The Fine Art of Pointless Play

 

The Fine Art of Pointless Play

By Aya Husni Bey

 

Creative Counsellor, Art, and Play Advocate

Holistic Counsellor, & Therapeutic Play Practitioner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aya Husni Bey

http://www.creativityunmasked.com

07727170906

Contact Aya Husni Bey before using any content found in this piece.

 

 

 

 

 

The Quiet Disappearance of the Point of Life…

‘We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old becausewe stop playing.’

– George Bernard Shaw

For as long as humans have existed, they have played. Evidence stretches back into the evolutionary mists of homo sapiens; from cave paintings to bone instruments and stone sculptures by way of storytelling, dancing, elaborate rituals and general observation of hunter-gatherers. And of course play has always been cherished in civilised society too. But of late something has gone very wrong… because we have all but ceased to play.

In recent decades, civilised society has got too serious, too work-driven, too tiring and too stressing for the pleasure of traditional play; meaning something fun, creative, absorbing and ostensibly pointless.  Now, playful games and past-times are being edited out of people’s busy, fretful schedules.  And the absence is making the heart grow heavier…

For example, in rich, stable countries, depression is at an all-time high. It is the number one reason adults go to counsellors and therapists – accounting for over half of all adult clients. And a defining of trait of depression is the inability to play. And vice versa; relearning to play alleviates depression.

Play is natural as daylight, and just as vital for our well-being. It also prompts the question: What is life for? It has been observed for centuries that ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’ (that phrase was around as long ago as 1659), by which reckoning it would seem we are hell bent on making ourselves and our lives as dull as ditch-water.

Psychologist Dr. Stuart Brown, author of the best-selling Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul has been studying play for decades; “Of all animal species, humans are the biggest players of all. We are built to play and built through play. Most obviously, it is intensely pleasurable. It energizes and enlivens us. It eases our burdens. It eases our natural sense of optimism and opens us up to new possibilities.” 

In short, play is critical; it is how humans develop and how we enjoy life – at the same time. In the USA, Brown has founded the highly influential National Institute for Play, which seeks to reverse the decline of adult play. As yet, there is no such equivalent in the UK. However, there is a general understanding among British psychologists, educationalists and counsellors that play is quietly disappearing from people’s lives. And leaving a sort of free-floating anxiety in its wake…

Where, when and why did our fun go? And can we have it back, please?

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

This fashionable quote adorns the literature of the National Institute for Play, and appears on its website’s landing page, wrongly credited to Plato (who was not very playful, in fact he was a sober-sides).

However, the true origin of this quote is revealing; it was penned in the Seventeenth Century by a high-ranking member of the Anglican Church, the Dean of Lismore. He was writing in one of those amusingly pompous but well-intentioned pamphlets; A Letter of Advice to a Young Gentleman Leaving the University Concerning his Behaviour and Conversation in the World. In other words, a good person in the not-so-distant past – even in the Century of the Puritans – was expected to put great store by play.

The Dean goes on to write approvingly of ‘wagers’ as part of the playful process of getting to know another adult. Long, sombre conversation was viewed as comparatively dull, inappropriate and slow if one really wanted to know acquaintances. We simply do not talk about play in that knowing way, as if it were a constantly available option. Yet it sounds enviable.

Nowadays, in an adult context the word ‘play’ most often means the formality of competitive sports booked in a sports facility, or perhaps narcotic escape, probably by way of alcohol. Without knocking either of these hugely enjoyable pleasures, they are not really creative, open-ended and true to the varied spirit of freedom imbued in the word ‘play’.

Similarly, those thieves of leisure time, electronic games and passive entertainment like television and surfing the net, are enjoyable too. But, again, neither match up to Johan Huizinga’s celebrated definition of play: “… a free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly…. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space…”

We know of this transcendental power which real play has; we recall it from childhood. We respect it, we miss it, we even yearn for it… So where is the adult version? Why is play slipping out of our lives? According to the experts, adult play is being washed away by the indifferent tide of history and trampled upon by the heartless march of technology…

The Dean of Lismore was reminding people to play nearly four hundred years ago, so even then it was suspected that play wasn’t sufficiently high enough up people’s agendas. And that was a full century before the Industrial Revolution; back in the days when most people scratched a living from the land, so much work was seasonal; there was a lot of time to rest and play, and no electronica to devour the hours.

Without wandering too far down the anarchist path, one can observe that the big institutions which came to pass after the Industrial Revolution have most definitely suppressed play. For sure, modern psychologists and educationalists often bemoan the lack of fun and play in schools.

Once upon a time, not that long ago, childhood and adolescence were all about play – that was when we learned to play and learned through play. But universal primary education changed that, followed by universal secondary education; two very recent phenomena in human history…

School is very much about academia rather than play, which is squeezed into tiny, desultory intervals. On the academic treadmill, children are forced to learn about subjects that, by and large, engage them very minimally and will be broadly irrelevant to the rest of their lives from the day they leave school. This deadening process is the virtual opposite of play, wherein people are absorbed, enlivened, transported and even joyful.

However, if children’s education is a crisis situation then adult play has seen the apocalypse. Long, year-round working hours, coupled with the rise of passive entertainment, have created adults who hardly ever play or think of playing.

The evolutionary psychologist, Dr. Peter Gray of Boston College, extends this sorry state of affairs back through the Industrial Revolution, and the Dean’s time, into the Neolithic Revolution, meaning the rise of farming and the dawn of civilisation:-

“Historically, with the rise of agriculture, children’s opportunities for free play have diminished. In many post-hunter-gatherer societies, children had to spend large portions of each day working—typically at domestic and farming tasks and, with the industrial revolution, in factories.”

He applies a similar pattern of play-loss to adults. Before the Neolithic Revolution (i.e. before farming and civilization became the order of the day) adult life was playful. And that prehistoric period covers the overwhelming majority of human existence. Gray leaves no doubt that modern adulthood is a playless and joyless state of being compared to the lifestyle of our carefree ancestors:-.

“Anthropologists have often pointed out that hunter-gatherers’ work is skill-intensive but not labour-intensive. Research studies suggest that hunter-gatherers work somewhere between 20 and 40 hours a week, on average, depending on just what you count as work.”

It is significant that to get even close to a total of 40 hours of work per week for hunter-gatherers we need to include their leisurely food preparation and cooking time. And we tend to include none of this when tallying up civilised working hours. Nor do we include household chores in civilised working hours, yet much of the hunter-gatherer’s ‘working week’ involves tasks at camp such as weapon making and preparation for rituals.

“Moreover, [hunter-gatherers] do not work according to the clock… There is ample time in hunter-gatherers’ lives for leisure activities, including games of many sorts, playful religious ceremonies, making and playing musical instruments, singing, dancing, travelling to other bands to visit friends and relatives, gossiping, and just lying round.”

“During the 10,000 years since the onset of agriculture and then industry, we have developed countless laboursaving devices, but we haven’t reduced our labour. Today, most people spend more time working than did hunter-gatherers, and our work… is less playful… Hunter-Gatherers’ work is playful because it is done in a social context, with friends…”

The thinking runs that the natural state of humans was playful for almost 200 millennia, and then civilisation made us less playful and more miserable. And then the Industrial Revolution intensified this dismal situation. And now we are boring…

It is also noteworthy that for most people on the planet this shift is a lot more recent than the 10,000 years Gray mentions. According to James C Scott, Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at Yale, most people throughout history – not just prehistory – were broadly ungoverned until a mere 500 years ago. In other words (by this admittedly extreme estimate), it is only in the most recent 0.25% of human history that the majority of humans have lost the opportunity to hunt and gather – and play a lot. And do work which was in itself social, creative and playful.

We cannot turn back the tide of history. But we don’t have to lie down and let it wash over our entire lives. We can take a stand. We can play…

 

 

 

 

The Revolution Starts Here…

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

Pablo Picasso.

This long, historical context of adult play – a sort of death by a thousand cuts – sounds discouraging yet the beautiful fact remains: people do not want to stop playing, and they refuse to do so entirely. They still cherish play even if they are mostly just cherishing the idea of it. We sense that it is critical, even though there is no money in it and no ‘reason’ for it.

However, the idea of playing troubles us modern folks… The invitation to partake in creative, open-ended play can make confident intelligent adults feel awkward. It’s so long since they played they’re not sure how to do it. They like the idea, but they are not quite sure what it even means…

We recognise many people, often including ourselves, would benefit from painting or scribbling, dancing or acting out, storytelling or word games, or even just messing about with figures in a sand tray; or any other form of creative, free-spirited play which is as old as humankind.At the very least they/we would get pleasure from it.

However, we know that we sometimes get more than pleasure out of playing; we experience a shift, to somewhere new and good. Floating off into the space of play for a while, leaving the humdrum world astern and seeing what happens, what stirs; it replenishes us and can even change our feelings about ourselves and spread light on our lives when we return to daily reality.

One could argue that one has to step out of daily life in order to see it clearly, and play is a good way of doing that. Play might or might not yield conscious and revealing thoughts about ourselves and our lives. It might or might not yield unconscious and revealing thoughts… but the worst that can happen when we play is that we feel better for doing it – we feel like players.

While we sense the freedom, escape, fun and expression encoded into the concept of play, the actual impulse to play has atrophied. To step out of daily, humdrum, automaton behaviour and to neglect the buzz of the endless ‘to do’ list and to resist fretting about bills and plans… it’s all so unfamiliar. People know this is wrong – downright barking mad – and boring of them, but they feel it just the same. As mentioned, the fact is the prospect of play can make us nervous, self-conscious, confused…

It’s understandable if one accepts that play is – for want of a better word – magical; meaning we really do not fully understand it. And perhaps we are not really supposed to – just like a joke will not survive analysis and you don’t need a literary degree to enjoy a novel. We just need to embrace it anyway, since it is as natural as breathing and probably a lot more natural than most jobs we do.

In her thoughtful book, On Not Being Able to Paint(a title which speaks volumes), British psychoanalyst Marion Milner serves up her own artistic inability as an example of the commonplace problem of feeling inept. Playing is not about creating great art – that happens once in a while and is never the point – it is about getting lost in the flow of creativity. If the painting is rubbish, who cares? The means is the end.

Milner catches the mysterious spirit of play and, arguably, renders it vital; “…being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one…. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost…”

You might be playing jazz, writing poetry, dancing, drawing, creating a whole world with a few figurines or otherwise engaging in a creative endeavour. Crucially, it serves no ostensible purpose, does not matter and, again, is perhaps dodgy as a bag of monkeys in terms of artistic merit. (Aside from quality not being the point at all, it is worth noting there is no great writer, artist, dancer, musician, etc. who will not testify to the fact that lots of their efforts didn’t work and are in fact embarrassing rubbish.)

That strange absorption which playing exerts on people; an absorption of time and energy – of self – has always mystified humankind. Being anathema to reason (and money-making) is perhaps why play has been allowed to fade out of our lives.  The ‘space in which we play’ has no physical reality and therefore defies analysis.  Writing inThe British Psycho-Analytical Society Scientific Bulletin, Milner quoted the ground-breaking psychoanalyst D W Winnicott, who wrote the seminal Playing and Reality(another revealing title); “Winnicott asked, ‘If play is neither inside nor outside, where is it?’ True play transcends the opposites of serious and unserious.”

Somewhere therein lies the truth about play: Our very serious world offers little space for play, yet we seriously need it… though, by definition, play is not serious; it has a transcendent lightness about it, which lifts you out of routine, daily living and humdrum thinking; and this lift is extraordinarily replenishing, which is seriously important, indeed fundamental to our well-being… Serious and unserious at the same time: there is nothing else like play. It has no substitute.

Only a fool would suggest that play is a panacea for all our unhappiness and woes. But only an insensitive and unimaginative moron would deny that more play would make us all feel better. So we must surely lighten up and weave it back into our lives…

 

 

Can I Help You?…

“To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!”

– Charlie Chaplin

I like to play, and I have the CV to prove it… I have been a dancer in a troop that played big festivals and clubs (I now hold dance evenings), I create art work, facilitate group play and creativity enhancing events independently and collaboratively. I initially did a degree in Art and branched out into puppetry and mask-making; just about any creative endeavour can float my boat. However, I am also a qualified counsellor, therapeutic play practitioner and budding transpersonal arts counsellor. Playing and counselling are natural bedfellows in my world.

I don’t just deal with depression but I do find that depression is indeed the most common reason people go to counselling (this pattern is verified by the BACP – British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy), which is a depressing fact in itself.  However, depression is a broad term and, arguably, we all get a bit depressed at some time or other. The eternally cheerful don’t exist, and would probably be rather annoying if they did.

My form of counselling usually includes play, in some form, depending on what the client likes or what might work – which often surprises them. Of course I have every respect for conventional verbal counselling, and I use that too. However, I would champion the playful approach particularly for depressed and stressed clients.

A defining trait of depression (and on the opposite side of the same coin is stress), in all its guises and at all levels, is feeling overwhelmed, apathetic and ‘stuck’. And it is noteworthy that play is about taking a trip – taking a creative pathway to the unconscious, to be explicit and perhaps slightly pretentious-sounding. It is not about unsticking the client’s reality, but creating a distance from it. It is about leaving the pole position of that reality and eventually returning, though perhaps a little changed, perhaps feeling a little less stuck and more likely to move on. The change might be incremental but it also might be dramatic.

For example, I have noticed that clients who (re)learn to play also start to date more. And loneliness is the handmaiden of depression. A study in Finland looked at 1,695 men and 1,776 women of working age. Over an eight year period, they found that, “those who lived alone bought 80 per cent more antidepressants than those living with other people.” (Therapy Today, Volume 23 Issue 3).

Ultimately, loneliness lies behind many people’s decision to come to counselling in the first place. They may or may not have busy and seemingly successful lives, but they feel disconnected anyway. As Henry Rollins remarked, “I feel more lonely in a crowded room with boring people than I feel on my own.”

Famously playful Rollins proves the point that people who play tend to thwart loneliness in the long run. The playful mind alights on friendship and fun, sex and romance; it spurs the will towards these life-enhancing necessities. Meanwhile the ‘stuck’ mind generates a void around the person; such that they can be a boring person rubbing along with other boring persons in a crowded room, perhaps all teetering on the private abyss of depression.

Only a foolish counsellor – or a pathologically optimistic one – expects a client to create great art when indulging in creative play for therapeutic reasons. For one thing, creative play might just consist of role-playing, or messing around with figurines, thus creating no tangible work of art. It matters not a jot. Creative play is about entering into a state of flow, entirely dissociated from daily life. It is enlivening, faintly rapturous and definitely a full-on experience.

You step out of time when you go with the flow of creative play. You cease to languish with the flotsam and jetsam of quotidian reality. I would even go as far as to say that the therapeutic value of play as a process, which absorbs clients – foreby any realisations that might spring forth from it – chimes with Joseph Campbell’s famous view of modern life:“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive… so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

Play is about experiencing an immersion in something which might make no obvious sense. Yet it is absorbing and perhaps personally revealing. And it is always serious and unserious, at the same time: In that regard I would dare to suggest that the mystery of playing overlaps the mystery of living – and thus play is the stuff of life…

 

 

Selected Bibliography

Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Dr. Stuart Brown

A Letter of Advice to a Young Gentleman Leaving the University Concerning his Behaviour and Conversation in the Worldby Dr. Richard Lingard, Dean of Lismore

Play Makes Us Humanand The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescentsby Dr. Peter Gray

On Not Being Able to Paintby Marion Milner

The Power of Mythby Joseph Campbell

Playing and Realityby D. W. Winnicott

Journals cited:-

The British Psycho-Analytical Society Scientific Bulletin

Therapy Today

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Lawless Lovers

 

Lawless Love Image

Mickey and Mallory Knox, Natural Born Killers. Played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis.

 

Watching the classic controversial movie, Natural Born Killers, I was struck by the guilty feeling one gets from liking the cold-hearted murderers, Mickey and Mallory. Woody Harrelson plays Mickey for laughs – the film was intended as a satire, on media fixation with pointless violence – but he is just too damn manly and rugged; the viewer cannot simply write off his performance as a comic turn, he is an attractive anti-hero.

Meanwhile Juliette Lewis plays Juliette Lewis very well indeed, meaning the beguiling beauty that can famously do ugly, yet somehow never stops being sexy. Oh to be ugly-sexy, we would all love to manage that, and the first part is so easy…

Consequently, there is no denying the misgivings critics had about this movie. There are scenes where the viewer is onside with a pair of adorable psychopaths – who are killing for kicks. It’s just their visceral way, a testament to their love for each other, everyone needs a hobby…

It works purely because Mickey and Mallory are in love. If they would just stop killing (mostly) innocent people and have another narrative, then we could happily relax into the mood of their wondrous feelings. As it stands, the film is uneasy. A rotten cop, a tabloid scumbag and a few other nasty victims help muddy the feelings.

It wouldn’t have worked if Mickey and Mallory’s way of sticking two fingers up to the world was shoplifting. And nobody would have crossed the road to watch Natural Born Litterbugs. The ultimate buzz of murder is needed to make the viewer uneasy.

Harrelson and Lewis score because we do live in an unfriendly world. Sadly, people do not regard strangers with much interest, let alone concern.  Unfortunately the film-maker Oliver Stone deploys sledgehammer subtlety and dreary piety when drawing attention to this sadness. And thus the viewer doesn’t much care. Our instinct and knowledge tells us that this murdering malarkey is wrong. Stone just tells us he is very pleased with himself.

Nonetheless that movie – which has remained zeitgeisty and controversial for two decades now – touches on two big facets of modern life. And both are familiar to any counsellor.  People’s disregard for each other, as strangers, is on the upswing, and it chills people when they sense this. In other words we know it’s wrong even though we feel it too (though hopefully never as much Mickey and Mallory…)

Five years ago, a ground-breaking study was published and eulogised in Scientific American; “The research, led by Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor… found that college students’ self-reported empathy has declined since 1980, with an especially steep drop in the past 10 years. To make matters worse, during this same period students’ self-reported narcissism has reached new heights, according to research by Jean M. Twenge, a psychologist at San Diego State University.”

We’re getting meaner, seriously mean… such that we can watch fictions about fellow humans being murdered quite realistically and very cruelly – and we only find it mildly traumatic, merely ‘controversial’. The Classical Greeks would baulk at us…

This is a matter of love, and in the modern world we think of love between a couple as the most important form of love, and sometimes the only form of love worth a mention. The Greeks called that love ‘Eros’ but they had six words for love. Another love they exalted was ‘Agape’ which meant the love of all people, whether they were close companions or complete strangers.

Agape was translated into Latin as caritas, and hence we have “charity”; which the Christians extolled as the most important form of love. Indeed, all the big religions emphasized a similar idea and thrived on it, but at some indeterminate time we just lost interest in that sort of vague, selfless love. CS Lewis mourned its demise as long ago as 1960 in his seminal book of essays, The Four Loves.

Meanwhile modern charity, like Mallory and Mickey’s murders, is often little more than a self-congratulatory media show – not a bad thing, but not quite unseen compassion either…

However, Mallory and Mickey have that other Greek love – that God – on their side; Eros. The Greeks feared, revered and desired Eros, just as we do. They understood that Eros – erotic passion and romantic love – is beyond the control of humans. It has power over them and it is lawless. This is beautiful and true – what are humankind’s trite laws, our written rules of negotiation contrived to help sustain our not-very-special society, when compared to the eternal power of love?

We tend to fail when we wrestle with Eros. We know this too well and have a litany of failed relationships to prove it. We make a mess of sexual and romantic love; trying to catch it devours modern lives. And the consequent sadness and frustration fills counselling rooms across the civilised world.

We desire and need Eros. It is a natural, unavoidable obsession most people feel in their bones. However, it has contributed to the alarming state of affairs whereby we can now watch a movie like Natural Born Killers and feel merely uneasy. So innocents get killed and the world is ugly, as we thought. But, hey, the murderers are in love, so it’s not all bad…

The Ancient Greeks would sneer at our clumsy and often disrespectful and selfish dealings with Eros. And they would despair at our lack of Agape.  But this is where we are at…

And don’t get me started on Bonnie and Clyde… The ultimate lawless lovers paying homage to Eros; while riding roughshod over the rest of not-very-interesting humanity… Faye Dunaway is adorable and the death of this callous adventuress is downright upsetting. That has got to be wrong. But, let’s face it, with Agape lying low these days what woman wouldn’t want to be Faye Dunaway having a ball in a bleak world with Warren Beatty worshipping you…

 

 

 

 

Star turn…

Star Turn Image

Heady Lamar

My work as creative counsellor recently drew the attention of a couple of national newspapers, magazines and BBC radio, which was nice and flattering. In my mid-thirties I am just old enough to feel a smidgeon of awe around the dying dinosaurs of pre-digital media.

The youth of today would think I’m weird, because I got a little apprehensive: LMFAO etc… Nowadays, on Facebook we are all visible brands, even if we are mostly just marketing ourselves to people who know us. It’s fun and most of us know not to take it too seriously. Similarly, everyone who pines for a molecule of fame can at least upload an effort to Youtube, and be accessible to the entire world via an electronic screen. Of course they should do so with a knowing sense of irony; because that big world out there will mostly ignore them. However, I recall that fast fading age wherein appearing in the media was wow! Gosh, it meant you were sort of famous…

Perhaps that is why I got slightly nervous, which was silly of me… The newspaper journalists were respectful and interested in creative counselling. They grasped that modern life is all earnest hurley-burley, concerning stuff that’s generally more ‘urgent’ than actually important. And they completely agreed that adults don’t play enough. Thus they saw the point of my work and even embraced the life-enhancing potential of play; meaning play which is not just passive entertainment or getting drunk – the two main leisure pursuits of Twenty-first Century adults. Job done and thank you to those thoughtful, decent ‘hacks’.

The difference between them and the radio journalists was striking. I suspect it is the eternal difference between frivolous, fast-flying chat and the contemplative power of the written word. This latter makes journalists pause and think – it opens them up, they like that and they feel good when they pen a well-researched, thoughtfully distilled feature about a subject they previously knew zip about. The live tension and unrefined fun of radio does not always have this depth…

First and foremost, I discovered radio is all about staying on your toes, filling airtime and trading in clever sound-bites, regardless of their superficiality. The intimacy of the live voices lends weight to proceedings but in truth I got a strong sense that everyone is winging it on the airwaves… I know I was…

When put on the spot, I wanted to talk about the link between creativity and spiritual well-being, the specialness of the space of play, which is fundamental to our existence and which we ignore at our peril, and so on and so forth. But I didn’t want to sound like a sober-sided bore who didn’t even understand the rules of the radio game in which she was partaking.

Consequently, I alternated between managing to give good radio, meaning snappy sound-bites which may or may not stand up to scrutiny, and humming and hawing – which is a sort of hate-crime on radio. Listening to the interviews afterwards, I found it hilarious how casual, everyday humming and hawing – which I don’t normally do much; I’m fairly fluid and like talking – sounds remarkably ditsy on radio. So I go from sounding quite relaxed and professional with an interesting angle on life, to sounding like a schoolgirl grappling with a proposition from Schopenhauer…

The Scottish journalist/presenter Kaye Adams was great and helped me. She has one of those hard-edged no-nonsense Scottish voices which sounds like she would cheerfully take your head clean off but is nonetheless very warm. It’s a voice you cannot help trusting. She knew nothing much about counselling or ideas around play – in contrast to the print journalists who had the time to research. But she is a smart, open woman; she inquired sharply and was also receptive.

She had me on her show with Geoff Beattie, Professor of Psychology at Edge Hill University, though possibly best known in the media as the on-screen psychologist in Big Brother – a role which clearly just amuses him. He was receptive too, and encouraging. I enjoyed it and hopefully the item helped people to ponder the lack of play in their lives; and perhaps even think a little about the rejuvenating miracle of creativity.

This is in stark contrast to my interview with Martin Kelner on BBC Radio Leeds. It was playful in the sense that he saw me as an amateur who had foolishly stepped into the ring with him, a professional heavyweight… Apparently he is well-known for his appearances on a sports show called Fighting Talk, and I suspect he was born for that role… That gruff voice was created to scrap… and trash people like me.

From the opening bell, he seethed with scorn and impatience about the idea of adults playing. I was wrong-footed, outwitted and south-pawed to hell and back. I could only come back at him with feeble punches which didn’t hit home and just drew more crushing blows from him – how dare I still be standing!… The masochist in me couldn’t help giggling in embarrassment when I listened to the show afterwards. Again it was undeniably good radio, even if but there were shades of the Roman Arena in there, with me as the hapless meat…

My dabbling in old school media left me with two unfashionable thoughts. Firstly, traditional media, which everyone curses – even the people who work in it – is not that bad. People now go in fear of a twitter storm about an ill-advised remark they may – or may not – have made, which can be taken out of context, granted grotesque significance and apparently merit their crucifixion. The old media is more measured; a brute might maul you and a thoughtful woman might nurture you – yip, that’s familiar enough, I can live with that…

Secondly, most of the time, fear of the media is possibly a bigger problem than the media. People take it too seriously. We see representations of ourselves in the media, nothing more, not really our actual selves. It is playful, even if some people play dirty.

The creative thread can be put in a historical context, if we consider the art of early civilisations whereby humans were not represented in their daily form at all, but only in highly idealised versions. The pattern over the centuries has been to get closer to the reality; from magnificently muscular men on Greek vases via flattering portraits to warts-and-all versions and on into deeply revealing images of ourselves. But it is still not quite us, not our flesh and bones in reality.

It is a creative version, which is slightly uncontrolled and playful, with a life of its own – as art has. But you can glimpse elements of yourself in there somewhere, perhaps distorted, perhaps exaggerated, but that’s fine and that’s what we should realistically expect.

To put it this way: It would be difficult to utter the above two paragraphs on a live radio discussion lasting mere minutes; then, frivolity is fine and pseudo-profundity is the order of the day. Kelner would knock you out flat if you dared to muse playfully. But that’s not bad, it’s his schtick, and it’s fun. Only the overly serious take the media overly seriously…

 

 

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain. Indeed…

PeterPan

Pauline Chase as Peter Pan c. 1910

 

Walking round the recent V&A exhibition Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, I was struck by the way women can be hypnotised by footwear. For some it is obsessional, a life-long fetish… I know, I’m one of them…

Kenneth Cole had my number when he remarked, “The average woman falls in love seven times a year. Only six are with shoes.”

However, such affectionate mockery only shows that straight men just don’t get it. The magic of shoes eludes them. They believe footwear should be practical or smart. Oh, how dreary… how do we manage to love them? …

The comedy writer, Allan Sherman, was more mocking than Cole, but also more revealing: “You want to fall in love with a shoe, go ahead. A shoe can’t love you back, but, on the other hand, a shoe can’t hurt you too deeply either. And there are so many nice-looking shoes.”

Sherman reveals that the uninitiated often regard a love of shoes as some sort of displacement activity. It isn’t.  It is very real and wonderful in itself.

Admittedly it is a man, Christian Louboutin, who sums it up best for me. “There is an element of seduction in shoes that doesn’t exist for men. A woman can be sexy, charming, witty or shy with her shoes… A shoe is not only a design, but it’s a part of your body language, the way you walk. The way you’re going to move is quite dictated by your shoes…”

Louboutin gets it, but Louboutin is gay, of course… He pinpoints the sex appeal; “A naked woman in heels is a beautiful thing. A naked man in shoes looks like a fool.” It really is a girl thing…

One of the first exhibits you see in the V&A is, arguably, the most famous pair of shoes in British cultural history, leaving aside Puss’s boots and such like; the ballet slippers worn by Vicky Page in the classic film The Red Shoes. It’s hard to think of shoes being invested with more dramatic and powerful symbolism than Vicky’s ballet pumps. These are possibly the piece de resistance of the exhibition. They are certainly among the most inspiring and thought-provoking shoes in the world…

And, by God, they are red… blood red, passionate red, dazzlingly red… You don’t need to be acquainted with Goethe’s Theory of Colour to see that these shoes are sexual, sexy, dangerous and irresistible.

The weird and striking thing is they would look like an exhibit even if they weren’t in an exhibition. Wherever they were, they would be gorgeous, alluring and separate from daily reality – beauty has that otherworldly way of shearing itself off from its surroundings. By contrast, normal ballet shoes, in all their stained pastel insipidity, call to mind smelly feet, broken arches and classes your parents dragged you to weeping.

In the spellbinding movie, tragedy is anticipated from the first frame. It comes to pass, as the viewer fears, by way of the natural passions of an innocent. It’s an uncomfortable film which you cannot take your eyes off.

The climax comes when Vicky, the aspiring ballet dancer (a wonderful everywoman played with perfect pathos by Moira Shearer) is cornered by the inscrutable, chilling, charming, impresario Lermontov. He is Mephistopheles. And he is enraged when Vicky falls in love yet still loves to dance;  “A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer — never.”

It’s not sexual jealousy. Lermontov is too dark for mere matters of the flesh. He doesn’t want her love. He wants her soul. And he makes her choose between the love of her life and dancing… which is the other love of her life.

Distressed, torn and helpless, she regrets her choice yet is unable to make a choice… so Vicky kills herself – while wearing the enthralling Red Shoes, of course. You don’t merely watch the film, you enter its fable (and consequently you don’t think ‘Hey Vicky, all you have to do is join another ballet company!”). Her demise stirs no judgement, only sadness and love. You can’t blame a girl for being seduced by those shoes…

The movie is based upon a short story by Hans Christian Anderson who, as a boy, had witnessed an ugly incident between his father and a rich woman who ordered a pair of shoes for her daughter. Anderson’s father slaved over the shoes but the woman rejected them. The father, a proud man, was so incensed he cut them up in front of her, spoiling the silk the woman had supplied and the leather he had contributed. Pride and vanity, the stuff of destruction… Like Lermontov. ‘Best not get involved’ was the message Anderson took.

In the story he wrote many years later, Karen is a vain young girl who puts on red shoes which she then cannot take off. And soon the shoes start dancing and cannot be stopped… Exhausted and demented, Karen eventually has her feet cut off, prays to God and dies soon after. She ascends to heaven in a state of rapture, redeemed by her return to God. She relinquished the red shoes at the enormous price of her feet and Earthly hopes; thus she found peace and God. Even by Anderson’s terrifying standards of moral rectitude, it’s a bit of a downer…

The shoes symbolise sex of course – they start dancing when a mysterious soldier flirts with Karen at a party, and she responds. Next thing, excited Karen is waltzing through brambles and scarring herself, jigging inappropriately everywhere she goes, gyrating herself silly and sadly unable to attend the funeral of her adoptive mother. She’s metaphorically bed-hopping all over Denmark, it would seem…

It’s not a harsh tale, just cautionary. However, only a man would assume (protectively, kindly) that she won’t get away with enjoying her wild sexuality. Insofar as it is true, it should be read more as a comment on Anderson’s dour society, than a problem for Karen. So she is a bit vain. So she revels in attention. So she is a bit of strumpet. So what?… You really can’t blame a girl for being seduced by those shoes… or more specifically, what they symbolise; sex and adventure…

The short story actually features quite literally in the movie, wherein a ballet of the story is staged. And the two sort of vaguely fuse in Kate Bush’s spooky song and rather shambolic video of the same name. The great Kate does her innocent little girlie thing – wide-eyed in a Gothic world – dancing herself into eternity with trance-like innocence. Again, it’s sexy and sympathetic. However, it possibly took a woman to portray a girl not perishing after being seduced by the red shoes i.e. frantic sexuality…

Sometimes it’s easier for men to think of women as little flowers who can never recover from being crushed… it’s quite sweet of them, and well-meaning. But perhaps a tad sentimental. We relish ‘our shoes’ and all the discomfort they inflict up on us. That’s the womanly way… The V&A’s title – Shoes: Pleasure and Pain – celebrates it perfectly.

By contrast, Cinderella with her precious shoes may work as a role model for little girls. She is certainly virtuous in the face of drudgery and maltreatment; working hard until the one – and only – arrives. Good for her. But no full-on modern woman wants delicate Cinders’ dismal life in a month of Sundays… years of domestic slavery and then one date. Oh whoopee…

Most of the exhibition testified to another subtlety about shoes which men miss; that opportunity for immediate self-expression. It’s not just the opportunity to say “I’m stylish” or “I’m sexy”’ or “I’m feeling quiet” or “I’m serious” though there are shoes on display which say such things in wonderfully nuanced ways. However, the exhibition also catches that unique and glorious self-expression which shoes offer, meaning the opportunity to wear wild shoes; the opportunity to say, “Look at me, I’m a bit mad! See the shoes? Right off the wall! And yes, I really do love them!”

Perhaps this is because feet are at maximum distance from the face where all sorts of communication must be made and monitored. As Miuccia Prada put it; “Craziness in a shoe is great – you can have much more freedom, you can exaggerate and it doesn’t feel stupid. But to have too much craziness near your face; that would just feel weird.”

Further, shoes are binding pieces of tough clothing. As such they will stir more sensation than any garment. All clothes are soft compared to the brutality of good shoes.  Physically, spiritually, sensually, they touch us more. So if they can make us feel great, why be surprised? … Even when you know things aren’t going your way, you can still get an emotional and physical lift from adorable shoes. As Rihanna reflected; “Nicki Minaj has a better booty; but I have better shoes.”

Welcome to Creativity Unmasked

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Creativity Unmasked is the understanding that; artistic expression acts as a creative pathway to the unconscious, and exploration of relationships between symbolic objects can be achieved with the use of art materials. And light is cast on inner processes with further inquiry and curiosity, providing the opportunity to connect thoughts, feelings and experiences for better self-awareness – the starting point for change.