Aug 2 2011: Artycraft by Professor Stanley Unwin (from Rotatey Diskers, Pye Records, 1961)
While many examples of creative linguistic mangling are seen as difficult and experimental, with the riotous dream-prose of Finnegans Wake by James Joyce or the beautifully slippery poetry of J.H. Prynne high on many readers’ lists of works to avoid (more’s the pity), it can also be noted that in other contexts, exactly the same poetic and literary procedures can result in widespread popularity. Professor Stanley Unwin’s deadpan twists to ordinary speech and such tropes as the radio lecture are a perfect example.
By modulating his language to follow the contours of sense, while avoiding precise comprehensibility, it might be said that a monologue like Unwin’s Artycraft (1961) is every bit as innovative as even the most extreme experimental works of late Joyce or Prynne. Yet by being presented in a slightly different context – as comedy entertainment rather than serious literary endeavour – somehow Unwin escapes the tag of ‘difficulty’ and is simply enjoyed for what he achieves.
In Artycraft what he achieves is nothing less than a parodic destruction of the whole stylistic mode of academic authority and media expertise. Like a radio professor or university lecturer, Unwin scrambles and garbles the received history of Western art in the manner of a child or someone who only half remembers it. He creates notions of progress as a random series of nonsensical anecdotes and images, then frames every warped syllable inside a weirdly authoritative and avuncular voice that slips beyond comprehension with every other phrase.
It’s as though Sir Kenneth Clark and John Berger have been fed through some kind of absurdist blender and the effect is experimental in the deepest sense, even as Unwin presents it all as if it’s exactly the opposite, and really is just as cosily unchallenging as the listener might have hoped. It reminds me of Sir John Betjeman’s way of slipping some rather dark stuff under the radar of his own audience, and suggests that it’s how readers perceive experimental work, rather than anything inherent in what the work does, that creates a resistance to sampling it.