story packed with the impressions we have received, worked on, twisted and turned in our minds. Those Crosby is referring to are attempting to take one or two ideas and bring them out through several different mediums, such as painting and sculpture, at the same time, thereby diluting what they have received and spreading it out thinly across a broad area. The artists now become full of suggestion, rather than being able to create something which people see, or read, and instantly understand:
By a process of neurotic concentration he had managed to strip the human shape to a profile, a profile full of suggestions, of movement, to time passing, of post-war sadness […] They are still and quiet, yet full of the suggestion of movement.
What we, with are words, are trying to do is create a complete image within the minds of the reader which, through the process of addition, of compilation, brings many threads together into one whole. Striping a person down to their basics is something we do not wish to do, as all the characteristics of personality, of being a human being, vanish in the process: we are left with a pound of flesh, a useless piece of meat without thought of movement, without charisma, inspiration, history. We wish to create so that people can see immediately what is meant, and can relate to their own situation, their own experiences and further expands the whole into something new, something which has greater meaning for them, provokes further thought and a reaction, and results in some form of communication further along the chain.
For Victorian and earlier letter writers this meant copying letters and passing them on to other people to read. It meant having open evenings – salons in France and elsewhere – of a literary nature where poetry, letters, works of literature as well as the other arts could be discussed openly. The written word being, of course, more suitable for such events as it was immediately available to all, unlike a sculpture or painting which, being confined to one area, could hardly be passed around a group with any ease. In this case, again, drawing from your letter, the written word becomes freedom of expression, freedom from the mental prison, the cage we sometimes caused to be erected around ourselves. The mind, what we write, can be communicated so mc batter and bring, through its flight from one hand to another, a greater level of freedom of expression than any other art form.
John Bunyan, in his introduction to The Pilgrim’s Progress – written during one of several periods when he was incarcerated for his religious beliefs – writes:
When at the first I took my pen in hand,
Thus for to write, I did not understand
That I at all should make a little book
In such a mode …
And they again began to multiply,
Like sparks that from the coals of fire do fly.
Where the other artists attempt to compact all their skills into a small area, regardless of how physically big it may be, we attempt to take our small inspirations and expand them into a depiction of the universe of thought, of inspiration, of experience and of life. We wish, and often succeed, to take our reader into a different world, to transport them away from wherever they are and inspire them to see new things, to bring their own experiences and history together to achieve a level of understanding over life that a stone effigy, a painting, an etching cannot achieve. Where a static object, regardless how beautiful and inspiring it may be, requires the voyeur to remain in one place or enjoy it, the writer may be taken wherever the reader wishes to go, and may transport the reader wherever the writer wishes to take them. Thus a true breaking of the mental cage.
John Bunyan sets it down perfectly for us: he began with an idea, and that brought considerably more so that, as he wrote, the ideas flowed forth and expanded themselves across the paper, until he had a far greater work than that which he had initially thought to write.
My thoughts turned themselves into lines of their own accord, and whatever I tried to write became verse
writes Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid), and we can take that as either verse in the poetical sense, or verse as in chapter and verse, letter writing or other literary endeavours. It is a truth which has been handed down through the centuries that no walls, no barriers, no manmade prison can hold back the creative skills of the mind. Whether we can turn that into words on paper or not is another matter entirely.
That education is a form of imprisonment within a dogmatic set of thoughts has been clear to me for quite some time, I just hadn’t realised the extent of it. I recall my father, in the Seventies, talking about the problems of taking on graphic designers for his company straight from university: they had learned all there was to know about how things are done in the book, but nothing about the reality of the world and the level of competition amongst all these people who need to produce something original and startling, moving away from the book. Everyone coming in had to be awoken, re-trained and brought into line with reality. This was not always so. Many years ago education was a very basic function consisting of two levels: the first level had three basic courses, the second had an additional four. It was possible, on the first level, to finish school at twelve and enter society fully trained for the work you needed to do. It was possible for someone to complete the second section of education, and enter society at fifteen. Students were taught how to read and write, how to talk and think. After that they continued with their own education by researching, by learning on the job, by being a part of society and picking up the skills other people had gathered over many years. It was an educational system of excellence through experience.
And then along came the Prussians, as precursor to Germany, and began the educational system we know today: sciences and the Arts split down into individual areas of specialist interest; a concentration of knowledge taught by rote and examinations based purely on what had been taught in class. The beginning of the educational cage, the wall constructed around the minds of youth. The governments of other countries saw this efficient method of education – including the United States – and took it on for themselves, destroying the incentive for people to go out there and learn, since everything they needed for the employment they had been aimed toward was now included in the set curriculum. It has been estimated that this educational system took over society completely by the early Twenties, as the last few who had been through the old system died.
Needless to say, this is also the date given to the death of letter writing. From here on no one knew how to formulate a good letter, how to express themselves, how to gather and take information offered and work it through with their own thoughts and experiences because that was not what they had been taught. The mental cage began to imprison society and the communication between individuals as much as between friends and family. Discursive, deep and informative letters to family and friends which had been copied and shared faded away to a faint memory of the past; people simply did not know how to create them anymore.
Naturally there are exceptions, as with everything: there are those who took their basic education from the State and decided to look around them too; those who were of such a creative bent that they were compelled to continue learning, to seek answers and put their thoughts down on paper, on canvas, through hammer and chisel into stone. A few who were challenged by their parents, by enlightened educators, to do more than just accept what the textbooks say, but to find their own answers to the many questions in life. I like to think I am one of them.
The problem with this mental prison we have been inflicted with, is that many no longer have any desire to try and get out of it: they see what is there and are satisfied, not appreciating that there is so much more if they would only exert themselves slightly. Why, for example, should a person work when the State provides? I have nothing against welfare and State assistance where it is needed, but always feel saddened by those who cannot see further than their own shadow, let alone gather the strength to leap over it. The inflicted mental prison has, for some become the accepted mental state, and they do not see the walls just as they do not see the endless possibilities which could be open to them, if they would just open their eyes and minds. We do not all have to be creative, carve our name in stone or paper the world with our written verses, but open and seeing, that is something else, something desirable and, as we both know, more than worthwhile in the end, no matter how hard the work may appear to be before we finally reach our goal.