A very long time ago in ancient Greece, the philosopher Plato explained that whereas a carpenter making a stool has direct, first-hand experience of the stool, someone looking at a painting of it is further removed from reality.
Which seems pretty obvious, really, except ….. in today’s art world, the reactions of the viewers of the piece of work, especially the installations, are integral to the whole experience of it, and that experience itself is the ‘reality’ the artist seeks to stimulate.
But this cannot be true of every image - all those millions taken every day on the camera-phones are valueless except to their owner. Your reaction to most of the pictures on my phone is unlikely to qualify as a lifetime experience, whereas my reaction to Wei-Wei’s infinity pool, along with those of the other people present at the same time, certainly contributed to each other’s memories of it.
This means that there must be dividing lines somewhere, or categories, to recognise that random snaps on our phones are different from huge pieces of installation art, and so somewhere on that spectrum there is point to one side of which the object is not memorable and has no intrinsic value to anyone other than its owner, and on the other, the object is inherently interesting, even to people who have no affinity with the subject matter.
Just as we can be uplifted by listening to a great piece of music entirely on our own, unaffected by anyone else, so we can with a piece of art, so the impact of the reality of the experience of that piece does not depend on being with others, the artwork, or music itself is capable to triggering a reaction, and my argument is that this can be as direct as Plato’s carpenter with his stool, because of the quality of the artwork.
As someone who derives great pleasure from the outdoors and who tries to create paintings which evoke for the viewer some of the sensations that I have experienced from being there, my challenge is to produce work that IS inherently interesting to neutral viewers - ie paintings which may be representations of a place but somehow present more than a mere postcard of that place.
I have enormous respect for fellow painters who work out in precise detail in advance how their painting is going to look. And their portrayal of the real scene is generally a lot more accurate in terms of photographic quality, than my sweeping work. The values of the two different styles are distinctly different. Some artists take it as a great compliment if a viewer comments ‘Its just like a photograph…’ I would be very hurt by such a comment as my objective is more evocative than representational.
That quest continues, but people’s reaction’s to paintings are direct reactions to the reality of those paintings rather than a third-hand reaction to the object portrayed.
Photography today is not
only ubiquitous (it is everywhere), there is also a vast quantity of very high
quality work around as what was once a pretty exclusive field for the few
dedicated professionals is now affordable, and the power of the internet means
that anyone who produces a good photo can share it for us all to see. As
millions of us now carry cameras all day every day, we are also more critical
of what makes a good picture.
So where does this leave the 21st century artist? Or more
specifcally, the 21st century painter?
There are some, of course,
whose brilliant talent is such that they can paint an ordinary everyday scene
with such accuracy and technical skill that their work stands out from the
photographic competition. Others adjust reality by going for their own naive
almost cartoon-ish style, or by setting reality to one side and capturing the
atmospheric or abstract.
Surrealism – the deliberate
distortion of reality not unlike our memories of dreams, was in vogue mainly in
the 1930 – 50’s. Some of it was simple fun, some delved more deeply into darker
symbolism and sought to be unsettling. Today much of that seems a bit
irrelevant. Maybe because we are that much more aware, unshockable.
– is there still a place for an artist to seek to cause you to pause and take
another look at something that is distinctly different from all those
photographs because the reality being presented is deliberately distorted? And maybe distorted in some way that is stimulating in itself?
Philosophers through all
ages have included art among the topics of their thinking, since pre-history
when the ancient Greeks were concerned about beauty and art. Since those times,
philosophy, religion and art have been intertwined.
Today few people (in the UK
at least) are even vaguely aware of any philosophy, and yet great thinkers of
the past gave long and thorough consideration of issues that are very relevant
Similarly, today we are living in an increasingly non-theist world, where
people are less concerned about an all-powerful spiritual entity. For over 100
years, artists and their art have moved a long way away from the previously
dominant theme of producing work for the glorification of a supreme being, but
does that leave art with no points of reference? If there is no meaning in art,
is it purely decorative? Just another kind of wallpaper?
The ancient Greeks believed there were many gods and consideration of art was
thought to be best approached from a duality of those – the intuitive or
sensory on the one hand and the rational on the other.
Church domination of the
world began to crumble in the 17th and 18th century after
Luther and Henry VIIIth had challenged papal infallibility and thinkers again
turned some attention to questions of ‘the sublime’. The ancient Greek notions
of the duality between sensory and rationality was – and is – carried forward.
A painting is likely to be
judged against both – the technical / rational (is the drawing effective? Do
the colours work well together? Is it well-presented? etc) and the more
elusive, ephemeral – Do I LIKE it? Does it appeal to my taste?
It seems to me that this is a two-legged stool. There are, in my view, tonnes
of paintings which meet those two criteria, well painted technically and
pleasant to look at, but …. Are they challenging at all? Do they ask any
questions of the viewer? Do they convey something more than ‘nice’?
I don’t often have anything positive
to say about installation art, but I can at least use it to argue that the
stool must have three legs:
Sensory and rationality (as
per the classic notions) plus the third leg – The Challenge.
A piece of art needs to stimulate the viewer somehow.
Through the 20th century
that stimulation came from challenging new styles of painting, but even in the
19th century, Ruskin commented that a landscape painting should be
Installation art, all too often, goes for ‘challenging’ at the expense of
beauty and technical excellence, but the best of it manages to cover all three
Having said all this, I know
that people buy art for their own often complex reasons. I was once excited at
the prospect of selling a large oil painting, until the customer turned and
said “No, it needs to match my carpet.”
So much for Philosophy!
But – do I want to produce