Bob Dylan looks back

The songwriter’s latest exhibition of paintings has been plagued with accusations of plagiarism, but

When Bob Dylan's first major US exhibition of original artwork opened at the Gagosian Gallery in New York on 20 September, critics were united in their relief that the assembled paintings were, if not groundbreaking, not as awful as the science-based lithographs of the former Monkees front man Micky Dolenz. Or as dull as the Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie Wood's portraits of . . . er, the Rolling Stones. Some rock musicians are true renaissance men, with creditable work across several mediums, but those who fit such a description can probably be counted on one hand (Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, has claim to a finger).

Dylan has long been a graphic artist. In the first (and as yet only) volume of Chronicles, his semi-fictionalised memoirs, he describes how he "picked up the habit" of drawing from the late Suze Rotolo, his girlfriend in the early 1960s: "I would start with whatever was at hand. I sat at the table, took out a pencil and paper and drew the typewriter, a crucifix, a rose, pencils and knives and pins, empty cigarette boxes." This interest would manifest itself sporadically throughout his career, with his visual work adorning the album covers of the Band's Music from Big Pink (1968) and his own early 1970s releases Self Portrait and Planet Waves.

In 2008, the Statens Museum in Copenhagen exhibited a large collection of his paintings called "The Brazil Series", supposedly based on Dylan's personal observations of the country on his travels. The Gagosian's show, "The Asia Series", is a sister project that takes south-east Asia as its subject. (The gallery's somewhat po-faced blurb claims that it is a "visual journal" that "comprises first-hand depictions of people, street scenes, architecture and landscape".) Despite its foreign themes, the exhibition represents an artistic homecoming for Dylan, whose compulsive image-making began in the nearby bohemian quarters of Greenwich Village, under the wing of Rotolo.

"The Asia Series", however, has been controversial for Dylan's unapologetic use of appropriated compositions: fans on the forum pages of the Expecting Rain website have identified the source images of several of the paintings, including a photograph of an elderly Chinese man and a friend by Henri Cartier-Bresson, taken in 1948. Perhaps even Johann Hari would blush at the scale of Dylan's direct referencing of other people's work -- from the central figures to the incidental background details, the artist seems to have faithfully reproduced every detail.

Michael Gray, author of the Song and Dance Man series of books on Dylan, was withering in his analysis: "[It] may be a (very self-enriching) game he's playing with his followers but it's not a very imaginative approach to painting," he wrote on his blog. Yet is Dylan's approach to painting so surprising? His work throughout his career -- in song, poetry and film, as well as visual art -- has been characterised by an exhilarating omnivorousness. The restless, mercurial energy of his music is partly derived from how each of his songs contains multitudes of other voices.

Folk music is an adaptive vernacular: it survives by evolving. Much of this process takes the form of one musician borrowing a line or verse from another and adding something new along the way. In the song "Trouble in Mind", Big Bill Broonzy sings: "I won't be blue always/Yes, the sun gonna shine/In my back door someday." In "Big Road Blues", the ever mysterious Tommy Johnson sings: "Lord, sun gon' shine in my backdoor, someday/A wind gon' change all blow my blues away." Such "floating lyrics" belong to no one and pass from one songwriter to another; their expressive power draws from their mutability, the sense that their meaning is at once unfixed and specific, that their significance is simultaneously personal and communal.

Dylan has applied the methodology of the maverick phrase to all of his output, from lifting a Bascom Lamar Lunsford line ("A railroad man, they'll kill you when he can and drink up your blood like wine") for his song "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" ("They say that all the railroad men drink up your blood like wine") to piecing together fragments of Jack London novels and articles from Time magazine to colour his memoirs. His 2001 album Love and Theft was a manifesto in practice that celebrated pastiche as a liberating strategy: the final song, "Sugar Baby", took the melody and parts of the chorus from the 1927 show tune "Lonesome Road" by Gene Austin and Nathaniel Shilkret, for instance, and even the name of the collection was a nod to the historian Eric Lott's excellent book about minstrelsy of the same name.

Is pastiche, this loving theft, something that detracts from the quality of an artwork? Jacques Derrida's notion of iterability posits that a set of signs carries meaning because it is repeated, and that it cannot be saturated by any one context. Dylan's work, be it his painting, his music or writing, enacts this freedom from single interpretation, and that's why, for me, the best of it is endlessly rewarding. By repeating and assembling pieces of our shared cultural heritage, Dylan offers us a reflection not only of these new dark ages, these modern times, but also of the creative journey that has brought us here.

The Gagosian show may well be patchy -- Dylan's craftsmanship as a painter is unremarkable -- but to dismiss him for, in effect, applying the folk method to the canvas is unfair. Besides, has he been disingenuous? In the interview included in the exhibition catalogue, he says: "I paint mostly from real life. It has to start with that. Real people, real street scenes, behind the curtain scenes, live models, paintings, photographs, staged setups, architecture, grids, graphic design. Whatever it takes to make it work." The implication is that, to Dylan, photographs and paintings are as "real" as people and street scenes. In a hyper-mediated world, the media artifact is surely valid as a source of inspiration.

Hat-tip to Neil Rennie, from whom I borrowed (appropriated? referenced? stole? pastiched?) the Tommy Johnson/floating line example.

Yo Zushi works for the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Pointy Records

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

MARK GERSON
Show Hide image

It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain