Thursday, 13 May 2010

Farewell to Creative Writing at the Art College 7b: the MA in Writing the Visual

About a dozen years ago now there was a sudden rush to MA courses in Higher Education establishments and I was asked if I had one I wanted to try writing one.

Creative Writing itself was very well covered at UEA, and, in view of the fact that I was trained as an artist, was working at a school of art, had spent many years writing about, through /via /around visual art, working with other artists, and, furthermore, couldn't help but notice that many other poets were writing about visual art and that there were whole anthologies of poetry about it, I suggested and wrote (with considerable help) an MA called Writing the Visual. I add considerable help in brackets because official forms and applications have always hazed me a little. I think I am an ideas man who needs an efficient, undaunted organisations person next to me.

Why, after all, were poets and other writers writing so much about visual art? A few years earlier I had suggested to OUP, my then publishers, an Oxford anthology of writing about visual art. I was thinking primarily of poetry about fine art and photography, but there were passages in prose that concentrated on a work of art, the most obvious example being perhaps The Picture of Dorian Gray, as above. The most interesting discovery I made was that most poetry about visual art, with certain important exceptions, post-dated the beginnings of Modernism, that is to say the time that paintings became suspicious of subject and preferred to have little to do with literature. It was roughly at that point that the flow was reversed and that instead of, say, Delacroix producing work about Hamlet or the Inferno, or Faust or something from Byron; or, if you like, Giotto producing cycles of frescoes based on Biblical and apocryphal narratives, writers started to employ visual art as the given text.

What was going on? How did it work? (How did it work for people like me?) What are the ways in which the writerly imagination absorbs and develops that which someone might call secondary experience: not the bird singing but a picture of the bird singing?

The idea was that there would be a series of modules, some involving the actual production of visual art, the sheer physicality of it, as well as some appropriate theory and a mixture of reading / looking analysis, and of writing in verse or prose form - not 'critically', but what we now call 'creatively', - and that all this would produce more informed, more subtle, more interesting writing about visual art.

So it got written and approved and advertised and we got students, all part-time, almost all mature. It was rather glorious: artists, photographers, graphic novelists, educators, teachers, ex-printers, ex-doctors, an actor; a range of people aged from early twenties to mid-eighties, turning up once a week for sessions. In one year we had eleven in the room, all vocal, all full of life, all wanting to know, and argue, and produce. I wasn't teaching it all. Andrea worked with me, and Shaun Camp and Simon Granger and Anna Green, but it was intensive and deeply invigorating.

One artist, Gary, wrote beautiful anecdotal prose, Patricia wrote a novel of ideas, Roger wrote memoir, took photos, exhibited and carried on studying, Sian drew, went to study at the feet of masters, Jan was writing a novel about a political artist then moved on to the Hackney Empire, and, as for Martin, he was already a marvellous photographer, a poet-entertainer with Joy of Six, and wanted to see through the book of poems based on personal history and photographs, Whistle, which he has now done. And others, splendid people like Fionn Rawnsley, a sculptor fascinated by systems, patterns, numbers and mysteries, and Liz Lampard, a textile artist, who wrote beautiful delicate poems... and so on through Hugh and Elizabeth and Peter and Rebecca....

This was all rather wonderful, and dizzying, and exploratory, and who knows where it might have led, given time - I still think such a course should exist along roughly similar lines - but I had to move on to UEA, and Andrea continued, but then, along with almost all the new MA's, it bit the dust, receiving the fatal institutional dustbite about the same time as the creative writing. It too is ending.

Never mind there are courses for computer games design there now. Ah, sunny Prestatyn, as Larkin wrote.

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