Bedding In: An interview with Liz Crow

In response to the coalition's benefits overhaul, Liz Crow is Bedding In.

Bedding In, the latest performance by artist-activist Liz Crow, has been created in response to the coalition’s attack on disability benefits. Over three days, Crow, who has a disabilty herself, will perform her “bed-life”: “I wear a public self that is energetic, dynamic and happening. I am also ill and spend much of life in bed,” says Crow. “The private self is neither beautiful nor grown up, it does not win friends or accolades, and I conceal it carefully.”

For forty minutes each day, viewers will be invited to approach the bed and engage Crow in “Bedside Conversations”, discussing the piece and its context. Here, Crow talks about disability hate crime, the role of art in social issues and the Paralympics' media coverage.

You ascribe a 50 per cent rise in disability hate crime to a propagandist campaign. Can you explain what you mean by that?

Over the past couple of years, and especially in the run up to the Paralympics, I’ve watched an extraordinarily divisive reporting of the benefits reforms in the press, particularly in the tabloids, across the political spectrum. They portray disabled people as inventing or exaggerating impairment, being too lazy to work and living lives of luxury at the taxpayer’s expense. They tell a story of disabled people as fraudsters and scroungers, in complete contradiction of the DWP’s own recorded fraud rate of 0.3 per cent. Alongside this press reporting, the reporting to police of disability hate crime has risen exponentially. Talking to other disabled people I know, many of us find we have become hyper-vigilant when out in public, and vast numbers have experienced disability-targeted aggression or worse. There’s been a rise in reported disability hate crime of 50 per cent and research from Glasgow Media Centre has at least partially attributed that to the fraudster/scrounger rhetoric. It’s a dangerous reporting in a time of austerity that encourages the general population erroneously to place blame on disabled people for the country’s financial woes.

What role can art play in politics and social issues?

Art can give glimpses into other people’s lives and broaden our view of the world. It can ask questions and present viewpoints not seen elsewhere. Artists are good at communicating, at raising difficult questions, and at exploring creative alternatives. Playful or provocative, it can make us see and think differently, make an emotional connection to audiences and go on working long after the piece is officially over. It can act as a provocation to spark a deeper debate about particular issues. We can only make change for the things we know about; for me, the most exciting art brings to light lives on the margins and invites the onlooker to become a part of creating change. In showing art in a range of settings, from galleries to schools, festivals to community settings, we can reach audiences who wouldn’t usually touch art, and audiences who wouldn’t usually touch politics, and take both by surprise.

Do you think participatory art such as Bedding In is a particularly effective means of engaging the public in social issues?

One of the things that Bedding In can do, which I haven’t much seen elsewhere is that it can portray the human story set within its broader social context. So the work is not just about me; I am symbolising the thousands of people who live a bed-life, but, particularly through the Bedside Conversations, I am able to enter into a dialogue with the public in a way that allows them to ask questions, relate it to their own lives and take it out beyond the gallery space. I could write about my bed-life, but there is something about playing it out in a public space that goes deeper to the heart of what that life means against the current backdrop of benefits reform. It is an opportunity to raise more challenging questions and to set the bed-life overtly within the present difficult political climate.

What do you hope would be the outcome of your performance?

I want to make a hidden group of thousands visible, but also to demonstrate that what others see as contradiction, as fraud, is simply the complexity of real life. For those of us with complicated, fluctuating and invisible impairments, the new benefits system has proved to be incapable of supporting us appropriately. The assessment process fails to measure these kinds of impairments and so we fall through the gaps. In doing so, we become even more invisible. My hope is that Bedding In will join a much larger conversation of disabled people, supporters, the Sparticus campaign, DPAC, Black Triangle, UK Uncut and others; that by using a wide range of approaches we can be much more effective in reaching many more people. My hope is that these voices combined will inform the public enough that their outrage will force a change in benefits reform towards a system that is more humane.

What do you make of the coverage of this year's Paralympics and its portrayal of those with disabilities?

The Paralympics was a strange, wild collision course for me, where the extremes of benefits and Paralympics reporting hit just as I make my way to my own benefits tribunal. It was exhilarating to see disabled athletes so completely and naturally at home in their bodies, and I think it shifted many people’s ideas of what disabled people can be, yet the experience was also bittersweet. Just as the athletes will struggle, away from the Olympic stadium, to live up to that ‘superhuman’ ideal, in the context of benefits reforms, the idea that “with determination” any disabled person (or non-disabled person!) could be superhuman has repercussions that are deadly serious. At the root of this is that we are measuring two very different groups of disabled people; the benefits classification system is based on a mechanical view of impairment that fits most athletes but which excludes those of us with chronic and fluctuating conditions, even though we are the most likely to be out of regular employment and in need of ESA.

What do you have planned next?

I’ll be taking another version of Bedding In to Salisbury in April (just as the replacement of DLA with PIP hits), this time occupying my bed round the clock for three days and broadcast on webcam.

Bedding In takes place at the Ipswich Art School Gallery as part of the SPILL Festival of Performance until 3 November.

Liz Crow in Bedding In.
MARK GERSON
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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