CONFRONTING THE DANGER OF ART—IAN MCLACHLAN, with diagrams by Phil Cooper
Sidekick Books, 2011 £5.00
Reviewed by Helen Addy, Hilary Menos and Janet Fisher
This pamphlet looks like an emergency manual with a front cover picturing orange, Big Brother eyes, and an unconscious man in a recovery position. The words “Keep this booklet handy” are printed underneath.
I was struck at first, by the illustrations and diagrams, with their black, white, red and orange colour scheme. They felt menacing with surreal images of real or implied violence. The book is divided into three parts; “threat assessment”, “health & safety” and “criminal detection”, with each poem exploring different aspects of the dangers of art. The poems themselves are short, instructional, and full of ominous portents. The word choices are functional but also incredibly visual.
In ‘Hazard’, McLachlan describes the dangerous situation of a poet operating a motor vehicle:
Like poor drivers endangering others,
drifters, pootlers, erratic lane-shifters,
eyes on a flock of birds, or sunset,
not on the road, recently, one poet
crashed into a minibus of children,
survived, caused sixteen fatalities.
The halting use of commas helps maintains the unnerving reportage and the reader is left to fill in the emotional gaps. There’s no escaping the clever, caustic irony of discussing the dangers of art via poetry, or the reader’s collusion in reading the poems. This felt wryly unsettling, a state I found interesting, and one I wanted to return to by re-reading.
The poem titles are similarly instructional and emotive, such as ‘Fall-out’, ‘Damage Control’ and ‘The Procedure’. In ‘Collective Recognition’, various groups of artists are given collective nouns. These two lines felt brilliantly sardonic:
A plague of poets
A scold of rhymers
McLachlan also turns his attention to painters and photographers, and consistently portrays art as a dangerous, seductive liar. The reader is warned to remain alert to artistic tendencies in themselves, or within their families. This is a stark and original pamphlet of poems, both disturbing and amusing. The superb illustrations darkly complement and enhance the explosive impact of the poems.
Remember the Central Office of Information and its public information campaigns? Advice to Householders. The Green Cross Code. Protect and Survive. Rich material to spoof.
Enter this pamphlet, with its front cover entreaty (“Keep this booklet handy”), its back cover warning (“BE SAFE: STAY AWAY FROM ART”) and text that might have been lifted straight out of a 1960s COI pamphlet on how to spot a spy (“REMEMBER: Art costs lives; That woman with an abstract expression . . . Is she an artist?”)
In this vein, the pamphlet covers threat assessment, health & safety and criminal detection, with short ‘poems’ and illustrations. Some of these are great. 'Know-nothing' advises that you can trust your milkman, and your local farm, to know about milk:
But what useful information
could the man who daubed
Still Life With Cheese provide
about the quality, range and
fat content of dairy produce?
And the illustrations are good, in a sort of Banksy-cum-graphic novel style. But the pamphlet overall is a bit of a one-trick pony. Once you've got the joke, there's not much more to it. And the ‘poems’, while occasionally funny, are little more than chopped-up prose. More importantly, perhaps, it's not a particularly new idea; take a look at Elma Mitchell's 'This Poem . . .', which you can read in its entirety at the very end of the Guardian obituary for the poet in 2000.
This is a booklet produced by the ‘Department for Public Safety’ warning us of the need to be safe from the dangers of Art. It is similar in tone to many public service documents, advertisements, films and so on, but its main well-spring is the handbook produced by the Central Office of Information in the early eighties entitled Protect and Survive. The handbook is easily available on the internet, along with video clips, and is a great source of ironic amusement, though if taken seriously, it was terrifying at the time.
The tone of the poems and the style of the illustrations follow closely the original handbook. The text brilliantly captures the authoritative smugness of so many public service documents:
If you encounter a work of Art
this is what you should do.
Do not approach it. Call
the police. Do not smoke,
eat, or distract yourself
in a way that might render you
susceptible to artistic illusion.
If you think you know someone
affected by a work of Art, contact your council.
Elsewhere you are warned to “immediately visit your GP”.
The thesis of the pamphlet is Plato's exhortation against poets, where he predicts that if we let the "honeyed muse" in, the rulers of the State will be pleasure and pain, rather than law and reason. McClachlan has followed this argument to its extremes. He starts off with Part 1 “threat assessment”, followed by Part 2 “health and safety”, and finally the sinister Part 3 “criminal detection”, which warns the citizen:
Occasionally, a family member
might be an artist. It could be
your mother. Or your son.
That person will be putting
your whole family at risk.
Remember: Failure to report
a dissident to the police
is a criminal action. Be safe.
Always expose an artist.
.....((‘Viper in the Nest’)
Amusing? Unlikely? Mandelstam's mildly satirical poem about Stalin ended him up in the Gulag. In a totalitarian state, Art is the last subversion.
This book is clever, satirical, but also deeply philosophical about the nature of Art and the benefits/dangers it can bring:
..........They (writers)'ll have you
believe there's another moon below
the dark lake's surface. You'll spend
your whole life diving to recover it.
And what reasonable, law-abiding person would want that to happen?