Monday, 18 January 2010

Ode on an English Poet

Some time ago I wrote a piece about the relationship between artists and critics. The piece went something like this: a lady journalist for the Guardian said that critics shouldn't write about their artist friends. I said she was full of shit, though to be fair, I wasn't quite so rude at the time. Here's an example why I think she's wrong.

Enter stage left, Ross Sutherland. Okay, so I wouldn't exactly call Ross a friend in the friendly sense of the word, but he's not quite an acquaintance either. We haven't had a drink together, but he performed at one of my SALON nights, I've got his number in my phone, and we're 'friends' on facebook. According to the laws of 21st century relations, that probably constitutes friendship.

The reason I so vehemently disagree with the lovely lady journalist is because sometimes your artist-type friends are really good at stuff and just because you're a critic doesn't mean you can't be objective about your own friends. Not only that, but you shouldn't be afraid of telling people how good stuff is, even is said stuff is penned and performed by people you have less than objective relations with. Obviously you want to support these people, but you also want to help the viewing public - to introduce them to something new and amazing.

I had a conversation with another friend at lunch last week about modernism and the decline of close-knit cultural circles. Even though neither of us are that keen on modernist philosophies, we agreed that it was a great time to be an artist: with your Peggy Guggenheims and your Gertrude Steins - your Eliots and Picassos and Hemingways and Pounds - this sort of cultural community that sometimes feels like it doesn't exist anymore. And if lady journo had her way, there wouldn't be any cultural community at all - for how can such a thing exist if critics and patrons are encouraged not to patronise (can you use this word in this sense anymore?) the people whose work they admire and respect.

But one glittering bonus that came out of putting on the SALON exhibition is that I saw a whole different side of London's artistic community. There are people making things happen - this man is a very good example - and making cross connections and doing and supporting and having a jolly good time. Ross is very much a part of this and his show reminded me that I shouldn't be so sourpussed about the golden ages of cultural history past - we're doing pretty fine with what we've got.

So. The kid's got talent. I've seen him read his poetry before - from this book - and he's great: most of his poetry is inordinately clever, and narrative driven, but rather surprisingly steeped in formalist technique. Like the best rules and restrictions always do, though, formalism frees Ross up to do all kinds of crazy stuff. His take on univocalism has me in stitches every time I hear it (though it isn't in the current show) and his N+7 (where you replace every noun/verb with the one seven places below it in the dictionary) reworking of the little red riding hood story turns out the hilariously inspired 'the liverish red-blooded riffraff hoo-ha'. But apart from the fact that Ross' poetry is more than good enough to stand on its own, the framing device offered by this show turns it into something altogether more poignant and provocative. What surprised me most of all is how moving the show is - not something I often experience at more straight-up poetry readings.

Ross does what many of the best artists do - in one of my creative writing courses at Uni, the instructor was always shouting at us to, 'write what you know!'* - and has taken episodes from his own sort of annus horribilis and turned them into a lesson for us all: our future is of our own making. Thankfully, he never bludgeons the lesson into his audience but allows it to creep neatly in via his artful time-capsule. One of my favourite bits of the show was when Ross explained how Keats' 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' inspired the creation of the time capsule - he managed to make Keats totally and hilariously relevant to an audience full of people who I'm pretty sure had never read any Keats in their life, let alone his ode to an urn. Any man who can do that is all right by me.

The point is critics should write about their artist friends because sometimes their artist friends are great. So go see The Three Stigmata of Pacman not because Ross is my friend, but because his show is great.

* funnily enough he sounded exactly like Wallace Shawn. There's a whole other story there, but I'll save that for another time


Anonymous said...

Ok, write about your friends, but just don't expect anyone to take it seriously. The best critics work hard to have no friends.

Phoenicia said...

Ah Steve, when did you become so cynical? Before or after the AJ? ;)

Anonymous said...

Around puberty, I think.
I'll leave you with Peter Schjeldahl's words:
"A critic who feels no anguish in relating to artists is a prostitute. A critic who never relates to artists, fearing contamination, is a virgin. Neither knows a thing about love." Then he goes onto write, "Some people enjoy being themselves. They do not become critics."
I don't think these words add or take away from my or your argument necessarily, they've just resonated in my head for years.