Thursday, 23 September 2021

Hope heals the hardest blows

I think I have finally learned something. 

At some point we are all likely to suffer a loss in life. Whether that’s a loss of someone close, a loss of our faculties (significant hearing loss in my case) or a loss of security (job, partnership or home for example). And if, in the past, we knew of someone who has suffered recent loss then we may have empathised with them, offering our sympathies and soon after perhaps to carry on with our own stuff as normal. Life goes on, as they say.

But maybe that was in the old days. Life no longer just goes on as normal because this pandemic has put very single one of us on the planet in exactly the same position of existential threat and loss. My loss is your loss and your loss is mine. Ultimately, no one is safe until we are all safe.

So what do I think I have learned? It’s taken me most of a lifetime to finally get this and realising the absolute necessity of putting it into practice. It’s simple. We all need to look out for each other. Each and every one of us because we are all in this together. 

For me it comes back to those two key words I have often mentioned that I try to let govern my attitudes and actions in life. “Coexistence” is one of them, but these days we especially need to be proactive in our “compassion”. 

About the new work….

“Our Better Angels” (above) is definitely touching on this topic of compassion. The Angel (this one I composed from nine different cemetery sculptures) is willing to get burned attempting to restore or rescue a situation. Likewise the doves over the burning book made me think of a burnt offering, something of ourselves to be sacrificed for the well-being of others. “There is hope - there is a future” reads the stencilled statement on the back wall.

On the subject of hope, the title for “Hope Heals the Hardest Blows” (above) is taken and altered from a line by a songwriter friend of mine. I replaced the original word deals with heals. And while I can totally relate to the original line through my own life experiences, I do believe that hope for a better future can heal the present. That allows for us to survive the future when it comes, whatever it holds. Hope might not make stuff in the present easier but it does make said stuff possible.


Friday, 21 May 2021

Where there is hope there is a future

© Stuart Duffin. Copying is stealing
When I was a kid, the future, we were told would be known as “the atomic age”. How wrong did that turned out! No one could have foreseen the silicon (and therefore digital) revolution which has altered the course of our contemporary civilisation. Writer and inventor Arthur C. Clarke came close in the 1960’s though when he said “in the future we will be able to communicate instantly with anyone, anywhere in the world, without even knowing where that person is”. 

That future is now and has become “the age of information”.

It has also become the age of socio-political misinformation. This is inextricably linked with the rise of Individualism across much of the civilised world. It is now the individuals right, not only to believe what they want but to condemn the beliefs of everyone else as false. Of course, not everyone does it. But even though it has been happening for millennia, what is different is that it can be now be done globally with such ease (as Arthur C. Clarke predicted) and that the boundaries between verifiable fact and subjective opinion are becoming blurred. 

Take for example the rocket attack on the Eiffel Tower several years ago. The “report” that it was under attack showed a video of the tower at night belching smoke and illuminated by huge explosions of light. It went viral and was reposted globally. It was in fact proven to be old footage of national celebratory fireworks display. No such terrorist attack on the tower ever took place.

Why do we believe such claims without checking them out thoroughly? Answer, because we want to believe them. On the surface, such “reports" are often only halfway credible. Wanting to believe does the rest. In an uncertain world, human nature has shown that it is ready and willing to believe in simple and often irrational explanations for complex and often frightening circumstances.

It seems to ring true that what matters is not that you tell the truth, what matter is that they believe you.

Furthermore, the rise of individualism has has the potential to corrode the capability, or even the desire to act with empathy towards others for the common good. In this era of individualism, it could become no longer desirable to give up something of self to a greater cause when the greater cause IS self.  

Is there hope of any sort? Yes! Despite how the news and media may portray it, statistically we are living in a less physically violent world.* A more positive consequence of Individualism has given us a code of human rights; recognising that each person is unique and valued. Many religions also promote this. Are we are seeing a move towards a less psychologically violent world too? The ever expanding recognition of alternate lifestyles and orientations seems to suggest we could be.

It is not inevitable though. It is something we need to continually work on. It has been conclusively demonstrated that empathy and coexistence with others can be learned through social inclusion and education. As I have said before, building walls is the easy answer, building bridges, though difficult and demanding is the smart one.

A bit about the new works……….

I have definitely touched on this in most of the new works by trying to take an empathetic approach with “The Word on the Street Is…” (top image) and “Crisis= Danger+Opportunity” (below) where the writing on the back wall states, where there is hope there is a future. See all of the new work on my website.

*Steven Pinker claims in Enlightenment Now that we live in a less violent society. While statistically that may be true of homicide or physical attack, it doesn’t take into account the psychological trauma and abuse caused by social media mis- and dis-information along with cybercrime and online bullying. Comparing the nature of today’s violence with that of the prehistoric or medieval worlds is incomplete.

Friday, 5 February 2021

The aim of argument is not victory, but progress (aka, how to disagree better)

© Stuart Duffin 2021
Have you ever thought that no one really wins an argument? Often it seems there are only those that lose it more and those who lose it less.

So, is it only me, or is it still hard to find carefully reasoned argument or discussion on much of the social media outlets? While it’s good thing that such outlets have empowered people, many now see the alternative media universe on social media as representing them more than the established newsrooms that have long ago gained a respected creditability.

The reason for this seems to be the filter bubbles that personalised (news) feeds create for us, forming places that serve to confirm our already preconceived worldview. There is a higher chance of misinformation or misleading “reports” spreading more quickly. I’ve blogged about this before.

The rise in believing that “alternative facts” (as former President Trump councelor Kellyanne Conway called them) actually exist without comprehensive proof, can make it harder for two sides to engage.  Alternative opinions exist of course but a proven verifiable fact isn’t altered just because I don’t believe it.

So here’s an old fashioned term I was reminded of recently. It’s called “critical thinking”. And we can use it to disagree better because disagreeing isn’t so much the problem, it’s how we do it! We can actually agree to disagree. That means we don’t have to aim at “winning” an argument.

First tip I read, and in my online experience it's a vitally important one. Cut the insults and dial down the rhetoric. No-one has ever been insulted into agreement.

Secondly, listen to what the other side is actually saying. Empathy is about taking in what the other person says, even if we disagree. They too have a right to express their opinion.

Third tip. Look for points of conflict then listen with compassion (not passion but compassion, don’t mix them up) and that means showing a willingness to put the other person on a par with ourselves.

With a bit of critical thinking we can at least identify the difference between fact and opinion. An opinion after all is a consideration or perspective to be weighed up against available evidence and not a weapon to be used on our opponents.

Lastly, and this tip is aimed very personally at myself. Do the above!

A bit about the new (kinda topical!) artworks...

"Abolition +/- Escalation" (above image) is my response to the developing legacy of the last US administration led by Donald Trump and culminating in the shocking invasion of the Capitol building and it’s consequences. The central image of the globe with its nails, looking very virus-like, is indicative of a denial of responsibility, a denial of reality and the results of such. The three lower panels contain (left) an image of the DNA double helix, (centre) armed crowds outside the US Capitol and (right) an illustration I made using matches of the effects of social distancing during the pandemic, like a fire break. 

"The Golden Age of Malfunction" (above image) is a further comment on what I was just writing about. The central circular image represents the division between old knowledge (the left-hand side) and the new reality of the current or post pandemic world (the right-hand side). At one extremity is a hand with a dove and holding an olive branch while the other hand at the other side is holding an incendiary weapon. Hope in an increasingly polarised world.

"Good Guy/Bad Guy *delete as appropriate" (above image). It's back in the news here in the UK although it never really went away. So here's the updated and finished version of this work. The big debate is wether to get rid of Colonialist statues, street names and the likes, or retain them for use in further understanding the issues involved. Either way we absolutely need to have a way of educating ourselves and our children in facing up to our responsibilities and making sure they don't just repeat our mistakes. Those who forget history are bound to live through it again.  History is not there for us to enjoy the nice bits and deny the nasty stuff. It's there for us to learn from and to better ourselves.

Tuesday, 28 July 2020

Still as Statues (or good guy? bad guy?)

We are lucky here in the British Isles. 

We take so much for granted. We have been born in a wealthy country.

But as comedian Frankie Boyle succinctly pointed out, we have not been born in a wealthy country, we have been born in a getaway car and the victims have been chasing us ever since.

Our conscience is finally catching up with the consequences of our colonialist history.

In facing up to it and trying to make amends, we will have to make decisions about retaining or removing our colonialist statues and street names among other things.

Some of us may not be too happy if a decision goes against what we had hoped for. Therefore we need to be prepared to work together to continue educating both ourselves and our children about racism regardless.

If we remove the statues for example, what would be the best way to prevent our children and our youth from forgetting our history and just repeating the same old mistakes later in life like we did?

If we retain them, can we erect statues of our black and ethnic leaders and activists right alongside those of Colston, Dundas, Robert E. Lee, Rhodes and the likes? Would this counteract the racist attitudes that many of those problematic historic statues represent; one root of the problem being glorification of that history, not recognition/denial of it?

Remember. This is our history and we forget it at our peril.

What I have seen in the Middle East is that it’s often within the younger generation that fundamentalism and racism on both sides is resurfacing. A friend of mine who has been living and working in Croatia since before the start of the 1990s Balkans war and the breakup of the former Yugoslavia has said much the same thing. It is among "those who are too young to remember what happened” that intolerance is taking hold.

I have a colleague whose teenage daughter had recently started an online petition to ensure racism awareness is taught in schools. She said that in all her high school years she had not one single lesson or lecture on racism. The UK media (BBC) reports that racism is still “alive and kicking” in our primary (junior) and secondary (high) schools.

“History is here for us to remember our faults and learn by them. We [historians] are not here to erase the nasty history and leave the good stuff to remember.” (Lenny Low, historian). It’s when we remember our history, no matter how painful it may be that we, and our children understand and learn from past mistakes.

The wheels are coming off our getaway car. Let’s make a good job of crashing it productively, with respect and understanding, a bit of dignity and with a smile.

New Work launched for Summer 2020.

Still as Statues - mixed media collage 37x30cm

Citizens of Peace - mixed media collage 36x30cm

Good Guy? Bad Guy? - digital composition 36x30cm


Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Business as NOT usual

How do artists and creators respond to something like (well...nothing like, really...) the Covid-19 pandemic? 

Many of us who are still managing to create under lockdown have responded in different ways to the life changing, even civilization changing Covid-19 event of the last few months. You may have seen Anthony Gormley's bleak clay figurines, Banksy's stencilled rats causing chaos in his bathroom ("my wife hates it when I works from home"), or David Hockney's sunny iPad drawings from his garden.

Some, like veteran indie musician Momus wrote an entire new album of songs about Covid-19 whilst suffering from the symptoms. Others like artist (and friend of mine from Jerusalem Print Workshop) Andi Arnovitz, finished a body of work called Epidemiology that was actually started last August. And I have just recently realised that the mezzotint I sent to the Royal Scottish Academy annual exhibition earlier this year has as part of the image, a bio-hazard symbol. Coincidence? Probably, but as someone said in Andi Arnovitz's case, "prophetic"?

Either way it does make me realise that what Momus said rings true. The pandemic "puts us all in the same state of existential anguish". Artiste, shopkeeper, delivery guy, health or emergency service worker, job seeker, politician, youngster, oldster or inbetween-ster, whoever. The virus SARS-CoV-2 respects no one.

Ultimately we are only as strong as our neighbour and in the face of so much disruption and suffering regardless of national or tribal boundaries, we could do well to also look out for our neighbours' well-being too.

I have noticed that in the communities where I live and work, many people are rising to the challenge. Whether that is just smiling at the person we see (from more than 2 metres away!) whilst out exercising, or being encouraged by friends and colleagues at Glasgow Print Studio who are volunteering their creative skills and facilities to make much needed PPE's on our laser cutter for front line health and emergency service workers.

Trying not to be too introspective, I wonder if my interest in science will be rekindled by all of this. Coincidentally, I was already thinking of it. As an artist it often takes me quite a while to distil experiences that influence my work. So, for me (and for you too), we'll just have to wait and see.

A bit about the new works including.............

"of Conflict and Resolution" 

"of Conflict and Resolution II"
Although these two versions of the same idea re-use some of my familiar images and themes, the line "peace starts with a smile" has perhaps once again become very poignant. The Covid 19 pandemic has shown the fragility of life, whether human or planetary, and that it can hang by a thread. 

The angel in the new work seems to be waiting for our collective response to the pandemic. We have the opportunity to review and renew our relationships with others and with the world in which we live. Ahead lies the post C-19 path of conflict, confrontation and business as usual.  But ahead also lies a path of resolution, of genuine progress, one that recognises that the world is not the same place it was and that business as usual may really not the smartest option after all.

Top image: detail from the mezzotint "Where Hope Still Burns"


Monday, 20 January 2020

Stop! Look! Listen!

I wonder if as a species, we human beings are losing our powers of observation along with our capability for information recall?

I ask this because recently a friend of mine had visited an interesting tourist spot and I asked him what he thought of it. "Here, I'll show you" he said, and whipped out his smart-phone. 

Me, being a smarty-pants said "I don't want you to show me, I want you to tell me what you though of it". For a minute or two all I got was a sort of blank look from him.

Perhaps we too have set up a photo opp in a second or two without really looking at the subject or content only to move on rapidly. In our instant and accessible world, that memory has been digitally recorded to be dealt with later.

Are we really happy enough with remembering the recorded version rather than living one grounded in observation and experience, interacting with the real-time event?

Although memory is highly personal, subjective and in fact very malleable (what we re-member may or may not have been what actually happened) I do think easy, personal digital storage of this sort has implications for the way in which we view the world around us. Our unwillingness, or growing inability to observe and appreciate events "in real-time" may wrongly colour our understanding of both the present and the past, whether that's our own memory of events or our perception of history and the lessons to be learned.

Furthermore, failing to realise that past cultures had, over millennia developed a significant capacity for profound powers of information recall and therefore memory, could lead us to judge their story telling traditions as mere folklore rather than dedicated transmission of important information; information which often had life or death consequences.

We judge other cultures outside of our experience to be somehow primitive and inferior to our own as viewed from our 21st century, first world perspective without understanding the circumstances around such traditions as story telling/information recall.

And here perhaps lies a very real and insidious danger. Relying on Internet algorithms for delivering information about the world around us increases the chances of our being fed through the filter bubble of selective news feeds and targeted influence, reinforcing what could already be our preconceived, misinformed or manipulated opinions. This will only serve to further diminish the breadth and depth of our understanding and appreciation of major political, moral or social issues that face us.

What can I do about this? Well, over the last few years I have been checking myself regarding my response to what I read and see on-line that might make me annoyed or angry. My first reaction now is to stop and ask the following simple, but effective question.

"Why is this making me angry or emotional?"

If I take my time over answering it, looking out for the subliminal use of suggestive words, terms and photographs, all to often the answer reveals that it is deliberately aimed at manipulating my emotions and anxieties on a subconscious level while potentially trying to bias my opinions. Knowing this, I am more prepared to take a step back, avoid the Internet equivalent of an instant road-rage response and do a little bit of rational thinking and research.

Try asking yourself the same question next time it happens to you. Take a few minutes to analyse the less obvious aspects of the content. You may well be surprised at how considerate your response is.

A few notes about the new work including .....

A Random Act of Hope - etching with mezzotint panel

In Memoriam - Homo Deus - computer graphic image

Hope in Shifting Shadows - mezzotint with etched panel

Some of what I have written above is definitely present in the new works. As always with my artworks that have the word hope in the title, in the one called "A Random Act of Hope" we read the words "The Reactionary's Palimpsest...contemporary trends for the waging of war on peace". It's a reference, on one hand to the (deliberate or otherwise) manipulation of our anxieties, fears and preconceptions through our own narrow-mindedness. On the other hand, the olive branch, the smile and the doves sitting on the logos War and Peace offer an alternative route to the well-being of our own humanity, individually and collectively.

In the digital triptych titled In Memoriam - Homo Deus, the center panel has text that proclaims "And Man said "Behold, let us make god in our own image, so that we can be sure that god hates all the same people we do"". Visually it has placed "self" at the very center of the work with all power leading to, and flowing from the self centered individual. But there is also the suggestion that doing so is ultimately self destructive as indicated in the left and right panels. Divided between them, they contain the phrase "In Memoriam, Homo Deus".

In the mezzotint, "Hope in Shifting Shadows", it is the raven that unexpectedly takes the initiative by offering the doves an olive branch. Yet this occurs in front of graffiti on the wall that states "It is forbidden to proceed beyond this point". The initiative therefore is rendered null and void. As  British street artist Banksy recently stencilled on the Palestine/Israel separation/security wall "PEACE on EARTH *terms and conditions apply" However negative this seems, there is always hope as the raven, who has cropped up in other works of mine just keeps trying.

"To wage war isn't [usually] a purpose, it's a [defensive, preconditioned and often unconscious] threat reflex. We should be trying to think our way out of this mess" 1.

See the full selection of six new works launched on my website at

1. From the novel "Salvation" by Peter F. Hamilton with  my own additions in parenthesis and italic emphasis 


Sunday, 11 August 2019

The Future is Now

"We must recognise the integrity of our opponents and include them in our embrace" 1.
It's easier said than done isn't it? Recognising the integrity of our opponents and including them in our embrace. 

And it's even more difficult when there are times it seems that those with whom we disagree are significantly lacking in integrity; moral, social, political, personal. That is when we must, without a moments hesitation fall back on the default setting, the fundamental human right of respecting the dignity of that person.

Respecting their dignity is something we must do regardless of who they are or whether we personally feel they deserve it or not. It is not up for negotiation. And if we find we can't recognise much integrity in them, we must still treat them with at least the basics of dignity and work to include them in our embrace.

This has never been more urgent. You will be aware as you read this, that right-wing parties across the globe are gaining credibility, influence and power by restricting their countries borders based on dubious ethnic/religious criteria, clamping down on human rights and controlling cultural activities that do not conform to, or promote their agenda. We have entered an era where an international network of politicians, lobbyists and figureheads who have formerly been viewed by the demographic at large as extremists, now feel comfortable enough to reveal their connections across the continents.

It's not only coming from the political right-wing. There are many people from a range of political persuasions, and none, who are just as angry and aggressive.

Do I recognise the integrity of any of the aforementioned people? Difficult. Can I respect their basic dignity even if I don't think they deserve it? I have to. Because if I don't, the alternative and it's consequences do not even bear thinking about. These, then, are the people that we must continually seek to engage with respect, and work hard to include them in our embrace.

 Saffiyah Khan confronting the English Defense League...with a smile. I don't own the copyright on this photograph. If there is an issue please get in touch and I,ll remove it.

A bit about the new artworks on-line including:

If Angels Cast Shadows..., mezzotint

Echoes in the Street, mezzotint and etching

Fish on a Plate, etching

There is certainly something of what I have just written above in the new artwork.

I read recently that political videos with aggressive titles are cropping up with increasing frequency both here in the UK and abroad. Although not exclusive to politics, they are an example of growing international trends for videos with confrontational titles. "The trend for videos where someone "schools", "beats", "takes apart" or even "destroys" their opponent appears to come from America's polarised political culture" 2.

Although punchy headlines have long been one of the most important skills in journalism, on the internet this seems to translate directly into on-line success. If it makes people angry they will be more likely to click, like, share and therefore spread it's message. With aggressive, negative and destructive videos "we are pushing people to hate, attack and humiliate each other. That's good for watch time but bad for society...we have a natural tendency to pay attention to fights and this only encourages video makers to emphasis confrontation over collaboration" 3. Of course, all of this masquerades as freedom of speech while failing to accept our responsibilities that come with such freedom.

Each of the new artworks is permeated (visually) with words like "coexist" "peace/war" and "shalom/salaam". One includes the line "in a lawful, moral society it is the responsibility of the rich to make sure the poor do not starve, it is the responsibility of the strong to make sure the weak are not preyed upon".

Instead of destroying our opponents, can we engage them with dignity whilst aiming to include them in our embrace? Peace after all starts with a smile.

1. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. BBC Newsnight interview. 
2. Joey D'Urso, BBC News website. 
3. Guillame Chaslot, former YouTube engineer, BBC News website.