Monday, March 07, 2005

Somewhere about hope: Adam Phillips on 'a new sane art'

Last night, ITV’s arts documentary series The South Bank Show featured the psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips talking about his new book Going Sane. Although the discussion was generally about notions of madness and sanity in our culture, the focus was on art. I was taken by Phillips’ advocacy of 'a new sane art':

There are so few articulated alternatives to a glamourised version of madness, or a despairing version of madness. So it might be worth producing descriptions of what about ourselves we think might be valuable, that is not a version of passion, possession, elsewhereness, otherness, and so on.

He tends to think this isn't something we get from mainstream art (the following is my rough transcript of a conversation with presenter Melvyn Bragg):

Adam Phillips: We might look to poetry now because poetry is marginalised - which is the best thing about it! It's freeing people actually to be able to work their own way. People are only going to be poets now if they really want to be. There's no money in it and very little glamour. That seems to be promising. The only pay-off of being a poet now is writing a good poem. And this seems to hold within itself the possibility that people will be freer with their own thoughs. They’ll be less preoccupied by being winning, or by being charming or indeed by selling anything, because they’ve got nothing to sell.

I think the new thing that might be happening is that the new sane artist will not be seeking recognition. That is whereas the mainstream of artists will be seeking recognition, fame and fortune, the new sane artist will have to dispense with precisely that quest to do their work.

Melvyn Bragg: Why is that important?

AP: Because it frees you. Because once you relinquish the market (and that doesn’t mean you don’t earn your living), once you relinquish the saleability of your art now, you’re now freer to have your own thoughts. Because, insofar as you’re interested in marketing your thoughts, you have to be pre-occupied by a fantasy of what people want. It makes you compliant; it makes you inevitably servile to a fancy of the audience. Whereas if you have no audience, that interest drops out.

MB: But having no audience can often mean for people not having the time to do the work they want to do. They have to work in a bank, or teach – do jobs which tire them and therefore when it comes to do the work they want to do, there is no energy left to do it.

AP: I can see that. But also I think that is, now, the deal. Which is people will have to find other ways of making their living if they are to produce real art.

There is a kind of sane art that, without ignoring the complexities and difficulties of life, makes one feel that the project is worth it. Art, it seems to me, is against suicide. And that's a value ... it's somewhere about hope.


There is much I want to respond to here. But this is too long already. I'll say this though: while I was delighted to hear such an opinion (particularly on this programme which frequently offers a sop to popular culture by virtue solely of its popularity), I did want the apparent Romanticism of this 'new sane art' tempered by the acknowledgement ('recognition' perhaps) that all art, by definition, is always already public; that is what makes it a challenge to produce and what makes it universal. The freeing of individual thought is not as straightforward as it might seem, as I'm sure Phillips would have said if he had had the time and not been seeking recognition on a mainstream TV arts show!

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