We are living in unprecedented times, as people keep saying. We are in a state of constant emergency. We rush towards ecological collapse while worrying about ‘rebuilding the economy’ once the pandemic has brought our system to its knees. A renewed anger in the face of institutional racism fills the streets, overriding any instructions to ‘stay home’. Our politicians seem to be handpicked to do a bad job on the most urgent issues, while they pursue absurd self-inflicted quests for border walls and Brexit.
The sense of obligation to ‘do something’ felt by many of us is expressed mainly in signing petitions and sharing things on social media. We try to be diligent recyclers, eat less meat and use public transport when we can, donate to good causes – all those individual actions which feel so ineffectual when what is needed is system change.
Some braver and more committed souls dedicate themselves to serious activism – they march for change and camp out in trees to hold back the bulldozers. They give up their life plans in hope or despair for a better future.
How can I then sit in my ‘studio’ painting still lifes and wishing for the pandemic to end so that I can get someone to sit for a portrait again? Surely all art should somehow be addressed to these emergencies? Though I am inclined to think polemical art, art with a ‘message’, is usually bad art, does that matter? How can some idea of the self-sufficiency of ‘Art’ (ars gratia artis) outweigh the urgency of the climate crisis, the vast injustices of racism and colonialism? Check your privilege, indeed!
No answer I’m afraid, just a confession that, in spite of everything, I am still sitting here looking at stuff, putting more paint on (reused) surfaces. Feel free to attribute meaning if you like.
Apparently our (UK) government resisted instigating lockdown because they thought, if it started too early, people would get fed up with it and break the rules, so it was important to do it ‘at the right time’. They seem to have been wrong about the willingness of the public to follow the guidelines, so far. It looks more like the government itself is getting fed up and easing the lockdown sooner than many members of the public, teachers, trade unions, scientists, other national governments, etc. would like. Clearly certain government advisors lost patience with the lockdown rules very early – maybe they mistook their own lack of resilience/altruism as a general trait.
I wonder whether, in spite of the financial and social burdens of lockdown, the general acquiescence involves an element of relief from the burdens of perpetual choice, perpetual activity imposed by ‘business-as-usual’ in consumer societies. As has been pointed out by one of XR’s facebook memes, the economic slowdown results from us only shopping for essentials, only travelling because we have to. Maybe (for those of us who were affluent enough not to live that way before), this decluttering of our time and to-do lists is not so bad. Let’s not forget the value of stillness when the rat-race restarts.
Another little incongruity showed up in the polling about Dominic Cummings’ travels. In answer to the question about whether people in general would be more likely to break the rules because of this story, the majority said yes, but in answer to the question would you be more likely to break the rules, the majority said no. Interesting how we tend to assume we will behave differently/better than average/others. I hope we all live up to our own self-images and carry on being altruistic, in spite of the high profile examples we are set.
(Notes for a zoom discussion with a small group of local artists)
Originality in art – what is it? Does it matter? Who exemplifies it?
Relevant words/concepts: ‘derivative’ (a bad thing), ‘in the school of’ (neutral), ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’.
What is originality?
doing something that hasn’t been done before – in subject matter, or method or medium
breaking the accepted rules of a practice or medium
using a new medium
doing something that is new for the maker? that is, does it matter whether the work is similar to something already existing if the artist was not aware of that thing? This goes back to the first bullet above – ‘something that hasn’t been done before’ by whom? The individual, the local culture, humanity as a whole?
Does it matter? If so, why? Is it more important/’better’ to do a new thing than to do an old thing well? If originality matters in art, why is reproducing reality, and particularly photorealism, so popular? How does the concept of originality relate to that of creativity?
Is originality prized by the art market because it implies rarity and hence financial value?
I came across this artist years ago when I googled ‘tree drawing’, looking for drawings of trees. His work (including drawings by trees) stuck in my head ever since, and luckily google found him again.
his work uses natural phenomena (including people) to translate movement in through space/time into images – traces, time lapse photographs – very different results/methods but unified by a single intelligence.
distinctiveness and individuality are important …. Perhaps those attributes, however, are a bit like destinations in Alice Through the Looking Glass: you get where you want to go more quickly by setting off in another direction.
If art is to be life-changing, it must break the rules, even if we find that unsettling…
True originality in art can never be overrated….we should all engage with even the most unsettling experiences that originality in art provides. Nothing is more depressing than the attitude of viewers who approach innovative work with all their prejudices rigidly intact, refusing to accept that art has a fundamental right to defy even our most hallowed preconceptions. If the importance of originality is not recognised, academicism becomes rampant, repetitive dullness prevails and artists lose their crucial ability to renew our vision of the world with outstanding, revelatory verve.
Which led me to this reaction:
Gayford and Cork seem to be talking past each other. Gayford approaches it from the artist’s perspective while Cork is talking more about reception – and that may explain why they answer the question differently. It doesn’t make sense for an artist to ‘try and be original’ as their main goal (because it’s too abstract and it implies you have to learn about the whole of art history first in order to know whether you are being original). But a viewer may be looking for the new, or the original, when they go to the gallery.
Cork finds it necessary to point out that originality is not the preserve of the young and gives several examples of artists whose late work was ground-breaking. I’d think that ‘true originality’ (though that’s a loaded phrase – what would ‘false originality’ look like?) is likely to arise after someone has developed their skills and applied their mind to an artform and then chosen to pursue their own path, whether that means breaking with or continuing a tradition.
If we think of other art forms such as music, I suspect that rule-breaking is not necessary for a work to be ‘life-changing’. Cork’s view seems to imply that originality cannot be a feature of any individual work that is part of a tradition, which again ties the concept to an art historical context, and suggests that you can’t have originality without a tradition whose rules can be broken, and only an informed audience can recognise. And surely what is ‘life-changing’ or ‘revelatory’ will depend on the viewer as much as on the innovativeness of the work. Part of what was life-changing for Picasso seems to have been exposure to art from the traditions of other cultures. It was new to him and this fed into his own (from a European point of view) revolutionary art.
When I was at art school, one of our tutors (whose remit was the more abstract/conceptual end of the course, as opposed to figurative drawing and modelling) used to irritate us students by saying, when we had explained our idea for an assignment, ‘have you seen the work of so-and-so?’, thereby pointing out that something like what we had thought of doing had already been done. At the time this seemed distinctly unhelpful. I don’t want the wind taken out of my sails by seeing someone else’s similar approach. But these days, having been inspired by Lucian Freud in trying to paint, if anyone said, your work is a bit like Freud, I’d be extremely pleased! What’s wrong with attempting to following a master?
And because words are boring without pictures here’s something I did recently which I haven’t done before. The wasp found its way into my bedroom, buzzing loudly and then died. So I drew it, and then made a linocut.
I’ve been a bit quiet on here lately – events in the world make it hard to focus or to hear one’s own thoughts over the cacophony of social media and the deluge of tragic statistics. I hope you are ok wherever you find yourself in these disorienting times.
Here’s a post I put on Facebook the other day (with inspiration from George Monbiot):
Lessons from the current crisis: 1. the ‘defence of the realm’ from real threats (pandemics, climate emergency, ecosystem collapse) depends on health care and resilient social support systems, not on military hardware, on community, not rivalry. 2. An economic system based on endless growth in consumption and in debt, on running as fast as we can to get to next month, on just-in-time supply chains stretching round the world, cannot cope with simply stopping all inessential activity. The inessential has become essential, to keep the income streams flowing. When the crisis is over we need a restructuring of social priorities so that real needs are addressed, real dangers planned for and money flows are driven by reality not the other way round.
Between proofreads and Coronavirus updates, I have been working on a large (100x120cm) painting to keep myself occupied/distracted (art therapy?). I had bought the canvas with the intention of making a larger portrait of my latest sitter (see below), but obviously that is not possible at the moment. Instead, I have ‘recycled’ the mirror boxes from last year, combined with that rope, another recurring subject. This is not symbolic of anything more than the absence of a sitter, but hopefully creates an interesting composition (in the back of my mind is the image in Fellowship of the Ring of Goldberry seated among bowls of waterlilies in Tom Bombadil’s house).
It’s been nearly two months since the exhibition at the Old Fire Station happened and after a few weeks catching up with normality (if there is such a thing) and a short trip to London to see friends and family and some art (Gormley and Freud at the RA and Kollwitz at the British Museum – all fantastic), I am now looking to take the work to other venues and to develop/add to it. If anyone has any suggestions of possible places, please let me know.
Looking at the Freud self-portraits hung in chronological order, it struck me that his style and medium aged like skin or the bark of a tree. The very early drawings and paintings sharply drawn and smooth, almost translucent glazes of paint; the later portraits, as we all know, made with coarser brushes and meatier paint, show the direction of every stroke of the hogshair. And then in the work from his last years, the curdled paint so piled up and lumpy, the surface becomes gnarled and warty, deformed, arthritic, only resolving into a vivid figure at a distance – the distance necessary for aging eyes?
Enough. Time to send off some enquiries – and get back to painting …
The exhibition at the Old Fire Station in Carlisle came down on Monday 30 September. People’s responses were encouraging, so I am planning to look for other venues where it might be shown. Suggestions welcome.
Here is some of the associated reading matter, with minor additions.
Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It’s getting hard to be someone but it all works out
It doesn’t matter much to me
‘Strawberry Fields’, John Lennon
She needed to contemplate with eyes closed the full richness of what she had lost, what she had given away, and to anticipate the new regime.
Atonement, Ian McEwan
According to Hesiod, when Prometheus stole fire from heaven, Zeus, the king of the gods, took vengeance by presenting Pandora to Prometheus’ brother Epimetheus. Pandora opened a jar left in his care, containing sickness, death and many other unspecified evils which were then released into the world. Though she hastened to close the container, only one thing was left behind – usually translated as Hope, though it could also have the pessimistic meaning of ‘deceptive expectation’.
‘I wish I hadn’t cried so much!’ said Alice, as she swam about, trying to find her way out. ‘I shall be punished for it now, I suppose, by being drowned in my own tears! That will be a queer thing, to be sure! However, everything is queer to-day.’
Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
‘Flotilla/ivory towers’ – belatedly I noticed the links to childhood memories of the Moomins (and even more belatedly to the Hattifatteners in their little boats):
Comet in Moominland, Tove Jansson
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
‘Ozymandias’, PB Shelley
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –