Archives for posts with tag: Doodling

So last night’s pub philosophy circle was one of those classic subjects: art. Tim Cross led the discussion which was lively if full of assertions and opinions but lacking in philosophy. Tim’s talk was great, but our audience let him down, I feel. What it did demonstrate is that philosophy of art remains an area of much debate and it fuels a lot of entrenched opinion.

My feelings on the subject were pretty agnostic going in. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy art. In particularly photojournalism and photo-realist painting, interestingly, both schools of which are sometimes touted as not art at all. My view is that good photo-realism adds something to mere representation that is almost intangible – and it is that, in fact, which is the slippery essence of what ‘art’ is.

But any debate on art quickly falls into rather crass examples of what one likes or dislikes as if that explains what art is or isn’t. A slightly deeper debate will often get to the categories of what makes art ‘art’ but these too are often distracting traps of little consequence. Keen to play along, however, and at a push I came up with a simple triad of core qualities which we might use to define ‘art’. I am not yet certain how many of these qualities need to be in place to qualify, at least one, probably two but sometimes all three, but I’m absolutely happy with that ambiguity, just as what is/isn’t art can be slippery and open to debate.

Here it is; I’ve gone with the 3 c’s purely to keep it simple.

art

COMMUNICATION
All art has to engage at least the creator but ideally both the creator and the viewer. It is like a human without a self – it needs reflection. To regard it is to engage in it but if a piece of art fails to communicate with you then it probably isn’t art but rather it is just an object. To you. So, that is not to say that absolutely all viewers need to be able to comprehend it: there’s no magic number in consensus, but some general acquiescence to the fact there is something more than an object will do. In fact, it is probably easier to consider a piece of art which doesn’t communicate with you in some way to define this difference between object and item imbued with meaning in some way. Which is different, of course, to ‘not liking’ what’s being communicated – it is still communicating with you.

It is easy to regard art as beautiful (the art communicates beauty to you) but there is also other means of communication at play here: the beguiling (Mona Lisa) or the horror (Bacon or Guernica, for example) to name but two other expressions.

CRAFT
The most obvious quality. And then there’s ‘found’ objects which are given a context and thus communicate as more than mere objects. So, no, not everything needs to be made from scratch to qualify as craft; the craft might be the ability to capture something already in existence, which brings us nicely to…

CHOICE
The choice of subject, place and materials all bring the craft into being.

The combination of all these three (and in some cases perhaps, only two of these), and by varying degrees and in different forms is what makes art.

Arising out of these are other factors which might explain why some things become art or in some cases ‘great’ art after a period of time. Things like context, subject and whether the art is novel or innovative. Sometimes, however, something may be crafted (like a steam engine) only to become art over time as context changes (scarcity or changes in train design now reveals the craft or art of the steam train). You might disagree with the example there, but the same process might explain the increasing regard for some art over time, or some novels.

The creation of art has the consequence that it does, however, become a commodity. Questions of who buys art, why and at what value, is a separate debate to this, and it is a question rather of what do we mean by the ‘value’ of art, normally in a commercial sense, but sometimes in a critical sense.

Disappointingly, I find debate around art tends to miss what we might call the people’s arts. Gardening, cooking, or more thanks to modernity maths and coding might be considered an art. We debated whether the London Underground map is art. I said yes. Others said it was merely good design. I said it is also good design, but it is art. It has gone beyond design, as evidenced by people being compelled to buy and hang prints of it, a pursuit disconnected with its original purpose.

Finally, I wanted to consider the question ‘why is the question ‘what is art’ important to us?’

It is my opinion that all shared human endeavours and experiences that we hold in common will eternally be important questions and considerations for man. Probably because it is one of the characteristics which make man human.

Art is like all universal experiences – invaluably human.

I was talking about last night’s Tintern Philosophy Circle pub meet and a talk by Tim Cross ‘Art – some philosophical questions’. Next month (each 3rd Tuesday, 7.30pm) is Prof. John Clarke on ‘Sartre: on authenticity & sincerity’ and December has a guest speaker on ‘Religion & Science’.

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It appears to me that perhaps our misunderstanding of Syd Barrett is symptomatic of our inability to cope with psychiatric issues writ large.

A precocious child, Syd was deeply affected by the sudden death of his father, at the age of 15. Since the age of 11 young Syd (Roger then) was a diary obsessive and never missed a day, until that day his father passed away. But this aspect in Syd’s life is often overlooked, with reviews overwhelmingly presenting a single dimension to his madness: Syd – the acid casualty.

Musically Syd’s tastes were The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Booker T. & the MG’s. These are all obvious now, but in the early 60’s the reputation of each of these artists was not what it is today. Elvis was the biggest name on the pop scene, a scene which hadn’t long emerged from simplistic Rock’n’Roll. Nevertheless, Syd’s Beatle obsession, in particular, meant he too wanted to be a pop star and, with a musical family, playing guitar in a band was a natural progression of that desire.

By mid-’67 Syd’s LSD consumption was ‘awesome[i]’ and it fuelled both his song-writing and instrumental improvisation, as well as the nightmarish backlash. By the time Floyd had released their second single (See Emily Play, the first being Arnold Layne) his own sister could see that acid had already got under his skin: ‘The next time I saw him he’d changed so much that I couldn’t reach him. The brother I knew had disappeared.’[ii]

EMI pressed for an album and the resultant long-player was The Piper At The Gates of Dawn, a title stolen from The Wind in the Willows. A strange album which both starts and practically finishes the brief neon glow of the British psychedelic scene, Piper also perfectly juxtaposes Syd’s penchant for surprisingly listenable child-like English folklore ditties (Scarecrow, Bike and The Gnome) with sonic evocations of the Floyd’s UFO club freak-out appearances. Personally, my favourite is Lucifer Sam with its Bond-like rhythm and powerful drumming pushing along scratchy guitars, but Pete Townsend of The Who was not impressed: ‘I thought it {the album} was fucking awful…it was like bubblegum – Mickey Mouse music – and I thought the guy who produced it was a tosser’.

If the album was confused, it presented Syd perfectly.

Or did it? Syd saw himself primarily as an artist: music had become just another form of media for him – it was the act of creating and improvising which interested him most. He loved freedom and loathed structure. We see this infamously in his inability to cohere in both later live and studio settings. He became obnoxiously impossible to work with and David Gilmour – originally brought in to stand-in for the useless Syd – became the band’s saviour, as well as Syd’s own creative executor/producer, making the barest sense of insanity in Syd’s two moorish solo albums: Barrett and The Madcap Laughs.

You can hear Syd’s world fall apart in the Floyd’s second LP closer (Jugband Blues) but it was swinging sixties pop model Lynsey Korner who felt its wrath, as his trips became increasing violent. His violence was only surpassed by his  reclusiveness and strange behaviour. Clearly, he needed psychiatric help. Yet when Syd died, his family said (see Wikipedia page for Syd for citation) that he had never received treatment or even a programme of therapy for his behaviour, even though he was admitted for respite care on a few occasions. Nevertheless, at the time he needed care and help the most, his actions had already lost him all the friends a person needs to help them through such a traumatic experience as a psychological breakdown. Instead, a steady stream of hangers-on and groupies kept him occupied, frustrated and fuelled with mandrax and LSD.

On the whole, though, Syd’s life is lamented by friends and colleagues in a positive light, remembering the Roger Keith Sydney Barrett who jumped for joy outside EMI on their signing a record deal. Gilmour said in 1982: “It’s just a sad, sad thing; a very nice and talented person who just disintegrated.”[iii] And, for sure, even though we hear him as he was when he was at his most objectionable and unreachable to those friends and colleagues, we also are shaken by a rare fragile musical experience.

His surrealistic stream of consciousness writing – not equalled in my mind until Stephen Malkmus in both his Pavement and solo work – was more than just mere random jumbles. Syd delivered in phrase upon phrase a vulnerability unique to his sadness and failure, despite success.

The desire for that success and fame which Syd originally sought soon turned out to feed only the unrelenting addiction of a record company’s insistence on successive successful singles. Syd wasn’t prepared for that, couldn’t do that, and was still young when his mind gave up on him.

Fans’ desire to seek him out and be part of the myth must, I imagine, have also fed his anxieties. Roger Waters felt that later, resulting in at first Wish You Were Here and then later, in a different way, another kind of alienation in The Wall. Syd retreated to solitude and painting. While they craved Syd’s return to the studio, Syd simply chain-smoked and watched TV, wanting to be forgotten and to forget.

Pete Townsend got it right, I think, when he remarked that the story of Syd should ignore the myths and realise that, in fact, ‘Syd was someone with psychotic tendencies who by using too much LSD pushed himself over the edge.’ – by psychotic tendencies, I think he means personality disorder.

Syd when he turned up to Floyd’s WISH YOU WERE HERE sessions

The human mind is a terribly romantic notion. Only insanity gives us a glimpse of existential freedom so repulsively uncivilised, it enraptures our own, sane, imaginations. Romanticism of psychological breakdown aside, Syd’s story is really quite straightforward, and it is probably all the more tragic because of it.

A story comes out in 1990, published in The Guardian: “One day, not long ago, Syd visited his brother-in-law Paul Breen, who runs a Cambridge hotel. Sitting in the hotel office, Syd’s attention was drawn to his brother-in-law’s guitar lying in a corner of the room. At one point Mr Breen was called away. On his return he found Syd holding the guitar and gently strumming a tune. Realising he’d been caught red-handed, Syd dropped the instrument like a stone and turned away sheepishly…[iv]

This story annoys the shit out of me as the book it featured in Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett & the Dawn of Pink Floyd (which inspired this blog entry) had set itself the laudable task of restraining Syd-spotters (still alive when it was published) and putting to bed Syd myths.  Instead, passages like the above is in effect a rallying call for them.

Anyone who has ever played even a bit of music will innately know that the instinctive nature of instruments is to lure you in. Playing music is irresistible. What Syd’s actions shows in this story is that the instinct is still there, even if he remained ashamed of his own professional musical career. The two are entirely different things.

Syd died in 2006 at the age of 60 from pancreatic cancer.

We should listen to his music and leave the rest alone.


[i] ‘Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett & the Dawn of Pink Floyd’ by M. Watkinson & P. Anderson (Omnibus Press, 1991)

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

I remember at school that it was a sin tantamount to blasphemy, theft or plagiarism. But often I find myself doodling in general office meetings. Doodling was a shame – a sign that “YOU’RE NOT PAYING ATTENTION!”

As an adult I find this is simply untrue.

In the same way vacuuming, walking, driving to classical music or washing up empties the mind of noise, so does doodling. Indeed, through doodling I think you focus on the matter at hand intuitively, in an uncorrupted sense.

My drawings happen naturally without a thought (perhaps that’s the definition of a doodle?), whereas the information being discussed and exchanged in the meeting is consumed and processed with a tenacious ease.
I’d argue that doodling really is quite a productive tool for listening as well as hearing.

I have a notebook for recording all pertinent information and decisions, as well as noting what I’ve been working on throughout the day so I know what to book time to on my timesheet at the end of it without having to make it up or rely on my grossly inaccurate memory.

The latter, of course, has been made redundant by the journal view in Pillar Software’s Time Manager, leaving less reason to carry a notebook. Though I still do. And I continue to doodle too. Normally its leaves and vine. A house. 3D cubes or vanishing point lettering. I wonder if our doodles say anything about who we are? Alfred Adler would probably agree but I’m not so sure what Sigmund Freud would make of my innocuous scribblings.

And now there’s a home for those among us who doodle with a distinctive flair: www.doodlersanonymous.com