Miles Richmond, Unpublished, October 10th 2001
To talk about imagination today must be with a sense of emergency, of crisis. It is more than forty years since Henry Corbin wrote “the degeneration of imagination into fantasy is complete”. It has been further degraded into the meaningless.
I believe imagination will be restored only when it is accepted that its location is in an area of human experience that is neither physical nor rational.
Many years of historical materialism have conditioned our habits of thinking. The idea of imagination as seated in an immaterial world is usually dismissed as absurd. To suggest, as I do, that we all have access to this world by an invisible potential within each one of us, is dismissed as the rambling of outmoded romanticism.
The world we live in, which makes these judgements, has been called the Society of the Spectacle. In this society we weave a web around the world, using all the resources of sophistication and technology to protect us from everything above and below, in which the Spectacle takes place. The Spectacle includes “Sensations” and “Apocalypse”, the more spectacular the better. Andy Warhol has assured us there is nothing beneath the surface. A generation has emerged knowing no other society than this. So Damien Hurst can say:
“It’s theatre. It’s about raising expectations and lowering expectations. Theatre! It’s more like a joke with a punch line. You can say it’s manipulating. But you can say a joke’s manipulative…. And what if this is the first time money’s become important for artists, where money’s an element in the composition? You’re a conduit from art to money. It’s getting closer and closer and closer.”
So in this society art is a manipulative joke and a conduit to money.
The Society of the Spectacle was named and described by Guy Debord, a Marxist. In 1992, in the preface to a third edition, he wrote:
“This book should be read bearing in mind that it was written with the deliberate intention of doing harm to spectacular society.”
Scattered through his pages are admonitions and advice to revolutionaries determined to destroy this society. This advice has been followed so closely in recent events that it is hard not to believe that Debord’s work has been a terrorist's guide.
So it may not be unreasonable to see the World Trade Centre as the high point and its destruction as the end of the Society of the Spectacle.
This destruction has been described as Satan’s masterpiece. Since his power is invisible, this is an appropriate moment to consider whether the power of imagination also may be invisible.
But after years of familiarity with the spectacular world we have to go some way back to recover our bearings in imagination.
In 1798 William Blake wrote:
“But to him who sees this mortal pilgrimage in the light that I see it, duty to his country is the first consideration and safety the last….the affairs of life and death trifles, sports of time. But these considerations are the business of eternity"
One hundred and fifty years later, during and after the second war, Bomberg followed the same precepts and taught the same duty. When news broke of the spies, Philby, Burgess and Maclean, Bomberg found it hard to believe. Integrity of man, artist and citizen were one and inviolable to him as they had been to Blake.
But soon fellow-travelling became more and more widespread in all our institutions. Integrity of the kind Blake and Bomberg knew as essential to their vision almost disappeared. If it showed itself it was quickly marginalised by an establishment in which duplicity had become the norm. Too many of the young, bemused, confused and sometimes abused by their teachers whenever they sought serious guidance, concluded that integrity had been an illusion of youth and flung themselves into mere display, created works without depth, without meaning. The more violent the better, to show the frustration and anger of duped innocence. Spectacular Art was born!
The belief that the artist has a duty to his country, or to something invisible overriding everything else is a cry from a vanished world. And a call to recover it.
We must recover the sense that an artist’s training is a training in access to a boundless realm to which the visible is a frontier.
And recover the sense that his responsibility as an artist is to bring back, as faithfully as he can, any intimations he may receive in his journeys over that frontier as his contribution to the enrichment of the country that has nurtured him and the times in which he lives.
We must recover the sense that the commitment to materials cannot be sidestepped. Inevitably we approach our subjects with thoughts and feelings; only training in grappling with materials in the presence of the subject makes it possible for thought and feeling to go away, enabling immaterial imagination to materialise, the artist to approach the unknown, and recognise the invisible companion who walks with him, called variously spirit, angel, muse.
This is the sense of vocation Bomberg believed in and which gave him his confidence that imagination transcends the mundane. His insights, and Blake’s, have been essential guides for me through the wilderness of subject and object.
I have found Blake’s definitions illuminating and beautiful:
“All that we see is vision, by generated organs gone as soon as come, permanent in the imagination.”
“The nature of infinity is this; that everything has its own vortex…”
Blake has an unrivalled lucidity.
It is literally true that whenever one approaches a subject with the respect for another, and not as a mere construct of the mind, it begins to take on this mysterious energy of vortex, which swings one, and flings one all over the place. The frenzy of the artist, notorious in ancient as well as modern times, is the outward evidence of his determination to touch at least the fringe of this whirlwind as it escapes. Only time will tell what sense he has brought back, but he has no doubt of the awe and power he has approached.
The vortex is the passage of everything from its temporal to its eternal condition.
Drawing is the essential training of the artist for this encounter with the vortex. A training in ridding the mind of preconceptions, a training in attention to the pulse of expansion and contraction within the sensory field, a training which gradually co-ordinates, stimulates and accelerates perception to the point where hyper- perception can take place. Without this hyper-perception the vortex is invisible, as is our transit from embodiment to disembodiment where we encounter the invisible realm of imagination.
The materialist view that I am a substantial and continuous body rests on the limited evidence of normal perception.
In fact I am here, and not here, but my transit from embodiment to disembodiment is so rapid that it escapes normal attention.
But it is an important insight that has been observed and recorded by poets and artists and visionaries throughout history.
And it is the basis and core of artistic responsibility.
The artist’s trained response to the tick-tock, tick-tock of the here and not here, enables him, within the medium of his work, not only to give expression to this rhythm, or beat, but to enrich his work with some of the unknown nourishment flowing unceasingly though these minute gaps which reveal eternity between the moments of our embodiment in time.
Art must often interpret this material to normal sense, and the fleeting impressions of eternity in great art are in no way illusory. It is this positive affirmation, however tragic the subject, which nourishes us today, and inspires us tomorrow, in all the masterpieces of art.
The intellectual arrogance of systems, particularly Marxism in our day, papers over these fine gaps as non-existent. They may be non-existent to a rational mind, but they are far from non-existent in reality, and it is part of imagination’s business to keep these gaps open, so that the world can continue to breathe.
This country has an unrivalled imaginative record.
In our multi-cultural society we have, with an uncanny instinct, taken Blake’s Jerusalem as an anthem.
It is the prelude to his poem Milton. Milton, after great angelic labours, returns to England with the power of regenerated imagination.
We all know that the fundamentalist charge that the West is godless cannot be made or responded to with bombs.
As the Society of the Spectacle continues to crumble we may begin to feel we are in a bad state.
But again Blake is lucid:
“Imagination is not a STATE, it is the human existence itself.”
This existence has been defined and defended for us by Milton in these words:
“It is not within the province of any visible church, much less of the civil magistrate, to impose their own interpretations on us as laws, or as binding on the conscience; in other words as matter of implicit faith.”
This is a human existence we still recognise, and will defend with all the powers of imagination.
In this way we answer the ungodly charge.