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Oscar Wilde said it was useless. DH Lawrence said it was like having a good sneeze. Margaret Atwood does it for the man in the sky. What are they talking about? Art and writing, of course. But witty quips aside, why do people become obsessed with artistic endeavours like putting words on paper? Hell, in this crazy day and age of prime ministers asking us to spy on our neighbours in the name of ‘being alert’, why should we do anything out of the ordinary? Because it’s better to write twaddle, anything, said Kiwi novelist Katherine Mansfield, than nothing at all.
The great Australian artist Sir Sidney Nolan said that he thought that a successful artist would have no trouble being a successful member of the Mafia. Lately I’ve been trying to work out whether artists and terrorists have something in common. You would hope that most artists don’t set out to create terror. And surely the aim of most terrorists is not to bring beauty into the world. But artists and terrorists do have one – albeit uncomfortable – commonality: they both want us to see things from new perspectives, think in ways that are foreign to us. Of course, there’s a rather horrific romanticism to that statement, and I for one would rather live in a world where someone takes a good book into a public place than a bomb. But sometimes a superbly-crafted sentence, like a bomb, can change us forever, whether we like it or not.
So why do artists religiously obey the alarm clock when it shakes them awake each day? Is it because they think they can change the world by composing sounds on their computers? Is it because life is inherently dull without making up stories, as if we should never really grow beyond being that six-year-old child? Is it because there is glorious logic to the statement, ‘I don’t have a mohawk but I gave up full-time work to make ceramics?’ Possibly. There is one writer I know who thinks she’d have more to offer if she spent the mornings just walking the dog up Black Mountain, absorbing herself in kangaroos, cockatoos and echidnas rather than sitting in her study, fingers looking for some words to work with.
The thing is most artists simply can’t stop making art. They’re like drug addicts with no interest in being clean. Which begs another comparison: like the terrorist and the artist, does the artist and the addict have something in common? Both are looking for new realities, for adventures, great escapes. If you take drugs, you take risks. There is a sense of being more alive than ever when risks are in your veins. Surely Brett Whitely would agree with that, though it’d be kind of handy to know what he would think about life in April 2012).
Why can’t artists stop? What really drives them on, especially when the world around continues to turn itself inside out?
Thankfully, there is one major difference between the agendas of the artist, the terrorist and the drug addict. In his book A Way of Being Free, the African novelist Ben Okri said, ‘Writers have one great responsibility: to write beautifully… But there is a parallel responsibility: and that is to sing a little about the realities of the age, to leave some sort of magical record of what they saw and dreamt… and to bear witness in their unique manner to the beauties, the ordinariness, and the horrors of their times.’ Substitute painters or composers or sculptors in the above and it makes just as much sense. Substitute terrorists or drug addicts and Okri’s point slips out the window like a daydream on the run.
Yes, Australia did have prime minister who, in his infinite wisdom, recommended to us, the people, ‘the mob’, that we be alert. But shouldn’t we aim to be fully alive rather than merely alert? Ants can be alert – the ever-present threat of being squashed by a big fat sneaker makes sure of that – but when was the last time one produced an extraordinary film? We’re human beings and human beings are creative sorts. Whether we want to be actually called ‘Artists’ or not, Okri is right: in our own simple, humble ways we should bear witness to the beauties and horrors of our times. Record and communicate, make and tell.
So as the bombs keep dropping, no matter who’s dropping them and whoever’s land they are being dropped on, let’s not settle for merely being alert: let’s write poems, compose songs, paint pictures, build sculptures. Because no matter how amateurish the end product, we’ll be alive. And even if we’re living in a world dominated by a sad-sack coalition of the willing rather than the council of the wise, being properly alive is inherently a good thing. That’s what art in the everyday sense can do: bring blood-pumping, naturally ecstatic, unadulterated life. Alert people might be awake, but truly alive people are powerful.
It’s true that Oscar Wilde said all art was useless, but he was just writing twaddle – and changing the world.
This is a slightly edited/updated version of a piece that was first published in The Canberra Times on 3 April 2003. Not much has changed huh?
A confession: I’ve got the hots for a chick, and have had so for quite time. Of course, she doesn’t have flesh and bones, at least not to me; she’s a voice, a music, and what an extraordinary voice she has, and what extraordinary music she makes. And her most recent album: well, it’s been a long time since I’ve adored an album as much as this, how I’ve learnt every song, as in I’ve become to understand it all, it’s seeped into me, getting beneath my skin. You know when you’re young and you listen to an album so often that you start to become sick of it? So you wisen up and get into the habit of drip-feeding albums that you’re loving. Or you love an album immediately only to find that it doesn’t hold its own ground. Or you don’t like an album immediately, but soon find yourself playing it over and over, loving it intensely, obsessively, until it’s all-consuming.
PJ Harvey’s most recent album Let England Shake is the sort of album that makes me remember the great records from my deep, dark past – Faith by The Cure, London Calling by The Clash, The Queen is Dead by The Smiths – and I do own this latest Harvey opus on record, as in on vinyl, because that’s how I like to listen to the best albums that come my way.
Despite being an age-old though not uncritical PJ Harvey fan, I’ve come a little late to Let England Shake. It was recorded over a five-week period at a church in Dorset UK in April and May 2010 (when I was bunking down in Launceston Tasmania, I realise rather deliciously) and released later that year. In 2011 Harvey won the coveted Mercury Prize for this record, making her the only musician to have bagged the honour twice; she’d previously won it for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea back in 2001.
What makes Harvey such an exciting, beguiling, and sometimes, let’s face it, frustrating singer-songwriter is her dogged refusal to repeat herself (Tim Winton should take notice, in more ways than one). Her albums have covered such various terrain as riot-grrl grunge, folk, pop, electronica, sparse piano ballads (check out 2007’s White Chalk), and now she adds a dozen war songs to her, er, canon.
Harvey wrote Let England Shake over a two-and-a-half-year period, producing the lyrics first – she claims to be inspired by Harold Pinter and TS Elliot – before sitting down to set the lyrics to music. Her mission, it’s clear, was to explore what it means to live in a country that’s at war. However, this isn’t some table-thumping polemic; it’s intimate, it’s beautiful, it’s harsh, it’s haunting. Her voice is higher than on previous records, and it’s complemented – more than appropriately – by the deep timbre of her long-time collaborators, John Parish, who Harvey has described as her music soul-mate, and Mick Harvey (no relation), who for many years has worked with Nick Cave.
Using instruments as diverse as autoharp, zither, piano, trombone and saxophone, as well as some cheeky and downright hilarious samples, Harvey has crafted an album that is as engaging as it is adventurous. And it’s packed with tunes; it would almost be thigh-slapping good fun if it the subject matter wasn’t so serious. Check out ‘The Last Living Rose’, the gut-wrenching ‘On Battleship Hill’ and ‘Written on the Forehead’ to experience the musical and emotional range of the album.
It’s true that PJ Harvey can be awkward company: I imagine that you’d have a delightful cup of tea with her, she’d smile, she’d talk sweetly but with brutal honesty, before she’d stand up, excuse herself, and go and play with her chooks or pot up some salvia. And I haven’t always been faithful to her; in fact years have gone by when I’ve not had much to do with her. But, despite the latest fixation on how ugly human beings can be to each other, how supremely violent for no real logical reason, we’re back together now. And I feel that this time she’s with me for quite some time. Even if she does a runner on me again, or I do a runner on her, I have no doubt that in twenty years time I’ll still be playing Let England Shake, and on vinyl, and loud, very very loud.