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Posts Tagged ‘art’

Sunset pier #1, by Deep A.I.

One of the interesting things to pop up online recently has been the subject of art generated by so-called artificial intelligence (AI). It’s a subject for contentious debate: can something really be considered a piece of art if it has been “created” by a computer program, rather than a human being?

My interest was piqued by Lee McAuley of the Cuckoo Club Archives, who mentioned it in a recent piece, and to whom I give all credit for spotting it – I’d no idea it was so advanced. In order to explore the question, is it art? I’ve been playing around with a version called Deep AI – available to try here, and I fed it the following text:

An old pier running out to sea, sun setting, people walking towards the sunset, blue skies and tobacco coloured clouds, light rays, romantic, impressionistic style.

The result was the header picture. Then again, same input:

Sunset pier #2, by Deep A.I.

And again:

Sunset pier #3, by Deep A.I.

So, each image is unique: same words, different output. There’s also a remarkable alignment with the textual prompt, whilst maintaining the look of something definitely painterly, rather than a pastiche of images brutally cut and pasted from around the Internet. There’s something interesting here and, though there’s a temptation – as a human being who likes to think of himself as “creative” – to be dismissive of it, I don’t think we should be too hasty.

The freebie images are a modest 1024×512 pixels, but useable, say for blog illustration, or, with a bit of Photoshop enhancement, as e-book covers, or simply for pondering. I find them quite haunting and, in spite of their unique nature, strangely familiar in that they combine elements I feel I have seen before, but which are just out of reach of memory.

There are other online generators, free to try, but they all have some kind of limiter, or a token system, to prevent over-use of the servers. I also like Nightcafe Studio, which I fed the following prompt:

A young woman wearing a long, red dress. She is reclining on a chaise lounge. Victorian and romantic in style.

To which it responded:

Young woman in a red dress – by Nightcafe Studio A.I.

The result is somewhat lush and stylised, though not unpleasing, and nicely lit. She has an oddly shaped thigh, strange hands and what appears to be the stump of a third arm, but for all of that it would not look out of place on a gallery wall, given a suitably pretentious blurb. It’s also unique – sort of. No image will ever come out quite like this again. However, once you’ve got the image, you can copy and paste it as many times as you like, of course, which, like all digital art, renders it nothing more than a worthless and disposable curiosity, right?

Well, that brings us to non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which I looked at last year. NFTs and digital art go hand in hand. Digital art, whether it be by human or AI, is – by our normal calculations, based on supply and demand – of no value at all, because we can copy and paste it as many times as we like, and the result will be indistinguishable from the original. However, AI generated art can come with a unique digital token, which proclaims you as the owner of the original file, which is something that, in our topsy-turvy world, can then be traded. And, though it might sound unlikely, it being essentially the value of nothing, some tokens are trading for millions of dollars – or at least those that receive the most hype.

Here’s another one. Input: Man writing at a desk, background of bookcases. Lamplight. Studious, romantic atmosphere. Impressionistic.

The result:

Man writing – by A.I.

The debate over AI generated art also throws up the old chestnut about the nature of human consciousness, and the belief among the so-called “hard AI” scientists, that it’s just a question of time, and a critical mass of artificial neural complexity, before we create a sentient computer. But this kind of thinking is bourne out of a strictly materialist paradigm, and goes too far for me. Our machines are breathtakingly intelligent, but that’s not the same thing as saying they might ever become sentient. Like a chess playing computer, it does not arrive at its moves by thinking about them like a human player, but its moves are always good ones. It does the same job, but better. Like an electric saw, it’s better than a handsaw in certain applications, but only because we have made it so. And even then, we wouldn’t use it everywhere.

AI sentience also rather presupposes the brain is what generates consciousness, and I do not subscribe to that view either. I’m deeply impressed by A.I. generated artwork, but feel there’s a danger here of setting off down the wrong path in our appreciation of what it means and that, like all A.I., we should not be tempted to make the retrograde leap from master to servant. A.I. serves a purpose. It can protect, it can run complex services on our behalf better than we can ourselves, and it can entertain, but it cannot be allowed to control and delimit, either our actions as free beings, nor supplant our imaginations.

Another one: Input: A young woman in a long red dress, fantasy forest setting, backlit, lush greenery, light rays. Output:

Woman in a red dress, in the forest – by A.I.

A human artist invests time learning how to paint. Then, having mastered the art, a large painting might take months, or even years of the artist’s time to complete, and the end result is always going to be fragile. It’s likely then, a very old painting by a recognisably competent artist will have survived any number of potential calamities, and is worth all the more for its rarity, and the simple fact of its survival. By comparison, a computer generated artwork takes seconds to make, and the result can be backed up digitally so many times as to be virtually immortal. NFTs not withstanding, I know which artwork possesses the greater intangible value, the greater allure, to my own taste and I would care nothing for who owned the digital title to an AI generated artwork. All of which is to say, while AI can produce some stunningly beautiful and provocative images, let’s not lose our heads over what it means.

Is it truly art? Well, yes, I think it is, but certainly not like anything we have known before.

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This one’s not about cars. It’s more about bending life into art. Allow me to illustrate:

Soon, yes, and for a time, I am no longer thinking of Grace, but of Maggs. Again. I am sinking into Mavis, tapping with futile distraction at the ABS light, which is taken metaphorically now as a sign always of trouble ahead. And I note, these days, the light is on more often than it is not.

What is Mavis trying to tell me, then? What else could ABS stand for, other than Anti-lock Braking System? Abandon Bull Shit? Yes, that’s promising. Nothing worse than bullshit, is there? All Begins Somewhere? Hmm,… obviously true, but a little too philosophical for me, right now. So, how about: Avoid Bad Sex? The chance would be a fine thing, but actually best avoided completely – the bad, the good, and the mediocre.

From my story: Saving Grace.

Sometimes life imitates art, sometimes life becomes art, or it can be twisted into art. I drive an old car, my protagonist drives the same one and calls it Mavis. This is Mike Garrat, who volunteers at a charity bookshop run by his muse, Margaret (Maggs) Cooper. Throughout the writing of this story, I recall my car was driving me nuts, the ABS warning light coming on then going off again. It’s a common fault on my model of car, once they’re of an age, and is usually the sign of a failing sensor.

ABS means anti-lock braking system, an innovation that prevents the wheels from locking, and therefore skidding, when you hit the brakes hard, so shortening the stopping distance. When the light is on, the brakes still work, but the ABS doesn’t, so you risk coming a cropper in the wet if you slam on at high speed. It’s an MOT failure. So I’d think about taking it to the garage, but then the light would go out, and the car would be fine for weeks, and I’d forget about it, and then it would come on again. I did eventually have it repaired, and it was expensive. I wrote it into the story as a device through which Mavis would caution Mike over the things he was thinking or planning.

I’ve had a good run with mine, but the ABS light came on again this morning so, if I was Mike Garrat – which, fortunately, I am not – I’d be watching my step. Unlike last time, it’s a fairly unambiguous fault, the light staying on all the time. There are four sensors to go at, one for each wheel, but by scanning the engine control unit, you can find out which one’s on the blink. We’re booked in for a repair, and I’m hoping it’s not as expensive as last time. But whatever the cost it’s a lot cheaper than a new car, plus of course mine, ancient as it is, is irreplaceable. And then the longer she’s around, the more she justifies the carbon footprint of her manufacture.

She will eventually bite the dust, of course, and that’ll be a sad day, time to put my open-top roadster days behind me and get a grown up car again. But, like my protagonist, I seem to have conflated the notion of my own mortality with the reliability or otherwise of my car. It’s not a sensible thing to do, and certainly not rational. But threading a willing little roadster over the moors, or the high roads of the Lakes and the Dales on a fine summer’s day is worth all the frustration of ongoing maintenance, and is a dream worth preserving.

Life isn’t art, of course. It’s not an episode from a romantic story, or a movie with a soundtrack. Cars do not talk to people. Neither do the gods talk to people through their cars’ warning lights, any more than they do through other portents, or oracles, unless we choose to let them. So let’s explore the metaphor: Brakes. The brakes won’t work as well as they should. Go easy, then Mike. Not too fast. Don’t push your luck. I was planning a major expense in another area. The car is telling me not to rush into it. Warning duly noted. We’ll park that one for a bit, give it some further thought. I’ve a feeling we were going to do that anyway, but this confirms it. And we’ll also park the car, in the clutter of the garage, while she waits her turn in the workshop.

And since I’m feeling playful, I’m going to spoil Mike Garrat’s story by telling you the ending:

She’s looking a little anxious now, a little unsure of herself, as if her nerve is failing. She’s not ordered anything from the counter. Perhaps it’s just a passing visit, then. Perhaps I should ask her if she’d like something, so I might at least have the pleasure of her company over soup.

Don’t disappear, Maggs. Don’t leave it hanging like this. Let’s work something out.

“Listen,” she says, “I’ve taken that cabin in the Dales for a bit.”

“Cabin?”

You know, Mike. ‘The’ Cabin?

She clarifies: “Our Cabin.”

“Really?” Did she just say ‘our’ cabin?

“I’m going to take some time out, relax, catch up on my reading, you know?”

“Always a good idea to catch up on one’s reading, Maggs. Em,… so,… what exactly are you reading these days? Not another of those dreadful spank busters, I hope?”

She laughs, blushes.”No. Right now I’m reading the Joy of sex.”

“Really?”

“You were right, it’s rather good.”

“Précis it for me. One sentence.”

“Oh,… let me see. Taken in the right spirit, sex can be really good fun.”

“Ha! Nice one.”

“So, speaking of fun,… I thought it might be – well – fun, you know, if you joined me at the cabin, for a bit. Could you,… manage that, do you think?”

“I’m sure I can manage that, yes. “

She sighs, but only I think to cover the tremor in her voice, to steady it. “Lovely.” And then: “I,… I heard you’d built your house at last?”

“Yes. Would you like to see it?”

She nods, dives in, steals my bread roll and takes a bite of it. “Sorry. Starving. I’d like that very much, Mike.”

So, there we are,… a better place to leave it. I’ll be asking her to move in I suppose, eventually, but since we’re still pretending we’re not even in love, that might be a while off. There’s no rush, though, is there? Long game, and all that. But for now,… Cabin, Maggs, Joy of Sex,…

What more could a man ask?

Thanks for listening.

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The arts put man at the centre of the universe, whether he belongs there or not. Military science, on the other hand, treats man as garbage – and his children, and his cities, too. Military science is probably right about the contemptibility of man in the vastness of the universe. Still – I deny that contemptibility, and I beg you to deny it, through the creation of appreciation of art.”

Kurt Vonnegut -1970

Unless you’re already some sort of celebrity, it’s a well established fact the arts are no way to make a living. But what they do for the ordinary Joe and Joanna, is make living meaningful, or even just bearable. It brings each of us back to the centre of our universe. It may be there is nothing to life and death, nor anything beyond it, and all our stories to the contrary are wishful thinking. But the person who takes up a pen, writes a story, or a poem, paints a picture, sings in a choir, dances, performs in amateur dramatics, or even – as Vonnegut once also put it – makes a face in their mashed potato, performs an act of defiance. If there’s art, creativity, inside of you, you have to let it out. Do not deny you have a soul, or the soul will become a demon, and it will eat you.

Trying to write for money nearly killed my desire to write in the first place. It’s likely there’s a good reason my novels never tickled an editor’s fancy, but an inability to court the art-world or write like a Hemingway or a Vonnegut is no reason not to write. My novels have taught me, and shaped me in ways that would not have happened if I’d spent every night in the pub, or watching trash TV. I dabble in watercolours too. I’m no good at it, and can only marvel at the masters, but I do enjoy working with colour. Poetry, comes and goes. Photography is more constant. I spent a good bit of yesterday setting up a shot of a watering can and a garden fork, then waiting for the sky to turn interesting. I don’t know why. Art can use technology, too. It all depends on how you use it. The picture isn’t going to win any competitions, but it’s what I saw and felt, what I was looking for, and what I was trying to express that’s the important thing. And I don’t always have words for that. Nor does it have to please anyone else.

I mention this to illustrate how when we get stuck with one form of expression, we simply turn to another. There’s an endless list of creative means. I’ve just adopted the ones that appeal to me. Thus, we cycle. If we’re not performing for money, it doesn’t matter. The work gets done, effortlessly, and the work is about you. It’s about building you by whatever means come to hand.

I enjoy reading blogs. But the blogs I follow are of a particular sort. They’re not selling anything, and are written by people with no agenda, other than to give vent to their creative energies. And what interesting personalities they are, each of them worthy of a glossy, hard-backed biography on the shelves in Waterstones, and these individual perspectives have shaped me too. But, other than through the semi-anonymity of the blogging medium, these authors have discovered the secret of contentment in being unknown. They do it because they enjoy it, and seek no explanation for it. But they’re growing their souls, and mine, all the same. They are, to quote Kurt Vonnegut again, “becoming”.

I remember an old trades union leader telling of looking up at a monolithic block of Brutlaist flats. To others, it would have presented a grey, depressing vision of “the masses”. But behind any one of those hundreds, or thousands of little windows, he said, was a potential philosopher, mathematician, writer, actor, social activist, or an inspirational leader, and to deny them the opportunity of “becoming” is the tragedy of a regressive society. To treat people as contemptible, as trash, is to diminish all people, everywhere.

I like the way Vonnegut put it in that opening quote. Yes, maybe the materialists are right, there’s no soul, no purpose, consciousness is an illusion, and we’re all just robots made of meat. Who am I to deny it? Yet, I deny it anyway. The soul is a work in progress. The tools we use are the whole panoply of creative expression. And if you don’t feel yourself to be naturally creative, you can always feed upon the art of others. Read. Look at pictures. Watch a play. Listen to music. But try not to fall for what is shallow – you can usually identify it by the fact its purpose is more to empty your pockets for little return, or to make you hate. Try to go deeper, into the sublime, and feel it. And what you will feel there, that is the only reality. Yes, there is certainly a world, a universe, without a soul, where we can erase all feelings with a pill, but it’s one we’ve created. I never said we were perfect, and perhaps it’s integral to the human condition that when it comes to the journey of the soul, we will always have a long way to go. So be creative for its own sake. Every day. It’s good for you. And it’s good for everyone else.

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I’ve been thinking about the Muse and how indiscriminate she is. The Muse is where the desire to create comes from. It’s a mysterious thing, a surge of something from deep in the imagination that we can overlay upon reality. It makes the mundane magical, blissful, sometimes even shocking. It’s partly of us, but mostly, I think, it’s something “other”. Men personify it as a woman, an angel, a goddess, because its nature is akin to love. You hear her singing a song that can lift you to heaven, while being perfectly aware, as in the siren song, it might also lure you to your doom. The choice is yours, the risk is yours, because she doesn’t care, and your biggest mistake is thinking she does.

It’s like now, heading out across Lancashire’s Harrock Hill in this beautiful, late afternoon winter’s sun. Winter is a time for trees, for the bare shapes of them against the sky. There are some good, ancient specimens here, lone trees in a gentle landscape, something expressive about them, like the header picture, in this case a pair of pollarded oaks, grown together like lovers to form between them, a single perfect hemispherical dome. They are expressive, though of what, I cannot say, only that the Muse has lured me out here, teasing me with the notion I might catch a glimpse of her, if I tread carefully.

So much rain these past weeks, the paths are deep in mud now, more Wellingtons than walking boots kind of terrain, more waxed thornproof than Goretex kind of walking. Last time I came this way, I saw a buzzard, close enough to get a picture of him. He’s out again today, but keeps a wary, camera-shy distance, circles the blue in lazy sweeps, pivoting the world about his wing-tip. No muse for him though, I’m thinking, poor creature, just the will to live, and to live he must eat, and to eat he must kill. Only we humans see the poetry in him, and then only some of us. Only we sense the magic behind his manifestation, and have the strange psychological disposition to romanticize it.

It’s quiet for a Covid afternoon. I encounter just the one family with an army of small, ferocious children and big, wet, bouncy dogs, wife with a voice like a foghorn and a friendly “hello”, husband with a face like slapped arse, sullen, trailing, and wishing he was somewhere else. I hear the children squealing from a mile away. If they’re not careful they’ll disturb the faery, and they really don’t want to do that. Mud and air, a low slanting sun and the noise of children. They’re loving it, as are the dogs, crazy, unconscious, delightful creatures. My own children are in their twenties now, and forever precious, but I miss them at that carefree, squealing age, the age before mud became irksome, and the world of men got hold of them.

Anyone can cop for this burning desire to create stuff. You don’t have to have gone to a posh school and talk like Hugh Grant. Fair enough, a good education helps you to think and express yourself, so that’s a plus. Then the posh school will instil in you a pathological self belief, so if you’re a career creative, that all adds up. But if you make it big or not, or die in obscurity – again – the Muse doesn’t care. Nor does she care if your fame spreads her gifts far and wide, or if you keep them a guarded secret along with the fluff in your pocket, it’s all the same to her. I’m not sure, but I think her motive is simply to offer you the chance to let her into your life, in some ways even to be your life. Any misunderstandings as regards the nature of the relationship that henceforth develops are all yours.

The philosopher Schopenhauer held a view that the only visible manifestation of the power behind the universe was in the blind will to life. This manifests itself in nature, which appears cruel and self consuming and, like our friend the buzzard, void of any real meaning – the sort of meaning a man might hope for against the odds, and keep the glimmer of it safe in a corner of his heart. But beyond the will, reckoned Schopenhauer, there was something else, something blissful, and that’s what artists feel, and strive to give expression to. That’s where the muse lives. Such glimpses of bliss are fickle though and, as I said before, she’s indiscriminate with her favours. She can point her finger at anyone, prince or pauper, articulate Bard or poor illiterate serf.

Speaking of princes and paupers, I’ve been reading an old biography I once wrote of the Wigan poet John Critchley Prince (1808-1866). Humble beginnings, self-educated and all that, born into grinding poverty not that far from here, and died the same way. His life was interesting, heroic in an unsung sort of way. It was also terribly hard and tragic, and a story without a happy ending. I wrote about Prince because I was interested in obscurity, and what drives men to create, even when no one is listening. He did find a little recognition along the way, but judged it toxic and irksome, so he destroyed it. Prince left behind several large volumes of poetry, but isn’t considered to be one of the greats – just a minor poet, as they say – but those volumes speak of the power of the muse, and how she can drive a man all his life to create a prolific body of work, regardless of its worth to anyone else, or to posterity. She possessed him through thick and thin, and in the end she turned him to drink, and then she killed him.

Then there’s the novel I’m reading, Niall Williams’ “This is Happiness”, and his description of the musicians in the pubs of Ireland’s west, in the early ’60’s, before electricity, and maybe for centuries before that. They were unassuming men, men who came together, and all forgotten now, but who for a night, for even just an hour of spontaneous reels, became perfect channels for the Muse, and made a music that the listeners carried in their hearts to the end of their days.

Danger, beauty, bliss. You’d better be careful courting her, but so long as you can arrive at that delicate understanding, your life will be all the better for having her in it, be it in poetry, art, the writing, or even just in the shapes of trees.

Speaking of muses, men are also prone to projecting them onto mortal females, imagining them timeless, ageless. Here’s one from fifty years ago:

Keep well, and thanks for listening.

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man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885I’ve been getting a sudden flurry of comments on Wattpad. They’re all roughly the same, telling me I’ve won Premier Membership but if you click the link it simply takes you to a story that “cannot be found”. It’s some sort of scam then, the purpose of which eludes me, but more of that later.

Wattpad is one of many self-publishing platforms now. I’ve been on there for ages, with mixed results. The Seaview Cafe topped out at around 4000 reads, which was great, but other stuff hasn’t been read at all. This is probably because I don’t game it. It’s a social network you see, and as with all such things you have to spend time building it up, virtual schmoozing and following others in order to get the clicks. But I’m socially inept, and prefer just to write.

Wattpad sells advertising. Writers use it as a vehicle for self expression, while readers read their stuff for free, and as we go along we all get served these adverts. Adverts are annoying, but so long as you can forgive them Wattpad’s maybe worth a look if you’re starting out, and you’re the chatty type, but best not taken too seriously because a writer needs to be careful they don’t lose their way.

The Wattpad model has changed recently, a kind of ‘premium membership’ being rolled out, a select group of writers testing a “paid” model. Also, if the rest of us agree to a subscription, they’ll spare us the adverts. Payment to writers is based on donations – we buy virtual coins which we toss into the writer’s hat if we like their stuff. I don’t know who those writers are, so I suppose they’ll have to be promoted in some way – sexy mugshots and all that, no English teeth, and no one over thirty five?

But this is beginning to sound like conventional publishing – about half a dozen chosen ones awarded most of the budget, and the rest dividing the pennies between them. According to the blurb, all writers will be able to join the paid ranks eventually, and that’s alluring if you’re chasing the idea of writing for a living, but unless you have millions of readers, you’ll be lucky if you make the price of a cup of coffee. And with the money of course will come the scammers, because they always find a way, and I suppose those spurious comments I’m getting now are the first exploratory wave of that.

But if Wattpad changes, or stays the same, it’s irrelevant to those of us writing the stories, because the important thing is always the story, I mean as it’s being written and experienced by you the writer, also in future years, when you’re revising and reliving the adventure, when maybe you start to wonder what the hell you were on about back then, or you realise how much your outlook’s changed, and which bits you thought were profoundly insightful turn out to have been merely stupid. Thus, in part, the story always serves you first. That’s your reward. There may also be a greater purpose, but that’s complicated and mysterious and, it may not be true, but here goes:

Most writers who’ve been at it for a decade or more already know the chances of making an actual living by it are zero, so you wonder why you’re still in the game, and that’ll take some time, maybe even another decade, and in the mean time, with luck, you’ll still be writing. My own vague conclusion at the end of this process is that writers, known or not, are explorers of the possibilities of imagination, and exploration is typically a human thing to do. And some of us can’t help it.

But more than that, all stories are based on a set of myths that rise from the deep unconscious, and there aren’t that many of them. We saw them first played out in stories from all those ancient civilisations – like the Mesopotamians, the Greeks, and the Egyptians – but they’ve been re-told in an infinite number of ways since, because times change and the myths need re-imagining for each generation. We writers needn’t be aware of this process, but if we analyse our own stories enough and dig deeply into myth we’ll find similarities. We’ll realise we’re basically saying the same thing.

And then there’s this theory that without an ongoing process of mythical renewal, the Gods might get the impression we’re no longer listening to them, so they’ll start stirring things up by unleashing troublesome daemons among us, hastening our decent into barbarism, so something fresh can rise from the ruins. So, creative types on this side of the divide try to avoid the ruination by placating the Gods, the Daemons, the Muses, or whatever by taking notes, by refashioning the myths to keep them fresh in people’s heads.

Well that’s fine, you say, but no publisher’s interested, so you stick your damned story online where you’re lucky if half a dozen people see it. What’s the point in that? Well, that’s not your problem. You’ve done your bit, and it may be that if only a dozen people see it, then maybe they’re the only ones it needed to speak to. And yes, all right, that’s romantic, and wishful, and a somewhat daring thing to say in the wrong company, but it has a certain mythical charm to it, and I like to believe in it.

But the main thing is writers on social media should be wary of getting hung up on the clicks, or the coins, or the comments, or whatever, because it’ll kill your craft, and they don’t mean a damn to your primary purpose anyway, which is simply to keep going, deep into the woods, every day.

 

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IMG_20170821_213323_429Now and then you’ll come across one of my novels popping up on Amazon, even though I don’t publish on Amazon and prefer to give them away. Instead, someone calling themselves Michael Graeme, will steal one of my titles, stick it on there and charge money for it. I know,… I’ve talked about this before, but anyway,…

It’s a common issue faced by all creatives working in the digital sphere. Why? because our “product” is easy to replicate and distribute. You just cut and paste. And it’s not just text of course: music, photographs, videos, computer-apps, games, databases, information,… you name it, it’s all vulnerable to filching. But does it matter? Should we not be viewing this ease of reproduction more as an indicator of a strange but bright new future?

Those wealthy enough can protect themselves to a degree, or at least they can for now. Indeed there’s a whole industry built up around digital rights management to prevent file copying, but the ways of defeating it are morphing faster than the defences can adapt – that’s just the nature of digital technology. So, do we accept piracy as a hazard against which there is no realistic defence long term? And more,… is this an indicator of the changing nature of society, of what we understand as industry, work and value?

It’s hard to imagine a cultural shift when you’re still living in the last vestiges of the old one. Science fiction writers and futurologists can have a stab at it. The most I’ll venture with any certainty is that in fifty years our current era will seem like the stone age, socially, technologically and economically.

The shift began with the ability to “cut and paste”. It renders anything you create, digitally, worthless, at least in traditional money terms, even if you’ve spent years working on it. How come? Well, you only need to apply the basic rule of economics which states the price of anything is proportional to its scarcity, and anything so easily reproducible as a computer file isn’t exactly scarce is it? unless rendered artificially so by technological countermeasures, and they will always have the tide of anarchy against them.

So the future is looking like a place where our traditionally paid labours are worth nothing, and all information based “products” produced by those labours won’t be worth anything either, at least by contemporary economic rules. For a time I’m sure there’ll be an elite of celebrity artists who continue to be paid handsomely via the old model, their works protected by a stout, metaphorical ring-fence of barbed wire, but by then they’ll be servicing exclusively a societal elite holed up in their security patrolled mansions – these being the crooks and the psychopaths still looking for ways to game the old system for maximum profit at the expense of the rest of us. All this even as that old system atrophies around them. And in part, they’ll do this by hoarding and guarding what bits of tangible capital remain and renting it out to the rest of us.

Already we have a generation who own nothing. They rent their homes, their cars, their phones. There’s even talk of retail models whereby we rent the very clothes we’re wearing. Stop paying, pause for breath on that tread-mill of the damned, and you’ll literally be left naked and broke as the day you were born. But I’m sure that’ll just be a temporary end-phase, that it’ll last no more than a generation, a necessary period of reflection for impressing upon us the need to think differently about the notion of value, of what we value and how we value it. And then, all writers, like everyone else, will be producing stuff for free, simply because they want to. And whatever we need, even the clothes on our backs, others will produce for free as well.

The alternative, at least for the ninety nine percent of us who own nothing, is a form of unwaged slavery, but I don’t think that’s going to happen because when a man has nothing left to lose, he’s impossible to control. And the greedy freaks, the one percent who go on hoarding wealth will be reviled and shamed and shunned to the remotest desert isles with all the money in the world to play with, money that’s worth nothing any more. And then the very notion of piracy will have become a quaint old fashioned term, one we must look up in the OED, then shake our heads in wonder such a strange phenomenon ever existed in the first place. An egalitarian utopia? Unlikely, I know, but the opposite doesn’t bear thinking about either, though I admit for now it seems the more likely outcome.

I remain optimistic though, and if I’m right, the future isn’t what it used to be. But at least I know why I give my stories away – I mean apart from it being easier and less self destructive: I suppose I’ve simply always been ahead of my time.

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It was Pablo Picasso who said: all children are artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. The fact that so many of don’t is a serious problem – it was me who said that last bit, not Pablo – and I don’t mean ‘serious’ economically or politically. I mean we risk making our souls sick. Another fine artist, the writer Kurt Vonnegut said of art, and I paraphrase slightly for artistic purposes: it’s not a way to make a living, more a way to make living bearable.

In 2006, he wrote to Xavier High School in New York by way of reply to pupils inviting him to come and speak at the school. He was one of many venerated authors so invited, and the only one to reply, which perhaps says much about the majority of venerated professional authors. Vonnegut declined to visit on account of his great age, but the Xavier Letter is now legendary, and encapsulates very well his philosophy regarding the true value of art – not as a means to make a living, nor to gain approval, or praise, or fame, but on a more fundamental, vital and deeply personal level, to experience what he called ‘becoming’.

Here it is, read aloud by another fine old artist, none other than Gandalf the Grey:

We can think of life in very complicated terms, I know I often do. Indeed we can make it as complicated as we like, or we can pare it down to more manageable proportions, perhaps even to something akin to a Zen Haiku, instead of Wordsworth’s Prelude, and that Haiku might say something like: we’re born, we fart around for a bit, and then we die, but inbetween we have a chance to grow some soul – I’m paraphrasing Vonnegut again, but he definitely said fart, though not in that letter to Xavier High School. And the best way to grow some soul is through the practice of art, any kind of art that takes your fancy.

But the problem with art is you cannot write an app to do it. And since the endgame of unbridled Capital is to complete the grand project of reducing the entire world to nothing more than the sum of its parts in pursuit of maximum profit, then art – and especially amateur art, which neither computes, nor ever pays the bills – is going to get itself rubbed out. It’ll be dropped from all the school curriculums as those fiendishly clever little chaps with their apps pare the money down until only Maths and English and Science survives the reckoning, these being the tick-in-a-box, sure-fire CV gold-star employability type subjects.

Then we’ll all spend our days between birth and death writing yet more little apps to hang off the iron brain of the human universe. And it’ll be a profitable place, that universe, at least for those who own the iron brain, but it will also be a place without much soul, a place where the farting will have become everything of value, and where none of us will be anything other than robots made of meat, and valued not a jot, and where life for anyone with a brain, and a longing for some kind of meaning – which is just about all of us – will become utterly unbearable.

So,… by all means value your Maths and your English, and your Sciences – I know I do – and make no mistake, their diligent pursuit makes for a decent pay-packet in return, even in these most straightened of times – but do art as well, and experience the mystery and the magical, intangible rewards of ‘becoming’.

Write that poem. Dance that dance. Sing that song. Don’t do it for money, or praise or fame.

Do it for yourself.

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rhinogI return from Wales feeling a bit flat. This is normal. Wales was beautiful and silent and very, very grand, but then I come home to find the garden around my ears, at least the bits of it not killed by drought, and there’s a pile of mail already nagging at me like flies, and the shower’s bust at the first twist of the dial so you can’t turn it off and the water’s gushing down the plughole and a drought order hanging over us.

So I’m wishing myself already paddling again like a little boy on Harlech beach, shoes and socks in hand, and for a short time not a care in the world, or walking a quiet stretch of rural lane of an evening, watching the sun set over the Llyn, and then a glass of Malt on the terrace of my little cottage as the moon rises over the Barmouth hills.

I fixed the shower with a blob of glue, which should hold until the next time someone uses it, and then I spent the day researching shower units to replace the broken one without needing to redecorate the entire bathroom and I ordered one off Amazon, thus neatly pushing the problem out in time to the mercy of the oppressed delivery man. And then I sat, and I tried to pick up a few threads of writing, but they were elusive, or maybe it was because the phone was in my hand and I’m glued to it already, like an addict, to the fall of the western world.

I learn that in my absence, it has been decided we are to stockpile food and medicines in warehouses that have not existed since 1945, and we’re to borrow generators from the army to keep the lights on in Northern Ireland. This sounds like fiction, the plot of a Ballardian dystopia, perhaps? It cannot actually be true, can it? It’s merely a ruse of those cheeky tabloids, something to show Johnny Foreigner we mean business, and we’ll damned well live off Spam post BREXIT, if it means we can still wag our Agincourt fingers. Or maybe these are the first Machiavellian priming strokes of a second BREXIT referendum, because who in their right mind is going to vote for Spam when we were promised milk and honey?

Then I’m sucked sideways into an article on the whys and wherefores of writing, and how it’s good for the soul and all that, and how money’s not the important thing, and just as well, and who can argue, except in the last paragraph I discover the writer’s just flogging his book on how to write, which is rather bad form, but not entirely unexpected because that’s the kind of world we live in – everyone a chancer and a spiv now.

Then another serendipitous swerve has me bumping into Vonnegut, a writer I don’t know that well, but he seems like a good egg, and he’s telling me yeah, you know it’s true, Mike, art’s not about making a living, it’s about making the living bearable,… which is something to ponder I suppose while we’re tucking into that Spam and wondering where our next tank of petrol’s coming from. At least we will have our art, except we don’t encourage it in schools any more, so we won’t even have that.

And I’m wondering about rushing out to Tescos to stockpile my own “no deal” BREXIT larder – hint, tins and dried stuff – and again feeling this terrible post holiday blues, and Vonnegut’s talking about just writing stuff because all there is is life and death and inbetween there’s this brief opportunity to grow some soul, and that’s where the writing comes in. For you. Your self. To grow some soul. You see, Mike? And I’m nodding my agreement because I’ve been living that story for a while now, but sometimes,… sometimes you forget, don’t you?

Except,…

I can’t forget that view inland from the Barmouth viaduct – that great sandy funnel of the Mawddach Estuary at tide’s ebb, or again in the evening with the flood roaring around the pilings and covering up the sand with quicksilver again, and the green mountains beyond, the mist and the light playing upon them in endless symphonies of mood.

And there’s been this poem trying to take shape in my head, something about those mountains not remembering, or the trees, or the hoary stones, or the foxgloves nodding in the sleepy lane. Not remembering what? I don’t know, but that’s what the poem’s trying to get at you see?

And it goes:

The hills will not remember,
Nor these scattered, hoary stones,
Nor the foxgloves
Nodding in the sleepy lanes,
Nor the oaks whose leaves,
Turning now their backs,
Anticipate the rains,…

There’s more, but I can’t feel the shape of it yet. It’s being driven most powerfully by the memory of a nearly full pre blooded Welsh moon rising, white as death over green hills and into a queer, luminous turquoise, and the air is warm and the night is still, and quiet. Then there’s the scent of that Islay malt I’m sipping, and it’s reminding me of another country, that’s also my own, a place I’ve not seen in thirty five years, but whose impressions remain strong, a place that doesn’t remember me either. And then there’s that other place, land of my grandfather I’ve yet to visit, and that’s been bothering me awfully of late. But in the main I’m thinking it’s a human thing, this curse of remembering, and those hoary stones and that Welsh moon are all the better for being without it.

Yes,… confusing I know – I’m English and Welsh and Scots and Irish, and I’m a European too, and proud of it. Identity is whatever you want it to be, and it’s best to let it stretch as wide as possible than to narrow it down so much it throttles the life out of us. Dammit what’s happening? Can we not fight back?

So, the poem? Okay, I think I know what it’s getting at now. It’s going to tell me that I am the mountains and the trees and the hoary stones, and all that, and even the foxgloves nodding in the sleepy lane, and that what I feel most keenly at times like these is my separation and a loneliness at the oneness now broken, yet reflected still in the things that are largely untouched, like the hills and the hoary stones, and the trees and the silver moon rising and that view up the Mawddach Estuary. It’s that final realisation on the path to healing the rift with this aching sense of “the other”, that in the final analysis there is “no other”. But that’s a tough sell when you’re drunk on secularism, or scientism, or religion 101, or that petty, petty nationalism, and all that’s holding the whole damned shower together these days is a blob of fucking glue.

(Sorry for the F Word)

Graeme out.

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man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885Publishing a novel? Well, it’s easy. Anyone can publish a novel these days. You write it, then you put it on the Internet. You do it yourself through a blog, serving it out of a Dropbox account, or use the likes of Smashwords, Wattpad, FreeEbooks, Amazon, and sundry others I’ve yet to make the acquaintance of, who serve it out for you. Your work gets published for free and people will read it. Guaranteed. Simple. Amazon and Smashwords even let you set a fee, so you can actually make money at it. The downside? Unless you go viral, don’t expect to make more than pocket-money, and your chances of going viral are about the same as coming up on the lottery. People come up on the lottery all the time, but the chances are it won’t be you, so don’t bank on it. Most likely you’ll make nothing at all.

I can feel your disappointment right there, because money’s the thing, isn’t it? What you really want to know is how to make serious money at it, or maybe even just enough to quit the day job and write full time. So, let’s go there. You write your novel and, if you don’t fancy online self-publishing, or it just doesn’t seem real to you, then send it to a traditional publisher or a literary agent. But this route is even more like a lottery. Someone always wins, but the chances are you won’t. In fact, the odds are so stacked against you doing it this way, it makes more sense not to bother, and only a fool would waste years filling out their ticket anyway.

There are exceptions, not to be cynical, but you need an edge. Your name needs to be widely known for some other reason, either by fair means or foul, because publishing’s about selling and names sell. Or you need an influential contact in the industry, someone who can sing your praises to a commissioning editor. Or you can enter your novel for a prestigious literary prize, but that’s an even bigger lottery. Either way, without your invite to the party, you’re not getting in, and that’s just the way it is. Always has been.

Persistence pays? Yes, I’ve heard that too, mostly from published literary types selling tips to writers who can’t get published, and maybe it’s true, worth a dabble perhaps, but don’t waste your life trying . Don’t spend decades hawking that novel, constantly raking back over old ground with rewrites, moving commas this way and that and coming up with yet one more killer submission, then beating yourself up when it’s rejected. Again. Don’t lie awake at night grinding your teeth, wondering what’s wrong with you, wondering why no one wants to publish your story. Chances are you’ll never know. So let it go, it’s done. Now write another.

What is a writer for? Do they create purely in order to give pleasure to others? Or do they do it for the money? Do they crave critical acclaim? Or is it more simply to satisfy a need in themselves? Why does anyone create anything that serves no practical purpose? I mean, come on, it’s just a story after all.

In my own writing I explore things, ideas that interest me. I enjoy painting and drawing too, but it’s the writing that gets me down to the nitty gritty, writing that is the true melting pot of thought, the alchemists alembic through which I attempt a kind of self-sublimation, a transformation from older, less skilful ways of thinking, and through which I try to make sense of a largely unintelligible world. The finished product, the novel, the story, the poem or whatever, is almost incidental, but until it’s finished the conundrum, the puzzle I’ve set myself isn’t complete. Completion is the last piece of the jigsaw, the moment of “Aha!” – or more often a wordless understanding that signifies a shift in consciousness, hopefully one in the right direction.

I know this isn’t what writing’s about for others. But most likely those others are a good deal younger than I am, and not as well acquainted with the realities of hawking the written word in exchange for a living. I’ve been writing for fifty years, never made a bean, haven’t even tried since ’98.  This is just the way it’s evolved for me, but don’t let that put you off. You do what you want. You may get lucky, or die trying.

How to get a novel published? Other than giving it away online, who knows? It’s always been a mystery to me, but in one sense persistence does indeed pay, in that it eventually yields a little known secret about getting yourself published, and I’ll share it with you now: when it comes to the art of writing, getting yourself published isn’t really the most important thing.

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drawing

Moonlit hills with Landrover

I still have my sketchbooks from school (1972-77). I was a more prolific drawer then than I am now, more driven, more inspired I think, whether I was actually any good or not is another question and it isn’t relevant anyway. All that matters is I was drawing, creating, doing, all the time. And mostly I was doing it without thought or care for an audience. Once you start doing it with a view to pleasing someone else, you’re screwed because then the lens of imagination through which you view the world dissolves. It’s like the tide going out, and then instead of the light dancing on the waves, all you see is a dreary plane of mud.

Life as a young teen is a hotbed of emotion, of unrequited love, of poetry, of romantic adventure, and every day a mystery to be solved. I did not write much then, suspected writing was for experts, had yet to discover it was also for poseurs and fools, that it led more often to obscurity, alcholoism and destitution than to fame and riches. I drew instead. A drawing can be a doodle in the margin of an exercise book, or it can cover a sheet of A0. It’s still a drawing, and it can still mean something to the drawer.

If I drew for anyone at all it was for a mysterious and entirely imaginary “other” who was always watching, but in a benign way, like I imagined my teachers were watching, assessing, marking. Sometimes I projected the watcher out onto all sorts of people, made protective sages of them when in fact they were nobody, just adults caught up in their own small lives, and oblivious of mine. It took a while to work that one out.

I see themes emerging in those drawings that would shape my later imagination and are still with me – the archetypal women, presence in a landscape, and a hunger for the hidden meaning of past lives as evidenced by their time-weathered remains in the present day – the ruins, the megalithic markers and other fey geomancies.

I’m being selective here. Flipping through my sketchbooks I see there were also fast cars and guns, but they belonged to adolescence, and have been left there where they belong. All of this was idiosyncratic yet of inestimable value, and if only I could understand it and present it to the mysterious “watcher” then all things would be resolved and the world would be a much better place.

I could not see then what I see now, that it was a personal quest, that all lives are founded on myth, some borrowed, some told, some self invented. Myths grant meaning to life, and I was inventing my own, rejecting the native mythologies of Albion and Christianity, things I suspect are common enough among teens who tend towards loneliness and misanthropy.

The picture above is one I drew in 1974 or thereabouts – I’d be thirteen. I remember it meaning something to me then, as it does still, though it’s physical manifestation is now fading and smudged. This is its first wider airing, but I use it only to illustrate a point. It changes nothing, means nothing to anyone other than me, speaks only to my own myth, looks a bit childish actually – indeed I recall my art teacher commented that it was “a corny and rather bland response” to a homework assignment. Oh, Miss T, you were such a stern mistress.

I see reverence for landscape, for exploration, for field skills. We are also looking at moonlight here, a big moon rising, rendering in paleness and deep shadow an endlessly pristine landscape – something slightly pagan about it too in the way the figure pays homage as he contemplates the endless feminine swell of the land. All of these are themes, symbols that still animate me four and a half decades later.

Miss T told me to stop drawing from imagination, or my work would stagnate. Nor was she ever impressed by cleverness with line – look, Miss, it’s a Landrover!. She preferred more the spontaneous Rosrchashis splash and daub of the avant guard – and who was I to argue with an art graduate from the University of Manchester? I did as I was told, and my work stagnated anyway. There was never anything inspirational, I found, in drawing wood shavings from observation, nor in splashing and daubing murky poster paint on sugar paper. The key insight of youth is that while many adults profess wisdom, sometimes they’re just bull-shitting. The trick is to tell the difference, and I’m still working on that.

But what I do know for sure is what we bring out of ourselves in the act of creation is like wiping the mist from a mirror, revealing aspects of ourselves hitherto hidden from awareness. But more than that is it is also a means of rendering unconscious elements of the psyche conscious. We live our art primarily for ourselves. Our vision may be corny in the eyes others more erudite, should we be inclined to exhibit, but some of us are slower to grasp the existential axioms, if such there be. It does not mean we are barred from the artistic life, which means of course, all the clever critics tossing spitballs at our work, can cheerfully go take a running jump.

Some say art should shock, that it should shake the foundations of the world, that is should prove a visceral reaction, and I can relate to that. But I am not working for the revolutionaries, and if I seek an audience at all it is comprised of others like me, inhabiting that same zone of liminality, a place of infinite strangeness and shadow. Look, I’m saying. I’ve felt this, seen this. You may have seen it too.

I don’t understand it either, but it’s probably okay.

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