Summa: diary (March 13-17, 2023)

I laid me down and slept; I awaked (Psalm 3.5).

March 13 (Monday).

Saturday, 8.00-9.00 am: a train of thought.

6.45 am: ‘I awaked’. A 50-miles per hour wind buffeted the house and forced a cold draught through the casements and the rain against the glass. Sounds outdoors: like that of a large sheet of tracing paper flexing and crumpling; car alarms; and the deep thud of air slamming against the south-west side the house, before drawing breath through the trees and throwing whatever had been loosened into further disarray. (The objective correlative.) 7.15 am: Writing. 7.45 am: A communion.

7.15 am: Confession/Expulsion

9.00 am: Studiology. I returned to ‘The Singing in the Air’ [working title] test composition and the Ableton Live 11/Akai Professional APC40 learning curve. ‘Write down what you’ve discovered, John!’ I’m using the software in a non-standard fashion. Which means I hit the wall of initial ‘undoability’ very quickly and often. I came across the following quote by the artist and theatre director Robert Wilson this morning. I approve of his attitude:

An optimistic mind-set finds dozens of possible solutions for every problem that the pessimist regards as incurable.

March 14. (Tuesday). 6.30 am: ‘I awaked’. Feeling woozy. My blood pressure has spiked and my iPhone fails to charge. (Sigh!) Or, at least, the device fails to indicate that it’s charging (but only sometimes). Thus, we’re ailing in sync. 7.15 am: Following a bout of workout exercises, I slumped in my study armchair, dosed, and wondered why I’d not stayed in bed longer. 9.00 am: Studyology. I was resigned to working in second gear, in between periods of rest. From my ‘ADMIN (my)’ folder, I extracted the document file for the new website and business enterprise, and continued paring down the text. I also began designing a ‘getting-to-know-your-needs’ form for any ‘client’ expressing an interest in my mentoring services. Having two strings to my bow — fine art and art history — opens up a broader market. The immediate questions are: What should I charge? And, who could afford it? Turning my 38 years of experience as an artist, art historian, teacher, examiner, and admissions selector into a self-promoting money-spinner doesn’t come easily to me.

That said, I’m conscious that if one is given some facility to teach, then with it comes an obligation so to do. And, to do so requires contexts of engagement and delivery.

Teaching, examining, and administrating at the School of Art, Aberystwyth University, 2018.

March 15 (Wednesday). 7.00 am: ‘I awaked’. 8.30 am: I reviewed, honed, and clarified yesterday’s business material. Phylida Barlow, who passed away a few days ago, was the sister of the grandmother of a friend of my elder son. (Now, what’s that it terms of degrees of separation?) Interestingly, her career really took off only after she’d retired from teaching at the Slade School of Art, London, in order to concentrate on producing her own work. (‘That’s encouraging isn’t it, John?’) In an interview published by the Guardian in 2016, she reflected:

Maybe I don’t think enough about beauty in my work because I’m so curious about other qualities, abstract qualities of time, weight, balance, rhythm; collapse and fatigue versus the more upright dynamic notions of maybe posture … the state that something might be in.

Phylida Barlow, Untitled: Upturned House 2 (2012) Tate Modern, London (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

The word ‘beauty’ was rarely spoken when I was in art school in the late 1970s, and then only as a questionable category of aesthetic apprehension. Instead, tutors discussed our works using words such as ‘interesting’, ‘appropriate’, ‘satisfying’, ‘strong’, ‘consistent’, ‘resolved’, and ‘coherent’, and in relation to ‘abstract qualities’, like those Barlow referred to above. None of us set out to make something beautiful. Our responsibility was, rather, to produce artworks that exhibited formal and conceptual integrity. I’ve held to that approach ever since. If beauty there is, then it’s a by-product of the sum of right decisions and actions as perceived by an informed eye.

Beauty is, for me, still a questionable category of aesthetic apprehension. It’s relative — definitionally, intellectually, emotionally, culturally, historically, geographically and, often, individually. The influential American art critic Clement Greenberg believed that most new movements in Modernism were, like Impressionism, considered ugly when they first emerged. ‘Beautiful’, in other words, is assigned to a style only after the so-called civilising effect has taken its course. (We must learn to see the virtues of the new and unfamiliar.) To my recollection, he never wrote about beauty. Instead, Greenberg referred to the concept and faculty of ‘taste’ (in the Kantian tradition). Taste is intuitive. Aesthetic intuition is nurtured and refined by an exposure over time to great and varied art, and grows in openness, catholicity, sophistication, and quality, as a consequence. Taste may not be definable, but it was, in his view, recognisable — it possessed a degree of objectivity. This has been my experience of looking at/listening to art too.

March 16 (Thursday). 6.3o am: ‘I awaked’. 7.30 am: A communion. 8.00 am: Writing. I recalled the day when an artist-musician (I don’t remember his name) was guest lecturer at my undergraduate art school. This would’ve been sometime in 1979. In the morning, he spoke about improvisational drawing. Over lunch, he improvised on the grand piano — which was situated below the stage in the magnificent barrel-vaulted canteen at Clarence Place — while slides of his own drawings were projected onto a screen behind him. It wasn’t a performance; no one had to listen. Most of the students talked among themselves, while eating our chef’s celebrated chicken supreme. I sat opposite the pianist, observing him with my eyes and ears (and eating).

Canteen area, Faculty of Art & Design, Clarence Place, Newport, Gwent, Wales (with acknowledgment to Paul Williams, Derelict Places).

It was the one of the few occasions when art and music were placed in relation to one another at the school. My response was to procure the mechanism of an upright piano and, for the next year, make drawings and paintings from it.

John Harvey, Untitled No. 2 (1979), acrylic on muslin, 51 × 35.5 cm & Three Rudimentary Piano Pieces, No. 2, pencil on paper, 15 × 12 cm.

That artist-musician’s mode of creative action in the world — where he sought neither to entertain, nor distract, nor be the focus of attention — struck me as an ideal to which I’d aspire, should there ever be an opportunity to make sound in a public space. Thirty-one years later, I did — at the School of Art Gallery, alongside the artist Maria Hayes (who was then one of my PhD Fine Art tutees). At an event called Concert: To Do Something in Cooperation with Another (2010), we improvised in dialogue: image calling to sound responding to image. The public, students, and staff were free to either enter and leave the gallery at any point in the day’s proceedings or ignore us entirely.

Maria Hayes & John Harvey, Concert: To Do Something in Cooperation with Another, School of Art Gallery, Aberystwyth University (March 3, 2010).

March 17 (Friday). ‘How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? when wilt thou arise out of thy sleep?’ 7.00 am: ‘I awaked.’ There’re many reasons why we could fail in an enterprise, that are often out of our control: a lack of ability, understanding, vision, opportunity, time, and means, being chief among them. An absence of imperative and motivation, however, aren’t excusable. As someone said, sagely: ‘We may not all be equal in talent, but we can all be equal in commitment’. What are the metrics by which the success of an enterprise can be measured — when you exclude financial gain and fame? I proffer the following: fulfilment in the doing of it; contentment in having done your best; satisfaction on its completion; and delight in your own and other people’s enjoyment of it, thereafter.

9.00 am: Studiology. Surfing upon the learning-curve once more. I’m endeavouring to reconcile and remember the differences between two pieces of hardware designed to operate the same piece of software.

My Dad died thirty-two years ago today. I’m now older than he was, and conscious of how still young he must of felt. I’ve now been without him for as many years as I’d known him: grief’s autumnal equinox. The garden shed was his empire; the one domain in his life over which he had complete dominion. Old and dribbled paint tins swung from ceiling; golden Rizla tobacco tins were neatly stacked on handmade shelves, now filled with nails and screws of different sizes; paint brushes and solvents teetered precariously on the edge of unstable tabletops; and chisels hung neatly and in order from wooden racks that they’d carved and cut. (I remembered Robert Morris’s Box with the Sound of its Own Making (1961).)

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