Is it because we’re “modern” that we don’t value art?
When I say “we”, I don’t, of course, mean either you or me. I mean, more broadly, those that share the cultural malaise that’s become so commonplace around art. Art galleries might still have their visitors and many of us write, draw, paint, sculpt, edit, photograph, and all the rest. Yet society at large has an indifference to art that sometimes borders on hard-nose antagonism. Art is either a twee pastime fit for Sunday night shows on the BBC and/or something to be ridiculed. The artists that are most well known are those that are lampooned the greatest. Very few of us can name our favourite contemporary illustrator, painter or sculptor but most of us can, at least, say something about Tracy Emin and her bed.
There is, obviously, something in the British psyche which makes us uncomfortable around art and that in itself is no bad thing. We have a healthy cynicism of anything that takes itself too seriously and art can sometimes take itself so very seriously. There may be pseudo-intellectuals among scientists, economists, and engineers, but it’s the pseuds in the arts that do all the damage. They waste money in vast amounts and protect themselves with the rarely challenged defence: “oh, you simply don’t understand what I was trying to achieve”. They get away with this because too many of us – and I include those of us that do claim to value art – shrug our shoulders. Nobody wants to look a fool and we don’t dare attack something we’re only vaguely interested in.
The experience is, I hope, a familiar one. We can all point at art installations and public sculptures that attracted investment from the public purse and are devoid of even the basic requirement of art, which is to have some meaningful aesthetic. Yet we keep quiet because we fear that somebody will ultimately turn around and say “Of course, you would dislike it because you are boorish and uneducated! You don’t understand that this is postmodern bricolage mixing the formal langue of Francis Bacon with the free-spirited élan of late Barbara Hepworth.”
Is it? Oh, yes. I see it now…
Or, more truthfully, I have no idea what you’re talking about…
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That public money is wasted on bad art is not itself a problem with “art” as much as it’s a problem with the procurement process that leads to bad art. Towns across the UK are increasingly blighted by large plaster feet, concrete hands, and large bronze sculptures of elbows or worse. Too many decisions are left to council officials looking to leave their mark on the local landscape before they move on to bigger and better things. Nearest to me, here in the North West, we have the £1.8 million sculpture called The Dream which is a 66 foot tall dolomite head stuck on an old spoil tip. The head looks like somebody has played around with its aspect ratio so the whole thing is squashed horizontally. Not only is it hideous art, it is hideous art commissioned from a Spanish artist who has no connection to the area. The “head” says nothing about what it meant to grow up in a northern mining community, about how bad lungs and “white finger” were once as common as the low expectations of the youth. The head’s whiteness might shine under a Spanish sun but it does nothing under our normally quite leaden skies. It is, in short, an utter waste of £1.8 million. Meanwhile, just a few miles away, Warrington was described by the Royal Society of Arts in 2015 as “the worst town for culture in Britain”. To which I want to say: no wonder when £1.8 million is spent on a 66 foot tall dolomite head stuck on an old spoil tip.
Now, I’m a cartoonist and not an artist (though, admittedly, I do sometimes wonder if there’s much of a difference) so I have no horse in this race. Yet each and every time I look at The Dream, I realise it’s not The Dream itself that annoys me. It’s that The Dream is another stick that can be justifiably used to beat the idea of having a public fund for art.
Bad public art makes me understand why Donald Trump prefers his bombs to his ballet. I understand why it seems a good idea to partially fund his $54 billion rise in defence spending by ending the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I understand and sympathise with the broader argument, usually posed by fiscal conservatives, that we need to stop wasting taxpayer’s money on art.
And, in truth, those that spend public money on art projects do need to be challenged. It’s a challenge that they (and we, the public) should embrace. We need to rid ourselves of some of the ridiculous presumptions we’ve held for too long about art. Because art is important. It’s just modern perceptions of art that make it seem lazy, mystical, and devoid of intellectual credibility. We need to stop thinking that art is less important than science, engineering, or economics.
The Renaissance didn’t know such divisions. Students of “natural philosophy” saw no hard distinction. Leonardo da Vinci was a great artist because he was a great scientist. His understanding of nature informed his art. Art done properly provides us with an easy way to access difficult topics. It is not what it has become: a difficult way to say things that are so trivial that they are sometimes barely worth expressing. Damien Hirst wraps a skull with diamonds in order to say something like: mortality is fleeting but diamonds are forever. I defy you to find something so trivial to say about Michelangelo’s Pieta or Emily Dickinson’s Because I Could Not Stop For Death. Tracy Emin’s bed is meant to be about biographical honesty, about the detritus of a broken relationship. Compare it, if you dare, with John Donne’s poem The Broken Heart.
Art is not simply a form of emotional vomit. Wordsworth perpetuated this nasty and interminable cliché of the artistic spirit in his lamentable Prelude to the Lyrical Ballads, where writing poetry was described as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. It is a view of art that sadly continues to this day whenever artists claim to have “a gift” or argue that their art is somehow beyond meaning. We see it around us with every poseur spouting intellectually vacant banalities and the pseuds who claim to understand something but proceed to wrap it up in cod-philosophy stolen from some French school for the gullible and dim.
Art, as properly championed and understood, is almost always about structure. Even Jackson Pollock’s paintings play with our relationship with meaningful shapes. Picasso too tried to simplify in order to elucidate. Kristen Visbal’s recent sculpture of the Fearless Girl standing up to the Charging Bull of Wall Street is a stunning example of public art that works, making us explore our notions of scale, strength, and even value. Art allows us to explore the forms of our language (written, as well as musical and visual) and about how those forms give rise to our thoughts and ideas. Art offers us different ways of perceiving the world, which is why scientists are ultimately artists at heart. The artistic mind is crucial to so much that we do. It is the stuff of our invention and our ingenuity.
Sadly, so much of this has to be experienced in order to be really understood. It’s hard to convey to somebody who hasn’t experienced reading computer code how it can feel like great poetry. Those that understand Bach the best often claim he had a mathematical sensibility. Yet these are not trivial parallels. They are the very reasons why art is so important. Promoting this kind of thinking, especially among the young, is vital to our advancement as a culture.
It’s partly why America is currently enjoying a renaissance of sorts with what is called the “maker movement”. It’s underpinned by the rise of STEM which encourages children to learn about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths. It is a revolution that should be embraced by any country who believes that innovation and technology are the future. The child who learns how to program a Raspberry Pi today is a child who has the tools to be a force for good tomorrow; not only in technology, but in the broader world where science and art collide.
Culture advances at uncertain rates, at unpredictable times, and in ways that we cannot anticipate. When a young woman sat down in an Edinburgh cafe and started to scribble a story in a notebook, there was no way of knowing where that would lead. There was no way of knowing that those words would spawn one of the world’s biggest movie franchises, producing billions of pounds of revenue, employing thousands – if not tens of thousands – of people. You might not believe that Harry Potter is art but, of course, that is the problem. Our notions of art are wrong and have been wrong for a long time.
Donald Trump rightly wants to protect America but what exactly is it that he wants to protect? Surely it’s the culture whose value often resides in those very arts whose funding he would deny. He should recognise what we all should see. That art is manifest in life and to deny that is the quickest way for any culture to stop growing and for all of us to stop living.