Tonight, I watched a wonderful documentary about the British sculptor Reg Butler. It was made in 1974 and it’s pure old-school BBC arts doc: no moving cameras, no tricksy cutaways or CGI, just talking heads. Talking about art and life and sculpture. Click here to watch it.
The doc traced Butler’s career from his early breakthrough piece ‘Monument To The Unknown Political Prisoner’ up to the (then) new works: figurative bronzes of women (though Butler calls them girls) painted in lifelike tones. The Tate now owns ‘Girl On A Round Base‘ and it’s still a startling work which makes me question my own sexuality, my objectification of women as sexual objects and, naturally, mortality.
Such overtly sexual and sexualised sculpture is bound to poke at bourgeois morality and the interviewer did ask some rather strange question (as this article points out). Butler fielded this banal line of questioning with aplomb: he laid himself bare and admitted that his obsession with ‘girls’ was partly lust, partly compassion. the most telling part is that he emphasised the gradation of care. I can’t remember exactly but he says something like “If you can look at a girl and see her, have some compassion for her, imagine her growing old, imagine her dying, that’s the point.”
So, yes, of course his sculptures were about lust but they’re also obviously about death. And he freely admits his obsession with girls.
Can you see why I like this artist who died thirty years ago?
I would say 99% of my songs are about women and girls I’ve known. Unlike Butler, the females I’m writing about aren’t an abstraction, a Platonic ideal of ‘girlness’ I review in my head. And women, girls, love, lust, sex, death are the themes I return to again and again and again. I’ve tried writing scathing political diatribes: they’re shit. I’ve tried writing pretty stories where everything works out, no loose ends, poignant closure, the songwriter’s version of THE GREAT NOVEL. I can’t do it. I’m a broken record, a rusty, squealing hinge, a dripping tap, the painful hardon you get on the bus that makes you miss your stop.
I’m confused and marooned and, as a middle-aged man, while the things that were trials as a teenager are trivial to me now, they’ve been outpaced by new terrors. Love shatters and pierces ones body and soul with such beautiful shrapnel. I pick out the slivers and scratch bloody dots across staves, redundant fucking doodling.
I wish I could sculpt like Reg Butler. I wish I could have met this man who I have nothing in common with and who I have everything in common with.