Marcel Duchamp's '3 Standard Stoppages' (1913)

Marcel Duchamp’s ‘3 Standard Stoppages’ (1913)

Gideon Rosen, philosopher, on Marcel Duchamp’s ‘3 Standard Stoppages’

GB Tell me why you chose this? What was your reaction when you first saw it?

GR When I was eleven or twelve I spent a long summer collecting insects — butterflies and moths, but also beetles, grasshoppers, even flies. This was mainly a geeky science project, but the impulse was also aesthetic (as I now see).   I had the idea that I would collect these bugs and then build a cabinet for my collection. I pictured the sort of oak and glass display case with dozens of small compartments that one sees in natural history museums, but the point was to build it myself: fit the joints, varnish the wood, cut the glass … I drew up detailed plans, though I never came close to building it. Still the idea was viscerally gripping for me. I’ve lost my interest in bugs, but as I think about this now, I find myself wanting to make the box.

A few years later I saw Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages at the Museum of Modern Art and my first reaction was: That is a beautiful wooden box. I wish I had made that. I’ve been fond of it ever since.

GB Were you already aware of its context in art history when you first came across it, as Duchamp’s farewell to painting and ‘retinal’ art? Did that influence your opinion?

GR I had just read Calvin Tompkins The Bride and Her Bachelors in a high school class on theories of art. The book is about the line from Duchamp to the 1950s New York avant-garde, so I was aware that my ‘aesthetic’ response amounted to missing the official point. Still it was clear to me then that like many Dada icons, this thing is obviously beautiful — much more beautiful in person than the pictures in the books convey. And as I now think, the Stoppages were obviously meant to be beautiful: maybe not the box itself, which is very nice, but the object as a whole. Of course the beauty isn’t strictly retinal: the object isn’t ravishing. Still, the gestalt one takes in as one looks at the thing and thinks about it has a strange effect that I’m happy to call a response to beauty.

GB What’s beautiful about this object? Can you say?

GR It’s partly the idea. The “stoppages” are alternatives to the standard meter, allegedly produced by dropping a meter-long thread from a height of one meter onto a painted black canvas, tracing the contour and then cutting wooden slats to match. This is a pataphysical joke that resonates with turn of the century ideas about the conventionality of geometry (Poincaré), the aesthetics of industrial production — the stoppages are devices for reproducing an arbitrary curve ad infinitum — and other groovy ideas of the time. As Duchamp put it:

This experiment was made in 1913 to imprison and preserve forms obtained through chance, through my chance, at the same time, the unit of length, one meter, was changed from a straight line to a curved line without actually losing its identity as a meter, and yet casting a pataphysical doubt on the concept of a straight line as being the shortest route from one point to another.

It’s a perfectly good joke, but you don’t need a beautiful object to make it. To focus on the joke in isolation is to miss the most salient thing about the Stoppages.

The stoppages are housed in a carefully made pine box — the sort of box a surveyor would use for his tools. The canvas onto which the strings have been dropped has been cut into three strips, each of which has been affixed to a long glass plate. The lower part of the box has been fitted with slots for these plates, so it’s a blown up version of the sort of box that biologists use for their glass microscope slides. The stoppages themselves — the wooden slats — are stored in the lid of the box with a clever mechanism.

This intricate arrangement makes no sense if the point is just to freeze some random curves in time. Taken together, the arrangement is a literalization of Kant’s claim that the beautiful object displays “purposiveness without a purpose”.   You look at the box and its contents and imagine the pataphysical surveyor opening his meticulously packed toolkit only to find that his rods and sextants have been replaced with long glass slides and curved measuring sticks. That thought and other more abstract thoughts mix with the visual experience of the materials— the wood, glass, canvas and thread all carefully arranged— to yield a strange gestalt that I find beautiful.

GB Does the fact that the curves were produced by chance contribute to the beauty of the work?

GR Actually, I don’t believe they were made by chance. When I went back to MOMA to look at the Stoppages again before responding to your questions, I came home wanting to make something like it— always a good sign after a trip to the museum — so I played around a bit, dropping strings and threads and lengths of fishing line from a height of one meter. It turns out that it’s impossible to get an elegant curve by this method. And yet Duchamp’s curves are not just elegant: they’re modern, like a Brancusi contour. (At MOMA, the Stoppages are in a gallery adjacent to Brancusi’s Bird in Space, so the affinity is hard to miss.) So I’m inclined to doubt the official story, and if I’m right that’s a massive irony, since this work was important to John Cage and others precisely because the key bits were supposed to have been left to chance.

I think all of this should occur to anyone looking at the Stoppages who knows the official line about them. The idea would have been every bit as excellent if the curves had been ugly or uninteresting; but they’re not, so one has to wonder. This just reinforces my idea that the Stoppages are beautiful on purpose. The lines are beautiful; the box and the arrangement of materials in it is beautiful; but the work is strange in a distinctive way because this sensual beauty prompts thoughts about the source of the work’s effects. These thoughts combine with the visual experience to produce something that is not quite a feeling and not quite a thought — something we have no good name for, but which seems to me to be a way of registering a sort of beauty.

GB Do you think that humans have an in-built response to those kinds of contours — perhaps in the way that our instinct for edge-detection leads us to find line drawings pleasant to look at?

GR I don’t know whether it’s in-built.   But I tried another experiment: matching Duchamp’s lines to contours in great pictures of the human figure like Ingres’ Grand Odalisque, and it’s easy to do. Our response to those pictures is partly erotic, hence presumably partly innate, so there may be something of that in my response to Duchamp’s Stoppages.

Still, I’m surprised that people seem to care so much about whether our aesthetic responses have an innate source. There must be something innate about our capacity to find things beautiful. But even if my particular sensibility is massively shaped by culture, personal history, and so on — so that I find things beautiful that others don’t — I don’t think that threatens my sense of beauty in the slightest. This is a philosophical point, but I think beauty can be objective – really there in the object — even if it takes culture and history to see it.   Someone who looks at the Stoppages and doesn’t find them beautiful is (I think) missing something that is there to be seen and felt.

GB Do you think an ‘unaesthetic’ object could ever exist?

GR This is tricky. As soon as I give you an example of an ‘unaesthetic object’ — something that won’t repay attention— that will amount to an invitation to stare intently at the thing and (if you’re my sort of philosopher) to start spinning a story about how this banal thing is really fascinating after all.   There can be illusions of beauty, and intellectuals of a certain kind are prone to them: we mistake our beautiful thoughts for beauty in the object. That said, when I look around my office for something of no aesthetic interest at all, I’m stopped by the fact that everything has been designed, hence prettied up a bit. There’s hardly anything in the room that wouldn’t reward a second look.   Still I do think there can be such a thing. Nothing much to look it in a pool of vomit.

GB In Duchamp’s words, “One stores up in oneself such a language of tastes, good or bad, that when one looks at something, if that something isn’t an echo of yourself, then you don’t even look at it. But I try anyway. I’ve always tried to leave my own baggage behind, at least when I look at a so-called new thing”. Do you think he was fighting a losing battle trying to leave associations behind and see something with fresh eyes?

GR No. There’s nothing wrong with responding to art in a personal way. My own most intense experiences of beauty all come from pop music, and any response like that is bound to be intensely personal. But it is possible to bracket quite a lot of that.   The example I’ve given here doesn’t make the point, since my response to the Stoppages is partly personal and a bit nostalgic.   But last year I took a group of students to the art museum at Princeton and told them all to find a beautiful thing to talk about. I did the assignment along with them and found myself standing in front of a painting by Ad Reinhardt: a big black canvas broken up into squares of subtly different shades of black. I forced myself to look at it, since it really isn’t my cup of tea, and found myself gripped by the picture (and by the story I was beginning to tell myself about why I found it gripping).   I don’t think there was anything personal about that response; my baggage had nothing to do with it. Though as I say, I wouldn’t privilege the impersonal response to art in any way.

GB Duchamp believed that painting and sculpture die — that their freshness disappears after forty of fifty years. When you see this work now, do you have the impression that you are visiting a relic?

GR It certainly looks like an antique, and that’s part of its appeal for me. If the box were made of plastic it would be much worse. But I emphatically reject the point implicit in Duchamp’s remark — that freshness is important in art, and that since freshness is transitory, the interest or value of an artwork is also transitory. That’s a very 1913 thought, and I just don’t have it. When I look at 3 Standard Stoppages I know I’m looking at something it would not make sense to make today. But it doesn’t strike me as a relic, if by that you mean a thing whose beauty has faded.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

GR As Alexander Nehemas says, the point of calling something beautiful is to invite others to spend time with it. That’s why it took me so long to respond to your invitation to contribute to Gilded Birds. To call something beautiful in public is to stick your neck out, since it involves issuing an invitation that others may reject, or worse, take up only to discover that you’ve wasted their time with your bad taste. Beautiful things do not have any special feature in common, just as people worth spending time with don’t have anything interesting in common. But some things are worth spending time with (in the various ways in which we spend time with works of art). I wouldn’t use the word “beautiful” for all of them: beauty isn’t the only aesthetic value, and I’m not sure how to distinguish it from the others. But my hunch is that Kant was not far wrong: there’s a kind of attention to the way things look that prompts an effort of understanding that prompts renewed attention to appearances, and there is a pleasure that (sometimes) comes from this back-and-forth. To call something ‘beautiful’ is to promise this sort of pleasure from it.


Rose de Mai

Rose de Mai

Azzi Glasser, perfume designer on the Rose de Mai

GB Tell me why you chose this.

AG The Rose de Mai is one of my favourite flowers in the world. It’s such a beautiful flower to look at because it doesn’t really look like a traditional rose. It’s a cross between a peony and a rose when you look at it and each one is completely different. Sometimes flowers like tulips can all look very similar but there’s something about the Rose de Mai that makes each one individual. If I’m in the fields for a long time I’ll try to find one that looks exactly the same as another – I used to do that with shades of green leaves as a child, looking for something that might be there but seemingly impossible to find. It just has this depth, like no other rose. It only comes out for about two weeks of the year in the South of France, in May and because of that it’s one of the most expensive rose oils, if not one of the most expensive essential oils in the world. The whole process of extracting the oil is a beautiful experience because it’s treated like royalty. The process is quite ancient but precise. First the flowers are picked in a certain way, petal by petal, then they are tossed in the air for a period of time so they’re aired, before being cooked in a kind of pressure cooker, which is where the steam distillation takes place. In the end the extraction is solid like a wax, the ‘absolute’ usually pink in colour. The aroma is so deep and intoxicating, there’s nothing like it.

GB Do you think nature is the highest form of beauty?

AG Nature is the answer to our creation so it has so much to offer in every way. For me it’s like security in life. The word beauty wouldn’t give it justice.

GB How do you think sight and smell interact with one another?

AG Sight is the primary sense for most people – although not for me, of course. The sense of smell is based from the subconscious and almost ignored by people. Everyone smells things and they think about it but they’re not always aware that they are thinking about it. Smell can be more powerful than sight. It can tell you things that sight can’t, like smelling a fire before you see it, or smelling bad milk, which still looks perfect.

GB So if something smells gorgeous, do you think that alters our perception of it, so we might find it more visually appealing?

AG The individual aesthetic of an object can blind your sense of smell if you’re not in touch with it. Most of us have no training from school or parents in how to understand our sense of smell. It has to come from yourself. A person can look fantastic with the right clothes and hair or makeup, but if they don’t choose the right fragrance to match their personality, then it can be quite off-putting to others. The scent of a person is a really powerful weapon and affects how we think and feel about people. You won’t want to be with a partner forever if you’ve never liked their smell. I do a lot of bespoke business for people and mainly Hollywood actors because they’re generally very in touch with their subconscious, which is why they’re acting, so we can relate through these fantasy worlds. They would rather wear no perfume rather than get it wrong. And then if someone does smell great, you’re immediately attracted to them, regardless of their beauty. There’s that instinct thing. I can smell if someone’s washed their hair that day, or maybe not washed it for two weeks! I can smell the shower gel they’ve used. My brain will start dissecting the molecules in front of me. Scent molecules are such a big part of life, they are everywhere.

GB Does Rose de Mai have any particular associations for you?

AG When I was seven months pregnant with my first child I was directing an editorial shoot for the Independent Magazine. My husband’s a photographer and we were doing a shoot about the making of Joy. One of the main characters in Joy is Rose de Mai. Patou owns their own Rose de Mai fields in the South of France and when we went there their entire crop had gone by the time we arrived. They told us it had gone yesterday. Well, we couldn’t wait for another year. I started frantically calling around and one of my contacts said that there might be one more field high up in Rémy. We drove up the mountain and just over it saw this huge field of Rose de Mai in full bloom and the scent was incredible and the sight was beautiful. When I’m pregnant my sense of smell is so strong, it’s like there are two people smelling – in fact there probably are. The fields were so mesmerizing that it has become one of those unforgettable memories.

GB Does it smell very different in the fields from the essential oil you get in the end?

AG Yes, the aroma is very different. The extract oil is so concentrated and rich and deep. What’s wonderful is that this one flower can produce this incredible smell. It could so easily be ignored or not realised. When the oil is extracted at the end, it’s locked in a safe because it’s worth €500,000 per kilo.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

AG If I chose one word it would be originality – something that’s different that gives you more than you see, so that it becomes something else through the way it makes you feel.


Painting by Ethel le Rossignol

Painting by Ethel le Rossignol

Bishi, musician, artist, performer, on one of Ethel le Rossignol’s psychic paintings

GB Tell me why you chose this.

BB A friend of mine invited me to see her paintings at the Horse Hospital. I immediately loved the way that they’re so psychedelic and that art-deco crossover, but unusually, they don’t have that twenties colour palette, they’re completely technicolour. They also remind me of the Hindu imagery I grew up with – but still have a distinctly European flavour. Where East and West collide has always been at the crux of my life and work. I come from a Bengali background and I grew up in London.

GB Would you say that they’re two cultures with very different ideals of beauty?

BB Absolutely. My experience of British culture has always been about the underdog and beauty through filth and resistance. But in Bengal people were really into the British Empire and whatever’s at the top of the pyramid of power. They love the establishment. There are still collections of people in Calcutta who speak with cut-glass accents. They took the EM Forster novel and it became their reality.

GB And do you think this painting is closer to one side or the other?

BB I think both sides would like it. The Horse Hospital where it was shown celebrates avant-grade culture and occultism, so everybody I know who’s into what I term ‘wizardy shit’ would be into it.

GB So you’re into ‘wizardy shit’?

BB Oh yeah. Somewhere in between Jung and Jodorowsky and Alan Moore and Alan Watts, with Aldous Huxey thrown in the mix. People can laugh at it and deride it and say it’s rubbish, but I just smile. I have no reason to try to convert someone to my way of thinking. I was brought up as a Hindu with elephants and swans riding through the sky. I didn’t care if it existed or not. I can relate it’s mythicism to surrealist thinking and altered states with psychedelic drugs. I’ve found my own truth in performing, nightclubs, music, DJing and performance art. I like to see other people communicate their gift.

GB Do you believe Ethel’s story about she created these?

BB Ethel attributes them to a spirit known as J.P.F. She channeled voices and the paintings came from these spirits. This appealed to me because I work with the human voice, songwriting with vocal layering. I also work in a collaborative way, channeling the voices of my the musicians & artists I work with. I like to see myself in a dialogue between different styles of music and different forms of art and communication.

GB When you saw the pictures, did you already know about their background and how they were created?

BB No, I was just completely hypnotised the second I saw them. It was a visceral experience.

GB Did you find out more about Ethel later?

BB Ethel died in the 1970s as a 96 year old, leaving 44 of these paintings. Half of them were donated to the College of Psychic Studies.

GB Do you think she made up the name Ethel le Rossignol?

BB I think she might have. She certainly understood show business on some level. She was a nurse during the First World War. There was a great spiritualist movement after the war because people were so horrified by the murder and destruction.

GB Have you heard the equivalent in music?

BB I think we all do it in music! But no one has openly admitted it.

GB So do you think inspiration comes from outside you – or is it all in your mind?

BB When it happens for me, it’s like a firework that goes off. I can’t fake it. As soon as I try to find it I don’t. Things come to you when you’re not looking. The best thing is to keep your head down and lose yourself in being who you are.

GB Is beauty something you think about in your work?

BB I never consciously think of beauty in that way because I think it’s such a difficult thing to define. But I see beauty in everything and everyone even when things are really dark and negative. I can always find inspiration. I think that turns into something beautiful. We live in a society that seems out to deride and shame people. Women in particular are so objectified.

GB Do you believe in universal beauty?

BB I think it’s dependent on your state of mind to a great extent but I’m interested in the way certain archetypes and  mythologies have remained in the public consciousness for thousands of years. There are certain things that we all respond to whatever our background or education.

GB It seems that you’re very visually led for a musician?

BB I would describe myself as a visual musician. When I was sixteen I read a book called Talking Music by William Duckworth and it had interviews with Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, Laurie Anderson, Conlon Nancarrow – and that was the moment it all made sense. I’ve made collaborative work with interactive visuals timed to my music. I  have been quite uncompromising about it. It’s not easy, but to have authority over my work has been the greatest liberation.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

BB I think it’s connected to that flash of inspiration and something that takes you out of yourself. It can be disturbing. It takes you out of yourself and onto another plane. You shouldn’t have to try. It enters your existence and you don’t question it.  Curiosity is important. I know so many different types of people and you might say they’re eccentric but they have that curiosity.



The Starving of Saqqara. Photo: Concordia University

The Starving of Saqqara. Photo: Concordia University

Ben Sansbury, artist, on a sculpture called ‘the Starving of Saqqara’.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

BS At the moment I’m very interested in things that have some kind of enigma or myth attached to them. I came across this while I was looking for objects like that and this one had so little information available, that made it even more interesting. I like the idea that it was owned by a reputable collector yet there is no record of its acquisition or provenance.

GB When you first saw it, didn’t you think that it was quite ugly?

BS Yes! But that’s part of the enigma. I like the way that no one can really place it in time and it’s somehow jarring to look at. Perhaps I’m interested in the mystery of the story behind it more than the object itself and the aesthetic of it becomes beautiful through that. The people who possess it in Canada have only ever put it on display for a very short time, which adds to the intrigue. It’s a contentious object and it seems they’ve handled it in a slightly cagey way.

GB Well if you find beauty in mystery, it’s about as mysterious as you can get. There’s an idea that it might be from Egypt and pre-dynastic – which makes it almost impossible to date accurately. Do you know much about Saqqara?

BS It was an ancient Necropolis. I didn’t research the place too specifically. I like to take inspiration from images on the internet and I’m fascinated by the way objects are constantly re-contextualized through their use online. For example, the same few texts about this have been used over and over again on different websites and it just adds to the myth.

GB And there’s an inscription on the sculpture that no one can understand.

BS Yes, and traces of paint. They think it might have been painted. The idea of the text is the most fascinating aspect of it for me. It might be a clue to the development of language but also might be completely made up or misconstrued. I love things like the Voynich Manuscript too, even though I know someone now claim’s to have cracked that text.

GB Do you have a theory about the relationship between the two characters?

BS I was initially interested to work out if they were cowering or embracing and why someone would make a sculpture of people who were starving or imprisoned. No one even knows where the sculpture got its name and reference to Saqqara.

GB Do the elongated heads interest you?

BS Yes. in the sense that the shape of the heads excite conspiracy theorists as do many other examples of artificial cranial deformation. There are references to elongated skulls in many cultures worldwide – but there’s a bonkers theory that they are aliens or people who had seen aliens and wanted to look like them and thus had started to alter the cranial form of their infants from birth.

GB The Paracas skulls from Peru were in the news a few months ago. Someone claimed that they’d DNA tested them and it wasn’t human DNA.

BS Yes and there are claims by sailors who sailed through the Magellan Strait and claimed to have met giants in the 17th Century. Maybe there was a particularly tall group of people there? Maybe there were more variations of humans than we believe. I like the theory that homo sapiens would hunt and operate in the daytime whereas Neanderthals were less aggressive, a bit more intelligent and perhaps more nocturnal.

GB So do these ideas come up in your work?

BS In my own work and life in general I’m interested in how rumour and stories combine with facts so this object represents that combination – and how we use our imagination and create these myths. I’ve also been reading about pereidolia – seeing human or other forms in things. Leonardo da Vinci advised painters to look for this and use it in their work.

GB Do you want to know why people in the ancient world created sculptures? Do you think it was ever art for art’s sake?

BS Apparently, as people improve agriculture and have more than sufficient food production, that’s when they start to make objects that are conceptual or merely not for the sake of sustenance or survival.

GB So do you try to make your own work visually beautiful as well as having these intellectual associations with the distant past and mystery?

BS In a way. I wanted to make sculptures how you might make an abstract painting, to compose it in an intuitive way rather than having a clear idea of an end result. For example with my plaster work I’ve been producing I don’t create a mold from a master, I start directly with the mold and consequently I’m never entirely sure how they’ll look until they’re cast. But ultimately I take the forms and shapes I’ve found through all this research and put them together in quite an unconscious way.

GB So where is the highest beauty for you? Is it in nature or random objects that aren’t consciously art?

BS I love the combination of nature and man-made things – like a chain link fence that has a tree that’s grown into it. The tree has the beauty of solid strength, minute but constant growth. That slow but constant pace is what always overcomes man’s creations. That’s beautiful.

GB So what makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

BS With this sculpture the beauty is in the story and the mystery and the object would be less interesting to me without that. It makes me wonder why it’s important to know about it, and I like the suspense of trying to discover what things are. I like things like the tree growing around the fence because you can’t control it.

GB Do you tend to like things that aren’t supposed to be beautiful?

BS Not necessarily. I used to have to visit Florence and often had time to kill. I love the Uffizi but didn’t want to queue for hours, so I’d go to the archaeological museum nearby which has a great collection but was pretty rough round the edges in a fascinating way.

GB So rather than looking for virtuosity or prescribed forms of beauty, you like there to be an imperfection or a space for the imagination to operate in?

BS Yes. In this case there were incredibly beautiful objects on display in this slightly neglected environment. There were empty display cases in that museum that look as though they might have held something amazing – but now you can only guess. There was also a staircase there that was partly made from scaffolding with all these layers of gaffer tape around the tubes opposite a wooden flight case with a Roman Frieze on it, around the corner from the Etruscan masterpiece the Chimera of Arezzo, like a transient archaeological installation.



Serena in the Tigveni Orphanage Romania, September 2000

Carrie Reichardt, artist and Craftivist on a picture of Serena in the Tigveni Orphanage Romania, September 2000.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

CR For me this picture represents beauty on so many different levels. There’s the fact that Serena herself is so beautiful and you can see that beauty through the happiness that’s radiating from her. But there’s something else that gives me a lovely feeling when I look at this picture, that creates beauty in my heart. She’s holding the first painting she had ever done. She was in an orphanage that I worked at and she’d never even seen paint. She’d never seen those colours. She’d barely been held. For me this represents the transformation that art can achieve. It can change someone’s whole world.

GB So was this at a workshop you were doing there?

CR Yes, I went with a group called Living Space Arts that included my best friend from college and her brother. We went for two weeks to work in Romania. It was one of those orphanages that you read about at the time. Kids were strapped down. It was horrendous. It was like going to a concentration camp. They had special needs kids there and when we arrived they wanted to choose only the most able children so we’d work with their best students and we said no. We said we’d work with every child in the entire school or nobody. We had them all brought in. Serena had a hunch and she couldn’t look you in the face. She was like the runt of the pack who was picked on and we were told she was subnormal. But the moment that girl was given a paintbrush she came alive. I’d never seen that in my entire life, that someone could have this connection to creating and working and she just started to do this amazing work. We did go back and work with her over the next couple of years and over that period of time we saw this child start to stand upright and take real value in herself and become a child that everybody else was responding to differently because they could see her talent. The local paper found at about our project and the mayor came to visit. It ended up on the national news out there. So peoples’ perceptions started to change.

GB What’s the number 6 on her shirt? And why is her hair so short?

CR It represents her room. When we first arrived, the children all had shaved heads to stop them getting nits. Also, a lot of the girls who were sexually abused would try to look as masculine as possible. At nighttime the only people who supervised the place were homeless people who got a free bed if they looked after these children. They lived in ruins. They had to drag themselves from the place they slept to the place they ate through human and dog excrement. I saw children repeatedly shoving pencils into their ears so they could get into the sick room. It was truly horrendous. And the only way I could cope was with the art and the beauty we were creating in that situation. You’re creating beauty that everyone can see, that makes other people see the humanity of these people that they are treating so badly.

GB It’s remarkable that she painted such a positive image.

CR Children are such vessels of innocence. Regardless of how tortuous their lives were, the joy they got from sticking tiles down and painting and drawing was incredible.

GB Did the therapeutic benefits of art become apparent to gradually or is that something you’ve studied?

CR My own history is that I did a degree in Fine Art at Leeds. I’d originally wanted to do film but I didn’t get in. For me, art was always cathartic, a way of being able to deal with my emotions. All my degree work is very autobiographical. It’s about having an abortion, splitting up with a partner, my relationship with my father. It was my way of addressing all these fundamental ideas about myself. I’ve had two breakdowns and during those times the only thing that really kept me from the brink was turning some of those experiences into art. It wasn’t art that was seen by anyone or made for an audience but somehow, being able to remove myself from the situation and try to analyse it in a creative way, saved me. After these experiences I got into mosaicking and community art. It’s been said that the quickest way to happiness is to find a cause greater than yourself. That has been my biggest learning in life. When I started to care about people in situations worse than mine it alleviated my own depression. So I started to be a community artist, then I decided to write to someone on death row. Those two things coming together totally changed my life.

GB Your work has such an immediate visual appeal but then it makes you think about these intellectual and emotional issues.

CR I’m always trying to make things as beautiful as I can and now I’m more conscious that I’m choosing to let some of the aesthetics go for the politics. But I think that in the finished object, the politics are what give my work its beauty. The only thing that interests me in art is the artist’s intent. If the intent is honourable and good, I believe that speaks in the work.

GB So you think you can tell when an artist’s intentions are good, even in an abstract work?

CR I would like to think that on an innate, sub-conscious level, yes. My personal experience has been that when I like work and I’ve got to know the person or more about the background, I’m validated in my choice. I think that our minds have been corrupted by popular notions of beauty, in the same way that we no longer know what’s good to eat. We don’t really know what beauty is because we’re so pre-conditioned by advertising. In my work, when I use certain cartoon imagery or icons it’s because they are the most aesthetically pleasing to me. But I’m so conscious that it’s an aesthetic that’s been defined for me as a child. It’s what I saw. Sometimes I wonder if I should use certain images, so I put the politics in because without that it might propagate this line of determining what’s beautiful.

GB A lot of successful art makes people look inward. You’re using beauty to make people look at something that’s often outside their own experience.

CR I like to see most of my work now as an information leaflet in a sense. I’m trying to get people to see what I see and I know that the aesthetic can seduce them in to look at it. When you’ve captured their attention you can show them something. I like doing this for the sake of practising my craft, continually making something new – but really I’m interested in how art can change society in a positive way. The work I’m most proud of, more than the public artworks, is work I’ve done with communities. I’ve seen from working in places like Romania, Argentina and Chile, how powerful art and in particular ceramics and mosaics are for a community.

GB Why those in particular?

CR I think mosaic is a fantastic metaphor for taking broken things and putting them back together to make a whole. It’s so physical and however it’s done, people will love it. I also have the belief that we’re so connected to clay and to earth that we love it. Mosaic is the most popular art form there is. But things that are popular don’t necessarily become valued in the fine art world. It’s a medium that makes you an outsider as soon as you work in it. Nicolas Serota, who runs the Tate, has gone on public record saying he won’t allow mosaics into the Tate because they’re a decorative art form. It’s such a maligned art form. Yet having the truck in the Victoria and Albert Museum (in Disobedient Objects) has brought mosaics back. I’ve wanted to legitimize political mosaic making for years, to do what Grayson Perry has done for pottery – to show that as a medium it can say really powerful things.

GB I still can’t get over the fact that a gallery director would disregard any medium of creating art in this post-Duchamp age.

CR We’re working knowing that the establishment won’t accept this as art. I think the Turner Prize will only show that it has any real meaning in terms of what contemporary art is the day they give it to a community artist and acknowledge that there’s art beyond this ideal of the single genius working alone. Now everything is about a selfie and a narcissistic view. I’ll be too old for the Turner Prize in two years. But how can you possibly say that people can’t do their best work after fifty? It’s ridiculous. I don’t see how you can get worse as an artist. You only get better. I don’t think you should be allowed to win the Turner Prize until you ARE fifty.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

CR If it makes your soul a little lighter. If you feel something in your heart and it makes you smile.


Harris Elliott's shoes - made by Marc Hare and Barry Kamen

Harris Elliott’s shoes – made by Marc Hare and Barry Kamen

Harris Elliott, creative director, stylist and designer, on a pair of shoes.

GB Tell me why you chose these shoes.

HE I chose these shoes because ever since they were designed and put together I haven’t stopped thinking about them. Even though I work in the fashion industry I’m not a person who obsesses about clothes, but these shoes sum up the ethos of my traditional Jamaican upbringing with symbols of the Lion of Judah and the English monarchy. They epitomise the ethos of the Jamaican/British experience here in the UK as well as my exhibition Return of the Rudeboy, that just took place at London’s Somerset House.

GB So you commissioned the shoes for your show?

HE I commissioned the shoes as part of the sartorial room in the exhibition, it was a chance to work with some of my favourite creatives who also happen to be inspirational Rudeboys.

GB Tell me how the show came about.

HE I started working on the show in March 2103 with photographer and film maker, Dean Chalkely. We’d worked together from time to time and culture is really central to what we both do, whether it’s fashion, entertainment or sport. We had this idea of the Rudeboy show as a kind of observation on where so many references in our culture come from. So many subcultures that emanate from the UK have been heavily documented, but the story of Rudeboys has scarcely been represented, even though they are responsible for influencing other notable British subcultures such as the Mod scene.

GB Where does the term Rudeboy come from?

HE Rudeboy originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s to early 60s and Rudeboys were all men, many with gangster associations, not just in terms of who they were but in terms of their aesthetic. At the time there was also a lot of political unrest and Rudeboys were sometimes involved in the activities which often involved guns. These people lived by their wits to survive but their style aesthetic was always something that was incredibly impeccable. Post World War II a lot of Jamaicans migrated to the UK, with Jamaica being a British colony – so the mix of Rudeboys and Jamaicans in general started to inspire people like mods who appropriated a lot of the Rudeboy aesthetic. We wanted this culture to be properly celebrated here in the UK.

GB So that impeccable style is associated with a certain toughness?

HE Definitely. It’s about an attitude, it’s not about working out which floral cravat to wear. It’s a statement of intent of who you are. It’s quite unique that something so sartorial would be associated with something that strong. I don’t really reference gangsters in terms of organized crime. It’s about strength through style. If you have that kind of style you’re obviously not someone to be messed with.

GB To what degree do you think beauty is a part of style? This is such a macho culture. Would the word beauty ever come up?

HE Beauty as a term is often seen as more feminine but I can’t look at these shoes without thinking that they’re completely beautiful – the design and the detail. I wouldn’t call them cool even though they are. They’re objects of beauty. I wouldn’t want to tarnish them because they’re precious and their beauty comes from that preciousness.

GB So regardless of fashion, these have a timeless beauty for you?

HE The nod to the past makes them timeless. They remind me of my uncles when I was growing up in the 1980s. Men would often wear these little satin sheer ribbed fashion socks with very shiny shoes. And that’s where it struck me that such a macho, hard culture had these delicate touches.

GB It’s a very feminine thing.

HE Yes, it seems very contradictory in that way. Jamaican culture can be macho and sadly sometimes homophobic yet have this almost feminine side.

GB Yes, it’s definitely a bit of a camp look. But I suppose that might make it twice as macho because if you’re wearing shoes like this, it means you’re very successful in that culture. Does the fact that they were made by your friends make them more beautiful to you?

HE That does possibly nail it for me. Barry Kamen and Marc Hare are two people I really respect. Barry is an artist and stylist and Marc is a shoemaker/designer and marketing supremo, they’re both incredible craftsmen. Marc made the shoes and Barry adorned them, or in his words “styled them up”. It does make it more meaningful to me that they would collaborate with me on this project, as they are two people whose way of working I totally admire and I often wish I had thought of the things they create.

GB Do you think that wearing beautiful shoes can contribute to your well being in life?

HE Yes definitely. There’s that point where your day is defined by what you wear and what you present to people. Getting dressed is a form of language. You get dressed knowing what you’re going to be doing that day so there’s always some kind of curation even if you’re just throwing on jeans. You should wear clothes for how they make you feel and if you put on shoes like these you know that you’re going to walk tall. Shoes are what hold you up. They set the tone and define your purpose. If you’re wearing beautiful shoes you’ll conduct yourself differently.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

HE There has to be a sense of innocence. Even though these shoes have been created through a deliberate thought process, I don’t like things that feel too contrived. Whether I look at a cloud or a flower or a jacket, if it’s beautiful then I can look at it in isolation and it doesn’t have to be beautiful for anybody except me. I might like a crack in the pavement but I don’t have to share that with anybody else, as long it makes me smile through its uniqueness.


Will Self's hand axe

Will Self’s hand axe

 Will Self, novelist and journalist, on a prehistoric hand axe.

GB Tell me why you chose this.

WS I’d wanted to get hold of a hand axe for some time; I put out a few feelers and discovered that such artefacts are very easily faked, and that to be sure of obtaining the real thing I would need to be sure of its provenance. Out of the blue I was contacted by an authority on paleoanthropology who told me she had a hand axe for me, one that had been dug up near London. It was apparently a ‘blank’ which means they found two exactly the same at the same site, and she said she could let me have it, although I should never tell anyone exactly where it came from. The axe is dated to approximately 400,000 BCE, which is far older than any human artefact I ever imagined possessing – the age alone is a source of wondrousness for me, as if the fact that when you hold the axe properly, you can feel that the individual grips of fingers and thumb were incorporated into its design by the Homo Heidelbergensis (a close relative of the Neanderthals) who knapped it into being.

GB Do you own it? Does that attachment contribute to its beauty?

WS So yes: I own it – and owning it is important to me. It is my favourite object and I would be unhappy to lose it – yet it’s still simply an artefact, albeit one that connects contemporary smart phone users (these are about the same size as the axe) directly with their forbears, to produce a sense of humans-as-toolmakers stretching across the millennia.

GB There’s a great deal of mystery around these tools. Does that give the object a degree of difficulty that appeals to you?

WS I don’t know about mystery or difficulty – once you give the thing a heft and try to use it, it becomes blindingly obvious how it was wielded and you can easily extrapolate what it was probably used for; it’s this practicality that beams out of the thing, travelling up your arm as you raise and lower it, a current of vitality-as-praxis.

GB Has Modernism made you more comfortable with the idea of liking something even though can never fully grasp the meaning?

WS Well, I can’t really grasp the meaning of this question (and I feel perfectly comfortable with that); certainly I can never be certain of what the context the axe was in was like, but I don’t think that makes the object itself particularly incomprehensible.

GB Your hand axe is from near London. Does the fact that it’s local make you like it more?

WS Yes, the localness of the axe is pleasing to me. Like most tedious middle aged people I’ve become more interested in my forbears as I’ve grown older. I discovered a few years ago that the first Self ancestor to live in London was staying only a mile away from where I live now when he completed the 1841 census – and this connection through place and time feels to me sustained (almost to the point of infinity) by this near half-million-year-old artefact

GB Do you subscribe to the “killer Frisbee” theory – that these were thrown at birds and animals?

WS No. It’s not a killer Frisbee – it’s a hand axe, it was designed to knap other stones, carve wood, and particularly to break bones so the marrow could be extracted.

GB Do you think that the person who created this was concerned with the aesthetic of the tool? Could the extent of the carving and attention to symmetry go beyond mere function, making this an early form of art as well as a useful object?

WS Well, art can be inadvertent as well as consciously arrived at. It isn’t the sort of speculation I’ve indulged in – the connection for me is physical: I touch this other hand or hands when I hold the axe; labelling as ‘art’ would seem to me a solecism on a par with the spurious twaddle that passes for art criticism nowadays.

GB Your own work is very much concerned with truth. How do you see the relationship between truth and beauty? (E.g. what do you make of Keats: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”)

WS I believe things are true inasmuch as they cohere with one another; correspondence or correlation with an assumed world separate from the aesthetic formulation is nonsensical for me, so I resile from Keats’s statement.

GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?

WS That it be pleasing, proportionate, interesting, involving and… succulent. My hand axe conforms to this paradigm – and I’m sucking it right now as I type.