A novel approach to the great writers

It is as if historical events are only relevant if put in the context of the modern world
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The Independent Online

For those residing outside the strange parallel universe that is conceptual art, it is sometimes difficult to understand why certain subjects have appealed to the great artists of our time. When Tracey Emin decided to put up a tent and write on it the names of "Everyone I ever slept with 1963-1995", was she just having fun or was she making a very real and serious point about the loss of intimacy in a sexualised society? As Sarah Lucas filmed the writer Sebastian Horsley getting himself crucified in the Philippines, what exactly was the point she was trying to make?

For those residing outside the strange parallel universe that is conceptual art, it is sometimes difficult to understand why certain subjects have appealed to the great artists of our time. When Tracey Emin decided to put up a tent and write on it the names of "Everyone I ever slept with 1963-1995", was she just having fun or was she making a very real and serious point about the loss of intimacy in a sexualised society? As Sarah Lucas filmed the writer Sebastian Horsley getting himself crucified in the Philippines, what exactly was the point she was trying to make?

Sam Taylor-Wood's work is, on the whole, easier to understand. By filming David Beckham while he was asleep, she presented England's sweet hero at his most vulnerable, capturing him at the one moment when he is essentially beyond the reach of the celebrity circus. The recent exhibition Crying Men is more cunning. At one level, it celebrates the damp, new sensitivity of the modern male, something of which only the most hard-hearted of traditionalists would disapprove, but it also has a terrific belly-laugh at the expense of famous men so eager to show off their girlie side that they are prepared to walk into a studio and burst into tears to order.

Now Taylor-Wood has come up with another sharply contemporary idea. No less than two of the blubbing brigade turned out to be interested in the work of William Blake. The actor Ray Winstone told her that he had always wanted to know more about the 18th-century poet and visionary, while the great country singer Kris "Help Me Make It Through the Night" Kristofferson revealed that ever since he had been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford he had been a fan of the poet, and indeed had named his son Blake. Coincidentally, Taylor-Wood had recently been reading "Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright" to her little daughter, and when asked who the man who wrote it was, had told her that he was a man who saw angels.

Clearly, it was time for a full-length feature film about this man. In the full-length film version that is Sam Taylor-Wood's next major project Winstone will play the central role, while in a brilliant piece of casting Kristofferson will be God. The film will also contain another surprise. While being photographed for Crying Men, Kristofferson had found that the easiest way to well up for the camera was to think of his old pal Johnny Cash, who died last year. As it happens, Taylor-Wood is also a great fan of the Man in Black.

This too fed into the film. The way she now sees the Blake biopic is as an embodiment of the music and spirit of Johnny Cash. Just as Johnny Depp used Keith Richards to inspire his performance in Pirates of the Caribbean, so Ray Winstone is being asked to use Cash as "the blueprint" for William Blake. After all, they had much in common: they both dabbled with drugs and were interested in religion and ... well, loads of stuff.

To the uninitiated, this may seem a rum way to develop a major project: take some toddler talk about angels, the enthusiasm of a couple of public faces, mix in the music of your favourite country singer and you get ... a full-length feature about the life of William Blake. Some might even argue that it is part of the celebrity game itself, that fame is being used to pass off something essentially moronic as a serious work of art.

But I suspect that Taylor-Wood may be on to something. Down the years, Blake has been a writer whose life, beliefs and work have provided each generation with a mirror in which they have seen their own image. Hedonists have been delighted to be told that the road to excess leads not to the Priory but to the palace of wisdom. Radicals and religious nuts have found refuge in his poetry and art. Environmentalists have trotted out the line about seeing the world in a grain of sand, while animal liberationists have fallen joyfully on the robin redbreast in a cage that puts all Heaven in a rage.

And how will 2004 present William Blake? As a celebrity-centred country album, The Songs of Innocence and Experience, remastered for banjo, pedal-steel and Dobro. Never has there been a time in which a view of the past is more infused by the concerns of the present, as if historical events are only relevant if put in the context of the modern world.

That context is perfectly captured by country music - tearful, sentimental, simplistic, nostalgic, occasionally prone to solving problems through violence. Personally, I would be delighted if Sam Taylor-Wood's film, whose title should surely be Ring of Fire - The Life of William Blake, starts a trend. The brilliant, tragic Gram Parsons could provide a blueprint for Keats, while the Dixie Chicks could only be the Brontë sisters. I see Tolstoy, bearded, battered and wise, returning in the form of the almost equally great Willie Nelson.

Few of these projects are likely to cast much light on the way great writers lived in the past but, in that quirky and ironical way of conceptual art, they will certainly tell future generations more than they want to know about the early 21st century's favourite subject - itself.

terblacker@aol.com

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