We are most definitely living through strange times. Or, perhaps, not if you look back across the centuries. Maybe it’s just our 21st-century, developed-world mode of living that has encouraged us to become more and more over-confident in the abilities of medical science and technology to overcome any ‘surprise’ new disease. Worryingly, according to the well-informed Bill Gates, it is unlikely that an effective vaccination will be widely available for at least 18 months.
And, only today all over the news (here in the UK) there have been discussions that it may well become commonplace when out and about in public to wear face masks in the same way that it is the accepted norm in countries like Japan.
At present, for most of us, following the lockdown rules and helping those we can in our immediate ‘socially distancing’ circle is the best we can do. And, of course, we can also thank those professional NHS staff, care home workers and all those employed turning up to perform essential roles. I don’t know if you have seen, but various artists have also shown their thanks by offering designs for those stuck at home to colour-in or adapt.
There was this design on the Arts page of the BBC website from Sir Michael Craig-Martin.
Then I saw that Damien Hirst had also produced a design. This too is available to download from his website.
But naturally I was always going to be doing my own version.
I have painted my thanks and I’ve hung it my bay window. I may not be a famous artist and this contribution may not be as big as some of the banners I’ve seen round Ipswich, but it’s certainly bright and cheerful .
Of course at the moment there’s not much vehicular traffic, but my road has become part of a popular route for joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers and people strolling through for their one hour of exercise in the sunshine. Quite a few of our local residents have tried to lift the somewhat gloomy air by filling their windows with rainbows and teddy bears (the bears are there for those on the Bear Hunt!) and somebody has even painted a full-colour, gloss paint rainbow across the road. Strange times indeed.
Sometimes you can’t help but wonder what a critic from a past age would make of our contemporary world. Although not the first to use the expression ‘Art for Art’s Sake’, I expect the Victorian writer, Walter Pater would be amazed at out current convoluted interpretations of ‘Art’. In his book, ‘The Renaissance’, published in 1873, he wrestles with the contemplation and definitions of beauty in a broader discussion of aesthetics. His book is partly a response to the 19th-century changes in manufacturing which brought about factory-based mass production. In his Chapter “Luca Della Robbia”, Pater discusses Italian Renaissance sculptors and their reinterpretation of the work of the Ancient Greeks. Pater draws our attention to the difference between the Ancient Greeks and the Renaissance Italians and gives us his Victorian’s view on the importance of individualism and personal expression through this extract about Michelangelo:
To him [Michelangelo], lover and student of Greek sculpture as he was, work which did not bring what was inward to the surface, which was not concerned with individual expression, with individual character and feeling, the special history of the special soul, was not worth doing at all.
Victorian Pater was looking for an artist to bring something of their inner self to their work. I think we would agree that Damien Hirst understands the value of confidently expressing himself. Although, it is hard to know whether it’s his inner self. He, as an individual almost becomes the brand, certainly his name is. However, I was still surprised to see these digitally printed silk scarves displayed in an art gallery window. They are branded Damien Hirst for Alexander McQueen. I don’t know about Art for Art’s Sake, perhaps Brand for Brand’s Sake. Fashion Houses have long traded on the designer being the brand, but I thought these limited editions scarves interesting blurred the lines between art and fashion.
In his second Reith lecture, called ‘Beating the Bounds’, Grayson Perry takes us on a whistle-stop tour round the parish bounds of contemporary art. This half hour talk delivered in his provocative yet playful style discusses the question – can anything be called art? It is available to listen to at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03dsk4d.
Grayson Perry explains that through the course of the twentieth century the boundaries of art have expanded rapidly from the time of Duchamp (‘Fountain’ 1917, a found, mass produced urinal) to include pretty much anything. A shark in a tank – if I say so. A sleeping Tilda Swinton in a glass box – if I say so. Well, it is art if Damien Hirst and Cornelia Parker say it is. But, Grayson Perry, himself a conceptual artist, suggests that everything is not art and there are boundaries even if they are porous, ill-defined and flexible. In his entertaining lecture he lists a number of markers to consider. For example, who created the work, where is the work situated both in the physical world and the art historical context, why was the work created and what is the audience engagement and response.
As with his first lecture he embellishes his points with significant and contemporary examples which are fascinating and often amusing. He wants to make contemporary art more accessible and less intimidating to the non-specialist audiences. A more personal insight into Grayson Perry’s own approach to the process of creation was glimpsed during the brief Q&A at the end of the lecture. A member of the audience enquired about the nature of creativity quoting Picasso saying, “All children are artists, the problem is keeping them artists”. Grayson replied that there were good child artists and bad child artists and credited children with relaxed, spontaneous and free expression, but nevertheless it is creative expression without self-awareness. He suggested that to make art the maker cannot be an innocent. However, the very state of being self-conscious brings pressure. He mused, “I can tell you from personal experience, that, the more successful you become the more pressure there is of self-consciousness, and how I would love to be that little child with a box of Lego bricks again.” He suggests that to be a contemporary artist the artist needs to be aware of art’s history, that art works have both aesthetic and financial value in the art world and that these works have audiences. Furthermore once set free from the artist, audiences will ultimately engage with and respond to these creations subjectively. Of his own response to art Grayson said he is old fashioned and that what is important for him is he can go and see and touch ‘the real thing’.
Below I have selected three images. Each is an example of a ‘type’ mentioned by Grayson. Just glance at these three images out of context and decide which one you think is art. Then click on each for more information, but still be subjective – draw your own conclusion!
Painted wooden mask – Indigenous peoples c.2000 Art or not?
Winnard 1995 Pastel on paper (Marks by two year old child)
Sorry, not really a fair question as they should all be excellent versions of their type and they are not. But speaking subjectively (and that is very subjectively) I think two of the three examples are very nearly the best of their type!