Tag Archives: Richard Dawkins

Person of Interest – Desmond Morris

This is the first entry for a monthly series about artists, writers and thinkers who have had an impact on me at some time in my life.


This starts with the cover of Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene (1976) because of the cover the book stood out amongst the rest of the books on my father’s bookshelf. I was eleven years old; I liked the colours and the biomorphic creatures. The cover is a reproduction of a painting by Desmond Morris “The Expectant Valley”, 1972.

The painting is a of colourful biomorphic creatures on a strange verdant landscape. The largest of these creatures has a large red body and with a purple head of four soft antlers and a black curl; as a child I identified this as the central character of the narrative. It is like the paintings of Miro; Morris exhibited with Miro in 1950 at the London Gallery in an exhibition organized by the Belgian Surrealist Edouard Mesens.

Biomorphs were invented by Jean Arp in 1915 or 1916 and are influenced by the microscopic animal and plant world. William Rubins observed that biomorphs are “the nearest thing to a common form-language of the painter-poets of the Surrealist generations.” (Rubins, Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage, p.42)

I really liked the cover of The Selfish Gene and as a child expected that the book would contain a story about these biomorphic creatures on the cover. I was disappointed to find that there were no more images inside the book. In a way Morris’s biomorphic creatures are the perfect illustration for The Selfish Gene and Morris has painted a picture based on Dawkins’ book The Blind Watchmaker, 1986.

Richard Dawkins owns “The Expectant Valley” and another painting by Morris, “The Titillator”. David Attenborough also owns a couple of Morris’s paintings – none of Morris’s paintings are in public collections.

Surrealism was slow to catch on in Anglophone countries and the British Surrealists have largely been ignored in even histories of Surrealism. Desmond Morris was part of the Birmingham Surrealists along with Conroy Maddox, Oscar Mellor, Emmy Bridgwater, John Melville and William Gear. The interest in Surrealism by eminent British scientists (Morris, Dawkins and Attenborough) continues to renew my interest in the art and philosophy of Surrealism. Surrealism was profoundly influenced by the sciences (physics and biology) in more ways than any of the other modern art movements.

Desmond Morris never really decided between a career as an artist, as a scientist, a science writer or a television presenter. Morris even managed to combine his interests studying and exhibiting “picture-making behaviour of the great apes”. This diversity of activities makes Morris an interesting person – his new publication The Evolution of Art will include image-recognition technology that will allow readers to see animations and other extra content.

Morris’s painting “The Expectant Valley” was one my earliest taste of Surrealism; I will following up my interest in Surrealism in other posts about persons of interest. Following up on my interest in his painting I read Desmond Morris’s books, The Secret Surrealist (Phaidon, Oxford, 1987), The Naked Ape (1967) and Peoplewatching (1978) and this is why I am recommending Desmond Morris as a person of interest.


Logo Jammers

The “Space Invaders” exhibition brought “adbusting”/ culture jamming back to my attention. I liked Marcsta and Merda’s “Disobey” sticker, which I saw exhibited at “Space Invaders”, as I’m tired of Shepard Fairey’s “Obey” logo being regarded as an example of quality street art. What “Space Invaders” defined “adbusters” is a culture jamming subversive alteration of corporate logos. (Adbusters Media Foundation is a Canadian not-for-profit organization.) There is a good summary of culture jamming and more links to articles about culture jamming from the Center for Communication and Civic Engagement (University of Washington).

Stickers and culture jamming at "Space Invaders" exhibition.

I hadn’t really though about culture jamming recently because I was so close to it. I used to listen to a lot of Negativeland and read about culture jamming organization like the K Foundation, Church of the SubGenius and the Emergency Broadcast Network. Before that I was reading Wm. Burroughs “The Invisible Generation” and other pieces of his writing best summed up in his line: “language is a virus from outer space”. And tracing the history of the “meme” idea of Richard Dawkins (I yearned to read his book, The Selfish Gene for as a child seeing it on my father’s bookshelf with its attractive cover of biomorphic surrealist painting by Desmond Morris); tracing it back to philosophical “spooks” of Max Stirner. Along with regular updates from the local Melbourne news about the culture jamming activities of BugaUp and other group’s billboard vandalism for political objectives.

But by the late 90s there were so many t-shirts with subversive alteration of corporate logos that I began to tire of the tactic. It all seems like a lot of graphic designers were just having fun with parodies to sell products with a cool vibe. It wasn’t anti-consumerist just another product range. There is still a lot of culture jamming stuff around, although, some of it like the Everfresh crew use a subverted version of the Cellarmaster logo is just parody (I’m not sure what the connection is apart from the guys from Everfresh drinking habits). But the lack of serious political intent makes many of these works simply parody and homage rather than culture jamming.

The politics of culture jamming is more difficult and subtle than mainstream politics; both sides are using the same basic psycho-technology propaganda repertoire. Many companies don’t mind the satire, many politicians collect political cartoons of themselves, if culture jamming was effective it might be worth pursing but the results of decades are not promising. Most people can take a joke, only despots who can’t stand satire. Maybe it is time for a return to the politics of the blunt aphoristic quality of the graffiti slogan.

Mac pills

"men never commit evil so fully and joyfully..."


%d bloggers like this: