John Constable, Fathers4Justice, HM Wandsworth Prison

Edited May 2018



As a new dad, a piece of agit-prop provoked by state intervention into parenthood caught my eye. In 2013, John Constable’s 1821 painting of rural English countryside The Haywain,which hangs in London’s National Gallery, was defaced by protester Paul Manning as part of a Fathers4Justicecampaign.

Manning, a father who had lost a child custody court appeal two weeks prior, had glued a four-inch photograph of his son to the painting, the word “help” written on the photograph. My premise was that the choice of artwork for the attack was no accident; TheHaywainbeing a sign for all that is over-finished, closed and complete about painting. Conversely, the fact that there is no room (as a viewer) for dialogue in the work becomes highlighted when we see it defaced. For something similarly highlighted by being incongruous, remember Gillian Wearing’s photographs of smiling yuppies holding up placards reading ‘I’M DESPERATE’ and black cops holding cards saying ‘HELP’.

John Constable’s 1821 sketch forThe Haywain 

Who knows, but I couldn’t imagine thatManning would have direct-action’d the photograph to Constable’s preparatory oil study of the same scene. Visually it would have got lost among the rest of the emotional rawness. There wouldn’t have been enough contrast and it doesn’t represent the chocolate-box twee-ness that we choose to loathe or love or pin our personal and political concerns to. In fact the sketch looks altogether of our own twenty-first century arty sensibility in terms of our hip disdain for the virtual or mass-produced.

Despite criticism of media friendly over-finished-ness toward the so called YBAs in the late 80s and early 90s, Michael Craig-Martin, pivotal tutor at Goldsmiths during that period, makes no bones of his admiration for the hand-drawn line. In the catalogue forward to the exhibition he curated Drawing the Line,he writes of erstwhile sketches:

‘The most striking thing about the drawings of the past is how ‘modern’ they look. I believe that this is because the qualities we have come to value most highly in art […] have always been present […], but usually in the past have characterised only modest and ‘secondary work’; that is, drawings. These characteristics include spontaneity, creative speculation, experimentation, directness, simplicity, abbreviation, expressiveness, immediacy, personal vision, technical diversity, modesty of means, rawness, fragmentation, discontinuity, unfinishedness, and open-endedness. These have always been the characteristics of drawing’.

Cave Man

Neatly consolidating Craig-Martin is Werner Herzog’s film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010),which documents the Aurignacian cave paintings in Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc, Southern France. Herzog narrates that a section of the cave was painted in 30,000 BCE. Then, astoundingly, we learn that in 27,000 BCE another artist added to the painting whilst respecting the original painter’s handwork. Herzog points out that we are locked in history, those cave dwellers weren’t’. So it seemed that beinglocked in history’related to an over-corporealness and tired density in relation to artworks such as the finished Haywain, whereas drawing – be it modern or ancient – remains sufficiently unlocked to be accessible by artists of a different millennia.

I found out that another famous French cave, the Neolithic Lascaux complex was, within 15 years of discovery in 1940, so adversely affected by the carbon dioxide exhaled by scientists and the curious that white mould appeared over the walls and, fearing complete annihilation, the cave’s entry was permanently sealed. For both Lascaux and Chauvet, life-size replica caves were made, the Chauvet facsimile in a nearby 3,500sqm concrete-clad building.

But as with me, you might feel a sense of outrage at the prospect of fibreglass or plastic fake caves. Caves after all are the refuge of hermits and perennial outsiders as well as being the homestead of many peoples throughout history. Homesteads like the caves of the mysterious Anasazi in Arizona USA, the Derinkuyucaves in Turkey and the troglodyte dwellings of Matera in Italy, which were in use until its 20,000 inhabitants were forcibly removed in the 1950s.

‘You are not to be trusted with your own heritage’ is the message,‘caves are not safe or sanitary, go.’  So it seems that ancient and unspoilt places are protected and controlled for our own ‘good.’ And what’s more only the educated and self-controlled elite can be trusted not to desecrate the site.  That at least, was my thinking, and proof seemed to pop up all around.

Like when I was driving through the Oxfordshire countryside on the way home recently and passed a picturesque village called Swinbrook. It was magical and unspoilt, willows sweeping along the banks of a little river, a row of houses in the local white stone with thatched roofs, and a little pub called The Swan with a few people sitting outside under sun umbrellas. Back at the house I had a look on the internet. The first picture that came up was David Cameron ushering François Hollandeinside The Swan. It’s tainted I decided, I’ll never go back.

Conversely the Left seemed to take up residence where they know they won’t be disturbed, where no one gives a shit.It’s no coincidence that the best of Italian Leftist cinema – Pier Paulo Pasolini’s New Wave masterpiece Mama Roma(1962) – wasn’t filmed in the historic and closely controlled centre of Rome but on it’s grassy outskirts amongst newly built social housing blocks and a mixture of ruins from down the ages; the remains of Roman brickwork and WW2 rubble.

For literary and cultural critic Walter Benjamin however, the only power around from which to position oneself against was the encroaching Third Reich. And as both intellectual and Jew in 1930s Germany he was decidedly persona non grata (as was sadly born out). Due to both the authenticity of his victimisation and the strength of his critique of all that is mediated for gain or control, Benjamin tallied highly as a supporting partisan in my way of thinking.

In The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,his 1936 text on the devaluation and loss of an original artwork’s ‘aura’, Benjamin writes ofour cult-like relationship towards original artwork paralleling the notion of animistic people’s regard for spirits that reside in inanimate objects. Benjamin writes that; ‘Mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual’. His point is that we’re distracted from noticing the loss of the unmediated object and therefore its void by the flickering of images in film. Benjamin’s ideas are no less diminished this century. Walking around whilst browsing on our phones forgetting we even have a body.

For all Herzog’s weighty acclaim, under Benjamin’s gaze the Cave of Forgotten Dreamsis reduced to an indulgence: something like the German director starring in his own porno film. There’s no theatre-like panorama such as in Mama Romawhereby we can choose where to look or equally accept peripheral imagery. Instead we are obliged to follow the directed gaze of the cameraman’s lens, and told what to think by Herzog’s slightly soporific inflection. We learn that ancient man recreated a sense of movement on the cave wall by drawing the legs of the auroch overlapping. The irony is that that sounds very much like a proto ‘flickering image’, as if the auroch’s aura is getting ready to skedaddle several tens of millennia before the advent of cinema.

Looking at Herzog’s cave in such light was too interesting to exclude however even though it presented an inconvenience and was an anomaly within my thinking. My ideas weren’t about to crumble yet though, especially as a friend introduced me to Sean Joseph Patrick Carney’s writing which, in his its on Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation Carney, cranks up the moral indignation to 11 for the same French caves; ‘So what did modern society come up with? They build a fucking replica 500 meters […] away. […] If ethnology wants to live, whatever it’s studying has to die. But the thing that it’s studying gets a kind of revenge in this scenario. “Science wants to study us? Fuck science. We’ll just die”‘.

This was appealing and powerful stuff that Carney was saying. ‘We hate them so much, the white overall’d and thoroughly unromantic scientists, who in any case are pretty much an instrument of the state and probably motivated by gain, that we’d rather die than surrender our secrets and dignity’.

HM Wandsworth Prison

Some time after art school I received an email from A. L., one of the visiting lecturers I had met at Chelsea, who invited me and sculptor Adam Zoltowski to give an artists’ talk to prisoners at HM WandsworthPrison. It was the kind of thing I was interested in.

The day for the visit came, I travelled to the prison, and metAdam and A.L. outside the main entrance with its Victorian portcullis. It made me think of a one pence coin where there’s also a portcullis, just as outmoded.

We passed through security and arrived at the workshop room halfway through a slightly nervous presentation by three women from a prize-giving organisation called The Koestler Awards (named after long-time political prisoner Arthur Koestler to encourage art in UK prisons). As well as the women there were twelve men in the room, mostly sitting around a long table with some perching on the workbenches. One of them stood out as perhaps in his mid 50s while the others were young, more or less of art school age. A.L. had told us that they had been incarcerated for a variety of offences mostly ranging from the opportunistic to the violent and I should also say that it was clear that they didn’t come from entitled backgrounds.

The presentation itself was long and well meaning and from my perspective, quite magisterial. It occurred to me that that’s the nature of arts-award talks. If you’re on the panel judging an art competition, then you’re supposed to be more knowledgeable than those who enter. I realised that what was different wasn’t the Koestler presentation itself but the fact that the audience obviously had more life-experience (if not life-years) than the usual converse relationship.

After the presentation, the Koestler reps looked over the attendees’ artwork that they had brought along, flicking through mostly A3 and A2 portfolios, and I took the opportunity to shadow some of the exchanges. The reps pointed-out some of the first artist’s work which they considered worthy of entering for the award – paintings of Venetian bridges copied from photographs. I noticed however, that the artist had also made numerous more personal drawings in pencil – erotic studies of women and loosely drawn dream sequences. No comments were made about this work. The Koestler rep moved on to the next artist’s portfolio and I saw her picking out yet more scenes of Venice, together with copies of New York skyline posters, recommending them for submission to the competition, and again disregarding more personal work.  I was struck by the fact that both artists seemed unconcerned or perhaps unsurprised at this ranking of their work with their most civilised, best-copied paintings meriting praise and the more linear and less restrained work – expressions of dreams and desires – being put aside. I found myself mentally joining-the-dots to try and understand something that seemed straight out of My Fair Ladybut with the gender roles reversed: the taming of unreconstructed men.

My Fair Lady

For my presentation I had brought in some books and comics that I thought would be appreciated: smutty underground comics from 1960s San Francisco by S. Clay Wilson and Robert Crumb and some Viz comics from the UK. I also brought artist’s monographs; Van Gogh, Matisse, Carroll Dunham and a book on Picasso’s 1960s erotic prints. I handed the books and comics out and opened a discussion around cave painting, whether it was powerful and if it had any connection to Van Gogh and in turn graffiti. I wanted the men to find the connections themselves, which they did. There was general engagement and some laughter as well as some nice tagging anecdotes and recounts of TV documentaries about caves around the world.

Adam then gave his presentation, a talk on his work and the lack of any decent public sculpture, which also went down well. We said our goodbyes with plenty of bonhomie and we three left HM Wandsworth and walked to a nearby café for lunch.

With A.L. and Adam we talked about how the presentations had gone. I said that I felt good, the men had seemed more human and engaged during our talks than at the prospect of jumping through perfunctory hoops vis-à-visthe Koestler Awards. I reflected that everything I had written about seemed warranted. It was a test to see if my ideas could sway the most marginalised of people – those serving time – and I felt the ideas had stood up.

We carried on talking and eating in the café, which, though not particularly plush was still comfortable. I was becoming aware of something that I felt but which seemed too embarrassing and gauche to voice: a mixed feeling but which included exhilaration that we were here enjoying our cappuccinos and congratulating ourselves while the men were still behind bars. As that awareness came into focus any elation faded and what I felt had been a coup began to seem pretty complacent and hollow.

I had misjudged need, and need is the sobering accompaniment to being idealistic. Though the men at HM Wandsworth seemed to have enjoyed the content of my presentation, none of it in anyway met their very particular need. Those incarcerated at HM Wandsworth had clearly already made an unmediated, transgressive work of (performance) art, and because of that performance/crime they were now locked-up behind bars. Any recalcitrant spirit or impulse for wild expression on their part was now counter-intuitive to having their good behaviour noted during hearings and so having the length of their custodial sentence reduced. As A.L. later told me in an email ‘they [the prisoners] measure their success [as artists] by their ability to replicate’.In light of this, copying photos of Venice bridges suddenly seemed like good practice for the living in the socialised, non-extreme outside world.