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The Ghosts of Christmas Futures

By Paul Watson on .

two sketches of figures by Paul Watson

2018 has been my most financially successful year as an artist, primarily due to my England's Dark Dreaming book (fewer than 75 copies left at time of writing!). However when I say my most financially successful year as an artist please don't even think that I’m anywhere near close to being able to give up my day-job and be a full-time artist, and I suspect 2019 will be nowhere near as good.

England's Dark Dreaming was a long series of drawings and took 2 years to finish — the biggest project I’ve ever completed — so I’m particularly glad that people have appreciated it. It deals with these despairing contemporary times using motifs from English myths and folklore.

Next year will see the start of a new series of artwork that will try to look to a more hopeful future, which is difficult considering where we are now, but, for reasons I have noted elsewhere in this blog and on Twitter, I think this is vital for anyone unhappy with the direction we are currently going in (more on this below).

So, without getting all ‘Hollywood acceptance speech’ on you, I’d like to thank all of you for your support, comments, and conversations on social media (and occasionally in real life) that helped me along with England's Dark Dreaming.

Special thanks must go to David Southwell for his support and foreword to the book, to Kate for her continuing support, and to all the people who collaborated with me creatively on the artwork by taking on the sometimes arduous and uncomfortable role of life modelling whilst I drew them, without whom there would have been no drawings.

With the country already broken by austerity and (unless something changes in the next 3 months) about to plunge over the Brexit cliff I am not confident about the near future. Just from the perspective of my artistic practice I know that prices of materials are likely to rise — so I either need to pass that increased cost on to you in my prices, absorb it and lose out financially, or a combination of both — and selling work beyond these shores will probably become a lot more difficult and expensive due to customs duties.

But we do need to come up with a vision for a better future, however hard it may be. I don’t mean “Keep Calm and Think Nice Thoughts”, but rather, as I said on Twitter yesterday:

I understand the need to scream — or to be in silent despair — at the present, but we also need to plan and dream a future. Failing to do so will damn us to living forever with how things are now — or worse. We need a dream as deeply-ingrained and pervasive as that of Deep England, but one that is opposed to all the bigotry and intellectual laziness of Deep England, a vision that looks forwards, not backwards to some mythical past. Because that Deep England myth will continue to be used by those who will benefit from its lies, and if there is no alternative vision then it becomes the only vision.

I also think that this is important because I have a theory — which is neither original nor ground-breaking — that we first need to clearly imagine a better future(s) for everybody, then draw up the policies that will get us to that future from where we are now.

Policies are a means to an end, not an end in themselves, and unless you have — and can communicate — a clear idea of the long-term future you are trying to build then announcing policies is just reactive fire-fighting. And while there are certainly fires that need to be fought right now, behind that there needs to be a shared vision of where we need to go otherwise it’s all flailing reaction.

When I’ve mentioned my ideas about trying to imagine a vision for a better future I’ve sometimes received polite but pessimistic replies: it’s impossible, we have no power, we can’t do anything because of the [X] party, it’s already too late, etc.

Mark Fisher* defined Capitalist Realism as the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it. He argued that one of the outcomes of this state of affairs was reflexive impotence: you “know” things are bad, and you “know” you can’t do anything about it, however this “knowledge” is not a passive observation, but rather a self-fulfilling prophecy that feeds on itself, keeping you impotent.

And I think it is this reflexive impotence that is difficult to overcome, especially on Twitter where it can often be employed in a point-scoring way as worldly cynicism of someone who knows how things really are compared to your obvious naïvety.

I have also received some suggestions (see replies to this tweet and this tweet) which haven’t limited themselves to timid tweaks to the status quo, but are ideas for complete reforms of parliamentary democracy and the media, a nationwide change to “greener” living (with the potential problem of having to “live with less”), and so on. We haven’t put the world to rights yet, and I don’t agree with all of them, but just airing these ideas feels to me like progress, however small, against the forces of reflexive impotence.

And this week, having taken the week before Christmas off from my day job, I’ve finally had the time and mental space to start sketching out a first few tentative visual ideas for my new series of artwork.

In England’s Dark Dreaming I set myself a rule that each piece would be a 100cm × 70cm charcoal drawing, and by the end I was feeling constrained. So for this series I have decided that each piece can not only be a different size, but also a completely different medium - I will probably use drawing alongside photography, video, and printmaking.

There will be elements from England’s Dark Dreaming — I’m not ready to leave the mythic elements behind yet — but also new perspectives. I’m acutely aware that the iconography of England’s Dark Dreaming in a series imagining a “better future” could easily be interpreted as a simplistic back-to-the-land agrarian agenda, which I don’t think is fully aligned to my thinking.

While I do think that a greater degree of green self-sufficiency, autonomy, and local community would generally be ‘a good thing’, I’m also aware that industrial infrastructure is a life-saver - not just for anyone who could freeze to death over a harsh winter or succumb to an everyday accident, but on a daily basis for people with disabilities or long-term health problems. If your pastoral fantasy future doesn’t include reliable electricity and modern telecommunications, and the industrial infrastructure to support them, then you’re proposing a death sentence for many. And the same applies to other aspects of the industrialised world we have built - for me many aspects of industrialisation are nice-to-have comforts, but for others they are the difference between life and death.

And so, while I’ll be retaining some of the mythic/folkloric iconography, there will be other elements as well that contrast with them. I’m not trying to dream up a bucolic utopia, but something different to and better than what we have now.

No, I still don’t have a fully formed answer as to what it will look like, and I suspect I won’t all the way through the project.

Thank you again for your support and attention over this past year. Merry Christmas if you’re celebrating it (either religiously or secularly) and I hope the year ahead brings you happiness.

* A brief footnote: I realise I’ve been referencing Fisher quite a lot recently, and he’s certainly been influential on my thinking about where we are and where we need to go. He’s certainly not without fault - he didn’t seem to acknowledge any systematic form of oppression beyond class, whereas I think that racism, sexism, homophobia, and many other systematic bigotries are at work in the world alongside class oppression, often working together. I do, however, thoroughly recommend reading Capitalist Realism - even if, like me, you generally don’t read political theory. It’s a very accessible (and short, at 81 pages) book, and you don’t need to be versed in political theory to understand it.