on love – from stand-up philosophy

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the things art does

Yesterday my mum came down to London. I like it when that happens – we get to go to galleries and exhibitions all day and then eat nice food. I’ve got Tate membership and she’s got Royal Academy membership and an Art Card, so between us we get to see pretty much everything.

Yesterday we started at the National Portrait Gallery for the Glamour of the Gods exhibition. It’s essentially three or four rooms of black and white pictures of movie stars of the 20s-60s. The trouble for me was that, whereas these were film actors that my mum grew up knowing (many of them weren’t quite her generation, but they were icons all the same), I didn’t recognise half the people there.

I mean, there is always some fun in looking at a good picture of Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers. And Buster Keaton’s extraordinary face, of course. And there is no doubt that Clara Bow and Marilyn Monroe were beautiful.*

But generally, looking at black and white pictures of a bunch of faces not doing very much had limited appeal for someone who hadn’t seen the films. In fact, I think this is ultimately why I don’t go to the National Portrait Gallery very much; portraits of people I don’t know, without action, can’t refer to very much for me. They don’t do much apart from exist as images that refer only to themselves. As a result they are little more than pure form; and there is limited interest in that to non-Kantians.

And as for making me do anything – well, it takes a really really exceptional portrait of a really really exceptional face to have any kind of perlocutionary force (I’m talking Mona Lisa/Pope Innocent X exceptional), and without that, what’s the point of an artwork? Heresy perhaps, and I’m deliberately overstating the point. But even so, I don’t think portraits generally tend to do a lot. Which is why the best use of photography is not portraits, but reportage and invention.

The next thing we went to, the exhibition of Hungarian photography at the Royal Academy, is packed with both.

In particular, I stared for ages at Capa’s photograph of the Falling Solder. This is it:

Obviously there’s some debate about whether it’s staged or not, whether the soldier died at all, whether it was actually Capa that got him killed, etc. The Mail, perhaps unsurprisingly, ran this ridiculous piece not long ago.

But what that debate misses is that none of that matters. Capa knew that literal truth isn’t as important as what the photograph does; he knew it was art, and it was art that represented the fact that anarchists and republicans were getting killed – killed nobly – in the Catalan foothills. It worked to recruit support for the Republican cause and to make the rest of the world aware that something was kicking off in Spain that would spread throughout Europe, ultimately throughout the world.

That picture isn’t a good portrait. It’s blurred and you can’t see the soldier’s face clearly. But the point is that as well as provoking admiration, that picture terrified and it warned. Good art is not just there to be pretty or to be an accurate depiction – good art does something. That picture – there is no denying it – did something.

We finished the day at the Courtauld Gallery, which I have, unbelievably, never been to but if you have never been YOU HAVE TO STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING RIGHT NOW AND GO THERE. Why had nobody ever told me before that it is pretty much the world’s most perfect little art collection?

I mean, the exhibition we were ostensibly there to see – the Toulouse-Lautrec pictures of Jane Avril – was not very interesting (maybe because the intended perlocutionary force of those pictures were just a little too crude: “go and see this woman do the cancan,” they say, and that may have worked at the time but for obvious reasons doesn’t work now). But it was worth it just to see the rest of the gallery.

At risk of getting the intentional fallacy chucked in my face, I do wonder, when I see a lot of art, how much intention (conscious or otherwise) there was from the artist that the work does things. And I wonder how subtle those intentions need to be before the work becomes really good.

With stand-up, there’s such a delicate balance – the work is intended to get laughs. But what other things must it do – while still getting laughs – in order to be the really great artform some of us aspire for it to become?

—-

*OH MY GOODNESS CLARA BOW WAS BEAUTIFUL LOOK AT HER FACE!

poor and happy

Contrary to popular belief, London is a great place to be skint.

I mean, I’m only temporarily skint because I thought I was going to get paid on Friday and wasn’t, which left me with £6 to last me almost a week. And I think London is a very difficult place to be permanently poor.

But there’s SO much to do here for little or no money that I sometimes wonder why I bother spending money at all.

Yesterday I made a packed lunch (total cost: £1.20), got a bendybus (obviously) from my house to Trafalgar Square, and walked over the river to the National Theatre bookshop where I spent an hour quite happily sitting around reading Aristophanes’ Clouds and a bunch of books about comic performance.

Then I walked back up to Trafalgar Square to the National Gallery where I spent ages with the Velasquez paintings;

and also this incredible painting by Philips Koninck (it’s just called ‘Extensive Landscape with a Road by a River’). It’s a fairly ordinary landscape but the canvas is huge – and just look at all that sky! It takes up almost two-thirds of the picture! It’s incredible, there is so much openness in it…

Anyway, then I got another bendybus to the house in Finsbury Park where I used to live, where my friends gave me tea and nuts and tolerated my ill-qualified relationship advice; and then home to listen to the Manic Street Preachers’ new LP (which is, incidentally, outstanding) on spotify. Which, to be fair, I pay £10 a month for so I don’t have to get advertised at, but that’s still ridiculously cheap considering that a few years ago I’d have paid more than that for the Manics album alone.

And that’s just scratching the surface. Today I’m thinking I might go for a walk around Regent’s Park, or go to a free comedy gig, or treat myself to a £1.50 film at the Prince Charles Cinema, or go to the Tate Modern, or the British Museum, or the library…

the wisdom of silenus

There’s a reason why comedians shouldn’t be allowed near alcohol. I think we’re fairly well-disposed to misery anyway, but people prone to annual post-Edinburgh anticlimactic mood slumps shouldn’t drink at all.

Not everyone gets the post-festival depression, of course – some comics I’ve spoken to just came back exhausted.

But there seems to be a fair bit of depression about. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether you stop drinking (as is most sensible, despite the alcohol-withdrawal period) or carry on and just accept that you’ve become an alcoholic.

I know so many stand-ups who don’t drink at all; they don’t need naming here, but if you know any then just ask around and you’ll find a higher than normal percentage of teetotallers. Meanwhile, the ones who do drink probably drink too much.

This is possibly because, Edinburgh aside, drinking – like comedy – is both a relaxant and a downer. They are both mechanisms for those who know just what a bleak and shitty thing life is, and understand that the only alternative to nihilism and suicide is to embrace it anyway, to make something joyful out of it, to create laughter out of pain.

Which is what comedians and alcoholics generally tend to be addicted to.

If you’re fully committed to one mechanism, it’s likely that you’ll either have to forgo the other – or embrace it just as completely.

I think the Greeks were probably onto something with their myths about Silenus. He was the closest companion – often, it’s said, even the tutor – of Dionysus, the god of wine and orgies and music and loss of control.

Basically, Silenus was the guy who taught fun to the god of fun.

In art, he’s pretty much always depicted drunk. Old, bald, and drunk. Sometimes he also has the ears and legs of a horse, but I think that’s probably irrelevant.

Anyway, for those of you who are not familiar with it from The Birth of Tragedy or whatever, the story goes that one day, King Midas – yes, that one – was trying to find the secret of happiness, the thing that is most desirable for humans to have. Midas did that kind of thing, and it tended to get him into trouble. You remember the gold-touching thing.

On one occasion he went to speak to Silenus. Silenus repeatedly refused to tell him, so Midas did what any smart king would do and got Silenus drunk. Eventually, Silenus laughed and burst out,

“Oh wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do you compel me to tell you what it would be better for you not to hear? What is best for you is utterly beyond your reach: it is not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing! But the second best for you is – to die soon.”

Remember – this was Mr. Fun. This is what Mr. Funny Funtimes, the man who taught fun to the god of fun, can only admit when he’s drunk.

Most alcoholics and most good comedians understand the bleak pointlessness of existence all the time, and never more than in the weeks after an Edinburgh run. The laughter stops and we get left with – what?

Overdrafts; insomnia; distraction; collapsing relationships, homelessness (if, like me, you were dumb enough to leave your house to go to Edinburgh)…

And then we come back to London and we make stupid judgements.

And nobody stops us.

We shouldn’t be allowed.

day 17: imagination and confidence

Comedy is a very simple thing to make, at least on a superficial level. It basically just requires two things: imagination and confidence.

Specifically, we need the imagination necessary to create surprises (every laugh is a response to some kind of surprise); and we need to deliver those surprises with absolute, supreme confidence that the normal instinctive reaction to those surprises will be laughter, so that the audience has confidence in us to make them laugh.

If one of those two elements is missing or not quite right, then the comedy fails. If the material is predictable, for example. Or if the material is surprising but not in the right kind of way (often, new comedians go for ‘shock’ humour but they don’t quite judge it right and the response is merely disgust or offence). Or it is the right kind of surprise but the delivery is uncertain – good material sometimes fails if the performer doesn’t hit the lines with the kind of timing and clarity that comes from being absolutely convinced that these things should be laughed at. A misplaced and uncertain-sounding ‘er…’ can make a whole line – a whole act, even – fall flat.

Sunday was just a series of examples of this. The Flashback have long had a deleted scene, in which Fraser performs Beetlejuice as a squeaky-voiced crap magician. They only did it once, and it died a horrible death. So they haven’t done it since.

And yet, it has some of the best lines I think they’ve written. For example, after the first two tricks fail, Beetlejuice calls out,

“For my final magic, I will need – the implement of magical wonder! (pulls out a huge hacksaw)

And I will need – the indemnity form of magical wonder! (pulls out a huge legal indemnity form)

And I will need – a volunteer…with a pen!”

Which has always cracked me up – there is no doubt that it ticks the imagination and surprise boxes, and I’ve been telling them for ages they should bring the scene back. But the previous experience of doing the routine to absolutely nothing means they’ve always refused.

At least until Sunday morning, when Fraser suggested that I do it.

We talked about it throughout the day, but eventually decided that we didn’t quite have the confidence to run with it that night. And I agreed that if the confidence wasn’t there, we couldn’t do it.

For the showcase, though, we had a great lineup. My Mother and soon-to-be Stepfather turned up, and so I opened my compering with my marriage material, and got the crowd quite nicely warmed up for Henry Ginsberg. In private, Henry is a man who (like many comedians) sometimes seems quite shy in person, but who has a natural likeability that outweighs his social confidence. Onstage, though, he comes across as having absolute faith in his material. As a result he often has great gigs and the showcase audience loved him.

But then Timmy came on and did a bit of material that completely bombed – and for which I have to take a fair bit of responsibility because I’d written it with him – about what men would say to women if they could be completely honest about what they wanted. (Admittedly it’s a quite hacky topic but we thought we’d found a new way in.) But perhaps because it was new, and Timmy wasn’t quite sure about it, it didn’t work. The confidence in the joke didn’t seem to be there, which in turn created an awkwardness in the room that even James Acaster couldn’t get big laughs from; it was impossible. It’s not easy to bring a room back from the dead, and we couldn’t do it.

Still, the Flashback show was delivered confidently and was solid. Not great, but solid. Confidence is everything…

Showcase: 7 (some of my best compering yet, but I felt responsible for co-writing the bit that Timmy did)

Flashback: 6

Overall: DRAW

edinburgh: minus one day

Yesterday was the day before travelling to Edinburgh.

It’s always a strange day; fortunately I had most of my packing and sorting already done because of being homeless and having spent the last two weeks on canals and in Northampton and in Wales and all that, so I spent yesterday back in London, going around art exhibitions with my Mum.

Somehow we managed four exhibitions altogether: at the Royal Academy we went to ‘Sargent and The Sea’ (a bit dull – and why did they not have any of his Venice paintings?) and the Summer Exhibition. The Summer Exhibition is remarkable – it’s an open-entry exhibition where any artist, established or unheard-of, can submit work, and if it’s good enough they’ll display it. It’s like the art world’s version of the Edinburgh Fringe – alongside the Hockneys and a new Emin there are things by people nobody has ever heard of and they are smashing.

My favourite thing, of course, was David Mach’s ‘Silver Streak’. This is it:

I don’t know if you can quite tell, but it’s made out of coathangers. Wire coathangers. The fuzziness you can see is all the hooks sticking out. I don’t know exactly what it’s trying to say, but it’s a remarkable piece of sculpture.

We carried on with the sculpture thing by going to the Henry Moore exhibition at the Tate. I quite like Moore’s early stuff, the stuff where you can tell what the things are. Like…

…in this Mother and Child, which he did in 1932, you can see exactly what’s going on – you can see the protective look in the mother’s body as she projects a huge, hard shoulder to the world, looking out for any danger to her child. It’s lovely. It’s not like a generic Madonna because in Madonnas the mother gazes adoringly at the kid; they have a comparatively banal religious purpose and perhaps because of this they show nothing about the feelings of paranoia or protectiveness that come with motherhood (I assume). But…

…this one, which he did in 1983, is a Madonna. And it’s pretty dull in comparison, not only because of its purpose but because in later life Moore’s sculpture got so abstract that you can’t really tell much about what’s going on. You can just see that there’s a big figure hunched over a small figure. There’s nothing really for the observer to do, nothing to participate in except to try and recognise what’s what in the shapes.

My favourite work in the exhibition, though, wasn’t even a sculpture at all but a drawing. It was called ‘People Looking at a Tied-up Object. This is it:

What’s in the wrapping? Why is it so much more interesting that the other strange objects lying around? See, it gives you something to think about…

And then we went to the exhibition of British Comic Art. Which was good, but was really more a history of visual satire from Hogarth onwards than it was an art exhibition. And it wasn’t really all that funny either – no matter how much the exhibition had to pretend that there is still some great visceral value in pictures of Fox getting overfriendly with negroes, it’s just not that great to look at anymore, because topical comedy isn’t funny if it’s not topical. And if it’s not funny, then it’s not comedy. So it was an exhibition of non-topical non-comedy.

Anyway. I’ll be seeing plenty of actual funny art – which hopefully gives me things to think about – in the next few weeks. Lots of comics are there already, like I was this time last year. I’m just not quite there yet…

man and bull

I have two all-time favourite jokes.

The first is: Why did the girl fall off the swing? Because she had no arms.

The other one is this: A wealthy businessman visits Barcelona. In an expensive restaurant next to the bullring, he asks for the chef’s speciality. “Si, Senor!” says the waiter, and brings him two large, slightly salty spheres in broth, explaining that they are the testicles of the bull killed in that afternoon’s bullfight. The businessman is a little disgusted at first, but eats them anyway – and they are delicious.

A few months later the businessman visits Barcelona again, goes to the restaurant and asks for the chef’s speciality again. “Si, Senor!” exclaims the waiter, and brings him two bull’s testicles which are even larger and more delicious than the previous time.

A few months later he visits Barcelona again, goes to the same restaurant and orders the chef’s speciality with great excitement. But this time the waiter brings him a bowl in which the testicles are much smaller and more bitter than before. “Waiter!” the businessman asks, “What is going on here?”

“Ah, Senor,” says the waiter, “The bull – he does not always lose.”

This joke is perfect in every possible way: it has cultural stereotypes, genitals, a perfect rule of three, and a wealthy businessman gets his comeuppance.

Now I’m going to have to bloody change it, because of this campaign to ban bullfighting in Catalunya, which is what this blog is really about.

The thing is, it’s a great thing for Catalan independence, which I am wholeheartedly in favour of. But I’d have a lot more respect for the whole thing if they just said they want to signify a rejection of traditional Spanish customs, and stopped pretending that it’s anything to do with animal welfare.

Very few people really give a crap about animals; bovines in particular. The fact that the Catalan campaign has used all kinds of emotive language about ‘the distress that the bulls suffer’, or ‘how terrible it is that up to six bulls can be killed in an afternoon’, is incredibly annoying given how few of the assembly members who passed the motion yesterday are actually likely to be vegetarians.

And bullfighting – or corrida, to give it its proper name – is, I think, more respectable, more honest and more beautiful than eating meat.

I’m not criticizing meat-eating; I’m not even a vegetarian. Although I used to be one – kept it up for six years, in fact – and I learned two very useful pieces of information from it:

1) humans don’t need to eat meat to survive or be healthy. Quite the opposite in fact – we’re not really evolved for it the way lions or tigers are (lions have intestinal tracts which are relatively short, to quickly get rid of rotting meat; whereas humans, like other herbivores, have intestines which are much much longer in order to get as many nutrients as possible out of fruit and nuts etc.) No, we do it purely because it’s enjoyable. And BOY, is it enjoyable! I made a really delicious pasta bolognese last night. Mmmmm.

2) Unless you rear and slaughter the animals yourself, as humanely as you possibly can, it’s very likely that the animals you’re eating have suffered pretty horrible, torturous, and mercifully short lives. Cows often live in pretty cramped conditions and then go to slaughter on cattle production lines, where each animal gets an electric shock which, if it’s lucky, will numb it (though this doesn’t always work) and if it doesn’t fully work it has to watch the animals in front of it get their arteries cut. Then it is killed itself.

Which means that an honest carnivore, like I try to be, ought to never forget that they are causing plenty of suffering and death to animals, purely for our own pleasure.

For me, this is not so hard to live with; I am unashamedly what Peter Singer calls ‘speciesist‘. Singer uses the term in a derogatory way, but I do think humans are better than cows. We – or at least, most of us – are smarter, more resourceful, we have an ability to use conceptual reasoning, a sense of aesthetic value, and the ability to understand ourselves as conscious beings in time who project ourselves from our past towards hopes and aspirations in the future. If you killed and ate a human, you would be taking away its chances of living out its creative projects and its aspirations; the things that give our lives meaning. Whereas the only hopes and aspirations that a cow has for its future is to have another munch on its breakfast. And to be honest, it probably doesn’t even think very much about that until it actually happens.

So I can face the idea of eating cows, or pigs or sheep for that matter, without feeling too bad about it. They’re idiots. But it doesn’t mean they won’t suffer and then die, purely for my culinary entertainment.

But most meat-eaters, in towns and cities at least, seem to be in denial about this; for most of them, it’s as if the meat they’re eating has come magically out of the ground or a factory or tesco’s, and they are able to eat their meat, which they regard as necessary, without thinking at all about what was involved in its production. And as long as they don’t see the suffering they can pretend it’s not happening.

I suspect the main reason the corrida is so unpopular, at least among carnivores, is that in the bullfight there is no such self-denial about the suffering of the animal.

But the corrida goes further: in bullfighting, both the toro and the toreador are celebrated – almost deified – for their elegance and strength in the way they look death and pain full in the face, and still carry on fighting for life.

In fact, I think the two most important things that the corrida has that carnivorism doesn’t are that firstly, in bullfighting suffering and pain and death are acknowledged not just as necessary conditions of life, but as actually having the potential to be an aesthetic experience; they are elevated to the level of high art (as opposed to the mere industrial functionality of the slaughterhouse).

And secondly, in bullfighting the toro does actually stand a fighting chance, which it wouldn’t get in a slaughterhouse. Although I’d like to see it happen: if every animal had to be killed in person by a slaughterman with sword. And any time the cow doesn’t lose, somebody ordering a Big Mac has to eat a slaughterman’s balls.

Anyway. Like all good jokes, and particularly the jokes I started the blog with, bullfighting is honest and admirable because it does not shy away from suffering, does not deny it. The girl fell of the swing because she has no arms! When you think about it, this is an awful thing to happen. But we laugh because we do not deny its awfulness; we affirm it, we are grateful that the girl is not us, and laughing helps us cope with the fact that perhaps it could have been. Equally, when the toreador is gored as he makes the killer blow, we stare in fear and horror – but fans of the corrida do not look away. They watch because they understand that they are mortal and they can suffer too; they are grateful that today, the suffering is not theirs. The experience is life-affirming.

Well, not in Barcelona any more. Which is fine; some places don’t need bullfighting to affirm life (in England, for example, we have cricket instead – that is warfare enough for our temperament). Barcelona doesn’t need it either; it’s a Spanish interest and Catalunya is not Spain.

But banning it under the pretense that they are somehow acting ‘morally’, in the interests of the animals? In politics too, the bull (in both senses of that word) does not always lose.