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!


  1. Anonymous10:07 pm

    Damn! I knew I should have stayed up. This sounds fascinating and much more interesting than many of the reviews of the book I've read.

    But I confess to wondering what's left that's interesting to write about when you exclude passion, possession, elsewhereness, otherness and so on. We're back to McEwan trying to write about a life in which there is no conflict and no genuine anxiety. And we know how interesting that is.

    And I'm not convinced, from what I know of the contemporary poetry scene, that poets are in any way as artistically altruistic as he suggests. If anything they are made worse by the lack of a genuine popular audience combined with the patronising sop of a hundred poetry competions: ambition with no point.

    But I'm interested in your unwritten comments at the end; what role is there for non public art?

  2. Sandra, there's a misunderstanding. I'm saying there is no such thing as a non public art. It's a contradiction in terms. It's the same as Wittgenstein's Private Language argument: language (and thereby art) depends on at least two people. Otherwise, it isn't language/art.

    I was concerned that Phillips' call for an art less focussed on extrinsic reward might be misunderstood and accused of being solipsistic.

    And I don't think he was recommending exclusion for those things but rather for their place in sanity to be explored. As he says in the link, sanity is often "a cover story for anxieties we have about not being quite as sane as we would wish". By indulging in extremes, we repress the revelation that it is a cover story.

    This is where McEwan's novel comes in. It's a symptom of repression rather than an exploration of sanity.

  3. Anonymous12:20 pm

    All that Adam Phillips seemed to be offering in this programme was the standerd Baby Boomer Text of a marxist art. If none of us sells our work then we must all be a) sane and B) equal.

  4. He said artists need to make real art and this is hampered when one is appealing to an audience. This is not the same as not selling anything.

    Some of us are attracted to such art as it helps toward the kind of sanity Phillips is talking about, so it might sell well enough to make a living. That's not the point though, is it?

  5. Anonymous4:17 pm

    Steve - this post above does surprise me. After all you normally take the Schopenhauer route and argue the direct oppostite. Or what ever thirty odd ways that Schopenhauer writes about to win an argument. Change of tone. Nice.

    But back to my own post I thinka that your reading may well be as vaild as mine. May own reading of the programme may well be down to the fact of reading to many Baby Boommer acidemics who tend to have lost their way when the 70's turned to the 80 & 90's - those that tend to get stuck like Hunter S Thompson did. But I'm still going to stand by my reading.

  6. Nick, I don't know anything about these Baby Boomer academics. Nor do I know what losing the way means. Whatever it is, like Dante, it is sometimes worthwhile.

    I've not read any Schopenhauer and I don't detect any changes of tone.

    And your reading of what Phillips said has nothing to do with any cultural history: it's plain and simple English. He is saying ignore the market and get on producing what you need to produce. Simple. He's not saying "Make something unsaleable".

    You remind me of the people who dismiss Chomsky because they assume he is for everything the US claims to be against, and then, when told otherwise, mutter labels ("Marxist") as if it is something to do with fashion.

    Phillips seeks, I think, what I seek, which is the kind of food I/we need (as in Kafka's Hunger Artist). This has nothing to do with cultural history.

  7. Anonymous6:29 pm

    Steve - With due respect to your reading.

    A) I never stated that you had read Schopenhauer.

    B)'...mutter labels ("Marxist") as if it is something to do with fashion.' I have never used labels. And most cetainly do not mutter as if I am trying to be fashionable. What ever that statement means In fact I could not even at this point tell what is fashionable within the acidemic world is at the moment. Would you prefur me to use the word: left of artistic mode of production unconected to copy right control. Remember Johnson said, I forget the full line, that a man who does not write for a living is a fool. And if we consider the more mainstream forms of writing say of the newspapers then at this point audience is everything. Publishing is a buisness: therefore it has to be a mode of production, just like film.

    C) My reading through cultural history is as vaild your own close interpretaion. In fact it expands upon it. You always seem to carry this notion that people are working against you.

    D) 'which is the kind of food I/we need' What kind of mana would that be? Sanity and Insanity are nothing but construstions.

  8. 1) "the standerd Baby Boomer Text of a marxist art" (sic)

    Seems like a label to me. That is, no evidence provided in context with what Phillips said.

    2) "Johnson said .. that a man who does not write for a living is a fool."

    And you take that uncritically?
    Perhaps Johnson was referring to 'living' in a more existential sense. Beckett (a great admirer of Johnson of course) said he wrote only in order to breath. A fool then.

    3) "left of artistic mode of production unconected to copy right control":
    This, as I pointed out, has nothing to do with what Phillips said. He was saying that marginalised art is probably richer for our soul (another "construction" presumably). He was referring specifically to poetry, which barely has a mainstream, so is perhaps more useful to those of us gulping for air. It has nothing to do with copyright control. Nothing changes except for the artist and his work-in-progress. He is freed.

    4) "Publishing is a buisness: therefore it has to be a mode of production, just like film."

    What is a "business" in relation to art?

    Very little film-making is of any artistic worth - if such worth is understood as that which offers air rather than provides an adornment in a wine bar - and that which is worthwhile is almost invariably against the grain: the Iranian filmmakers, Godard's late work. Phillips' suggestion holds there too.

    5) Journalism is not the kind of writing that Phillips is referring to. It has nothing to do with art. Its focus on the audience is what discounts it from the context we’re discussing.

    6) "What kind of mana would that be?" That's what I'm looking for. I'll leave you to the wine bar.

    7)"Sanity and Insanity are nothing but construstions."

    Tell that to the little man on my shoulder.

  9. Anonymous11:28 am

    Steve - You always seem to have this inability to move beyoned the intentionality of the text, while staying within a box. There is also a trace in alot of your writing that you take every body else's ideas as a threat to your own boxed in sense of the world. It's a shame really because you seem to have a fine mind. It's just taking a risk seems to be a little to much for you. Shame.

  10. Anonymous11:42 am

    It's odd how unwilling you are to expand your ideas beyond certain confines of a space. Naw...don't think I will fuck off. After all someones got to stand up for the other side of the arguement around here. For we know that you won't

  11. Anonymous2:22 pm

    Sandra - 'But I confess to wondering what's left that's interesting to write about when you exclude passion, possession, elsewhereness, otherness and so on.' To true where would any o us be with out these themes, either in writing and in life. If we cease to be passionate then we have nothing but dry rocks.

    Nick & Steve - WOW. Big ego trip or what. Have you ever tried engaging with each other? You'd both be a lot better off if you put the sniping aside and talked. There is a lack of understanding between both your postions. Most of what the pair of you write could easily be turned around the other way. Take the line: 'Typical of a middlebrow journalist.' How do you know Steve that your not middlebrow yourself? Or lets have a look at this line by Nick: 'There is also a trace in alot of your writing that you take every body else's ideas as a threat to your own boxed in sense of the world.' Do you Nick also see Steve's writing as a threat to your own ideas? You more likely do, don't ya. There's history here by the sounds of it. I wonder how far this snipping goes back? But the question is how this began in the first place? Or better still why don't you try talking to each other like mature human beings. The pair of you may then achive something. You both have a lot to offer.

  12. "If we cease to be passionate then we have nothing but dry rocks"

    Quite. "Let's go to the stoning".

    And how do I know I'm not middlebrow? I don't like Radiohead for one (see comments

    Finally, I just don't see any argument put forth. It's just disdain-ridden opinion which, I'd admit, might not be much different to mine except that I tie it to specific instances rather than vague impressions borne on a blandness that has suffocated British culture (e.g. the excessive admiration for McEwan and Ishiguro-type novels and fucking Radiohead).

  13. I'm wondering if Adam Phillips is a writer because he really wants to be? He took a fairly lucratie path in writing what could be looked at as "upmarket self-help books". Also his latest book "Going sane" has just been released, so Melvyn gave him an hour of free, glanarous advertising. Although, I have just read the book so I am prepared to give him the benefoir of the doubt. He seems to be the lucky person who can make his art pay without compromising it. Check out reviews of "Going sane" here:

    The broadsheets all love him as well (except the Scotsman).

  14. Anonymous5:05 pm

    My goodness, Ive never seen this blogging thing before, and have just stumbled in by chance from looking at what people make of the A Phillips book I've just ordered. may I offer a comment, which is, hasn't the conversation got very rapidly entirely a quite personal exchange of insults. Also isn't AP using the idea of art as only one expression of the creative impulse, which includes daily ordinary life, hope and sex. Also don't we fluctuate moment to moment from states of sanity (insight/consciousness?) to insanity, so that we're talking about a balance. Sorry no literary references at the moment.

  15. Thanks for commenting Anonymous. I'll quote you first:

    "isn't AP using the idea of art as only one expression of the creative impulse, which includes daily ordinary life, hope and sex."

    I'm not sure of this but it's quite likely. I was writing about his TV appearance. But I would say "ordinary life, hope and sex" are ideas as much as art, and as such are defined in the same way art is. So what he says can hold for them too: one must find one's own way rather than follow the demands of a market.



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