I spent a very happy Saturday evening at the Barbican, listening to ‘Still Black, Still Proud’, a James Brown tribute show that gave some of Brown’s old side-kicks – the horn-players Pee-Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley – the chance to team up with some of Africa’s finest musicians – Cheikh Lo, the drummer Tony Allen – and find the points where African and black American music strike sparks off each other. At some point during the show I started to wonder how I would defend the concept of the extended funk jam to those oblivious to its charms, and decided that I could only explain in terms that invoked a vague and intellectually dubious notion of mysticism. People always describe funk as “hypnotic”, a hypnosis that invariably invokes some sort of trance-like state; and of course once you start using language like that, you’re off with the fairies. On the way home, I remembered a book I dipped into last year, a biography of the West Coast artist Robert Irwin, who described his late line paintings, which consist of several straight lines on an orange background, thus: “When you look…at them perceptually, you find that your eye ends up suspended in midair, midspace or even midstride: time and space seem to blend in the continuum of your presence. You lose your bearings for a moment. You end up in a totally meditative state.” I can remember feeling a little bit snooty about the sheer hopefulness of this at the time; it’s perfectly possible to look at straight lines on an orange background and feel nothing at all, apart from a momentary tedium. But what he is asking me to see in abstract expressionism is really no different to what I want people to hear in funk music; it’s just that funk is down and dirty, and Irwin’s art is, well, lofty and spotlessly clean, almost by definition. In other words, I’d caught myself being a snob, and not for the first time.
And then, the very next day, I read a wonderful piece in the Guardian by my friend Nick Laird about where poetry comes from. “To believe, in the polyphonic era, that words in a certain order induce sensation, which is another way of saying that they cast a spell, must be classed as a strange, atavistic faith, but this is exactly what poetry affirms,” he says. So there we have it. Abstract expressionists, poets, funk musicians…. they’re all at it: asking for our faith and a suspension of our disbelief. And in return, they promise the equivalent of a great night out. It’s called art because it’s really not a science.
Nick Laird’s piece is here: