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What Do You Think an Artist Is?

Is pain-inflicting, self-mutilating “art” worthy of such name? Can we not sympathise with another person until we literally wear his shoes and physically experience his sufferings?

Update (29 July 2009):

Almost three years on, this has become one of the most popular posts on Los Cuadernos blog. And in the first half of 2009 I saw one site and one video that presented individuals performing self-mutilating acts for art’s sake. First, a pair of twin brothers exchanged arms: one brother’s arm was cut off from his body and reattached to his twin’s body. Thus one man remained with only one arm, while another ended up with three. And the video below taken from TrendHunter explores artistic self-mutilation further, with ten jaw-dropping examples of what is considered art.

Far from decrying anything you see in the video, I will, however, reiterate the point I made in the original post: why, after all wars and losses, do people still need to “practise” pain and mutilation, as if viewing the images of the dead and disabled people is not enough to understand what pain and death is? Three years on, I think I know the answer.

Humanity is fascinated by Death because, like Love and Pain, this is an eternal secret. It is a mystery. Camus said that suicide is the only true philosophical problem, but since the result of a suicide is death, it means that death itself may be the only true philosophical problem. Philosophy, since its origins, has been preoccupied with making sense of Life and of Man as a living being; but much rarely has it delved into the mystery of Death, and this may be its biggest challenge and hurdle.

It is human therefore that everything morbid fascinates, intrigues, and perplexes us. (Zizek comes to mind: people are forever concerned with what they cannot change). Memento mori. Danse macabre. The theme of Death and the Maiden in art (e.g., Hans Baldung, 1517 (right)). Venus at the Mirror as the parable of the fleeting beauty and deplorable life… the list can be continued, and all it will serve to do is to prove to us how truly interested artists are in what philosophy isn’t so eager to discuss. And in this regard it is probably only normal that there are people who use their own bodies to understand the mystery of pain or the secret of being on the brink of dying. In order to live on, art must be experimental, even if it has to experiment with itself.

Having said so, I’d rather not have this kind of art being performed publicly, let alone covered by the media. With our inclination to build hype around things it would be hard to see the forest for the trees.

Most importantly, I am always somewhat confused when artists, writers in particular, claim that in order to write about something they must know it, experience it first-hand. I’m uttering things, but does that mean that Dostoyevsky would need to kill a couple of old ladies to be able to write Crime and Punishment? And at the same time, speaking of literature, can it not help us gain the life experience that we seek?

It may depend on how we read, of course. Reading is both mental and emotional process. However, what is interesting is that because we most often use words to express ourselves, our entire life is one huge text, and each of us is reading it and making sense of it according to our aptitude and experience. We have to translate this text, either in the language of our experience, or in the foreign language, or in the language of other arts or disciplines.

Can it be therefore that after all the millenia humanity has learnt to do pretty much everything, including the genetic engineering and flying into space, but is still rubbish at such important thing as reading? Reading is understanding. Understanding gives one a key to influence things, to change the world. But what is there at the heart of it? Love, no doubt. For we only care to understand things we care about. And nothing can drive us to care about something as much as Love does. However…

…if we cannot love enough to care to understand, does it not mean that even in our Christian world we have never taken Jesus as an example? Does it not mean that we broke the teaching into citations and took to memorise the words without understanding (sic!) their meaning? It’s been a while since I thought: how odd it is that we are told to love God – but not people. How odd that people love God but distrust their neighbours. Maybe it simply means that people inherently distrust themselves. Maybe it means that they find it easier to trust in the Object that is forever absent and therefore cannot let them down more than it already does, rather than trusting another human being whose money isn’t always where the mouth is. But if Art is born in Love, and the present generation of artists often lacks empathy, does this not explain the rising concerns that contemporary art is devoid of essence?

Original post (2 October, 2006)

Several sayings by Pablo Picasso have already appeared on The LOOK’s front page in the past. I also love this photo of him made by Robert Doisneau. A genuine portrait of the genius.

Another portrait of the genius was made by Jean Dieuzaide, and I’ll leave it for you to guess, whose historic moustache you’re gazing at.

I’ve also found this phrase by Picasso a while ago on the web:

What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only eyes, if he is a painter, or ears if he is a musician, or a lyre in every chamber of his heart if he is a poet, or even, if he is a boxer, just his muscles? Far from it: at the same time, he is also a political being, constantly aware of the heartbreaking, passionate, or delightful things that happen in the world, shaping himself completely in their image. How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people, and with a cool indifference to detach yourself from the very life which they bring to you so abundantly? No, painting is not done to decorate apartments. It is an instrument of war.

One may say that Picasso’s viewpoint is somewhat outdated, in that people want to live in the world as peaceful as possible, hence art-as-war is no longer interesting. But there are many kinds of war, and not all are fought with tanks and missiles. There are language wars, religious wars, ‘moral’ wars, media wars, and all use art as a type of warfare. Furthermore, as George Orwell has put it, there are four main reasons to write prose, one of which is ‘political purpose‘ – ‘using the word “political” in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certan direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude‘ (Orwell, G., Why I write).

It would be very hard indeed to disagree with either Picasso or Orwell, and there are modern artists who follow in their footsteps. Perhaps, they don’t get involved in politics very much, but they nonetheless admit that their art exists because of people. One such artist is Dave McKean, who put it this way:

My own world is just trying to make sense of the real world. I don’t like the sort of science-fiction art and fantasy art that is just about goblins and fairies and spaceships. I don’t really see the point of that. It’s entertaining and it’s fine, but I couldn’t do it. I needed to be about people, who I have to deal with every day, and that’s what I’m interested in. I’m interested in what people think and how they think, and the things that they believe in, and desire, and are frightened of. So I’m interested in that side of life, really. And then I’m trying to sort of look at those things from a different point of view, or from metaphor, or from dreams, or from these other angles, because I think they are just interesting ways of seeing things, you know, that you have to deal with everyday for fresh, and you see them with different eyes, I think. [read full article based on McKean’s interview].
Finally, however, comes this passage from The Wicked and Unfaithful Song of Marcel Duchamp to His Queen by Paul Carroll:


Art? A form
of intimate hygiene for
the ghosts we really are.

This brings to my mind a TV programme made by Channel 4, which explored the anti-art, particularly in the form of inflicting pain on oneself as a means of teaching the audience a lesson of empathy. One of my ‘favourite’ moments on the programme was the couple who drank tea with biscuits, while literally “hanging down” from the ceiling on chains, hooks perceing their skin. The idea was to explore their experience of pain and also to expand people’s understanding of pain through such performances.

Having read the entire 120 Days of Sodome by de Sade, I wasn’t scared or repulsed by what I saw on screen, but it made me think. The question I asked myself was this: why in the world where there are so many wars and where the footage of deaths and casualties is already available on the Internet, is it necessary to appeal to people’s empathy by sticking iron hooks in your chest? Far from telling the artists what not to do for their art’s sake, I’m simply wondering about the purpose of such art. If the knowledge of the two World Wars and many other military conflicts doesn’t automatically make people detest the very idea of an offensive war, if the photos of destroyed houses, orphaned children and open wounds don’t change people’s view of loss and pain, then why would seeing two able-bodied adults hanging on chains drinking tea influence people’s idea of pain, or make people more compassionate? I’d imagine that after watching such ‘performance’ people would lose interest in pain altogether. If it’s endurable, then what’s the problem?

Some people with whom I discussed this previously have pointed out that this practice of piercing and inflicting pain is ritual in some countries and cultures. The problem, though, is that the only instance of it on our continent that springs to my mind was flagellantism that had spread in Europe in the 13-14th c. and was later revived as a sexual practice. There is evidently a difference between the culture of piercing in African or Aboriginous societies and this ‘hygienic’ European movement, and as far as I am concerned, this difference is much bigger than someone may think. This ‘civilized’ pain-inflicting art, given its purposes, is – in my opinion – exactly the kind of ‘personal hygiene’ Carroll had written about. An artist, no matter how politically involved, is above all a human being, and when he lacks empathy and cannot relate to other people’s experience, unless he shares it physically, forces to raise questions as to how worthwhile, creative and useful his art is.

And don’t quote Wilde’s ‘all art is quite useless‘. Unknowingly, in this witticism Wilde precluded Sartre who would say that culture doesn’t save or justify anyone – but that it is the mirror in which humanity sees itself. Considering that the Wildean phrase comes from The Portrait of Dorian Gray, culture or art as the mirror symbolically connects Wilde and Sartre. Perhaps it is good if humanity finally notices that it spends more time destructing and inflicting pain instead of learning to love. But will it finally start doing something about it?

How to Compliment a 16th c. Lady

Medieval poetry, in spite of its literary images, was in truth quite pathetic in describing a woman. Naturally, all women were ‘fair beauties’, but, like in painting, poetry rarely went much further.

I like a lot this poem by one of the best-known Tudor poets, John Skelton, The Commendations of Mistress Jane Scrope, which was published in 1545. Throughout the poem Skelton compares his beloved to a number of historical and mythical characters, such as Lucres, Polyxene, Calliope, “or else Penolope” (=Penelope), the nymph Egeria, and deities, starting with “Dame Flora“. It is also interesting that Skelton is more concerned about comparing his dame to an antique character, rather than about the homogeneity of the characters’ geographical origin. The names that we already mentioned come from both Greek and Roman history and mythology.

For my part, I like this passage from the poem:

My pen is unable,
My hand is unstable,
My reason rude and dull,
To praise her at the full,
Godly mistress Jane,
Sober, demure Diane.
Jane this mistress hight,
The lodestar of delight,
Dame Venus of all pleasure,
The well of worldly treasure.
She doth exceed and pass
The prudence dame Pallas.

It is really peculiar how in the space of 12 lines Skelton compares his beloved to Diane, Venus and Pallas – the three goddesses, (in)famously judged by Paris. This is also a curious instance of mixing and matching the names of deities from various mythologies. Both Diane and Venus are goddesses of Roman pantheon, whereas Pallas is a Greek goddess. Her Roman equivalent would be Minerva, but – as it seems – the choice of name was subjected to the purposes of rhyming.

[The quotations are from The Oxford Book of 16th c. verse].


When I first came to England four years ago in mid-July, it’s been raining cats and dogs for two long weeks. It was very cold, plus I didn’t take any sweater with me and, being an incorrigible aesthet, I was frantically knitting myself a sweater instead of buying a cardigan.

This Friday I looked out of the window in the morning, and I saw beautiful blue sky. The day was promising to be nice and warm, so I put on a light summer denim dress. Even when by the evening it started raining, I didn’t feel cold.

When at one of the pedestrian crossings I saw a girl wearing a long puff jacket, with its hood on, I realised that I acclimatised.

The Rubaiyat


Complete Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. I know some verses relatively well in Russian, but haven’t found them in the English translation yet. One of my favourite is this (my literal translation from Russian):

To live life wisely, there’s a lot to know,
Two ground rules remember for a start:
Better be hungry than eat whatever food,
And better be alone than with whoever.

Чтоб мудро жизнь прожить, знать надобно немало,
Два важных правила запомни для начала:
Ты лучше голодай, чем что попало есть,
И лучше будь один, чем вместе с кем попало.

Please note that, as I said above, this is a literal translation. I couldn’t find the English version, so I rendered the text from Russian into English, to give an idea. As I don’t know the language of Khayyam, I wouldn’t actually translate this verse from Russian, since the Russian text is already a translation. I’m writing this, having discovered that my rendition has been quoted elsewhere on the web as a variant of the English translation. It must not be used as such.


Soaps can teach very many things to those who watch them (I’m not among those, so I must be unbearably ignorant). They can also highlight various issues, and so both Coronation Street and Emmerdale have each got their own ‘gay in the village’, and Emmerdale has recently highlighted the problem of euthanasia.

However, some soaps go really multicultural. Neighbours, which is made in Australia and shown daily on BBC1, is now incorporating members of the Russian community (these, however, are not played by Russian actors).

There is a girl ‘from Belarus’, who’s got a strikingly Asian look. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not stating this is impossible altogether. I’m simply saying: it’s striking.

Better still, there is this female character ‘from Russia’ whose name is Mishka. ‘Mishka‘ is Russian for ‘a little bear‘. There is NO WAY it can be a female name. It can be a short form of the name Michael (Mikhail in Russian), but never a full name in its own right. As for a feminine equivalent to a masculine form of the name, in the West it is possible to meet a woman called Michaela, but not in Russia.

I don’t want to guess why Neighbours editors came up with this exact name, although I’ve got an inkling it may have to do with the 1980 Olympics, which mascot, as you know, was a teddy bear (it can also be called ‘mishka‘). So, the connection could of course be that the woman’s parents were feeling patriotic and called their baby after the mascot. The only problem with this interpretation is that the female character looks at least 49 and there is no way she could’ve been born in 1980.

New label

9/11 this year wasn’t just the anniversary of the terrorist attack on the United States five years ago. It was also the date when I flew from Moscow to Manchester three years ago. I haven’t been to Russia since then, and it looks like I won’t have a chance to go until after January 2007 (don’t worry :-), it’s simply more convenient this way). Naturally, in these three years many things have happened, some were thrilling, some were fine, some I could do without, but all in all it was very important time for me.

One of the outcomes of those three years is the new label I’m starting on this blog. I might change its name down the line, but at this moment it’s gonna be called ‘On Russia’ and will be dedicated to correcting various misconceptions regarding Russia and its culture, as well as to posting comments on Russian literature, cinema, music, arts, etc.

Under this label you won’t find any comments on politics, except for some historical notes perhaps, if I find those appropriate. My intention is not to command people to think about my country in a certain way. Apart from being a sort of outlet for my growing nostalgia, this label’s aim is to simply tell about Russia something that only a native citizen (+historian+writer+linguist) can tell. At the same time, my intention is to correct some really striking misconceptions, which sometimes stem from the lack of knowledge (for which there may be no-one to blame) or from wrong interpretations (for which the interpreter is to blame). I would like to think that my posts will be engaging and enlightening enough, although I don’t invest any unrealistic hopes in this.

If there is anything I would urge you to do it is to ask me questions or to comment on my posts under this label. My posts will predominantly be based on the media reports and on my talks with people, but since this blog exists on the world-wide web, it’s being read world-wide, so if you’ve got a comment or a question, feel free to send them to me.

One final thing, just in case if someone ever gets a feeling of my being patronising. I already said my intention is not to tell people what to think. But the simple fact is: there are very many Russians who know English, but very few English/British/English-speaking people who know Russian. So first and foremost I’m a translator who wants to be faithful to their original milieu but is aware of the inevitable losses or changes during the process of relocation of a text into a different milieu. And because some changes have a resonating effect, this label has come into being.

You Are What You… Part Two

Listen (again!)

A new study reveals that if you’re a classical music fan, you will have tried cannabis. I wonder if this may be the case of the so-called false correlation?

This is what was written in Psychology Today (you already read it here):

Compared with other music fans, opera aficionados are three times more likely to endorse suicide as a solution to family dishonor, says Steven Stack, a psychologist at Wayne State University in Michigan. Don’t blame Madame Butterfly. Stack says dramatic personalities are drawn to opera, not influenced by it.

I think this thesis explains better, why people who like opera have tried magic mushrooms (mind you, I’m not among them!) It is mushrooms that draw people to opera, not opera that draws them to mushrooms. If we blame it on music, we’ll have to think that Beethoven was the true reason behind the rampages of Alex and his gang in A Clockwork Orange – which couldn’t be further from the truth.

(And I don’t even mention Wagner…)

On Plagiarism

Blessed be the times when medieval monks simply ‘continued’ the chronicles and annalles that had been started by other monks. Today the family of the monk who started the chronicle could very well have sued the family of the monk who continued it for violation of the copyright.

The question of originality is something that always bothers artists, critics and the audience alike. There’s no point to narrate the perils that have postmortem befallen William Shakespeare or Mikhail Sholokhov because of some scholars’ zealous attempts to prove they were plagiarists. In truth, since our world is so old, originality may be a strange thing to desire, as it’s very likely that there will be oblique links between you and a certain, let us say, Hume, even if you’ve never heard of the chap.

I’m thinking: perhaps the change in attitude to plagiarism has to do, among other reasons, with how people see their place in the world. In the past, when the world’s exact frontiers were still undiscovered and its historic past was still largely undeciphered, to borrow from someone or to openly cite them for inspiration had meant to find links between yourself and this vast territory of the Unknown. It was not considered bad; instead, it gave perspective to your experience and donned importance to anything you had to offer.

These days it’s different, and it seems that people are suffering from agoraphobia. Although they say they like exploring the big world, they in fact always want to get back to their communities and homes. Globalisation, we’re told, is challenged by localisation. There are so many groups and communities, and some of them only exist in the virtual world of the Internet. We didn’t become any more knowledgeable. What the philosopher said is still true. ‘I only know that I know nothing’ – the land of ignorance grows, as the limits of knowledge expand.

Paradoxically, this Brave Huge world scares (to one extent or another) authors of any kind. They want to be unique, but what if they’re doing exactly the same thing now that someone has already done in the past and they simply didn’t know about it? However, even if you know that you’re totally unique (if such thing is still possible today), then you certainly cannot prohibit others from being inspired by your work.

I guess, the best thing to do is to acknowledge the fact that 1) the world is too old, and it’s not your conscience that should be troubled by ‘plagiarism’ but rather that of your predecessor who was a ‘pioneer’; and that 2) inspiration, aside from talent, is among the reasons why we have artists. To conclude, this is the translation of an extract from the talk of Andy Warhol, one of the gurus of Pop Art, with Adrian Darmon:

AD: Where do you find yourself vis-a-vis Picasso?
AW: He’s dead, and I’m in his place. On the artistic level, I think I’ll be a milestone.
AD: Do you take yourself seriously?
AW: I’m doing things seriously, with aesthetic taste.
AD: And without plagiarism?
AW: I don’t understand the meaning of your question. In any case, the artists are inspired by the works of others.

You Are What You…

[This post is dedicated to the playwright from Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, who was gifted, but liked listening to The Monkees’ I’m a Believer].


Psychologists have found out that the music young people listen to can tell (almost exactly) who they are. In simple terms, if you’re a jazz aficionado, you’re probably a very brainy person. If you like pop, you don’t like overcomplicating things. If you like dance or soul, your tongue is likely to be your enemy. If, however, you’re a fan of gangsta rap, it’s very possible that you’re timid by nature.

Music, claims an article by Lane Jennings in The Futurist (vol. 39, 2005), is forming the communities, and portals like Last.fm and, of course, My Space, certainly prove the point. But, personally, I have reservations about the idea that it is iPods and iTunes that are causing this change. Rather, they ferment or even bring to the surface the long-existing tendency. And we’ve become more aware of it because fans don’t have to travel miles to the annual meeting of Ella Fitzgerald or ABBA fan clubs – they can simply meet online as often as they like.

To test the findings, follow this link, to listen to The Wicked and Unfaithful Song of Marcel Duchamp to His Queen. The text of the poem was written by Paul Carroll, and was put to music by John Austin. Feel free to tell us what it made you discover about yourself.

[In case if the link doesn’t work, please go to www.toutfait.com, to ‘Music’ folder, and look for ‘The Wicked and Unfaithful Song…’ in the list of works. I do hope, however, that the above link will take you there directly].

Another researcher’s findings (in the article by Kathy Lane in The Mail on Sunday, April 2004) have revealed that in England your eating habits stand for your social status. Apparently, if you’re an upper-middle-class person you won’t be seen dead eating bacon and chip butties, prawn cocktail with Marie-Rose sauce, or rice salads with sweetcorn – typically working-class or lower-middle-class foods. [Strictly speaking, you may indulge in any of these, but only if you’re socially secure enough to be eccentric].

Then, of course, we can bring the whole bunch of food advice in the picture, and it will turn out that the lower classes shop for ready-made foods in cheap supermarkets, while the upper branches shop for organic and ‘healthy’ foods in more expensive stores, or even have their friendly butcher and greengrocer.

It all looks kind of funny and superficial if we take this simply as the reflection of class differences in food consumption. However, I was astounded to read a booklet containing advice on healthy eating for those who suffer from MS (multiple sclerosis). This is the list of products they were not supposed to have: lard, butter, cream of soups, caffein, and – most importantly – fish in batter and chips.

Why ‘most importantly’? Because all of us who’ve been to England at least once already know that fish in batter and chips are one of the favourite English meals, especially in the North. As a matter of fact, the statistics show that the Northerners are more often affected by MS that the Southerners. I asked a representative of one MS Care Centre in South Manchester, if the food guidelines for the MS sufferers can also be used as general guidelines for MS prevention. His answer was ‘yes’. ‘Then doesn’t it look like’, I asked, ‘that the favourite Northern food may also be the cause of MS?’ I would like to be wrong, but I felt that his ‘yes’ to my question contained a lot of astonishment.

So, eating habits evidently define much more than just your social status, which sounds quite commonsensical, and is exactly what Jamie Oliver has been uttering for a long while. Perhaps, then, it is time to do something about it?


What you say and how you say it is also manifestant of your class background. Two years ago I was returning to Manchester from my research spell in London. It was an evening train, and in the carriage there was this group of young office workers, two men and two women. They were talking loudly, and eventually I heard one man, speaking in RP [Received Pronunciation, also known as the Queen’s English], explaining to a woman, how he could tell her social background. She referred to her father as ‘Dad’, which gave away her not-so-high social status. If she was posh, he explained, she’d call her parent ‘Father’.


Until now we may be thinking that everything that is written here may or may not be true. In the end of the day, the egalitarians will say that people must not be judged by the music they listen or by the words they use in their speech. On the other hand, all people like coming together in groups, and the entering criteria must be defined. So, whether one likes this or not, if there are people who want to be ‘upper-middle-class’, there will always be those who don’t fall into the category.

However, reading habits is my most favourite example of how little reading tells about who you are. To define people by their bookshelf is totally futile, because they may be buying books simply to decorate the room or to impress the visitors. Such thing as the entire edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica standing in the most prominent place in someone’s study never means that the owner has actually read it.

Then there are people who read Dan Brown and Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the same degree of pleasure. There are also people who we’d assume are very cultivated because they listen to Antonio Caldara (an Italian Baroque composer) and read Martin Heidegger. I’d imagine that reading Heidegger’s musings on language would at least make one more attentive and sensitive to their own speech. And yet, I’ve been proved wrong.

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