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Alex Wade on law, literature and art
Alex Wade is a writer, freelance journalist and occasional media lawyer. He is also art editor of Cornwall Today. e-interview by Rupert White
Alex, your career has taken many fascinating twists and turns. Am I right that you took a degree in English before training as a lawyer, and then subsequently working as a writer?
Yes, I studied American and English Literature as my first degree and also, before that, worked on a local newspaper. I enjoyed the law, especially libel law (my specialism), but not the rigmarole that goes with it. I guess I spent about 10 years as a libel lawyer before switching to writing. But even now, I'm still 'on call' for one or two newspapers as a lawyer.
How did you end up in Cornwall? How has this worked out for you?
Two things brought me to Cornwall - surfing and my wife. I got into surfing when I grew up in Devon but it had become an occasional part of my life because of my career as a lawyer in London. I was desperate to get back into it and writing my second book, Surf Nation (a literary odyssey around UK surf culture) brought me back to it. There's nowhere better for surfing in UK than Cornwall, as I knew from having met my wife, who was bropught up in Charlestown. We were married there and every holiday was spent coming down here. Three years ago, we made the move, Karen to return and me to settle here for the first time.
You've been the art editor for Cornwall Today for more than two years now. James Green (Director Newlyn and Exchange Art Galleries) commented on this site that the extent of art coverage in the local press far outstrips that seen anywhere else in the country which is an interesting observation. This coverage rather confirms and indeed reinforces the existence of what I would see as a largely self-contained and self-sustaining art scene here. Would you agree with this?
Absolutely, yes. The art scene here is only matched by that in London. Its historical legacy is incredible but at the same time it isn't a burden. There are plenty of artists here working in fresh, new ways just as there are those who consciously seek to inhabit more traditional, established spheres.
How do you see the role of the local press in covering art-related events? Who are your audience or readership, and what kind of editorial decisions are you aware of making as you work?
One of the other great things about Cornwall is the local press. For example, Frank Ruhrmund at the Cornishman does a great job in promoting the arts in West Penwith. The task, from an editorial point of view, is to be inclusive. Academic analysis of an artist's methodology isn't going to work in the local media. What's important is to convey the range of artists working here, and let readers - who, so far as Cornwall Today is concerned, come from all walks of life - decide what they want to go and see.
What have you learnt about art in Cornwall during your time writing about it, and are there any encounters, incidents or events that have stood out for you?
As a writer you learn early on that you can't please everyone. Nor, indeed, should you try to. I've had a couple of reminders of this since being here, but often when least expected. Discretion prevents me from saying anymore.
What are the challenges of writing about art as you see them? Cornwall has a 'tradition' of abstract painting - but writing about abstract art is not easy...
I think writing about abstract art is very difficult. You can swap phrases about 'ambiguity', 'resonance', 'fluidity', 'rhythmic line' and 'tonal resolution' etc etc etc for just about anyone. As I've got older I've also grown away from the New Criticism theories of the 30s, and this, as well as abstract art's inherent, yes, ambiguity, means that when I write about it I try to tell the story of the artist and thereby subtly, almost coincidentally illustrate the work, with small forays into art criticism, rather than produce pages of what is sadly all too often meaningless verbiage.
For me, paintings don't use language, and, as such, it has little place in their explication.
It's tempting to refer to modernist painting styles when describing abstract art - because most of it has been done before. It's rare that you see abstract art that is genuinely original now. Most of it quotes or borrows bits and pieces from 20th century painting. Luke Frost who was at Tate St Ives recently is an example.
But it's true of all art, abstract or not, that it either prompts discussion and thought or it doesn't. And generally the good stuff does.
To place my own take on art in context, it was while studying Literature that I thought seriously about modernism and other literary movements. From a literary standpoint, the 60s was full of predictions of the 'death of the novel'. Everything had been done, nothing could be original anymore. Experimentation followed. Some was good, much was woeful. But now, 30 years on, the novel is still 'there' in all its multifarious glory, from Bolano and Saramago to Tabucchi, Julian Barnes and even good old Martin Amis. Indeed, there is an argument - and a good one - that it's been dying, moving on and being ressurrected ever since The Golden Ass by Apuleius.
It seems to me that what happens, each time, is that a new writer comes along and, either working within an existing form or deliberately transgressing the boundaries of form, puts his or her stamp on literary narrative. This means that it's never quite right to say, for example, that 'Most crime novels have been done before - it's rare to see one that's original or interesting'. Along comes Antonio Tabucchi with the magnificent 'Pereira Declares', and bang, the crime novel has a new lease of life. It's one born of an individual writer's unique take on what's gone before.
Hence, analogously, I don't agree with the notion that abstract art has 'been done'. At this point I have to confess a bias, and she comes in the form of my wife. Some people will look at her work and think 'St Ives Modernism - very nice, but been done' but they're missing the point. Citing Karen as an example, she's a Cornish artist influenced by modernism here, but she's moving its language along in her own style. (I would add that if those same people saw her latest work, they would see that it is visibly, rather than subtly, 'new'.)
For me, as a writer, I believe that great writing is that which harnesses so much of what has gone before, accommodates it, plays with it, moves it forward. The result may be experimental work such as Bolano's, or something archetypally modernist, such as Saramago's 'All The Names'. It may also be deceptively simple, making no demands of the reader other than that the work is experienced (cf Luke Frost's work?).
Indeed, thinking about your point that the best art provokes discussion, I'm not sure that can be taken as a given. Celebrity Big Brother provokes plenty of discussion but that doesn't make it worthwhile TV. I'm sure we can both think of legions of artists, writers and musicians who toiled their entire lives in the shadows, their work seemingly amounting to little more than a whimper, only to be feted late in life or upon death. And sometimes art - or writing, or music - provokes discussion simply because it's so bad that the rest of us can't understand what it's doing there. And if we add the modern-day PR machine into the mix the idea that discussion equates to worth becomes yet more fraught.
Perhaps it's OK if people say 'St Ives modernism - very nice and done before' - there is no shame in this. Maybe it's a case of accepting this and playing with the genre either by blatant copying or subtle reinvention. The challenge is to try and improve or update the original. Henrietta Dubrey is one example of many contemporary Cornish artists who does this well I think.
Appropriation of course is very post-modern. The funny thing is that some of the art journals are proclaiming the death of post-modernism and the rebirth of modernism. Ironically what seems to often happen is that modernism gets appropriated in a post-modern way.
Modernism never went away. That's the truth. And whatever the label - whether impressionism, modernism, post-modernism, expressionism, realism, conceptual art, whatever - all art is intertextual. It always has been, and always will be.
paintings top to bottom by Karen Wade, Henrietta Dubrey and Luke Frost