Well it’s been 3 months since I last posted anything on this site – which is possibly a fatal error for an online presence… like radio silence. But there is a reason – I set this up as a ‘chaplain’s blog’ (start date 2013.001) with a specific focus on the relation between questions of art and faith (hence ‘spiritual:critical’) because that’s what I thought I would be mainly dealing with in my public role as chaplain to the UAL art schools of Central St Martins, Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon. But the truth is that since I started my job at the beginning of this year, three people have tragically taken their own lives – two members of staff and one student. There’s no obvious connection between these individuals – they worked at different colleges and their deaths were otherwise unrelated as far as I know. But they were all part of the UAL ‘parish’ so to speak (which by the way, at 22,000 people is equivalent to about 5 local parishes).

I have been spending time with those who have been affected, which is basically anyone who knew the individuals concerned – suicide is like a bomb going off; it affects everyone who is in the vicinity, but most especially, families, friends, and colleagues (including in this case, students). Some of these have shared their feelings and thoughts with me; and although of course I cannot fully share the grief they are going through, I can identify, because I have in the past had similar experiences. The over-riding question when someone close to you takes their own life, or attempts to, is why? And the natural desire to resolve this question can lead to answers that may spring more from our own grieving sense of powerlessness and loss (which may include feelings of guilt and anger) than whatever may have driven one’s friend or relation to such a desperate end. Clearly, there is a darkness involved – but what constitutes such a darkness may be beyond our power to comprehend. However, this does not mean we cannot take steps to defend ourselves from it – and one thing that can and must be said is, if you ever get the thought that the world would be a better place if you were not in it, please think again, because it’s a lie. And talk to someone else. Please.

Another thing of course that these three people had in common was that they were all artists of one kind or another, and I’d like to talk a little about this context. But in doing so, I am not seeking to explain their deaths – as I have said, I’m not sure this is possible, and even if it were, I am not the person, and this is not the place, to tell the stories of any of these individuals. All I can try to do is to have compassion on those who have died, and be with those who grieve. But as a chaplain, I am concerned with the pastoral and spiritual welfare of everyone who works in the University, many of whom are also either artists or art students. And I know that being an artist, or trying to be, or even trying not to be, is not an easy thing. Partly because it is so bound up with our identity as persons, on many levels, and partly because no-one quite knows what an artist is supposed to be anyway.

For those working in this context, therefore, questions of success and failure can come into play in a fundamental way, without obvious answers. This is one of the reasons why an art education is not the easy option that some might think it to be. For example, art students are asked to identify and develop their own research topics at undergraduate level – this is not usually required in other subjects until undertaking a PhD. Moreover, because there are not the same kind of objective criteria available to measure art as there may be elsewhere, there is a greater demand on the students’ ability to construct a critical argument from disparate and potentially conflicting sources. Follow this with the seemingly laissez-faire but actually highly codified professional art world, and we can begin to understand the kind of pressures that can be experienced by anyone seeking to establish or maintain an identity as an artist.

This combination of pressure and doubt can add up to what may be considered as a kind of psychic or spiritual phenomenon. Think of the atmosphere at a big private view if you want to get a sense of what I’m taking about – at times there can be an almost palpable sense of paranoia – or fear and loathing, to use the technical term – or maybe it’s just me?! Either way people don’t talk about this feeling at art openings – any more than they talk about the work in the room. However, one of the great things about art schools is that it is possible to talk about art, and about being an artist, with other people who know what you are talking about. Indeed, perhaps the real value of going to art school is not so much learning how to make art, but learning how to talk about art – and in particular, one’s own work.

But maybe there are some things about which it is not possible to speak about, even in art schools. Partly this may be due to the limitations of the curriculum – which must be based in critical language, and therefore may struggle with emotional, let alone spiritual questions. But I think the problem goes deeper even than this, and lies in the 19th century notion of art for art’s sake, whereby art is placed outside and above questions of social function or morality. In the early 20th century, Walter Benjamin identified this notion as a ‘theology of art’. However, despite the postmodern development of this critique, in the absence of any other theology, art remains somehow ‘higher’ than other social functions within our 21st century culture. In this context, to ‘fail’ as an artist (whatever that might mean – but the point here is that it can be felt to be so) is not just a professional or academic failure, it may be experienced as a kind of moral failure – and this can have a profound effect on the inner life of a person. And of course, the fear of something can be as affecting as the thing itself – more so, perhaps, when that thing is ill-defined, as may be the case with art.

As I said at the beginning of this post, it has been three months since I have written anything here, but that is not just because I have been busy, it’s because I have not quite known what to say about what has been going on, or how to say it. I know that my words are inadequate. Wittgenstein said, of philosophical questions, ‘whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’. But we are faced here with questions of life or death. And, if silence=death, then maybe speech=life. In which case, if our current language (eg of philosophy, or art) does not have words for that which we need to say, then we need, together, to construct a new language – and in the process, perhaps recover an older one.