Stafford's Work

A poem on a postcard

Personal Memoir from Vanilla Beer

I’m doing research into Stafford as the subject of a cartoon book of his life and work on the VSM; he used to say, after I’m dead you’ll wish you’d asked more questions. Perhaps all parents say this to their kids…

but how right he was.

Today I’m looking at Cybernetic Serendipity, an exhibition held at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) in London in 1968. I was at art school at the time and regarded the ICA as irredeemably old school. I didn’t go to the exhibition nor – alas, alas- to the opening night. Take a look at the catalogue to see who and what I missed…


The point -unstated -of the show was to make the artist disappear. At my art school – indeed, all London schools – our work was challenged by the dread word valid. Is it valid. Valid meant dispassionate, not-subjective, common to all people and not just the artist. Said in a rush. Your job was to conceal yourself behind your work.

Cybernetics would help. Machines would make the art for us and the creative artists’ job will be to make the machines, programme them, whatever. Chiefly to become distant from the product. (There was still a product, mostly)

My tutor used to console me – while trying to get me to shake off my views and help me become objective –  saying that fashion would pass. 

Funny how things go… now Tracey Emin can exhibit her extremely personal bed. Mark Quinn can extract his own blood and freeze it in the shape of his head to do the ultimate in self-portraits. Grayson Perry can define himself as sexually ambiguous and base his work on that premise. All and more, very subjective.

Reading the commentaries, reviews and reflections online about this very influential exhibition, a major point strikes me. That is, that not a lot has changed since. The technology has moved on but the art hasn’t. All that has changed is that Beuys’ 1972 dictum, Every Man an Artist, has been made true; skills are no longer necessary.

Then, joy! In a box file I found this postcard, folded and smeared, that I had clearly carried about me for years.


Progress is to forget
all you know
let it go

Abandoned to the cosmos.
creation comes
insight in the tear gas

New Knowledge new
hearts new progress–
listen, Know.

Editors Note: About one year later, on 09/11/73 the coup against President Allende started.