The True History of Vacuism
By J.B. Pick
From "POINT" number one
We have persuaded ADAM PICKLEWIT, the well-known mediocrity, to give his inside story of the rise and fall of the famous Vacuist Movement in the Arts, and we are taking the daring step of printing it unexpurgated and unabridged. Oddly enough, to steal a phrase from an arch and odious column that appears somewhere or other, we have also in our possession another account of the same subject by JOHN CHARLATAN, identical with Picklewit's, except that the words Adam Picklewit replace the words John Charlatan throughout.
I was in the Public Reading Room studying the Situations Vacant column with John Charlatan when I saw the idea strike him like a butt in the jaw from Rocky Marciano.
"Vacancy, blank, null, money!" he cried, and went away like a burnt Norton towards East Coker. An odd sequence of ideas, some might have said, but Charlatan rarely fires off the target.
Two hours later he was deep in consultation with Crampon Bite, the potato critic, over a milk-shake. I awaited developments with the eagerness of a bobbysoxer at a seance waiting for James Dean's ghost.
The first mention of Vacuism in print, so far as I know, was in a brief note in Squint, by Reub Katzenjammer, Jr., which ran as follows:
"The bounds of the cultural world have been extended, our heritage broadened, widened and deepened by Jonathan Dean's discovery of webbing as a material for aesthetic manipulation.
Perhaps more than any other contemporary artist Dean has chosen to depart from existing: departures from the experimental norm. Constructivism has been in the doldrums since the smart religiosity formulated into a programme by Stowell Grix hardened into a merely anecdotal mannerism following the introduction of a distinct element of sterile automatism by his imitators. Dean reacted to the decadence of his former associates with characteristic determination. His tendency to rely on the fructifying device of kinaesthetic surprise enabled him to adopt an increasing economy of gesture, an economy which lends to his latest drapes, consisting as they do largely of unmodified space, a significance he has himself called 'Vacuist'."
A day or two later I met Bite and Charlatan in Lyons' Corner House. See what Dean said?" sparked Bite. "Wouldn't have thought he could make a joke to save his beard, would you, Lumpy? You watch Vacuism, we've got plans, Charlie and me."
The first Vacuist exhibition was an eye-opener' right enough. The introduction to the catalogue spoke of "presenting the quintessence of non-attachment," and of "developing the blank negative of life." Charlatan knew his stuff. The "pictures," the work of Jonathan Dean and Sturgeon MacReady (a bloke who had made his name sticking fish-scales on canvas with Bostik and calling the result "Drawing to scale"), consisted of frames which at a first glance seemed. to contain areas of blank wall, at a second glance seemed to contain areas of blank wall and at a third glance seemed to contain ditto. The catalogue explained that the doctrine of "implication not statement" was being carried to "a depth of profundity and a point of precision hither-to considered unattainable." The national dailies caught on and attacked Dean and MacReady till their print turned purple with rage, which was just what Charlatan wanted, for the Culture Corps at once rallied to the defence of Vacuism.
A. D. B. Scroggs wrote in Mode:
"There seems no shadow of a reason to doubt that the Vacuists have succeeded in lifting British peinture from the abyss of provincialism, Romantic mediocrity and sheer eclecticism in which it has floundered for so long. To peinture in this country they have restored authority and impact, both qualities of which it stood direly in need. The movement owes, of course, its original dynamism to the great webbing stylist Jonathan Dean, whose magnificent and revolutionary Minus Webbing introduced a new era in our imaginative life. The full impact of this inspirational oeuvre is still difficult to estimate but that it has fundamentally influenced and fertilised the talents of Stinkgratz Malrois, Agrapoulos Pagrovolis, Sprodz Guggenweiler, Piet van Pigge and Polter Geist, all members of the younger school of British painters, cannot be questioned. They quickly perceived the positive possibilities of this new concept of content and adapted it to their own peculiar needs. It became a splendid and powerful nouvelle voiture. Their oeuvres now strikingly demonstrate how far they have succeeded in transcending the sterile limitations of technique, and have approached at last the very nexus of the great inspirational vacuum."
Very true. And when Sir Humbold Rittenbullet sent an exhibition organised by Charlatan to Mottleton under the aegis of the Culture Council, the Vacuists were made men. What happened there was most remarkable. The sculptor Stodge, who for years had produced unexceptionable statues of Mayors in suitable poses for countless Corporations, dropped a bombshell during the Vacuist visit. A bronze statue of Alderman William Wigstole was to be unveiled in the Market Square. When the drape was removed a vast figure modelled in what appeared to be porridge shocked the public into reluctant attention. A City Father protested on the spot. Sculptor Stodge shouted back: "Insult porridge, would you, you barbarian? Vacuists to the rescue!" Before the wretched Alderman could escape he began stuffing cold porridge into the dignitary's mouth. The papers next day carried headlines:
MOTTLETON MAN MAULED. CULTURE THUGS STUFF ALDERMAN WITH PORRIDGE.
No wonder Bite looked gleeful. Poor old Stodge, on the other hand, got three months.
The publicity induced several bar-haunting writers to declare themselves Vacuists. The editor of Null wrote of "the mystical sleep concept discernible in James Joyce Stubbins' white wastes of paper," and of the "intrepidly blank pages" of McNeill Sauchiehall, whose best-known poem up to that date had been:
The clashmacleerie hirples i the lift
An God wha shoggles a the world in woe
Like cockaroostie rauchles wi the weft
Och aye eh mon an hoots awa below.
It was no surprise to me when the Vacuist Theatre opened on a bomb site near Clapham Junction. The plays performed were good rousing stuff. Whereas most plays leave something to the imagination, Vacuist plays left everything, and this seemed to many people a great advance. As Crampon Bite said: "Nothing in its true colours."
The first act of their first No Play (Naught by Jumbo Green-Greene) devoted itself to a demonstration of "space traversed by spiritual concepts undisturbed by visual presentation," as the programme put it. The second act reinforced the message of the first by means of "spacious silence." In the third act the climax was reached. That fine performer John Charlatan sprang onto the stage, began to stride across like the ghost of the future and vanished through an unobserved hole in the floorboards.
A huge concourse of out of work actors took their bow, and the author, who bore a marked resemblance to Crampon Bite in a false moustache, gave a long, involved speech ending with an appeal for funds.*
Shortly afterwards, the blow fell. Jonathan Dean got out of hand, and was arrested for draping Southend Gasworks with miles of webbing. Sir Baldron Withers, at the instigation of Sir Oblong Circle (President of the Royal Academy) seized the opportunity to denounce Vacuism and Modern Art in the House.
"Once more it is incumbent upon me," he thundered, "to draw the attention of this House to certain events which are bringing our great country into disrepute and are making of our brave people a laughing stock before the comity of nations. I deem it my sacred duty to warn the House . . . . ." and so forth and so forth and of course so on.
Crampon Bite and John Charlatan left London for Guatemala with all the funds of the Vacuist Theatre in a brown paper parcel. Sir Baldron's "'Wipe Out Degeneracy" campaign has been so successful that it is unsafe to look cultured in public. Odd that Vacuism should be regarded throughout Western Europe as Britain's sole contribution to the Arts.
* Bite and Charlatan also tried a Vacuist Psychical Research Society, designed to "force academic science to acknowledge, by means of demonstrations of the existence of Vacuist ghosts, i.e. people, that sensory perception exists. Nothing came of it.
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