Thursday, 30 December 2010

...and finally

Shaun Morris, 'Winter Painting', oil on canvas, 100 x 100cms

I went for a walk at the Lickey Hills this afternoon. The mist-shrouded trees reminded me of a painting I did at the start of the year, ‘Winter Painting’. It started me reflecting on my art this year and some of my ambitions then and where I am now, as I enter 2011.

“Winter Painting’s’ image of trees is interesting to me now for a number of reasons. When I made it I was feeling rather lost with my work, and struggling to find a more sustained focus for my painting. It is a feeling that has prevailed for much of the year. Even my Dad, occasional reader of the blog, picked up on it in the summer. He’d read the recent entries and remarked one afternoon, ‘You seem a bit confused, son.’

It’s interesting also because at the end of the year, over the last few months, I’ve found myself painting nothing but trees. I’ve been having a great time too. One piece has happily lead to another and I’ve been happy to just follow my instincts and go with the flow, making large, colourful, but also quickly executed paintings. I’ve found a more sustained focus, and it feels good to be trying to see a series of works through without thinking too much about it at this stage.

I’ve been reluctant to post anything on the website about this as I just wanted to keep things to myself, and felt that I was perhaps showing too much too soon with the blog entries, with paintings made that I’m now not very happy with (see ‘Six Hours In The Studio’ blog). I’m happy to post this one painting below for now though, which I’m particularly pleased with, to illustrate some of what I’ve been doing.

Shaun Morris, 'Autumn Again', oil on canvas, 100 x 150cms

So I’ve been busy making some new paintings, but I’ve also been busy developing studies in the form of photographs and drawings to take further the ‘motorway nocturnes’ that I blogged about earlier in the autumn. I made a small first oil that I was fairly pleased with, and have now got much more material that I can develop into a project in the New Year. There are a few more tree paintings that I want and need to make, before I think it will be time to switch focus again. I still believe these nocturnes have a lot of potential.

A couple of weeks ago I visited the Gauguin exhibition at Tate Modern with the students at JCC. It’s always a bad sign when you find your pace quickening the further you go in the gallery. The paintings just didn’t ‘do it’ for me, which sounds a bit crass I know, as there is so much to admire in Gauguin’s work. It just didn’t touch me at this moment in time. I hastened out of the gallery looking for something a bit meatier and found it in the work of Barnett Newman’s and Lee Krasner’s abstract expressionist paintings. Newman’s paintings particularly gripped me as his thick stripes very much reminded me of tree trunks, and my own current preoccupations. That was a nice bit of contextual reference work for my sketchbook!

Barnett Newman

Lee Krasner

I’ve been trying to think of my cultural highlights this year, as I tend to list them, and enjoy reading in my favourite magazines their own round-ups. I’ve seen loads of great exhibitions, with particularly highlights being Henry Kondracki at The Scottish Gallery In Edinburgh, Alex Katz at Timothy Taylor Gallery in London, and Utamaro at Ikon in Birmingham. These were all very inspiring in their different ways.

In music, I’ve loved many different things this year. My two favourite artists, Bob and Bruce, released some amazing records of previously only bootlegged or unreleased material, ‘The Witmark Demos 1962-64’, and ‘The Promise’, respectively. My most played album and ultimate favourite this year had to be former Czars frontman, John Grant’s debut solo ‘The Queen Of Denmark’. The 70’s soft rock melodies and acerbic, black wit of the lyrics were an amazing combination. I’ve recommended this record to nearly everyone I know.

I’ve read a lot this year too, but mainly books and articles on different artists rather than any novels this year. These have included Jane Frielicher, Rackstraw Downes, Ivon Hitchins, Barbara Rae and many others. I’ve also enjoyed the poetry of American John Ashberry, in his collection ‘A Wordly Country’. Hs poems can be really inscrutable and leave me perplexed, and yet I really enjoy reading them. This reading, particularly around different artists, has been intense at times and has really informed some of the decisions and thinking around my painting.

John Ashbery

Jane Frielicher

I previously had intentions of staging an exhibition of my own in November at Chameleon Arts In Walsall. I had booked the space too, but then changed my mind. It felt like it would have been too costly and stressful, for the usual handful of people to see it. It made me question how worthwhile this would be. I’ve done too many exhibitions like this. I want to try something different, and will be planning something in 2011. Anyway, writing about one’s art can be self-indulgent, and I fear that this blog may be tipping into this territory. See you on the other side in 2011…

Friday, 10 December 2010

'White Noise'...

As the Christmas shopping madness sweeps across the nation, I found myself caught in the blizzard of it all in Birmingham’s Bull Ring the other day. I’m not much of a shopper, like most blokes I just gravitate towards the record and bookstores and then a coffee shop for a rest, and find the whole experience exhausting and bewildering. In these situations I’m often reminded of a favourite passage in a favourite book, ‘White Noise’ by Don Delillo. It’s a brilliant read, that was recommended to me at Art College by one of my lecturers. I’ve since recommended it to students myself. I’ve copied some of the passage out below. It describes so well the modern shopping experience in our giant, homogenized malls, and how the central character is caught uncharacteristically up in it all…I really identify with it at this time of year.

‘The encounter put me in the mood to shop. I found the others and we walked across two parking lots to the main structure in the Mid-Village Hall, a ten-story building arranged around a center court of waterfalls, promenades and gardens. Babette and the kids followed me into the elevator, into the shops set laong the tiers, through the emporiums and department stores, puzzled but excited by my desire to buy. When I could not decide between two shirts, they encouraged me to buy both. When I said I was hungry, they fed me pretzels, beer, souvlaki. The two girls scouted ahead, spotting things they thought I might want or need, running back to get me, to clutch my arms, plead with me to follow. They were my guides to endless well-being. People swarmed through the boutiques and gourmet shops. Organ music rose from the great court. We smelled chocolate, popcorn, cologne; we smelled rugs and furs, hanging salamis and deathly vinyl. My family gloried in the event. I was one of them, shopping, at last. They gave me advice, badgered clerks on my behalf. I kept seeing myself unexpectedly in some reflecting surface. We moved from store to store, rejecting not only items in certain departments but whole stores, mammoth corporations that did not strike our fancy for one reason or another. There was always another store, three floors, eight floors, basement full of cheese graters and paring knives. I shopped with reckless abandon. I shopped for immediate needs and distant contingencies. I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise I had no intention of buying, then buying it. I sent clerks into their fabric books and pattern books to search for elusive designs. I began to grow in value and self-regard. I filled myself out, found new aspects of myself, located a person I’d forgotten existed. Brightness settled around me. We crossed from furniture to men’s wear, walking through cosmetics. Our images appeared on mirrored columns, in glassware and chrome, on TV monitors in security rooms. I traded money for goods. The more money I spent, the less important it seemed. I was bigger than these sums. These sums poured off my skin like so much rain. These forms came back to me in the form of existential credit. I felt expansive…A band played Muzak. Voices rose ten stories from the gardens and promenades, a roar that echoed and swirled through the vast gallery, mixing with noises from the tiers, with shuffling feet and chiming bells, the hum of escalators, the sound of people eating, the human buzz of some vivid and happy transaction.’

Don Delillo,

‘White Noise’, 1985

I Am Angry...

I woke up feeling very depressed. It felt that the bill to lift the cap on student fees was always going to happen, but still it feels a shocking and a dreadful occurrence today as the reality of it all sinks in. I feel bewildered and devastated about it and the future implications it has for the country’s young people and their families, including my own son and the other children in my wider family.

If I hear one more time from Nick Clegg and Vince Cable that it is fairer than the existing system I will scream. How can raising fees from £3000 to £9000 be in any way fairer? They just bang on about their ‘improved and fairer system of repayment’, but the fundamental question remains: how can raising fees from £3000 to £9000 be in any way fairer? I’ve never sworn so much at the telly and the radio as I have in the last few weeks when they come on. I dread to think what my son’s first words will be…

Apparently those students whose families are on lower incomes who currently receive free school meals will receive the first two years tuition fees free. So that just leaves the remaining £9000 final years tuition fee payment to be made! The amount currently paid for all three years! The group that would ‘benefit’ from this is relatively small, and as usual it is those lower middle or middle income earners like myself that lose out and are not eligible for any benefits. And I thought the government was trying to create incentives for people to work. It is all so absurd, and could be seen as a bad joke if it wasn’t such an awful nightmare. How do Cable and Clegg sleep at night? How? They are a disgrace.

How do I look my students in the eye, and encourage them to strive for University places in subjects such as Fine Art? The way the government has cut by 100% the teaching funding, not the 80% often stated, from all Arts and Humanities and Social Sciences courses across the country including our top Universities such as Goldsmiths and The Slade tells me that they don’t want me to. Arts and Humanities? ‘Not good for the economy’. They want a market driven education model that just breeds the type of morons that appear on The Apprentice. The types of morons like themselves. What value do I have to my students as a Sixth Form lecturer teaching Art and Design? I feel sick with the thought of the future impact this will have on my teaching and my relationships in the classroom. That is of course if I have any future students with the proposed loss of EMA too. In the community I teach, I don’t think any of my students are not currently eligible for EMA. Most could not even countenance coming to college without this financial support.

And if I hear one more time the question asked by our blinkered media, ‘why should the tax-paying Lollipop lady down the road have to pay for your education?’ I will seriously hurt someone. Don’t we actually pay our taxes for such a thing as a good education? Education should be a right not a privilege. What happened to any feeling or vision of the greater good of our society and nation? What good is an uneducated country? A country that lacks heart and soul as courses and choices are eroded by a market-driven University system. What future do we want to create for the nation’s children and our society where they are saddled with mortgage-like debts for the rest of their lives? Weren’t these decisions made in the guise of paying off our huge debt?

I don’t think anyone is fooled that these are decisions are about cutbacks. The speed of these cuts and all the others, betray that these decisions are ideological ones, brought in by a sinister, but all too historically familiar, right-wing form of capitalism. The power tips back to the few as ever. The gains of society such as education return to the privileged. David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ turns out to be a dismantling of the welfare state and any last bastion of society and fairness and hope that we were still trying to cling to.

So don’t question why the students were so angry. They have every right to be angry. We should all be angry. Yesterday was the bleakest political day in my life.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Whose Side Are You On...?

Ahead of the Commons vote tomorrow on lifting the cap on student fees, I’ve posted below an inspiring piece from the NUS. Responding to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's interview in this week’s Independent on Sunday, NUS has sent Nick Clegg a list of ten reasons why it is against his plans.

I’ve been wanting to write something about this issue and so many other things that this awful coalition government is doing to the country for weeks, but can never begin. I feel so angry and frightened about the sweeping idealogical changes that are happening in the guise of ‘paying off the deficit’, and how quickly they are doing them. I feel so passionately about education, and the piece below articulates the thoughts and feelings swimming around my head every day that I struggle to express. Whenever Nick Clegg appears on the news I want to put my foot through the telly.)

The response follows Clegg's failure earlier this week to respond to a letter from Aaron Porter, NUS President, in which Mr Porter set out his opposition to the Government's plans and requested an opportunity to discuss the issue with Nick Clegg in public.

Dear Nick

I see with interest that in today’s Independent on Sunday, you’ve challenged me to “come clean” about “just what my proposals are” for a graduate tax; asking for an “open contest” comparison. You will remember I wrote to you earlier in the week suggesting both a meeting and an open debate. Although I’ve had no reply other than reading your comments in a Sunday newspaper, I’m delighted to respond. Here’s ten reasons why I think our proposals are fairer and more progressive than yours.

Firstly, our proposal for a progressive graduate contribution scheme would have retained the idea that the state, as well as the individual, should contribute to the cost of Higher Education. Your Government’s decision to transfer the whole cost on to the individual through a loans system is the ideological choice of group who believe that Higher Education should only be available to the richest. I'm sure they are amazed at your willingness to go along with it and they’re not the only ones.

Secondly, under our proposals, earners in the lowest quintile would have paid less than £500 for university; those in the next quintile about half what they do now and those in the middle quintile roughly the same as now. It would only have been those who really benefit that would have paid more. Under your Government’s proposed scheme only the bottom 25% of earners would pay less overall- meaning 75% pay more. Our version of a graduate tax would have been more progressive.

Third, you’ve argued that your proposals are fairer because graduates would only start paying back when they earn £21,000 as opposed to £15,000 in our proposals drafted in 2008. You omit to mention that this is £21,000 in 2016 money, and that the threshold won't increase until 2021 (not even Vince Cable had worked this out when he spoke about it on the radio earlier this week). Under our proposals the repayment threshold would have moved every year in line with inflation.

Fourth, you say that your proposals are fairer because so many students never pay back their debt under your scheme. Being in debt for the next 30 years of our lives is not something we want to celebrate as progressive- and never paying off a debt is something I was raised to believe is a source of shame, not progressive pride.

Fifth, your proposed system introduces course price as a factor in student choice. Even if the system of loans and repayment makes it easier for a student to get into and then pay off debt (and I dispute your assertion that it does), there are still significant problems with a system that includes fees and course prices. It is ridiculous to assume that students won’t take the price of a course into account when choosing it, regardless of the repayment mechanism. A truly progressive system is one where students are able to make decisions according to their ambitions and aspirations without concern at all to price or potential returns (as remains the case in the proposed system), or viability in relation to the support they could obtain. A modified graduate tax would have removed price as a determinant in student choice.

Sixth, your system means that higher contributions go to rich institutions and lower ones to poor institutions. By operating a “fees and loans” scheme instead of graduate tax, it means that the higher payments from richer graduates end up flowing into the universities that are already richest, with the fewest poor students to support, the most endowment funds and the best asset bases. This means that, apart from the few on “golden ticket” scholarships, the poorest students go to the poorest institutions and the richest students end up topping up the richest institutions. There’s no sense in a progressive payment system if the outcome effects are regressive. Our modified graduate tax would have meant a fair distribution of the extra contributions that the richest graduates make to all universities.

Seventh, you have said you will look at “early repayment penalties” on loans (although we’ve had no detail yet). But this misses the point. By operating a fees and loans scheme, it is possible for the richest families to avoid taking out loans altogether- meaning that the children of (in your words) “Goldman Sachs Bankers” can avoid having to pay more at all. A modified graduate tax would have meant that those who financially benefit the most from their education pay their fair share in later life.

Eighth, your proposed system supposedly offers students more “consumer power”, helps drive university efficiency and improves quality. In truth your proposals offer virtually no enhanced rights or power to students over their provision. And there is no evidence from any other country that a market in Higher Education would work to improve efficiency- in fact most other countries’ evidence points to the opposite. There is also no evidence at all that the “market” improves quality or that there is any link between the quality of teaching and the price paid. The supposed “link” between a student paying an institution and it responding to student need is faulty, and a cover for an ideological attempt to marketise HE. Our modified graduate tax would not have pretended that students paying more automatically means they get more.

Ninth, the key determinant of university access is achievements at level 3. We wouldn’t have swapped £450m in maintenance support for the poorest at school and college doing A levels for a third of that in golden ticket partial scholarships to universities. What's the point in free first years for the poorest if they drop out of college before they get there?

But finally and tenth, your manifesto said you’d scrap fees. Your signed pledge said you’d vote against an increase. Your video address to my conference said you’d “vote against, campaign against any increase in that cap”. Your proposal takes student fees and debt and triples them. Ours would have taken fees and debt and abolished them.

Students are angry about your proposals because they are unfair, ideological and represent a massive betrayal of the students who voted for you. That is why they want your party to vote against them and not because “It’s great going on demos and really having a crack at the government of the day”.

Aaron Porter

NUS National President

PS- The vote on Thursday is a vote on the cap. It's not a vote on making fees progressive, or your scholarship fund, or reforms to deliver better value for students. Tripling fees before Christmas with a vague promise to make them more progressive after Christmas, on the thin excuse of prospectus deadlines, is nothing short of a disgrace.