Lessness by Samuel Beckett (1970)

Never but dream the days and nights made of dreams of other nights better days. He will live again the space of a step it will be day and night again over him the endlessness.

Beckett’s writings as antidote to the modern world

Sometime around 1802, that’s to say 220 years ago, William Wordsworth wrote:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

And nowadays, via smartphones and social media, probably the majority of the population has invited the world right inside their brains, addicting many people to the mini-dopamine hits created by an unending stream of updates on every aspect of an over-wired world, from their friends’ latest makeup secrets to attempted coups in America. Surveys show that people check their smartphones every 12 minutes and spend two and a half hours a day staring at their tiny screens.

Beckett is an antidote to all this. In a world where everything is reduced to easily assimilable, shorter and shorter bite-sized snippets designed to provoke the crudest emotions of mirth or outrage, Beckett’s texts are messages from another planet, one right on the edge of known experience or comprehension. The mere fact that each reader struggles to make sense of many of Beckett’s works, or to make their own sense of it, is a blessèd relief.

Beckett’s nihilism has a place but isn’t the whole story

I can see that the ostensible ‘content’ of much of Beckett often circles around ideas of physical decrepitude, mental collapse, describes human relations which have decayed into the grave and beyond, allegorical figures crawling through mud for years or trapped inside tiny white spaces.

  • Blank planes sheer white calm eye light of reason all gone from mind.
  • Head through calm eye all light white calm all gone from mind.
  • Face to calm eye touch close all calm all white all gone from mind.

And many people respond to his insistent imagery of collapse, decay and futility very strongly – in a positive way if it helps express their own sense of futility, or very negatively if they find his unceasing emphasis on collapse, decay and futility too negative and depressing to handle.

But for me literature is first and foremost about words and how they are deployed. As a middle-aged man whose family has been through various stresses and traumas, I understand where his content is coming from, I can appreciate its grimness, I witnessed at first hand the physical and mental decline and gruelling deaths of my parents, I sometimes feel in myself the symptoms of decay he writes about – all of that is very vividly captured in text after text.

But I also know the world is huge and contains an enormous range of happy and joyful human experiences as well, which are never covered in his writings and that a healthy mental attitude has space for both. My father’s dementia was real and upsetting but it didn’t negate the joy and happiness of playing with my baby son.

Beckett’s subject matter has its place in what you could call a total overview of the human condition, but it is not the be-all and end-all of the human condition. It is one take (a very powerful, haunting take) on one aspect of human existence.

Beckett’s language as a liberation from sense

I’m struggling to express the idea that you can fully and deeply read his works, especially the prose works, without being depressed by them. The opposite. Although the ostensible subject matter may be about mental collapse and decay, the language it is written in and the elaborate structures he creates with his stylised language, can be fantastically liberating.

One way of thinking about it is that Beckett writes at an angle away from ordinary life as most of us live it, in a style of language which is just over the horizon of how any of us think or create sentences, read or write or talk, ourselves – and so it consistently shows us other ways, other possibilities of mental life.

If we take these two elements, style and content – the title of this piece, Lessness, clearly indicates its continuity with Beckett’s interest in collapse, inanition, sparsity and the minimal. In fact it is an attempt to translate the French word Sans which is the title of the original French version of the piece. Possibly Lessness is less good than Sans. At first sight it seems a bit obvious, like a bit of a cliché, another predictable iteration of Beckett’s core theme.

But the actual text is anything but a cliché. The text is something as weird and different now as it was 50 years ago. Here’s the first sentence:

Ruins true refuge long last towards which so many false time out of mind.

It feels like the words are themselves the ruins of longer sentences which once made sense. Maybe it can be parsed as: the ruins are the true refuge towards which, at long last, the speaker or voice or sentence is heading towards after so many false starts, which have been going on time our of mind.

This trope, the endless attempts to start again and try to end an account, to complete a narrative, can’t go on, must go on, features in numerous Beckett texts and is (for me) best expressed in the brilliant radio play Cascando. The central idea is familiar – but if you open your mind to the flow of the words they, for me, open up new mental vistas:

Ruins true refuge long last towards which so many false time out of mind. All sides endlessness earth sky as one no sound no stir. Grey face two pale blue little body heart beating only upright. Blacked out fallen open four walls over backwards true refuge issueless.

Carl Andre’s Equivalents

It’s another example of the central Beckett technique of repetition: ‘Develop a set of key words or phrases. Repeat with variations.’ The technique is cognate with musical composition but words are not music. The technique is closer to minimalist art.

When I was a boy, in 1976, there was a firestorm of criticism in the philistine press at the fact that the Tate Gallery had paid £2,300 for an artwork by minimalist artist Carl Andre titled Equivalent VIII. The eight equivalents consist of 120 firebricks arranged in different simple geometric shapes. Personally I think they’re, well I won’t say ‘genius’, but I like the simplicity of the idea, I like what it says about how you can ring the changes with very simple elements, using the same elements over and over to create an eerie, abstract kind of beauty. I like its crispness and asperity.

The Equivalents series by Carl Andre

Their whiteness is important. The rejection of any colour. Their shape and arrangement set up dynamics in your mind. Repetition of the same basic components, but with teasing and beguiling variations.

Repetition with variation

The visual effect of the Carl Andre is comparable to the verbal effect of Lessness, which is dense with repeated words and phrases, positioned and repositioned so you can admire the angles, enjoy the patterning. Thus the word ‘ruin’ appears 26 times, ‘grey’ 52, ‘earth’ 22, ‘sky’ 30. The phrase ‘gone from mind’ occurs 17 times, the phrase ‘little body’ 22 times.

Scattered ruins same grey as the sand ash grey true refuge. Four square all light sheer white blank planes all gone from mind. Never was but grey air timeless no sound figment the passing light. No sound no stir ash grey sky mirrored earth mirrored sky. Never but this changelessness dream the passing hour.

There does appear to be a human in the text: We are told he will curse God, he has a little body, cracked face, two holes for eyes, looking up at the sky, it will rain, it will rain again.

On him will rain again as in the blessed days of blue the passing cloud

So, if we’re searching for literal meaning, maybe it’s a typical Beckett tramp in a typical Beckett ditch exposed to the typically harsh elements. Although he’s also said to be in sand. Is he on a beach?

  • He will stir in the sand there will be stir in the sky the air the sand.
  • In the sand no hold one step more in the endlessness he will make it.
  • One step in the ruins in the sand on his back in the endlessness he will make it.

While we’re trying to get our head round the variations, Beckett –as is his habit – throws in a few swearwords to épater le bourgeoisie (although nothing as rude as the words we came across in How It Is):

Little body little block genitals overrun arse a single block grey crack overrun.

For those who seek symbolism in literature it appears as if the human figure is the only upright object among the ruins but is also on his back in the sand (22 instances) and ash (18). Contradiction. Paradox. Mirror images.

And insofar as the text describes, or at least references, the notion of a ‘refuge’, it can be manipulated into being ‘about’ man the refugee – a very fashionable concern of our times – endlessly seeking a refuge which is in fact in ruins, haven denied, no home, the endless rain, sand and ash. It has just enough semantic content to snare our minds, but is abstract enough to take almost any concern or idea we wish to project onto it.

Patterns and structures

As it happens, in a neat coincidence (if it is a coincidence) just as Andre’s sculpture Equivalent VIII consists of 120 bricks, so Becket’s prose work Lessness consists of 120 sentences. In fact, digging a little deeper, you discover the entire piece is the creation of a fantastically structuring imagination.

For some printed editions include a dotted line half way through to emphasise that the second 60 repeat the first 60 but in a different order. Because Beckett wrote each sentence on a separate piece of paper and drew them from a hat at random. He then wrote the numbers 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 on other sheets of paper and drew these at random to determine how many sentences would appear in each paragraph.

The sentences are structured around 6 families of images. In some print editions Beckett gives a guide to them with his usual mathematical precision:

  • Group A: collapse of refuge, key word ‘refuge’
  • Group B: outer world, key words ‘earth sky’
  • Group C: body exposed, key words ‘little body’
  • Group D: refuge forgotten, key phrase ‘all gone from mind’
  • Group E: past and future denied, key word ‘never’
  • Group F: past and future affirmed, key phrase ‘he will’

As Beckett put it, the text weaves through the family of images in, first, one random (dis)order (60 sentences) and then in another. It is a tale of two disorders, each containing, paradoxically, precisely the same 769 words although, to paraphrase Eric Morecambe, not necessarily in the same order.

Aleatory art

In the 1950s John Cage pioneered an aleatory process of composition whereby some elements of the composition are defined but their order, their length, the notes themselves and their pitch, were determined by ‘random’ inputs created by throwing dice or other randomising procedures. In fact Marcel Duchamps and Dadaists had experimented with this approach during the Great War. So Beckett was coming late to a well-established avant-garde practice.

The Beckett Companion (from which the section above is copied) states that this is the only time Beckett experimented with such a strictly aleatory approach, and I think you can see why: that a random approach is never entirely random. After all the author defined the themes, chose the words which express them, invented the number 120 and that it would consist of the same 60 sentences repeated – all this is chosen, is created, before the aleatory element which is, in the overall context, a relatively minor part of the process. The cherry on the cake.

BBC radio production

Interestingly, Lessness was given a full-blown radio production and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 7 May 1971. The six ‘image families’ were distributed among six different actors, namely Donal Donnelly, Leonard Fenton, Denys Hawthorne, Patrick Magee, Harold Pinter and Nicol Williamson, directed by Martin Esslin.

The fact this could be done shows there’s more to Lessness than meets the eye. That it exists (as one of the commentaries says) at a place where prose and drama meet. It’s another tangent, or angle from ‘normal’ prose, at which the text operates and which, to repeat my opening point, makes it a kind of antidote to the obvious and the immediate which is what we mostly meet with in contemporary culture.

I’ve searched high and low on the internet for a version of that 1971 BBC production but can’t find it. If anyone has the link I’d love to hear from you.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • Lessness (1970) Short prose
  • The Lost Ones (1966-70) Short prose
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • Fizzles (1973 to 1975) Short prose pieces
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • … but the clouds… (1976) Television play
  • neither (1976)
  • For to End Yet Again (1976)
  • Ghost Trio (1977) Television play
  • Company (1979) Short story
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1988) Short prose

All Strange Away by Samuel Beckett (1964)

But sudden gleam that whatever words given to let fall soundless in the dark that if no sound better none, all right, try sound and if no better say quite speechless, imagine sound and not till then all that black hair toss back into the corner baring face as about to when this happened.

All Strange Away is a powerful short prose text by Samuel Beckett first published in English in 1964. I thought it would be another monologue by a decrepit old man crawling to the end, but although that is the general tone, it is something slightly different. It seems to be the monologue of someone arguing with themselves about how to imagine the scene and the character he’s trying to describe. What scene and what character? Well, there’s the challenge.

Light off and let him be, on the stool, talking to himself in the last person, murmuring, no sound, Now where is he, no, Now he is here. Sitting, standing, walking, kneeling, crawling, lying, creeping, in the dark and in the light, try all.

‘Try all’ seems to be the operative phrase. The narrator, or writer, tries a series of attempts to get down what it is he is trying to convey, imagining various trials or situations or conditions to subject his (fictional) protagonist to. Shall he drag his character out of his frowsy deathbed and off to some place to die in?

Out of the door and down the road in the old hat and coat like after the war, no, not that again.

‘Not that again.’ In the very same sentences where he’s making the suggestions, he refutes them, realises their hopelessness, negates his suggestions even as he makes them. Above all acknowledges the element of hopeless repetition, with the word ‘again’:

A place, that again. Never another question. A place, then someone in it, that again…

OK, a place, let’s start with conceiving a place, what will it be like? He imagines a place five foot square but six foot high – ‘just room to stand and revolve…floor like bleached dirt’ – the light comes on, the character is on a stool, talking in ‘the last person’, light on, takes off coat, no he’s naked, leave it on, he speaks but makes no sound, black sheets of paper gummed to the walls but they, also, reflect the pitiless glare. He has a black shroud on, this character, when the light goes on he gets down on his hands and knees searching for pins in this box, the the light goes off and he still searches, for years this goes on, he clutches the shroud round him till it rots to black ‘flitters’.

The long sentences made up of fragmented clauses are so pared-back that all kinds of syntactic arrangements between the fragments are possible or implied. Used to reading normal, fully-worded, consecutive prose, the reader keeps finding themself completing Beckett’s fragments and sentences, which has two results: 1. it makes the sentences and passages (if you let them, if you’re in the mood) feel incredibly dynamic, packed and overflowing with implications 2. which explains the eerie combination of a frustrating and yet deeply addictive reading experience.

As he was, in the dark any length, then the light when it flows still it ebbs any length, then again, so on, sitting, standing, walking, kneeling, crawling, lying, creeping, all any length, no paper, no pins, no candle, no matches, never were, talking to himself no sound in the last person any length, five foot square, six high, all white when light at full, no way in, none out.

What does he look like, the imagined protagonist?

Imagine eyes burnt ashen blue and lashes gone, lifetime of unseeing glaring, jammed open, one lightning wince per minute on earth, try that.

On the walls are eight pictures, two per wall, light on, no, say one per wall, pictures of who?

Sex

And here we come to another common characteristic of these mid-period Beckett pieces, which is sex. Many of these plays or narratives get so far and then… Beckett seems to run out of ideas and resorts to male-female love, to admittedly pathetic decrepit parodies of romantic love, but love nonetheless.

I’m thinking in particular of the way that, from all the possible memories of his young self and his former life, Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape ends up settling on just one golden memory, of himself lying in a field with his hand on his true love’s breast.

Same here. Something very weird and abstract abruptly plunges into the all-too-inevitable subject of love, romance, women and sex. In this case the woman is named Emma and Beckett also indulges his fondness, evinced in many of his texts, for the crudest swearwords. These are the pictures on the wall of the protagonist’s cell.

First face alone, lovely beyond words, leave it at that, then deasil breasts alone, then thighs and cunt alone, then arse and hole alone, all lovely beyond words.See how he crouches down and back to see, back of head against face when eyes on cunt, against breasts when on hole, and vice versa, all most clear. So in this soft and mild, crouched down and back with hands on knees to hold himself together, say deasil first from face through hole then back through face, murmuring, Imagine him kissing, caressing, licking, sucking, fucking and buggering all this stuff, no sound.

Charming, as that great literary critic, my mother, would have said. The Beckett Companion summarises this material as ‘The story recalls love-making with “Emma” but the memory is fading’, but that’s not accurate, is it? That sugars the pill and makes it sound more bourgeois and respectable than what is actually written, which is crude and graphic and basic, and deliberately so.

Imagine him kissing, caressing, licking, sucking, fucking and buggering all this stuff, no sound.

Human geometry

Another Beckett element comes into play which is his love of geometry. If you read the plays rather than watching the productions, you’ll know that as the 1950s turned into the 1960s, Beckett’s works became more and more festooned with very detailed stage directions about heights and sizes and angles and positions and movements of the human participants, at the same time as the ‘characters’ or human participants in the works are steadily deprived of names and given letters or numbers. For example, take the way the two characters in Act Without Words II are simply labelled A and B, or the ‘characters’ in Play are labelled M, W1 and W2, combined with the very precise instructions for every element of the onstage action, complete with diagrams which contain numbers, angles, positions and durations.

In this piece the main ‘character’ never has a name but his movements are mapped out in a mockery of a geometry problem:

Call floor angles deasil a, b, c and d and ceiling likewise e, f, g and h, say Jolly at b and Draeger at d, lean him for rest with feet at a and head at g, in dark and light, eyes glaring, murmuring…

(‘Deasil’, by the way, is a Gaelic word which means ‘in the direction of the sun’s apparent course, considered as lucky; clockwise.’ Jolly and Draeger are the names of posters on the walls of the cell, at least until these are replaced in the narrator’s imagination by pictures of Emma’s orifices.)

The misplaced, obsessive precision is carried over into the description of the positioning of the protagonist vis-a-vis the big posters of Emma and her body parts: if there’s one picture on each wall, then, in order to enjoy sight of one, in such a small prison cell, the character must have his head pressed back against another. And Beckett carefully goes through the four possible positions, as is his obsessive wont.

But what if the floor of the cell is hot, almost punishingly hot, and the character wants to lie on it in the most effective way. Hmm. I’m glad you asked, because there are, quite clearly, a number of precise permutations which we shall now go through in sequence:

Sit, knees drawn up, trunk best bowed, head between knees, arms round knees to hold all together. And even lie, arse to knees say diagonal ac, feet say at d, head on left cheek at b. Price to pay and highest lying more flesh touching glowing ground. But say not glowing enough to burn and turning over, see how that works. Arse to knees, say bd, feet say at c, head on right cheek at a. Then arse to knees say again ac, but feet at b and head on left cheek at d. Then arse to knees say again bd, but feet at a and head on right cheek at c. So on other four possibilities when begin again…

‘See how that works’ could be the motto of the piece, indeed of many of Beckett’s prose pieces, like Molloy working out how to suck his stones most efficiently, or any number of the obsessively detailed permutations of physical activity described in Watt.

Emma imprisoned

Then abruptly the narrator/writer says, what if it isn’t the male character in the cell at all, but the lovely Emma?

and how crouching down and back she turns murmuring, Fancy her being all kissed, licked, sucked, fucked and so on by all that, no sound, hands on knees to hold herself together.

‘Fancy her being all kissed, licked, sucked, fucked and so on’ is not something I would summarise, as the Beckett companion does, as ‘The story recalls love-making with “Emma”‘.

Apart from being mildly titillating what these passages do most is remind you how, back in the day, the so-called the avant-garde was addicted to sexual explicitness, as if saying cunt broke taboos, pushed boundaries, subverted bourgeois society.

But what happens when sex is everywhere, we live in a world of multiple, fluid genders and endless pornography of every possible permutation is available at the click of a button on the internet?

In the world of 2020, reading the jolly boundary-breaking swearwords of the 1950s and 60s avant-garde is like watching your Dad try to dance to rave music. Or it is looking back at a simpler world where writers wore jackets and thin black ties for their interviews with plummy BBC interviewers, politely discussing ‘the role of obscenity in literature’, all available now, 60 years later, in spotty, flickery black and white on YouTube.

And thus this text’s strange, haunting combination of anatomical explicitness with geometric precision.

Any length, in dark and light, then topple left, arse to knees say db, feet say at c, head on left cheek at a, left breast puckered in the dust…

The deathless imagination

By this stage, we have the sense that the opening sentence –’Imagination dead imagine’ – can be interpreted as: ‘We might well be in a situation where the imagination is dead, but unfortunately we can’t stop imagining; imagining may well be a bankrupt activity, belonging to the old bourgeois world, before the Holocaust before the atom bombs and yet, no matter how much we despise and reject it and try to move beyond it, that old human instinct to imagine things, to conceive and speak and describe them, seems to be unquenchable. Well, alright, if this is the case, if the old bourgeois forms and imaginings are dead and bankrupt but we don’t appear to be able to stop imagining, then let’s imagine this, let’s test and experiment with imagination reduced to its most minimal amount possible, let’s imagine a cell five foot square and six foot high’ – and off we go…

The entire narrative may give the superficial impression of rambling, but is carefully crafted to convey the feeling of a mind, a writer, trying to reject imagination, rise above imagination, trying to do something new, but continually trapped back into the old tropes and gestures, considering them, then rejecting them, starting again, ‘imagine’ really meaning ‘consider this option, what about this one? No? how about this one…’:

  • imagine light
  • imagine what needed
  • imagine candles and matches
  • imagine eyes burnt ashen blue
  • imagine him kissing
  • imagine lifetime
  • imagine a common housefly
  • imagine hands
  • imagine later, something soft
  • imagine other murmurs
  • imagine turning over

and then the punchline of all these imaginings, the one that contains the title phrase:

  • imagine all strange away

Clearly, imagination is not dead, but works, continues, struggles on, despite the writer’s best efforts to deny or reject it, he cannot evade the ‘so great need of words’. We all need words, words is all we have, even in the last extremities. And so the text continues despite itself, despite its best intentions otherwise, goes on to consider other aspects and approaches to the problem, which include:

– frequent references to the lights in the box cell coming up then fading out, so that the carefully timed duration of these fadings or ‘ebbings’ strongly suggesting stage directions as per Beckett’s countless plays

– suddenly the invocation of names takes a Catholic turn with mention of Mary, Jesus, God and other proper names to be spoken in any combination required, which segues into similar consideration of Greek philosophers (preferably with name of place of birth attached to make you look intelligent and well read)

– and in the piece’s final page the small space that ‘Emma’ was confined in (the man who featured in the early part has vanished) becomes slowly smaller and smaller, forcing her to bend and contort tighter and tighter, the geometric points of her body more and more compacted, until (it doesn’t say this) she must be crushed altogether in the tiny two-foot cuboid

Beckett in 2020

I can see why many people would be utterly repelled by this apparently endless, unpunctuated, pretentious rambling, but I find it utterly entrancing, just as I found The Unnameable by far the strongest of the three Beckett novels precisely because it has most completely abandoned any form of character, structure, plot or dialogue in order to become something else completely, something utterly new.

Many critics and readers take Beckett’s works to be masterpieces of nihilism, on a par with the Writing Year Zero extremity of European existentialism or the post-holocaust figurines of Alberto Giacometti. I think I read them in a completely different way. I come to them as a citizen of the year 2020, when humanity hasn’t changed at all, but we have invented even more media – the internet, email, text alerts, social media and all kinds of other channels – with which to bombard ourselves with text and meanings.

Anyone with a mobile device gets bombarded with updates and texts and emails and notifications, telling us to read this guidance, look at this powerpoint, check this spreadsheet, inviting us to like each other’s holiday photos or be outraged at this or that public figure’s latest example of everyday sexism or racism or misogyny or whatever.

The framework of digital media we have erected around ourselves amounts, in my opinion, to a high-tech cage, a prison of thumpingly obvious meanings within which most people find it reassuring to dwell, venting their woke or reactionary views via twitter, sharing their makeup secrets via Instagram and so on, a vast mental prisonhouse of conformity created by its billions of users and consumers.

That’s what 2020 feels like to me. And so Beckett’s oeuvre, his increasingly brief, abstract plays, the surprising number of short prose pieces he produced on the same minimalist themes, all these attempts to float free of narrative and logic seem to me to be wonderfully liberating, freeing the mind of anyone who really engages with them from the prisonhouse of contemporary meaning, the degraded discourse of shouty politics or trashy consumerism which literally billions of people have chosen to plug into their brains and to dominate their imaginations.

I don’t find Beckett’s works ‘difficult’. Just read a piece like this out loud, slowly, savouring the jumps, the gaps in syntax and logic which require you to fill them in, or are the record of someone who has gone beyond needing them and whose journey beyond meaning takes you with it, into an entirely new linguistic space.

Either way they’re exercises in escaping the tyranny of the sensible, the common sensical, the flat trite empty mindless twaddle pumped out by the modern media machine in all directions, 24/7.

Such then the sound roughly and if no clearer so then all the storm unspoken and the silence unbroken unless sound of light and dark or at the moments of change a sound of flow thirty seconds till full then silence any length till sound of ebb thirty seconds till black then silence any length, that might repay hearing and she hearing open then her eyes to lightening or darkening greys and not close them then to keep them closed till next sound of change till full light or dark, that might well be imagined.

When he wrote them, Beckett’s pieces may have been designed to shock the bourgeois world of cocktail parties and lounge suits by their a) aggressive bleakness b) geometrical denial of human individuality and b) resort to crude swearwords. Now, 60 years later, I find their teasing meanings, their reassuring repetitions, the recurring tropes and strategies, oddly comforting.

I like the spare abstract empty prose which his box of tricks generates. I enjoy reading such ‘white’ prose, almost entirely empty of content and amounting to a fabric of teasing repetitions, snatches and fragments. It makes a refreshing change from the oppressive tyranny of forced, shallow, angry 100% obvious meaning which dominates the modern world.

In the second half of the piece, titled Diagram, the text whirls and twirls a number of fragments, clearly intending to create a kind of poetry through the repetition of the image of black hair falling across white skin, interspersing some kind of fragment of a memory of lying in a hammock in the sun, and maybe distant repeated snatches of sobbing… This is the last sentence:

Henceforth no other sounds than these and never were that is than sop to mind faint sighing sound for tremor of sorrow at faint memory of a lying side by side and fancy murmured dead.

Which is an example of the way that Beckett’s supposedly dehumanised, anti-humanistic anti-plays and anti-narratives often end up conveying, albeit in an unorthodox way, a melancholy sense of time fleeting and human loss which is surprisingly straightforward and sentimental. He may be well aware that they are ‘sops to mind’, but that doesn’t stop these moments sticking in the memory because they are so very much what ‘traditional’ literature, especially poetry, is meant to be and do, from the Latin poets’ lachrymae rerum to Wordsworth musing by Tintern Abbey.

Personally, I find it more bracing to focus on the deliberately anti-human elements, the geometrical formulae, the detailed, complex and entirely arbitrary stage directions which mimic, in their heartless elaborateness, the elaborate heartlessness which (presumably) Beckett saw as the essence of human existence.

When Irish eyes are smiling…

And, lastly, never forget that there’s quite a lot of sly humour buried away behind grim fragments and struggle to speak, to express anything, in Beckett’s texts. Behind the elaborate machinery of despair, there’s always a sly twinkle in his beady Irish eyes. Here’s a description of ‘Emma’, increasingly contorted as the space she is crammed into becomes ever smaller.

Last look oh not farewell but last for now on right side tripled up and wedged in half the room head against wall at a and arse against wall at c and knees against wall ab an inch or so from head and feet against wall be an inch or so from arse.

‘An inch or so from arse’. Quite.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

  • The Lost Ones (1972) Short story
  • *Not I (1972) Stage play
  • Fizzles (1973 to 1975) Short prose pieces
  • *That Time (1975) Stage play
  • *Footfalls (1976) Stage play
  • … but the clouds… (1976) Television play
  • neither (1976)
  • Ghost Trio (1977) Television play
  • Company (1979) Short story
  • *A Piece of Monologue (1980) Stage play
  • *Rockaby (1981) Stage play
  • Quad (1981) Television play
  • Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) Short novel
  • *Ohio Impromptu (1981) Stage play
  • *Catastrophe (1982) Stage play
  • Worstward Ho (1983) Prose
  • Nacht und Träume (1983) Television play
  • *What Where (1983) Stage play
  • Stirrings Still (1988) Short prose

Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity (2005)

This is the catalogue of a major exhibition of Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portraits held at Tate Britain back in 2005. I went, loved the exhibition and bought this catalogue. In my opinion the written content of the catalogue is poor, but the colour reproductions of 100 or so of Reynolds’s best paintings are spectacular.

The catalogue contains a biography of Reynolds by Martin Postle and four essays by Reynolds scholars:

  • ‘The Modern Apelles’: Joshua Reynolds and the Creation of Celebrity by Martin Postle
  • Reynolds, Celebrity and The Exhibition Space by Mark Hallett
  • ‘Figures of Fame’: Reynolds and the printed Image by Tim Clayton
  • ‘Paths of Glory’: Fame and the Public in Eighteenth-Century London by Stella Tillyard

The essays are followed by some 100 full-colour reproductions, divided into the following sections:

  • Reynolds and the Self-Portrait
  • Heroes
  • Aristocrats
  • The Temple of Fame
  • The Streatham Worthies
  • Painted Women
  • The Theatre of Life

With separate sections of images devoted to:

  • Reynolds and the Reproductive Print
  • Reynolds and the Sculpted Image

The concept of celebrity

As the title suggests, the idea is somehow to tie Reynolds’s 18th century art and career to 21st century ideas of ‘celebrity’. In my opinion all four essays fail to do this. Despite frequently using sentences with the word ‘celebrity’ in them, the catalogue nowhere really explains what ‘celebrity’ is.

The authors have a hard time really distinguishing it from the notion of ‘fame’ and the pursuit of ‘fame’ and the risks of ‘fame’ – subjects which have been thoroughly discussed since ancient Greek times.

In Greek mythology Pheme was the personification of fame and renown, her favour being notability, her wrath being scandalous rumors… She was described as ‘she who initiates and furthers communication’… A tremendous gossip, Pheme was said to have pried into the affairs of mortals and gods, then repeated what she learned, starting off at first with just a dull whisper, but repeating it louder each time, until everyone knew. In art, she was usually depicted with wings and a trumpet… In Roman mythology, Fama was described as having multiple tongues, eyes, ears and feathers by Virgil (in Aeneid IV line 180 ff.) and other authors.

In other words, the concept of ‘fame’ and the way it unavoidably attracts a spectrum of public comment, from dignified praise at one end through to scurrilous rumour at the other end – is as old as Western civilisation.

In my opinion the authors struggle to establish a really clear distinction between these multiple and time-honoured notions of fame with all its consequences, and their attempt to shoe-horn modern-day ‘celebrity’ into the picture.

The whole thing is obviously an attempt by Tate to make Reynolds and his paintings more ‘relevant’ to a ‘modern’ audience, maybe to attract in those elusive ‘younger’ visitors which all arts venues need to attract to sustain their grants. Or to open a new perspective from our time back to his, which makes his society, his aims and his paintings more understandable in terms of modern concepts.

I can see what they’re trying to do, and it is obvious that the four authors have been told to make as many snappy comparisons between the society of Reynolds’s day and our own times as possible – but flashy references to the eighteenth-century ‘media’ or to Reynolds’s sitters getting their ‘fifteen minutes of fame’, aren’t enough, by themselves, to give any insight. In fact, these flashy comparisons tend to obscure the complexity of 18th century society by railroading complex facts and anecdotes into narrow 21st notions and catchphrases.

Being modish risks becoming dated

The authors’ comparisons have themselves become dated in at least two ways:

  1. the ‘modern’ celebrities they invoke have dated quickly (David Beckham is given as a current example)
  2. it was written in 2005, before the advent of social media, Instagram, twitter etc, so has itself become completely out of date about the workings of ‘modern celebrity’

There is a third aspect which is – Who would you trust to give you a better understanding of social media, contemporary fame, celebrity, influencers, tik tok and so on – a social media marketing manager, a celebrity journalist or… a starchy, middle-aged, white English academic?

There is a humorous aspect to listening to posh academics trying to get down wiv da kids, and elaborately explaining to their posh white readership how such things as ‘the media’ work, what ‘the glitterati’ are, and showing off their familiarity with ‘the media spotlight’ – things which, one suspects, library-bound academics are not, in fact, all that familiar with.

The authors’ definitions of celebrity

The authors attempt numerous definitions of celebrity:

Reynolds’s attitude towards fame, and how it was inextricably bound up with a concern for his public persona, or what we today would call his ‘celebrity‘ status.

So Reynolds was concerned about his fame, about building a professional reputation and then defending it, but wasn’t every other painter, craftsman and indeed notable figure of the time? As Postle concedes:

In this respect he was not untypical of a whole range of writers, actors and artists  who regarded fame as the standard for judging the worthiness of their own performance against the achievements of the past.

Postle goes on to try and distinguish fame from celebrity:

However, Reynolds [achieved fame] by using the mechanisms associated with what has become known as ‘celebrity‘, a hybrid of fame driven by commerce and the cult of personality.

Hmm. Is he saying no public figures prior to Joshua Reynolds cultivated a ‘cult of personality’ or that no public figures tried to cash in on their fame? Because that is clearly nonsense. And putting the word celebrity in scare quotes doesn’t help much:

Reynolds pandered to the Prince [of Wales]’s thirst for ‘celebrity‘ and fuelled his narcissistic fantasies.

The author doesn’t explain what he means by ‘celebrity’ in this context or why the prince thirsted for it and how he was different in this respect from any other 18th century aristocrat who ‘thirsted’ for fame and respect.

Through portraits such as these [of the Duc d’Orleans], Reynolds openly identified with fashionable Whig society; the Georgian ‘glitterati’ – liberal in the politics, liberated in their social attitudes, and libidinous in their sexual behaviour.

Does use of the word ‘glitterati’ add anything to our understanding?

He was also the first artist to pursue his career in the media spotlight.

‘Media spotlight’? Simply using modern clichés like ‘media spotlight’ and ‘celebrity’ and ‘glitterati’ didn’t seem to me to shed much light on anything. The reader wants to ask a) what do you understand by ‘media spotlight’? b) in what way did Reynolds pursue his career in a media spotlight?

As experience of the modern media tells us, a sure sign that an individual’s fame has been transmuted into ‘celebrity’ is when press interest in his or her professional achievements extends to their private and social life.

I’m struggling to think of a time when there hasn’t been intrusive interest in the lives of the rich and famous, and when it hasn’t been recorded in scurrilous satires, squibs, poems.

People gossiped about Julius Caesar, about all the Caesars. We have written records of the way Athenians gossiped about Socrates and his wife. Prurient interest in the personal lives of anyone notable in an urban environment go back as far as we have written records.

Here’s another definition:

In a process that seems to prefigure the ephemeral dynamics of heroism and redundancy found in today’s celebrity culture, the exploitation of celebrity typified by Reynolds’s representation of [the famous soldier, the Marquess of] Granby depended not only on the glorification, in portrait form, of individuals who had already gained a certain kind of renown within the wider realms of urban culture, but also on a continual replenishment – from one year to the next – of this hyperbolic imagery of bravery, beauty and fame.

I think he’s saying that visitors to the annual exhibitions liked to see new pictures – or, as he puts it with typical art scholar grandiosity, ‘a continual replenishment of this hyperbolic imagery’.

‘The ephemeral dynamics of heroism and redundancy found in today’s celebrity culture’? Does that tortuous definition have any relevance to Kim Kardashian, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Rihanna et al?

What these authors are all struggling to express is that Reynolds made a fabulously successful career by painting the well-known and eminent people of his day, making sure to paint army or naval heroes as soon as they returned from famous victories, making sure he painted portraits of the latest author after a hit novel or play, painting well-known courtesans, carefully associating his own name (or brand) with success and fame.

It was a dialectical process in which Reynolds’s portraits, often hung at the annual Royal Academy exhibition – which was itself the talk of the town while it lasted – promoted both the sitter and their fame, but also kept Sir Joshua’s name and reputation as Top Painter Of The Famous continually in the public eye.

That’s what the essay writers are trying to say. But you have to wade through a lot of academic rhetoric to get there. Take this questionable generalisation thrown out by Stella Tillyard, which sounds reasonable, until you start to think about it.

Like so much else that defines us in Europe and America now, celebrity appears to have been made in the eighteenth century and in particular in eighteenth century London, with its dozens of newspapers and print shops, its crowds and coffee houses, theatres, exhibitions, spectacles, pleasure gardens and teeming pavements. (Stella Tillyard, p.61)

‘Like so much else that defines us in Europe and America now’? What would you say defines modern society in 2020? I’d guess the list would include the internet, mobile phones, social media, webcams and digital technology generally, big cars, long-haul flights, cheap foreign holidays, mass immigration, multi-cultural societies, foreign food… things like that.

Quite obviously none of these originated in eighteenth century London.

Tillyard’s essay is the best of the four but it still contains highly questionable assertions. She thinks there is a basic ‘narrative’ of ‘celebrity’ which is one of rise, stardom, fall and rise again. The examples she gives are Bill Clinton getting into trouble because of Monica Lewinsky, and the footballers Francesco Totti and David Beckham. She thinks this basic narrative arc echoes the story of Jesus Christ, rising from obscurity, gaining fame, being executed, and rising from the dead. You have to wonder what drugs she is on.

Nonetheless, Tillyard’s is the best essay of the four because she’s an actual historian and so has a wide enough grasp of the facts to make some sensible points. She also gives the one and only good definition of celebrity in the book when she writes that:

Celebrity was born at the moment private life became a tradeable public commodity. (p.62)

Aha. Right at the end of the four essays we get the first solid, testable and genuinely insightful definition of celebrity.

According to Tillyard’s definition, the really new thing about celebrity is not the interest in gossip about the rich and famous – that, as pointed out, has been with us forever – it is that this kind of fame can be packaged into new formats and sold. It has become part of the newly mercantile society of the 18th century.

Celebrity, among other things, is about the commodification of fame, about the dissemination of images representing the individual celebrity, and about the collective conversations and fantasies generated by these processes. (p.37)

The assertion is that Reynolds was able to capitalise on his reputation. He made money out of it. He was able to exploit the new aspects of mid-18th century fame in order to build up a successful business and make a fortune.

He developed a process for making his portraits well known. The lead element in this was ensuring they were prominently hung at the annual exhibition of paintings by members of the new Royal Academy and so became the subject of the enormous amount of comment the exhibition attracted in the scores of newspapers, magazines, cartoons, lampoons, caricatures, poems and plays which infested Georgian London.

Deftly riding this tide of gossip and talk and critical comment, Reynolds was able to assure his sitters that he would make them famous – and he made himself famous in the process. And, as a result, he was able to charge a lot of money for his portraits.

He was able to turn the insubstantial, social quality of ‘fame’ into hard cash. That’s how the argument goes. I’ve put it far more plainly than any of these four writers do, and it’s an interesting point, but still begs a lot of questions…

Robert Orme’s 15 minutes of fame

When Postle says that the soldier Robert Orme got his ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ (p.27) it strikes me as being a flashy but misleading reference.

Andy Warhol’s expression, ‘in the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes’, refers very specifically to the 15-minute time slots allocated on the kind of American TV programmes which are punctuated every 15 minutes or so with ad breaks. Its merit derives from its source in a very specific technology and at a very specific moment in that technology (the later 1960s).

Whereas Robert Orme took part in an important battle of the Seven Years War (surviving the massacre of General Edward Braddock’s forces by French and Indians in July 1755), returned to England and was for a while feted and invited to dinners to give first-hand accounts of the massacre.

OK, so interest in Orme petered out after a while, but his story hardly conforms to the ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ description in the very precise, TV-age way Warhol had intended.

It’s an example of the way the authors are prepared to twist the historical record in order to shoehorn in their strained comparisons with modern ‘celebrity’ or the ‘glitterati’ or ‘the media spotlight’.

My point is that just chucking modern buzzwords at historical events doesn’t help us understand the historical events and doesn’t shed much light on the buzzwords or the ideas behind them, either. Not without a much more detailed analysis, anyway.

What was new about 18th century ‘media’

The one place in the four essays which comes alive i.e. presents new facts or insights, is in historian Stella Tillyard’s essay, where she explains that a new concept of ‘fame’ was being driven by some genuinely new developments in mass publication. She suggests four factors which account for the rise of a new type of fame in the mid-18th century:

1. A limited monarchy – the mystique surrounding the Divine Right of Kings which had clung to the Stuart Monarchy (1660-1714) drained away from the stolid Hanoverian monarchs who replaced them after 1714. Their powers were circumscribed from the start by Parliament and this made them much more human, much more worldly and, well, sometimes boring figures, for example. George III, widely known as Farmer George.

2. Royal glamour migrated – instead of surrounding the monarch in a nimbus of glory the human desire to have glamorous figures to look up to and gossip about migrated to new categories of ‘star’ or ‘celebrity’, namely top military figures, successful actors and even writers.

3. The lapse of the Licensing Act left the press a huge amount of freedom. By 1770 there were 60 newspapers printed in London every week, all looking for gossip and tittle tattle to market. Combined with a very weak libel law which allowed almost any rumour and speculation to be printed. Well before the tabloids were invented, the taste for an endless diet of celebrity tittle tattle was being catered to.

4. A public interested in new ways of thinking about themselves or others. This is the tricksiest notion, but Tillyard argues that this huge influx of new printed matter, combined with shops full of cheap prints, to make literate urban populations think about themselves and their roles as citizens of a busy city, and as consumers, in new ways.

Now all this chimes very well with the picture painted in Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds, which clearly shows how almost every incident, not only from his personal life but of the lives of all his famous friends (e.g. the writer Dr Johnson, the actor David Garrick, the historian Edmund Gibbon, the poet Oliver Goldsmith) was quickly leaked to scurrilous journalists, who reported them in their scandal sheets, or made cartoons or comic poems about them.

Reynolds’s world was infested with gossip and rumour.

By contrast with Tillyard’s authoritative historian’s-eye view, Postle’s art critic assertions are less precise and less persuasive:

Reynolds grew up in an age that witnessed the birth of modern journalism.

Did he, though? ‘Modern’ journalism?

Googling ‘birth of modern journalism’ you discover that ‘modern journalism’ began with a piece written by Defoe in 1703. Or was it during the American Civil War in the 1860s? Or maybe it was with Walter Lippmann, writing in the 1920s, often referred to as the ‘father of modern journalism’?

In other words, the birth of ‘modern’ journalism happened more or less any time you want it to have done, any time you need to add this cliché into your essay to prop up your argument. And that little bit of googling suggests how risky it is making these kinds of sweeping assertions.

In fact it suggests that any generalisation which contains the word ‘modern’ is dodgy because the term ‘modern’ itself is so elastic as to be almost meaningless. Historians themselves date ‘the modern period’ to the 1500s. Do you think of the Elizabethan era as ‘modern’?

The modern era of history is usually defined as the time after the Middle Ages. This is divided into the early modern era and the late modern era. (Define modern era in history)

Postle’s assertion that there was something uniquely and newly journalistic about Reynolds’s era sounds fine until you think of earlier periods – take the turn-of-the 18th century and the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) which was packed with coffee house publications and scurrilous poems written against each other by leading figures. Alexander Pope’s entire career exemplifies a world of literary gossip and animosity.

Going further back, wasn’t the court of Charles II the subject of all kinds of cartoons, pictures, scurrilous paintings and poems and plays? Lots of John Dryden’s poems only make sense if you realise they’re about leading figures of the day, either praising or blaming them. During the British civil wars (1637-51) there was an explosion of pamphlets and leaflets and poems and manifestos denouncing the actions of more or less every notable figure, and giving a running commentary on the political developments of the day. Wasn’t Shakespeare’s time (1590 to 1615) one of rumour and gossip and pamphlet wars?

And in fact I’ve just come across the same idea, on page 4 of Peter H. Wilson’s vast history of the Thirty Years War, where he writes:

From the outset, the conflict attracted wide interest across Europe, accelerating the early seventeenth-century ‘media revolution’ that saw the birth of the modern newspaper.
(Europe’s Tragedy by Peter H. Wilson, page 4)

So surely the widespread availability of gossip sheets and scandal mongering publications was a matter of degree not kind. Artists of the late-17th century (van Dyck, Peter Lely, Godfrey Kneller) had earned types of ‘fame’ and certainly tried to capitalise on it. By Reynolds’s day there were just more outlets for it, more magazines, newspapers, journals – reflecting a steadily growing urban population and market for all things gossip-related. Between 1650 and 1750 the British population increased, the population of London increased, the number of literate people increased, and so the market for reading matter increased.

So when Postle asserts that newspapers played an increasingly important part in the critical reception of art, well, they played an increasingly important role in the critical reception of everything, such as war and politics and religion, such as the Seven Years War, the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and every other kind of debate and issue.

1. That is what newspapers do – tell people what’s going on and editorialise about it – and 2. there were more and more of them, because the population was growing, and the number of literate consumers was steadily growing with it.

Reynolds didn’t invent any of this. He just took advantage of it very effectively.

Reynolds’s strategies for success

  • Reynolds was apprenticed to a fellow Devonian, Thomas Hudson, who not only taught him how to paint portraits but introduced him to important patrons
  • Hudson introduced Reynolds to leading gentlemen’s clubs of the time (the 1740s)
  • Reynolds took care to keep a large table i.e. to invite notable people to dinner, specially if they had had a recent ‘hit’ with a novel or play or work of art
  • Reynolds took dancing lessons, attended balls and masquerades, cultivated a man about town persona
  • as Reynolds became well known he was invited to join top clubs and societies e.g. the Royal Society and the Society of Dilettanti
  • he helped to found the blandly named The Club, with a small number of very eminent figures in literature, theatre and politics, including Garrick, Goldsmith, Johnson and Edmund Burke, later to include Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan
  • in the 1770s Reynolds painted portraits of the friends to be met at the Streatham house of his friend Mrs Hester Thrale (who became nicknamed ‘the Streatham Worthies‘)
  • during the 1770s and 80s there was a growth in a new genre, ‘intimate biographies’ told by authors who knew the subjects well, such as Johnsons Lives of the Poets (1781) and Boswell’s The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson (1785) – the intimate portraits of the Streatham Worthies tied into this taste, in fact Boswell considered writing an intimate biography of Reynolds
  • the point of having a cohort of friends like this was that they provided a mutual admiration and mutual support society, promoting each others’ work – for example, Oliver Goldsmith dedicated his famous poem, The Deserted Village to Reynolds, James Boswell’s vast ‘intimate biography’ The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) was dedicated to Reynolds, as was Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777)
  • in former times, getting an appointment to work for the king had been crucial to artists’ careers – by Reynolds’s day, however, it was no longer vital because 1. the monarch no longer had the absolute powers of the Stuarts – the Hanoverian kings’ powers and patronage were much more limited and often determined by Parliament 2. there was a well enough developed domestic market for art for a painter to make a career and livelihood without explicit royal patronage
  • Reynolds very consciously bought a large house in fashionable Leicester Fields; the Prince of Wales owned a big house in the same square
  • Reynolds bought an expensive coach that had formerly belonged to the Lord Mayor of London, renovated it and encouraged his sister Fanny to drive round in it in order to prompt gossip and awe

But was Reynolds unique?

As mentioned above, the four essayists have clearly received a brief to make Reynolds sound as modern and edgy and contemporary and down with the kids as possible.

But the tendency of the essays is also to try and make Reynolds sound unique – in his painterly ambition, in the way he used connections and pulled strings to paint famous sitters, promoted himself socially (by being a member of many clubs and inviting all the famous men and women of the time to large dinners), promoted his work through public exhibitions, tried to wangle key painting positions to the royal family, and by having prints made of his portraits which could be sold on to a wider audience.

The trouble is that – having just read Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds which presents an encyclopedic overview of his times, its clubs, newspapers, magazines, his colleagues and rivals, of the mechanisms of a career in art and an in-depth overview of all Georgian society – I realise these were the standard procedures of the day.

For example, the authors point out that Reynolds was keen to paint portraits of famous people to boost his career – but what portrait painter of the day wasn’t? Allan Ramsay and Thomas Gainsborough, to name just two contemporary painters, lobbied hard to win aristocratic patrons, to promote their portraits to other potential clients, to expand their client base, and so on. It was a highly competitive and commercial world.

The catalogue contains sections on the portraits of aristocratic ladies, military heroes and courtesans as if Reynolds had invented the idea of painting these kinds of figures – but paintings of aristocrats go back at least as far as the Renaissance, and statues of emperors, notable figures and military leaders go back through the ancient Romans to the Greeks.

There’s a section devoted to showing how Reynolds used prints extensively to promote his career, not only here but abroad, where British art prints commanded good prices. (One of the few new things I learned from the essays was that British mezzotinting was so highly regarded as to become known as la maniere anglaise, p.51)

But all his rivals and colleagues did just the same, too – otherwise there wouldn’t have been a thriving community of printmakers and of printbuyers.

And the authors strain to prove that the kind of high-profile aristocrats, military leaders, and top artists-writers-actors of the day that Reynolds portrayed were often discussed, profiled, ridiculed and lampooned in London’s countless scurrilous newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, poems, broadsides, gossip columns and so on.

But this was just as true of all the notable figures that all the other portrait painters of his day painted. It was an extremely gossipy society.

In other words, none of the activities the authors attribute to Reynolds was unique to him – they were being energetically carried out by scores of rivals and colleagues in the swarming ant hill of rivalry and competition that was Georgian London. What is interesting, is the extent to which Reynolds did all these things best (when he did), or where he failed, or where he pioneered a new aspect of this or that activity.

Unfortunately, the four authors don’t really have much space to make their cases. The four essays are relatively short. They have nowhere like the 550 closely-typed pages that Ian McIntyre has in his masterful biography of Reynolds. Therefore, to anyone who’s read McIntyre, the four essays come over as fleeting and superficial sketches of subjects and issues which deserve to be dealt with in much, much greater detail if you want to understand why Reynolds was the towering figure that he was.

It wasn’t that he did all these activities listed above – it’s that he did many of them better, more comprehensively, and more systematically than his rivals.

And also that he just worked harder at it. He was extremely disciplined and professional, working a solid 6 or 7 hour days, every day, often on Sundays. He produced, on average, well over one hundred commissions a year, an extraordinary workrate. This isn’t mentioned anywhere in the essays, but it is a key reason for his success.

Or the even more obvious fact that a his success was down to the fact that he was, quite simply, the best portrait painter of his time. He may well have adopted the canny career strategies listed above, but they’d have been meaningless if he hadn’t also been a painter of genius.


Art scholarship prose style

This section contains no facts and is devoted to an analysis and skewering of pretentious artspeak. Art scholar prose is very identifiable. It has at least three elements:

  1. use of fashionable, pretentious buzzwords such as subvert, interrogate, engage, gendered, identity, desire, site, gaze, other
  2. combined with a curiously starchy, old-fashioned locutions such as whilst, amongst
  3. thin actual content

1. Buzzwords

In terms of his desire to associate himself with the celebrity of others, the most compelling paintings by Reynolds are surely his portraits of prostitutes… (p.29)

‘Wish’ wouldn’t be a better word?

When the ancient philosopher, Socrates, visited the artist’s house with friends, the courtesan was to be found under the gaze of the painter (p.29)

The word ‘gaze’ now has the adjective ‘male’ attached to it in all contexts, and is always a bad thing.

[At the new public exhibitions of the 1760s] the visitor’s encounter with the painted images of celebrities was crucially informed by those other burgeoning cultural sites of the period, the newspaper and the periodical. (p.35)

Do you think of a newspaper or magazine you read as a cultural site? Alliteration is always good, makes your ideas sound grander and more important.

In arranging that his pictures of such women [the royal bridesmaids at the wedding of George III and Queen Charlotte]… Reynolds… was contributing to, and trading upon, a burgeoning cult of aristocratic celebrity within the sites and spaces of urban culture. (p.39)

Tillyard in particular likes the word and idea of the ‘site’:

In response to the overwhelming attention of the London public [Jean-Jacques Rousseau] took himself off to the wilds of Derbyshire and began to write his Confessions, in which he demanded the right to be heard on his own terms rather than to become the site for others’ imaginings. (p.66)

Omai [a South Sea islander Reynolds painted] is both sophisticate and innocent, celebrity and savage, an eloquent but mute subject whose lack of the English language and inability to write allowed his audience and the picture’s viewers to make him a site for their own imaginings. (p.69)

It is surprising that Omai isn’t taken as an example of The Other, an almost meaningless word commonly used to describe anyone who isn’t a privileged white male.

The press functioned as one vital counterpart to the exhibition space in terms of what was emerging as a recognisably modern economy of celebrity… (p.37)

The ‘modern economy of celebrity’ sounds impressive but what does it mean, what is an ‘economy of celebrity’ (and remember the warning about using the word ‘modern’ which is generally an empty adjective used solely for its sound, to make the text sound grand and knowledgeable).

Reynolds painted a number of portraits of aristocratic patrons such as Maria, Countess Waldegrave and Elizabeth Keppel. This allows art scholar Mark Hallett to write:

In being invited to track the shifting imagery of such women as Keppel, Bunbury and Waldegrave, attentive visitors to the London exhibition rooms thus became witness to an extended process of pictorial and narrative transformation, choreographed by Reynolds himself, in which his sitters became part of a gendered, role-playing theatre of aristocratic celebrity that was acted out on an annual basis in the public spaces of the exhibition room. (p.39)

If you read and reread it, I think you realise that this long pretentious sentence doesn’t actually tell you anything. It is prose poetry in the tradition of the mellifluous aesthete, Walter Pater, just using a different jargon.

‘Narrative’, ‘gendered’, ‘theatre’, ‘spaces’ are all modish critical buzzwords. What does ‘gendered’ even mean? That some portraits were of women and some of men? Hmm. And a gallery isn’t really a theatre, no matter how hard art scholars wish their working environment was more jazzy and exciting. It’s a gallery. It consists of pictures hung on a wall. Therefore to say a gallery is a ‘role-playing theatre’ is simply a literary analogy, it is a type of literary artifice which makes absolutely no factual addition to our knowledge.

Translated, that sentence means that regular visitors to the Royal Academy exhibition often saw portraits of the same famous sitters and so could judge different artists’ treatment of them, or gossip about how their appearance changed from year to year. That’s what ‘pictorial and narrative transformation’ means.

The artist’s portrait of Granby can now be understood as just one element within an unfolding iconography of military celebrity that was being articulated by the artist in the exhibition space during the 1760s.

Translated, this means that Reynolds painted many portraits of successful military heroes. As did lots and lots of other portrait painters of the time. But it sounds more impressive the way Hallett expresses it using key buzzwords.

We can even suggest that such details as the Duchess [of Devonshire]’s ‘antique’ dress and rural surroundings… transform her into a figure of pastoral fantasy, a delicately classicised icon of aristocratic otherness… (p.43)

Ah, ‘the Other’ and ‘otherness’, it was the last empty space on my bullshit bingo card. What does ‘otherness’ mean here? That aristocrats aren’t like you and me? That, dressed up in fake Greek robes, leaning against a classical pillar in a broad landscape, they seem like visions from another world? Better to say ‘otherness’. Makes it sound as if you understand complex and only-hinted-at deeply intellectual ideas (taken, in fact, from Jacques Lacan and other French theorists).

2. Starchy prose style

It’s peculiar the way art scholars combine these flashy buzzwords from Critical Theory (interrogate, subvert, gender, identity, The Other) with creaky old phrases which sound as if they’ve come from the mouth of a dowager duchess.

It’s as if Lady Bracknell had read a dummy’s guide to Critical Theory and was trying to incorporate the latest buzzwords into her plummy, old-fashioned idiolect. For example, art scholars always prefer ‘within’ to ‘in’, ‘amongst’ to among, and ‘whilst’ to while – versions of common English words which help them sound grander.

Some contemporary critics thought Reynolds’s experiments with oil and painting techniques meant his works would eventually decay and disintegrate. Mark Hallett says:

The fact that an exhibition including paintings such as these is now taking place, more than two hundred years after Reynolds’s death, helps put paid to such aspersions.

‘Helps put paid to such aspersions’? Isn’t that the voice of Lady Bracknell? ‘I should certainly hope, Mr Moncrieff, that in future you shall keep your aspersions and animadversions to yourself.’

3. Thin content

See above where I’ve highlighted the relative lack of new or interesting insights in the four critical essays, which can’t be concealed by tarting them up with references to the eighteenth century ‘glitterati’ or Andy Warhol.

Sometimes the essays descend to the bathetic. When we read that scholar Richard Wendorf has written a paper in which he observes that

Reynolds was adept at cultivating patrons through observing the rules of polite society

we are straying close to the University of the Bleeding Obvious.

When we learn that Reynolds sometimes flouted these rules in order to create a Bohemian effect, in order to copy the more raffish end of the aristocratic spectrum of behaviour, it feels like a variation on the obvious, and hardly something which required an entire essay to ‘explain’.


Conclusion

Having read the four essays twice, what you take away is that Reynolds specialised in painting portraits of famous people, this ensured the portraits were much talked about, written about and commented on by the larger-than-ever number of daily newspapers and magazines, and encouraged other famous people to commission their portraits from him, all of which boosted his professional career.

And that he was canny in using the means available to him – aristocratic patrons, choosing famous people to paint – famous soldiers, sailors, aristocrats, courtesans, writers and fellow artists – socialising and hosting grand dinners, joining top clubs, getting supporters to talk him up in the press, and encouraging the distribution of prints of his work – to build a successful and profitable career.

All of these were strategies adopted by most of his contemporaries were doing. He just did it better.

I’m confident making a statement like that because I’ve just read Ian McIntyre’s brilliant biography of Reynolds which places the great man in the incredibly busy, buzzing, competitive, dog-eat-dog environment of Georgian London, and  gives extended portraits of scores and scores of his peers, rivals, colleagues and competitors.

It shows how British society changed during Reynolds’s long career, from his earliest paintings in the 1740s to his last ones in 1790. He changed, art changed, society changed.

None of the essays in this catalogue have much space to play with and so these art scholars play very fast and loose with the historical record, yanking together quotes and events which were actually far separated in time, in order to impose on the people and culture of a very different society the modish contemporary art scholar concerns of ‘gender’, ‘identity’ and ‘celebrity’.

The point being: these essays are actually quite an unreliable introduction to the life and career of Joshua Reynolds, written at the behest of a gallery with an agenda and a marketing plan. By all means buy or borrow this book for its wonderful reproductions of the paintings. But read the McIntyre biography to understand the man and his times.

Unanswered questions

Having read both MacIntyre’s book and this catalogue, I still have a couple of unanswered questions:

1. They both tell me that History Painting was meant to be the highest and most prestigious genre of the day. In which case, how come the greatest painter of the age, Reynolds, didn’t paint any history paintings, and neither did his closest rivals, Allan Ramsay or Thomas Gainsborough?

2. Why are there so many black servants in 18th century portraits?


Related links

Blog posts about the 18th century

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen @ the Barbican

Listen up! Listen up! American artist, geographer, and author Trevor Paglen has big news for everyone! He is here to tell us that artificial intelligence may not be a totally wonderful, life-enhancing, fair and just invention after all! Here he is to explain.

AI networks

Trev takes as his starting point the way Artificial Intelligence networks are taught how to ‘see’, ‘hear’ and ‘perceive’ the world by engineers who feed them vast ‘training sets’.

Standard ‘training sets’ consist of images, video and sound libraries that depict objects, faces, facial expressions, gestures, actions, speech commands, eye movements and more. The point is that the way these objects are categorised, labelled and interpreted are not value-free; in other words, the human categorisers have to bring in all kinds of subjective and value judgements – and that this subjective element can lead to all kinds of wonky outcomes.

Thus Trev wants to point out that the ongoing development of artificial intelligence is rife with hidden prejudices, biases, stereotypes and just wrong assumptions. And that this process starts (in some iterations) with the scanning of vast reservoirs of images. Such as the one he’s created here.

Machine-seeing-for-machines is a ubiquitous phenomenon, encompassing everything from facial-recognition systems conducting automated biometric surveillance at airports to department stores intercepting customers’ mobile phone pings to create intricate maps of movements through the aisles. But all this seeing, all of these images, are essentially invisible to human eyes. These images aren’t meant for us; they’re meant to do things in the world; human eyes aren’t in the loop.

From apple to anomaly

So where’s the work of art?

Well, the Curve is the long tall curving exhibition space at the Barbican which is so uniquely shaped that the curators commission works of art specifically for its shape and structure.

For his Curve work Trev has had the bright idea of plastering the long curving wall with 35,000 (!) individually printed photographs pinned in a complex mosaic of images along the immense length of the curve. It has an awesome impact. That’s a lot of photos.

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

As the core of his research & preparation, Trev spent some time at ImageNet. This is one of the most widely shared, publicly available collection of images out there – and it is also used to train artificial intelligence networks. It’s available online, so you can have a go searching its huge image bank:

Apparently, ImageNet contains more than fourteen-million images organised into more than 21,000 categories or ‘classes’.

In most cases, the connotations of image categories and names are uncontroversial i.e. a ‘strawberry’ or ‘orange’ but many others are ambiguous and/or a question of judgement  – such as ‘debtors’, ‘alcoholics’ and ‘bad people’.

As the old computer programming cliché has it: ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ If artificial intelligence programs are being taught to teach themselves based on highly questionable and subjective premises, we shouldn’t be surprised if they start developing all kinds of errors, extrapolating and exaggerating all kinds of initial biases into wild stereotypes and misjudgements.

So the purpose of From Apple to Anomaly is to ‘questions the content of the images which are chosen for machine learning’. These are just some of the kinds of images which researchers are currently using to teach machines about ‘the world’.

Conceptually, it seemed to me that the work doesn’t really go much further than that.

It has a structure of sorts which is that, when you enter, the first images are of the uncontroversial ‘factual’ type – specifically, the first images you come to are of the simple concept ‘apple’.

Nothing can go wrong with images of an apple, right? Then as you walk along it, the mosaic of images widens like a funnel with a steady increase of other categories of all sorts, until the entire wall is covered and you are being bombarded by images arranged according to (what looks like) a fairly random collection of themes. (The themes are identified by black cards with clear white text, as in ‘apple’ below, which are placed at the centre of each cluster of images.)

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

Having read the blurb about the way words, and AI interpretation of words, becomes increasingly problematic as the words become increasingly abstract, I expected that the concepts would start simple and become increasingly vague. But the work is not, in fact like that – it’s much more random, so that quite specific categories – like paleontologist’ – can be found at the end while quite vague ones crop up very early on.

There was a big cluster of images around the word pizza. These looked revolting, but it was getting close to lunchtime and I found myself mysteriously attracted to the 40 or 50 images which showed fifty or so depictions of ‘ham and eggs’. Mmmm. Ham and eggs, yummy.

Conclusions

Most people are aware that Facebook harvests their data, just like Google and all the other big computer giants, twitter, Instagram blah blah. The disappointing reality for deep thinkers like Trev is that most people, quite obviously, don’t care. As long as they can instant message their mates or post photos of their cats for the world to see, most people don’t appear to give a monkeys what these huge American corporations do with the incalculably vast tracts of date they harvest and hold about us.

I think the same is true of artificial intelligence. Most people don’t care because they don’t think it affects them now or is likely to affect them in the future. Personally, I’m inclined to agree. When I read articles about artificial intelligence, particularly articles about the possible stereotyping of women and blacks i.e. the usual victims

1. American bias The books are written by Americans and feature examples from America. And when you dig deep you tend to find that AI, insofar as it is applied in the real world, tends to exacerbate inequalities and prejudices which already exist. In America. The examples about America’s treatment of its black citizens, or the poor, or the potentially dreadful implications of computerised programmes on healthcare, specifically for the poor – all these examples tend to be taken from America, which is a deeply and distinctively screwed-up country. My point is a lot of the scarifying about AI turns out, on investigation, really to reflect the scary nature of American society, its gross injustices and inequalities.

2. Britain is not America Britain is a different country, with different values, run in different ways. I take the London Underground or sometimes the overground train service every day. Every day I see the chaos and confusion as large-scale systems fail at any number of pressure points. The idea that learning machines are going to make any difference to the basic mismanagement and bad running of most of our organisations seems to me laughable. From time to time I see headlines about self-driving or driverless cars, sometimes taken as an example of artificial intelligence. OK. At what date in the future would you say that the majority of London’s traffic will be driverless cars, lorries, taxis, buses and Deliveroo scooters? In ten years? Twenty years?

3. The triviality of much AI There’s also a problem with the triviality of much AI research. After visiting the exhibition I read a few articles about AI and quickly got bored of reading how supercomputers can now beat grand chessmasters or world champions at the complex game of Go. I can hardly think of anything more irrelevant to the real world. Last year the Barbican itself hosted an exhibition about AI – AI: More Than Human – but the net result of the scores of exhibits and interactive doo-dahs was how trivial and pointless most of them were.

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images

4. No machine will ever ‘think’ And this brings us to the core of the case against AI, which is that it’s impossible. Creating any kind of computer programme which ‘thinks’ like a human is, quite obviously impossible. This is because people don’t actually ‘think’ in any narrowly definable sense of the word. People reach decisions, or just do things, based on thousands of cumulated impulses and experiences, unique to each individual, and so complicated and, in general, so irrational, that no programs or models can ever capture it. The long detailed Wikipedia article about artificial intelligence includes this:

Moravec’s paradox generalizes that low-level sensorimotor skills that humans take for granted are, counterintuitively, difficult to program into a robot; the paradox is named after Hans Moravec, who stated in 1988 that ‘it is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility’.

Intelligence tests, chess, Go – tasks with finite rules of the kinds computer programmers understand – relatively easy to programme. The infinitely complex billions of interactions which characterise human behaviour – impossible.

5. People are irrational I’ve been studying art and literature and history for 40 years or so and if there’s one thing that comes over it is how irrational, perverse, weird and unpredictable people can be, as individuals and in crowds (because the behaviour of people is the subject matter of novels, plays, poems and countless art works; the really profound, bottomless irrationality of human beings is – arguably – the subject matter of the arts).

People smoke and drink and get addicted to drugs (and computer games and smart phones), people follow charismatic leaders like Hitler or Slobodan Milosevic or Donald Trump. People, in other words, are semi-rational animals first and only a long long way afterwards, rational, thinking beings and even then, only rational in limited ways, around specific goals set by their life experiences or jobs or current situations.

Hardly any of this can be factored into any computer program. I am currently working in the IT department of a large American corporation, and what I see every day, repeatedly, throughout the day, is what I’ve seen in all my other jobs in IT and websites and data, which is that the ‘users’, damn their eyes, keep coming up with queer and unpredicted ways of using the system which none of the program managers and project managers and designers and programmers had anticipated.

People keep outwitting and outflanking the computer systems because that’s what people do, not because any individual person is particularly clever but because, taken as a whole, people here, there and across the range, stumble across flaws, errors, glitches, bugs, unexpected combinations, don’t do what ultra-rational computer scientists and data analysts expect them to, Dammit!

6. It doesn’t work The most obvious thing about tech, is that it’s always breaking. I am currently working in the IT department of a large American corporation. This means being on the receiving end of a never-ending tide of complaints and queries about why this, that or the other functionality has broken. Same was true of all the other website jobs I’ve had. The biggest eye-opener for me working in this sector was to learn that things are always broken; there are always bugs and glitches and sometimes quite large structural problems, all of which have to be ranked and prioritised and then we get round to fixing them when we have a) developer time b) budget.

As a tiny confirmation, I have been trying to access Imagenet, the online image bank at the core of this work of art, and guess what? For two days in a row it hasn’t been working, I’ve got the message: ImageNet is under maintenance. Only ILSVRC synsets are included in the search results. Exactly. QED.

7. Big government, dumb data I worked for UK government departments and big government agencies for eight years and my tkeaway from the experience is that it isn’t artificial intelligence we should be frightened of – it is human stupidity.

Working inside the civil service was a terrifying insight into how naturally people in groups fall into a kind of bureaucratic mindset, setting up meetings and committees with minutes and notes and spreadsheets and presentations and how, slowly but steadily, the ability to change anything or get anything is strangled to death. No amount of prejudicing or stereotyping in, to take the anti-AI campaigners’ biggest worries, image recognition, will ever compete with the straightforward bad, dumb, badly thought out, terribly implemented and often cack-handedly horrible decisions which governments and their bureaucracies take.

Take Theresa May’s campaign of sending vans round the UK telling unwanted migrants to go home. Or the vast IT catastrophe which is Universal Credit. For me, any remote and highly speculative threat about the possibility that some AI programs may or may not be compromised by partial judgements and bias is dwarfed by the bad judgements and stereotyping which characterise our society and, in particular our governments, in the present, in the here-and-now.

8. Destroying the world Following this line of thought to its conclusion, it isn’t artificial intelligence which is opening a new coal-fired power stations every two weeks, and building a 100 new airports and manufacturing 75 million new cars and burning down tracts of the rainforest the size of Belgium every year. The meaningful application of artificial intelligence is decades away, whereas good-old-fashioned human stupidity is destroying the world here and now in front of our eyes, and nobody cares very much.

Summary

So. I liked this piece not because of the supposed warning it makes about artificial intelligence – and the obvious criticism or comment about From apple to anomaly is that, apart from a few paragraphs on one wall label, it doesn’t really give you very much background information to get your teeth into or ponder — no, I liked it because:

  1. it is huge and awesome and an impressive thing to walk along – so American! so big!
  2. and because its stomach-churning glut of imagery is testimony to the vast, unstoppable, planet-wasting machine which is humanity

From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ by Trevor Paglen © Tim P. Whitby / Getty Images


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

And concerts

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