Transitia Miserabilia: The Illusion and Delusion of Change

Thirty years ago, the fall of the Berlin Wall signalled the final months of the communist regime in East Europe, leading to a period of transition which culminated with the end of the Cold War.  It marked the transition from realist-socialism to democracy in all the Eastern Block states. This change required new societal structures and new political strategies, in response to the demands of a functioning democratic system. The transition from mono-party governance to political plurality was difficult and, at times, painful for all newly formed democracies, unaccustomed to rapid market and social changes.

It was as difficult for the Western side of the continent. Left without its common goal which defined the Cold War, the West began the reconfiguration of own strategies, while maintaining scepticism about the viability of the Eastern democracies. However, the European institutions began to change, putting aside old ideological conflicts and replacing them with economic alliances. Europe appeared more united around a common purpose, whilst the East-West divide went underground, driven by economic competition, by cultural misunderstanding and misinterpretation coming from both sides.

Transition is always marked by change, insecurity, doubt, pain, loss, anxiety and conflict. All transitions have similar attributes. Transition is a societal natural process which emerges when a revolution ends. Transition brings probing questions about values, beliefs and principles, forcing a society to find new answers. During this process, a society ends up reconfiguring its own institutions and the symbolic power it attributed to them or to groups of people.

Vermeulen (2010) opens another thread of discussion about transition. He proposes ‘metamodernism’ as a concept which defines the current developments in aesthethics, philosophy and arts. These developments are less and less focused on tensions between countries or religions or genders, rich or poor, young or old, black or white.

Vermeulen (2010) identifies that the contemporaneity experiences a more fundamental tension; between past and future. In his vision, our response to this transition it’s about whether ‘we settle for the same divisions, distractions and drama that passes for politics today, or whether we reach for a politics of common sense and innovation, a politics of shared sacrifice and shared prosperity’ (2010).

Transition is defined by fragmentation, a model which dominated the past decade and which has proven detrimental to the cultural space. In poetry, for instance, this fragmentation created conflict, polarisation and an artistic space unable to cope with / and to respond to, the pace of our time. Whilst poets are caught in the bubble of their own discourse, the artistic focus shifted to expand the engagement with the readership, and to find new audiences.

And one would say, it is all part of this change. Nothing wrong with it.

It’s not. But it is!

This type of transition is wrong, when the cultural space shows, as Stevenson (2000) says, that our generation of poets is ‘at the mercy of technology and in thrall to the media.’ It causes the illusion of power and relevance in a culture which has not yet defined what ‘relevance in poetry’ actually is. It is wrong, when the new generation of poets ‘proliferate under pressure to please a specialist clientele’ (Stevenson, 2000). It is wrong, as Susan Sontag remarked in 2002, when contemporary poetry begins to suffer from an ‘uninhibited display of egotism.’ It proliferates a cultural delusion defined by everything goes, everything is important, everything needs to be heard.

In 1934, Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva published the essay ‘Poets with History and Poets without History’ in which she identifies two opposing categories of poets (and poetry): ‘poets without history’ and ‘poets with history.’

The first category refers to poets preoccupied with self-expression, whilst the second category refers to poets engaged in artistic discovery and literary innovation. Tsvetaeva’s categorization is not without relevance today, more than eighty years later.

The ‘poets without history’ or ‘poets without development’ as she said, include poets consumed by personal expression.

‘Sometimes their knowledge is narrow and they come into world not to learn, but to say. They come into world to make themselves known. […] A poet without history cannot have a striving towards a goal, as his/hers poetry has no project.’

By contrast, in Tsvetaeva’s vision, ‘poets with history’ are:

’like an arrow shot into infinity. They seem to inhabit the creative will, don’t have time to turn around to look at themselves, only pressing forward.’

The process of ‘looking forward’ implies a continuous drive to innovate and explore new artistic territories. And here is our moment of metamodernism, the moment when our transition begins a dialogue between past and future. This is a cultural opportunity which rejects both illusion and delusion, preoccupied with shaping the power of its voice, rather than consumed by its own narrative.

And what kind of poetry can face such a challenge? To quote Seamus Heaney, it is a poetry which doesn’t win ‘competitions in the Irish Times or the New Statesman’ (Heaney, 1974, 2000). It is not a detailed self-interview, but a poetry which questions systems, and it reveals new interpretations of the world. This poetry becomes memorable when the writer assumes the responsibility to challenge complacency, and has the courage to experience the transformative power of change.

© Maria Stadnicka, September 2019 / Published in ‘Stride’ magazine on 15 October 2019.

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The Politics of Inevitability and the Art Education

Photograph: ©JStadnicki, 2018

There is no way one can observe the social transformations within a community and society without resorting to strong political clues in order to understand the sources of those transformations. And clearly, when things go wrong, we blame the politics, the legislators, the government. But when the political sphere moves away from the reality of the people it represents, the laws and the policies have no real impact on the wide majority. The decision-making groups have little will to support change, and the economic downturn Britain has been experiencing for over a decade seems to move towards a silent collapse. And nobody appears to take responsibility. The blame placed on the government rules like a shadow, hiding underneath the roots of bad financial decisions, personal greed and managerial incompetence.

Let’s consider the situation the art sector is in at the moment.  The issue came into focus with the news of the devastating fire which, this second time, damaged the Glasgow School of Art beyond repair. There you have £35m down the drain, or rather turned to ashes, and everybody is powerlessly looking at the building asking, in disbelief, ‘how could this be possible’. The fate of the Glasgow School of Art seems, for now at least, sealed by confusion and uncertainty. Who is to blame?

Extrapolating the Glasgow tragedy, we are looking for someone or something to blame for the uncertain fate of hundreds of art schools across the country, which slowly, but surely, are decapitated by unachievable targets and percentages. This time, we encounter another type of devastating fire, which is slowly cooking to ashes the art sector, in general, and the art education, in particular: the drive to achieve the funding targets, the attendance and the achievement rates, the literacy and the numeracy benchmarks. What do they all mean? Certainly, they mean nothing to those involved in the art sector (students, artists, writers, musicians, teachers), but mean everything to those in charge to justify the bureaucracy supporting their livelihoods; bureaucracy which satisfies the pleiades of regulators and inspectors. The focus of this type of education is not the youth’s creativity; it is to produce a nation of self-absorbed adults, ready to slot into whatever social square is allocated to them as soon as they join the education system.

And here we face again another type of politics. The ‘politics of inevitability’ as Snyder eloquently describes it, which makes the art education vulnerable and a victim of the constantly expanding globalisation. Since the mid ‘80s, the way we talk about art has fundamentally changed as well as the way the education system works to serve the economy, under the bright colours of neoliberalism.  One would say, what is the problem with that? There is nothing wrong with expecting profitability, and economic success. There is, though, if the principle on which the profit is based, is wrong.

The education and the arts remain essential social institutions  in a healthy society. They create and preserve what we call our ‘decency’. They remain our ‘sane barometer’ if you like, which supports the configuration of our future and the values this future will act upon.

I remember a recent conversation I had with a head of school who recognised that things have taken a turn for the worse, with the Brexit uncertainty looming, but, as he said, ‘what can one do against a whole government, with a mortgage to pay?’

Here we are again, in the blaming game equation. The well-suited head is back in his leather chair, the young artist is back revising for another maths test. New financial cuts are drowning the hope of an economic recovery and the silence of those suffering its effects sounds more and more like a resigned agreement. Not once we feel that the history allows us to see patterns and to understand that action is a possibility.

History permits us, ‘to be responsible; not for everything, but for something’ as the poet Czeslaw Milosz said. This responsibility has always worked against loneliness and indifference.

©Maria Stadnicka, June 2018, Gloucestershire, UK

 

The Burden of an Exit Strategy

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The confusing scandal around Cambridge Analytica and the misuse of personal data have stirred a wide search for a coping strategy post Facebook, once the campaign #Delete started to gather momentum. Over fifty million people have become victims of an algorithm and the finger points in both directions. It points at the corporation and the guilty pact between the rich and the political class to maintain ‘the distribution of wealth’ (Chomsky). And it points at the victims too, as they gave into temptation and filled in the vilified personality test, the intelligence test, the ‘what Disney character are you’ test or ‘is the dress white or gold’ test. And the list could include other hundreds of tests and surveys which were strategically used to collect data and profile the population.

But why did people take the online tests in the first place? Was it out of curiosity, boredom, self-absorption, confusion, insecurity? Possibly, but not exhaustively, being constantly overfed information, the individual, the person behind the computer screen, started to lose the sense of identity and the fear of rejection kept on creeping in. A sign of an increasing collective anxiety.

The need for constant external validation could be a symptom of what de Botton calls ‘status anxiety’. But this is not, by far, a new philosophical discovery. In 1929, Bernays used collective anxiety in his campaign ‘Torches of Freedom’ and successfully convinced women to start smoking cigarettes. One can only see that psychological profiling started a long time ago, when Sigmund Freud clarified the notion of a dark, unconscious self. It comes as no surprise now that among my friends without online social presence there is a sense of ‘told you so’ vindication, whilst the rest is struggling to find a way out.

On a tweet published yesterday by a friend I read a stark and final confession: ‘took a while to decide, but happy I finally cleansed myself. After 11 years I am off…forever.’ But have they actually managed to escape with such ease? Is ‘deleting’ as simple as ‘liking’ or ‘accepting’ the terms and conditions of a virtual contract? There are two immediate identifiable issues here.

The first is that the Facebook license does not end upon the deactivation of your account. The content will only be released from license when all the other users (family, friends, acquaintances, nobodies) have also broken their ties with it. Online freedom will come only after successful negotiations with thousands of friends one gathered during a decade of social media use. The second issue is that Twitter, the online space the online user migrated towards, has a more insidious ‘rights’ clauses. In accepting the terms and conditions, they granted the platform editing rights. Which means the right to edit, modify, translate and format any content posted on the platform. And this can be highly problematic when the content is translated to other languages.

The society’s architecture has dramatically changed to redefine the concept of freedom within the limits of an acceptable platform. It is now symptomatic that ‘deleting’ is a form of virtual social rejection, which leads to real constrains in terms of access to information. But, a while ago, this free access used to be a fundamental attribute of a healthy democracy.

‘The concept of liberty and individual choice are nothing but a mirage’ notes an online user on Twitter who admits that ‘today, Facebook deleted my account because I did use the title DeleteFacebook in one of my paintings’ (TArt). The elite culture is openly biting back displaying the fangs of bigotry ‘as it pretends there is no other alternative’ (Berger).
What facets do we need to explore now in order to redesign our ‘spectre of hope’?

Maria Stadnicka, 1st April 2018

Migration Stories – Cultural Exchange Project initiated by Univ. of Gloucestershire at Museum in the Park

A week to go! 12th November 2017 from 10.30 am!

So happy to be part of this and to support an excellent project!

Migration Stories / A Cultural Exchange which celebrates the diversity and the powerful cultural impact of our migrants’ stories and experiences.

Spoken languages can both unite and separate human kind. Through education we can learn to speak other languages and this entitles us to appreciate cultures around us. However, linguistics alone are just one conduit of understanding – our sense of what is to be human in the world is also built on non-linguistic cultural experiences – we learn through stories, legends, music, food, dance, festivals, artefacts and images.‘ (Excerpt from Daniel Barenboim, on the 16th July 2017, in an impromptu speech at the Proms Albert Hall.)

Photograph: ©John Stadnicki

12th November 2017 at Museum in the Park, Stroud, Gloucestershire is the first part of a beautiful cultural project which will continue and will develop over the next three months.

The workshop will start at 10.30am at Museum in the Park and will bring together narrators, MA illustrators, poets, writers and photographers.

At 11am we will invite illustrators, photographers, writers, students to listen and to be inspired by the unique stories and memories of those who have experienced the joy, the pain, the comic, the humane journey of those, amongst us, arrived from somewhere else.

The narrators Anita Roy, Dolores Phelps, Maria Stadnicka, Fumio Obata, Ro Saul, John Stadnicki will tell us their memories.

Lunch time – bring and share food from our own heritage

Photograph: © John Stadnicki ‘Portrait – Mr. Sova’

The afternoon will create opportunities for smaller groups to discuss in detail elements of the stories and will begin to consolidate ideas for creative responses.

The creative responses will be completed by  6th December 2017 and a small dedicated team will produce a beautiful new Riso book, ready for the launch on the 22nd of January 2018.

Partners involved: University of Gloucestershire, University of Winchester, SGS Stroud College, Museum in the Park, Stroud, Gloucestershire.

We are looking forward to your participation and contribution!

 

 

The next event will on the 22nd November 2017 at Museum in the Park, Stroud, Gloucestershire: 

Chaired by Dolores Phelps, MPhil/PhD Researcher, Illustration

9.30 Coffee and introductions

10am start

Introduction by Dolores Phelps and Jen Whiskerd

10.15 Presentation by Andrew Melrose

10.45 Presentation by Adelaide Morris

11.15 Presentation by Olivier Kugler

12.00 Lunch

1.00 Presentation by Fumio Obata

1.30 Presentation by Dolores Phelps

2.00 Presentation by TBA OR Panel discussion

2.30 Panel discussion/Q&A – Olivier, Adelaide, Andrew

3pm Closing remarks.

3.30 Close

Come along and get involved!

 

Thought

Tomorrow will come with a sunny spell,

the rain will stop at the border so

we will begin the long-waited rebellion,

as they say,

at the right moment.

 

To satisfy our need for greatness,

we will politely ask the just questions and

sit on the pew

in return for the hand-written answer.

 

We will finally go home,

or so we believe,

to master the only remedy left for pain – patience.

street-cafe-2

Photograph: @John Stadnicki, ‘Street Cafe’

Silent Country

On the wall opposite my bungalow

a blue advert drips on a stationary boat.

 

The sea is far away, overcrowded.

 

The acid rain dissolved the bold letters

which used to show my direction.

 

I have no choice but to stay vigil

behind this lighthouse

waiting for another explosion.

 

Do you see what I see?

We arrived, at last, at a dead end

a few souls making plans at a bus stop.

All that talking led us cattle to slaughter.

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