Monthly Archives: April 2012

Where is the political art?

BBC’s Newsnight has gone someway tonight to answering the question posed in my last blog, where is today’s politically engaged art? Newsnight’s economics editor Paul Mason had a piece about art and the Occupy movement in New York. Much agitprop and avoiding the gallery system going on. The Newsnight programme will be on BBC’s iPlayer for the next seven day’s (I think) if you want to catch it.

I was also reminded shortly after that last posting of Jeremy Deller’s tour around the US with a car blown up in Baghdad.

So the political art is definitely out there! The next question, is it any good…

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all back to Versailles

Listening to the radio this morning, there was a report about a potential rebellion by shareholders of Barclay’s Bank over levels of executive pay. I read on twitter that rating agency Standard and Poor plan to downgrade Spain’s credit rating thus making the country’s borrowing costs considerably higher. The papers are still full of speculation about the likelihood of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s cabinet career coming to a juddering halt follow the revelations about his and his special advisor’s conduct over News Corps attempt to take over BSkyB. And the media is equally packed with reports, comment and analysis of Rupert Murdoch’s evidence to the Levison enquiry in to press standards. Earlier in the week on Newsnight there was debate about the consequences of a socialist president being elected in France, the fall of the Dutch coalition government because its members couldn’t agree over planned austerity measures and a German government minister telling us there is no alternative to austerity. Here in the UK we are now officially in a double dip recession – the first since the 1970’s apparently – and the Tory/Lib Dem coalition’s austerity measures aren’t even fully implemented yet.

How should the arts respond to this? In particular, how do the visual arts respond? A common thread to all everything listed above is that the ordinary man, woman and child is taking the pain whilst a political and economic elite is doling it out and telling us there is no alternative. I’m reminded of a recent history of Versaille on BBC4. What I hadn’t appreciated before was how remote from society the French aristocracy became, even absenting themselves from the inconvenience of paying taxes it seems. Consider reports about how little tax the very wealthiest are paying now, and that was before George Osborne gave them a 5% tax cut, whilst raising taxes on the elderly, and I don’t think its too far fetched to suggest we’re moving backwards to a condition similar to that of 17th Century France.

For French artists at the time Poussin and Classicism appear to have been the dominant influences. You can interpret that as giving visual testimony to what was surely the aristocratic view of a society that was correctly ordered and balanced, in their favour of course.  Poussin’s use of classical and mythological themes would have lent further credence to the notion that this was the natural order of things, as intended by God himself. Modernism of course freed the artist of the shackles of having to satisfy the visual fantasies of the ruling class or indeed the middle class – although these were the people who would end up buying modern art. From the 19th century the artist increasingly became the outsider, his role as Gide wrote ‘to be at odds with his times’. But whilst its easy enough to find contemporary artists making art that is at odds with its time by being obscure or deliberately baffling, I’m not sure where the art is that is trying to respond to or take on the political and economic narratives we are currently facing. Indeed if you consider Damien Hirst’s retrospective at the Tate, here is someone who is, arguably, fully part of that financial elite and who is making art for them, in their own image. I once read an interview with Michael Craig Martin, one of Hirst’s tutors at Goldsmiths, who suggested that Hirst was playing a complicated game with money. Maybe so but it doesn’t appear to be one that challenges the use of money or the operations of the market. What is a diamond encrusted platinum skull but a fetish for the wealthy?

Obviously its difficult to produce art that takes on political themes without producing something trite or sentimental. Examples of successful political art aren’t that numerous. Guernica of course, Grosz, Dix, Heartfield too. John Berger and Peter Fuller both proposed that making art, if you are serious about it, is a political act in itself and a challenge to the dominant visual culture of the age, advertising. And I suppose that’s where I stand at the moment. But I’m not sure that’s going to worry executives at Barclay Bank.

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avoiding sentimentality

I’ve been listening to Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny’s CD ‘Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose’. It’s very good. iTunes classifies it as alternative and their music is played a lot on Radio 6 music, so their songs clearly have a ‘credibility’ about them. Like a lot of popular music Houghton’s songs are about love or relationships (but then so is a lot opera, so best not get snotty about this) and there is, I think, a sentimental strain running through them. Somehow music gets away with sentimentality in a way that the visual arts or writing – if it wants to be considered serious – can’t.

I abhor sentimentality. I think it leads to lazy, clouded thinking and gives rise to prejudice and at worst violence. What are those cottages in the south of England that the Daily Mail occasionally gives away as prizes but sentimentality made concrete (or perhaps an attractive local limestone). It appeals to a certain conservative way of thinking that imagines a lost world when everybody was like us and if they weren’t at then at least they had the consideration to know their place.

I am therefore always on the alert to any sentimentality creeping into my work. I think I’m on safe ground with the relatively formalist sculptures I’ve been doing but with painting and printmaking I have to be more careful. Romanticism, expressionism and neo-romanticism are all art ‘isms’ that flirt with sentimentality and they are all ‘isms’ that have some degree of influence on my own work. One way to avoid it – a way not available to 19th century romantic painters – is to undermine traditional pictorial conventions; flatten the picture space, use heightened colour or simply the wrong colours, emphasize the formal elements of the picture. But you can still be critizised for creating a sentimental or self-pitying image as Robert Hughes, (in his TV programme ‘Shock of the New’) criticized Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s painting, Self Portrait with a Severed Hand’. Hughes complains that Kirchner never saw active service and certainly never lost his hand.

Andrew Graham Dixon reads the painting differently however and describes it as the ‘defiant, triumphant manifesto of a conscientious objector‘. So perhaps sentimentality in art is where you choose to find it and it would be appropriate I suppose that the test of something that appeals to the emotions is itself be utterly subjective. I’ll still be trying to avoid it however.

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LowDef film and video

Trying to satisfy my auteur film director fantasies I’ve submitted my escalator video I made last year for LowDef Film and Videos one minute video night in Brighton 26 April. It seems a great idea, I’m sure there will be a lot of nonsense on show – ahem – but its only for one minute.

I originally posted the video last November, here’s the offending article again

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R Crumb; hero of our times

This month’s Art Review includes an interview the Robert Crumb, comix book writer and artist (or is it illustrator?), social commentator, wit and psycho-sexual geographer – can’t you tell I’ve been reading artworld journals?

I like Crumb’s work a lot and I’m interested generally in that underground comix book scene – although I can’t often be bothered reading the stories, its the skill and visual imagination of the artists that I like. In the A.R. interview Crumb mentions artists who’s work he likes, Grosz, Dix and the surrealists and the anarchic vision of comix books is often very surrealist. Crumb notes that he’s becoming increasingly drawn in to the fine art world but that his work is still essentially for print and that his prices are way, way below someone like Cy Twombly’s even though Crumb can spend hours completing a drawing and Twombly may only have quickly scribbled over a canvas.

Prompted by reading the article I bought a copy of Crumb’s Art and Beauty vol1, which along with his fine drawings includes quotes from the great and the good that might just help navigate confusions of the artworld. 

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Art, just what is the point?

It’s Saturday afternoon and a trip around a couple of galleries in Newcastle. First stop was the University Gallery, Northumbria University, which has on show a selection of paintings from the Ruth Brochard Collection’s self-portrait competition.  On the eve of deadline for submissions I sent a painting in to the competition but it wasn’t accepted!!! Looking around the work on show, which included additional paintings by selected artists, I can sort of see why.

Some of the painters on view I didn’t know but quite a few were established names. Might there have been a bias in selection towards those more familiar art world names, such as Maggie Hambling, Celia Paul and Marcelle Hanselaar. I don’t know. Generally I liked the work (though actually I didn’t like Maggie Hambling’s paintings that much), you couldn’t argue with the inclusion of most of the paintings in the exhibition, whether on the grounds of the painters handling of their materials or draughtsmanship or imagination. And I don’t want to sound sour do I?

After the self-portraits it was off to Baltic 39, the Baltic’s new exhibition space on High Bridge. Actually its not all the Baltic, the city council has one floor of artist’s studios and Northumbria University are involved too. What’s on show at Baltic 39 is contemporary art, the sort of stuff you find written about in Art Monthly or what it seems you have to make if you want to be a member of Axis the artists network. I liked a couple of works on show, all by young artists (one floor was students work). It seemed miles away in character from the stuff up the road at the University Gallery.

Not that the newly acquired paintings of the Brochard Collection are slight or undemanding. On the contrary Celia Paul’s winning self-portrait, suggests to me deep and scary self-esteem issues, a lingering effect of her time with Lucian Freud perhaps. I don’t expect (but could be wrong) that the work in the Brochard exhibition will be the subject soon of an article in Art Monthly. I have though just done a search on Axisweb and some of the painters included in Brochard are Axis members. Maybe I’ve misrepresented Axis and misunderstood the recent review of its membership criteria which saw removed anyone whose work was merely ‘modern’ rather than ‘contemporary’.

What’s the difference? A definition I found, although I’m not sure if its one used by Axis, is based on historical time; modern being made roughly between 1870 and 1970, contemporary from 1945 to the present. This is a pretty broad definition however. It takes no account of materials or methods used or what the artist is responding to in making a work (nature or advertising or psychoanalysis). Without any aesthetic dimension surely any work of art produced today is contemporary. Axis cannily avoids providing its own definition but its membership criteria clearly asks for work that has a ‘critical framework [which] is contemporary rather than modern’.

To be honest, I get a bit baffled by all this, particularly when I look at some of the work of painters on Axisweb that in subject matter and execution could, on the face of it, have been painted at anytime during the 20th century. Perhaps something else is going on here. On another walk around Newcastle about a month ago I noticed posters advertising an exhibition of paintings (or prints of paintings) by Rolf Harris. The posters declared Rolf to be the UK’s most popular artist. You hear this sort of hyperbole a lot in the arts. I recently heard similar sounding claims made for Lucian Freud but Freud’s painting is quite different from Rolf’s attractive, loosely impressionistic work. And I imagine Axis would have welcomed a membership application from Freud whilst rejecting one from Rolf.

John Berger wrote that the serious artist is always pushing him or herself to discover something new through their work. Anything less than that is presumably just picture making. Now I think what Rolf does is make attractive, accessible pictures; they don’t challenge us to think about anything lofty like the human condition of or what it is to be human, which is arguably what Freud can make us do. And this could quite reasonably be why in my imagined scenario Axis reject Rolf but accept Lucien. But stop 100 people in the street and show them a typical Rolf and a typical Freud and ask them which they would rather hang on their wall I bet the majority would go for Rolf.

For me the question all this rambling speculation throws up is what’s the purpose of art and on what basis do we make judgements about it and the artists who make it? Is it the popularity of the artist; the amount people will pay for the work; the accessibility or the obscurity of what the artist is trying to say. I have no idea but I do have a concern that work which seeks to be difficult (or contemporary) as a way of proving its worth risks become removed from wider society and the preserve of a moneyed elite that itself stands aloof from the rest of us. And that can’t be good, can it?

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Woodcut

For the 1977 Hayward Annual Peter Blake exhibited five works in progress. His intention showing these unfinished paintings was to reveal something of the process of picture making and perhaps to demystify to degree the art of painting.
Blake’s contribution was panned by the critics but I’ve some sympathy with what he was trying to do. Therefore in an act of very belated support here are photos showing the progress of a woodcut I’ve made.
I’ve made a few lino cuts before but this is only the second time I’ve tried woodcut. The first attempt was a complete mess and this one isn’t enterly successful either but points a way forward for more prints. I quite like the tension of relief printing and the chance that at any moment you might irreversibly cut out a vital section of your print. Although maybe that’s more to do with my (lack of) technique.

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