Category Archives: Arts

Frankenfolks can be artists too!

“Frankenfolks” can be artists too!”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 86, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

Are older people curiosities, especially the long-lived? Do we see them as ‘marvellous’ simply for their fact of survival. Perhaps instead, we trap others in the medico-social web of nursing homes, expensive end-of-life care, and dependency on others. Perhaps old people become ‘Frankenfolks’, as Margaret Morganroth Gullette wrote recently in her book on ageism.

Working as I do in the health arena, but a painter as such, her comments drew my attention. Figuring out what her comments mean entails coming to grips with something else she wrote: “Sometimes pop culture looks like nothing more than a giant machine for excreting ageism.”

Certainly less than a century ago, the average life expectancy was 40 years, death of children was expected; today neither is true, with life expectancy of a healthy person being at least to the mid 90s. Furthermore, most of us will not pass our final days in nursing or care homes. And despite doom-laden predictions of rising cancers and metabolic disorders, most people should expect healthy ageing and natural death. So much for the good news.

The departure of Cy Twombly is a timely opportunity to reflect on all his work, and how it evolved, and challenged us as he himself moved through the phases of his life. All long-lived artists evolve, some like Picasso were condemned in old age for what was seen as inferior work by people with short memories.

We all have life trajectories, and some are acutely aware of the process of personal evolution and seek to reinvent themselves over and over again. Others, whose lives may be more tied to the corporate business cycle may just stop when they hit a ‘retirement age’. Regardless of personal life experiences, ignoring the evolving talent potential of ‘older folk’ echoes ageism.

I’ve noted in other writing the dismal performance of the UK’s art schools. It is also worth noting that while an arts education is a wonderful thing in and of itself, few arts graduates actually make a career out of their studies. And this at the expense of art schools themselves becoming engines of creative expression for the whole of society regardless of age. Like pop culture, art schools also seem to be engines of ageism.

There may be a reason for this. For some, art history is broadly linear; this is a typical western approach, that present perceptions replace past perceptions, a sort of movement from/to. Other cultures see all history as living in the present, so art movements of the past also speak to the present: Sumi-e for example. Can abstract expressionism, described as dated by some, be relevant – no sooner had abstract expressionism burst upon the scene, pop artists were claiming it was obsolete. Really?

The point here is a simple one and betrays the superficial approach to creativity that abounds in the art world and that fosters ageism, namely, that new art replaces old art, and when an art ‘style’ has been replaced, it has no more to say to us. In that respect, we are always looking for the ‘shock of the new’, like Matisse’s gouaches découpés, themselves his response to ageing.

Is everything before transformed, as newness forces us to reassess everything that went before, and must we then consign it to the bins of the history of art?

What can Malevich, or the Futurists, say of relevance to ourselves in our 21st century angst when no sooner are we tweeted than we’ve moved on to the ‘next big thing’. And the next big thing is showing his or her work at some dodgy art school of middling quality at taxpayer’s expense, hoping to shock you with some edgy work of marginal interest (this sentence could go on and on….)

And so we never notice that we are drawn to the specious moment, in our search for that euphoria of artistic discovery, a type of addictive behaviour overwhelms, which always needs a fix. In this way the conditions for ageism in art are created. QED.

There’s an app for that

“There’s an app for that”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 79, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

The last roll of Kodachrome film was shot by photographer Steve McCurry, and developed in the last place, apparently on Earth that has the equipment, a drug store in Kansas. Kodachrome represented a way of seeing, it was not just film. No more Kodachrome skies, no more trying to figure out what the 1973 song “Kodachrome” by Paul Simon means. But with my smartphone, there’s an app for that.

My rather large CD collection has been reduced to a digital gas in a player the size of my thumb, while the CDs are in the garage; the LPs are long gone but I still have my Rega™ turntable, but ‘just in case’ will never come. With my smartphone, there’s an app for playing my whole collection.

I traded in my square format 6×6 analogue film camera, not even a battery, for a pile of digital kit so I can ‘fix’ them on the computer. A bloodless way to interact with the world. Why bother even take the picture in the first place, as I could probably just download some images, and I’m just a cut-and-paste away from what is probably the nearest thing to digital heaven. But there’s an app for that, too.

I have a 1930s leaky camera with almost no adjustments that takes really moody pictures, and seems to capture the scene at the moment far better than digital manipulation ever will — is that possible? Using film meant the image-taking moment mattered and required what the photographer Freeman Patterson calls ‘the art of seeing’.

We look, but don’t see. Where is the in-the-moment feeling of exuberance when creative juices flow and time stops?

For under a thousand pounds you can now buy a 3D printer, a sort of Star Trek replicator that can literally ‘print’ 3D plastic objects, such as a vase, jewellery or something more abstract. Lose something? Print another. It sits on the corner of your desk.

The question is whether something from an app, or a 3D thingee, will ever be art worthy of note. I feel I want to distinguish between the brute force of the technology as a marvel (gee, look what I did, serendipity wins again!), and something that might have actually passed through a human mind in some mystically moment of creativity. McLuhan spoke of hot and cool media and of the message and medium. When do the tools of creativity become more important than the results?

But all this shall pass. The invention of photography was seen as the end of art, and so far that has proved at least premature. Are you a serious painter if you use acrylics rather than oil on the mandatory linen canvas? Good artists have always embraced new technologies and attained mastery over them to achieve sometimes stunning and sometimes pretty dire results. But today, are artists experimenting and pushing boundaries or just mucking around?

Could painting become a screen capture moment, or could sculpture be done by robots controlled by the artist, in the way that surgeons can use robots to perform precise surgery (yes, Virginia, there is a robot for brain surgery).

So, here I write this article on my computer with some wizzy writing software, and my analogue mind. Despite the software suggesting how to end a particular word, I hope it will never, ever be able to begin a sentence for me. And the same for art.

But perhaps there’s an app for that, too.

The Vampire Art Schools

“The Vampire Art Schools”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 75, 2010. Reproduced with permission.

Someone said once (probably Adam Smith) that teachers should be paid after the lecture. Based on the recent National Student Survey, “academic artists” employed at some arts schools would be hard pressed to pay their rent.

Of the 154 institutions in Britain ranked on student assessment of lecturer performance (the quality of their teaching), the bottom three are arts schools:

  • 152: Glasgow School of Art

  • 153: University for the Creative Arts

  • 154: University of the Arts London.

These universities are like publicly funded vampires, sucking the taxpayers’ blood, at great expense yet failing to deliver in ways that students value.

The Glasgow School of Arts styles itself as “internationally recognised as one of Europe’s foremost university-level institutions for creative education and research” and a “creative hothouse” on its website. GSA received taxpayers funding of £7.5 million for teaching and £1.5 million for “research excellence”. Their website says: “the GSA was ranked as the second largest art and design research community in the UK, with 25% of our research considered to be world leading and a further 25% internationally recognised”. 1900 students are enrolled, and there are 400 staff.

The University for the Creative Arts is spread across the South East. This institution’s 2010/11 “recurrent grant” (a.k.a. taxpayers’ money) of about £24 million, with £1.5 million for “teaching enhancement and student success”. This institution is the merger of smaller institutions and enrols 6500 students. Their website cites teaching performance studies from 2005 as evidence of the quality of their education and lists alumni such as Emin.

The University for the Arts London’s website says: “The combination of a varied student group, cutting-edge research and highly-experienced staff creates a unique, multifaceted learning experience for students at the University.” This institution’s funding is almost £52 million, with £6.5 million for research. It got £3.5 million for “teaching enhancement”. The university enrols 20,000 students, and has 1228 teaching staff.

Blissfully, these three institutions didn’t get all that much research funding, sparing us more tiresome academic art. To be fair, though, useful art research does exist, but generally it is middling on the research rankings. And yes some of the academic staff may be very good at what they do in terms of being creative, having insight into art history, and generally conducting studies that inform our appreciation of visual culture.

An informal internet survey produced observations such as whether some of the academic staff would be likely to earn a living selling their art if they didn’t have these publicly funded jobs or that students and lecturers can have strong differences of opinion over the quality of their own art-making and may downgrade academics on that basis. This is a no-win situation with only victims on both sides.

Since the 1980s, Higher Education has reduced the choices on offer for learners, creating a large and dysfunctional university system, mixing excellent universities and some little better than a 2-year college. Learners get drawn into this big lie, thinking being a university is an imprimatur of excellence, but some of the best US institutions don’t even have university in their name: MIT and Rensselaer Polytechnic. The arts world has fallen for this lie. What these three art schools exemplify is how weak institutions free-ride on the university ethos; the effect is to attract second-tier academic talent and third-tier students. The problem is we don’t really know which is which although this survey is a clue.

We need to distinguish between art scholarship such as art history, from simply art-making and you don’t need to go to university to learn to do the latter; the whole arts curriculum is confused.

I would relegate the majority of art schools to college status, and strip them of degree granting power. Their mission would be to offer to the many learners (including the late blooming artists of which there are many) opportunities that the universities have abysmally failed to create. Students wanting art scholarship programmes would focus on that, and if they want studios, well, find space at home. As for graduate ‘art shows’, well, don’t get me started.

As Groucho Marx might have said, I wouldn’t want to attend an art school that would admit me. Perhaps we should think again how we want to nurture and develop creativity in our society. As far as I can see, the current system is broken.

On Learning to Steal

“On Learning to Steal”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 77, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

I was watching some students in a gallery the other day, planted in front of a variety of different paintings, with sketch books. They appeared to be copying the paintings.

What exactly is the point of this, I wondered?

I went back to my cork-lined room, and sat in front of my plagiartron, typed in some search terms and found a couple of articles on plagiarism, did a cut and paste and produced, yes, this article. Not really.

But in the real world, some students and some well-known authors do a kind of cut-and-paste on their writing all the time. But what about artists? Is arts a plagiarism-free zone? Can artists just copy willy-nilly? Is anything original any more?

Who said “Good artists copy, great artists steal”? Did I? Does it matter that I might say I did, even if I didn’t? If I said I had am I lying or just being economical with the truth. If you don’t catch me out, shame on you.

Of course the point is many artists don’t get caught.

Now back to the students beavering away in the gallery. What are they doing and how is it contributing to their artistic development? When we learn creative writing for instance, we aren’t given passages of Hemingway to copy, or handed a Shakespearean manuscript to copy out the text to mimic the handwriting, as though that had something to do with the words used. Art teachers say copying has something to do with learning about design, the way the paint is applied, mark-making, colour choices, etc. But if this is true, why are the students sketching with a pencil, and with the absence of any passion — a type of forensic duplication, devoid of any creative insight. So, again, what are the students learning to do?

I suggest they are learning to steal.

Some will never progress beyond mere derivative work, while others will become truly proficient. The painters whose work I want to see are the ones who are not in the gallery with their sketch books, but elsewhere using their brains. Copying is essentially a pointless activity (like rote repetition of multiplication tables) and I wonder why the students put up with it — perhaps they don’t think either.

In our cynical sort-of-post-modern world, it does draw attention to what the students are doing, with other gallery goers looking over their shoulder; they become almost as interesting as the paintings, a type of performance art, perhaps an unintended commentary on the failings of art education.

But copying has been handed down over the centuries from atelier to salon to studio to today.

Some well-known artists have been accused of appropriating the inspiration of others to produce works they have claimed as their own. Critics have said this type of artist looks outward rather than inward, forgetting to acknowledge their sources. Artists accused of plagiarism may describe copying as an act of tribute, rather than overt theft, but that seems self-serving.

I think we look to artists to be the authors of their own work, to actually make the pieces they sign. The notion of atelier with employed painters completing pieces to be signed by the ‘master’, turns artists into the worst type of signaturist. I think real artists know this is a con. Why would an atelier artist recently show new work proclaiming that he had done them with his own hand?

In the end, it is the authenticity of the work through the intimate link between idea and result that defines genuine authorship and creativity, not merely the act of fabrication.

We certainly expect people to acknowledge their sources, and where there is suspicion of plagiarism, to have an explanation. Consider the similarities between Henri Matisse’s “L’Escargot” (1953) and Alma Thomas’ “Watusi (Hard Edge)” (1963) of Obama White House fame, where there is an explanation.

Contrast this with the allegations of plagiarism involving Sam Leach’s “Proposal for Landscaped Cosmos” which won the Australian Wynne Prize and which is seen as having what are referred to as “heavy references” to Adam Pynacker’s “Boatman Moored on the Shore of an Italian Lake”, produced some 350 years ago. The artist admits having failed to “reference” the Dutch work when he submitted to the competition. Academics said that had Leach submitted his work for academic assessment, he would have been accused of plagiarism. (source: Michaela Boland, “Spot the Difference: artists Sam Leach denies plagiarising Dutch master”, The Australian, 14 April 2010. http://www.news.com.au/national/spot-the-difference-artist-sam-leach-denies-plagiarising-dutch-master/story-e6frfkvr-1225853423386; accessed 5 October 2010)

Perhaps works of art should have footnotes.

As for the students, I still don’t know why they are being taught to steal.

Censorship & Arts

“Censorship and Arts”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 28, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

Who would have thought the real cyber-war would be fought over freedom of speech as we see the WikiLeaks saga unfold. This got me to thinking about censorship more generally and how the arts have fared in this respect especially during times of conflict, since the UK is at war and terrorism looms large in public awareness.

Censorship of art is alive and well around the world. Whether it is draping a nude statue, removing pictures of children from an exhibition, or advising photographers what they can and cannot photograph, the forces of censorship are active and vigilant. They are found, as expected in repressive regimes, but also in the hyperactive sensibilities of enforcement authorities in progressive democracies, such as the UK.

Self-censorship is just as dangerous as the type that marches through the door to snatch a piece of art work that ‘offends’. Being ‘on message’ is something familiar to many people who go to work every day, in areas subject to public scrutiny or interest. A wrong turn of phrase can mean you are not supportive of ‘the plan’. So, we suppress our views and engage in self-censorship lest we be labelled: ‘not one of us’, ‘not a team player’.

Many discussions about WikiLeaks are taking place in forums that are private, owned by companies, and not strictly public places — there is no digital Speakers’ Corner. Violating the opaque terms of use of various commercial social-networking sites can lead to your account being closed. Indeed, the Facebook group on WikiLeaks has been discussing whether discussing WikiLeaks violates the terms of use. This is tantamount to the privatisation of censorship, over which the individual has little recourse.

Siberia not just a place on the map.

But it is becoming clear that the digital internet world is seen as different from the ‘real world’, and that forms of expression that would be tolerated in newspapers, broadcast media, and the Art of England magazine, may be seen as subversive, intolerable, and worthy of censorship when available through the internet. It is easy to raid a bricks-and-mortar gallery; an online gallery is something quite different. And what is becoming clearer every day is that it is one thing to be a website publishing secret government documents, it is quite another to be a newspaper doing the same thing.

Art has always attracted the attention of officials for its potential for subversion and coded communication. Repressive regimes have suppressed freedom of artistic expression. The Soviet Union had its official state art, produced by state artists, to convey socio-political messages, and famously feared abstract expressionism. Inserting codes into paintings and photographs has been considered by some as an excellent form of espionage. A benign painting of a landscape could conceal in plain view essential relationships between buildings, or the lay of the land.

During World War 1, the Defence of the Realm Act (UK) censored the content of artists works, such as art depicting the horrors of war — something that speaks to us today. Marine painters were virtually put out of business at the time as the Admiralty decreed that even the image of a ship might aid the enemy. Artists were seen with considerable suspicion, and people looked everywhere for evidence that the local artist was a spy.

During World War 1, Swiss customs officials detained the composer Igor Stravinsky believing the portrait of himself by Picasso was a plan: “It is not a portrait but a plan”, they said. “Yes,” said Stravinsky, “it is a plan of my face, but of nothing else.”

Reference: James Fox, Traitor Painters: artists and espionage in the First World War, 1914-18, The British Art Journal, vol 9, number 3, March 2009.

Dirt!

“Dirt!”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 83, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

In the film Amadeus, Salieri says of Mozart that it was like he was taking dictation from God.

Most of us know the difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. It is not about dictation, but hard graft. Work can often be summarised thus: dirt, dirty hands, muck, wading into the muck. Untidy, but real.

Creativity is not done by dictation, despite Salieri’s suspicions.

And so we come to a book by Michael Petry, The Art of Not Making, about, well, about artists who conceptualise, but don’t make things. He suggests that the idea of artists actually getting their hands dirty, with unique personally created works of art is gone – is art just about putting a urinal on display and suggesting the art is only about creating new thoughts for existing objects? A bit like an unmade bed. Not art, but branding.

The arterati would cluster ‘round like bees to a hive, perhaps a bit zombie-like, waiting to be consumed by the branding as much as consuming the product. And art products are just evidence of the branding, indeed of notoriety, rather than substance, of being known for being known, rather than being known for something.

But the branding is important today for it is how we sort the wheat from the chaff, as it says these pieces of work are art in the early 21st century. It says we will buy (sometimes) and appreciate (maybe) these works literally in the same way as a can of peas, as an object to be consumed, and in the consumption to become alive in that moment, but not forever.  Perhaps in our new terror world, we seek any frisson of excitement, like the first orgasm, over and over again, replacing what makes us uniquely human with mere physicality.

So in this world, the arid secretions of artists who employ others to fabricate their ‘stuff’, become evidence that I am alive as I consume their products.  We might call this ‘secretion art’.

There is an artist who sees himself as conceiver of ideas, a thinker. Far be it that the artist should get his hands dirty, better to use others who can paint, but can’t think – this is such industrial age thinking about division of labour that we must surely find it archaic, if not exploitative.

This ‘thinker artist’ is a con, a bit like a philosopher king – would you want to spend much time in the company of such arrogance? But if you can sell a lump of wax for $3 million, well who wouldn’t? Do we marvel at the creativity of such work, cringe at the silly value, envy the ‘con-artist’, or bathe in the reflected glory that we got the invite to the preview?

In time, we will learn from the lack of substance, the failure to communicate, the muteness of the messages, and I think critically, the real lack of authority, for artistic authority must always lie in the process of creation, not merely its thought.

It is bizarrely reassuring to know that these secretions will be preserved for future generations by people who collate, collect and catalogue – it is for others to judge.

I predict that in the year 2135; a curator, who is just starting work today, but will be in her mid-forties then, will arrange a retrospective, “Secretion Art: memory of orgasm as evidence of creativity, 1990-2020”. Perhaps by then art will be dirty work again.

Now, where did I put my turps?

The mind in another cave

Another early scratching of an early human endeavouring to capture the external world has been found in Wales (2011). What was this person thinking, and why did he or she even do this?

English: English version of Brain in a vat. Fa...

hmmm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is particularly interesting, and assuming this is about 14,000 years ago, is that with visual forms, there is a need to abstract from the external reality an interpretation of that reality in the mind. Having done that, this person then had to decide what they wanted to represent and how. In addition, they had to choose something to do it with, which suggests perhaps that this wasn’t or might not have been the first time, either.

As an abstractionist, I encourage people to explore the mind’s natural way of seeing the world, rather than the highly socially constructed one we normally see. The brain naturally likes to construct patterns, and one assumes that a 14,000 year old brain did, too.

This is exciting not just for the discovery itself, but further affirmation that even in our earliest days as more than mere beasts but as maturing sentient beings, we sought to interpret the external world.

The other question, of course, is what did others at the time think they saw when they looked at this, and did it have a purpose? After all, if it was a form of communication, this artist needed to have some theory of mind — in particular, that those viewing it were like themselves mentally.

How to swing the arts funding axe

Arts groups prepare for funding cuts

Arts groups prepare for funding cuts

No doubt many in the arts community are concerned at rising levels of public sector austerity. For many their very existence depends on public funding of one sort or another.

Few, though, will of necessity understand the underlying logic why there are public funding programmes for the arts in the first place, apart from vague notions that the arts are valuable.  But funding the arts gets mixed up in funding culture and that involves public values and what is, and what isn’t, of culture importance.

I have a short piece in the UK magazine, Art of England (Issue 72 August 2010), “How to swing the arts funding axe: a user guide”, which draws on my own experience in policy to present what are essentially four options facing the arts/culture community. Choosing amongst the options would lead to an approach to the use of public funding and have an impact of one sort or another on the shape of culture institutions and the behaviour of artists themselves.

If you are concerned about the ways the arts are funded, but don’t want to read a thick book, this short article may illuminate the issues. Email me with your preferred choice.

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Intelligent Life

waste basket and jumble of letters

Now what to do with it. [Image by Torley via Flick

I subscribe to only one art magazine: Turps. Actually, I subscribe only to a few things anyway. I used to want to get one of each, like some artists who need to have one of each colour.

Knowledge is different, and I guess the fear is that you’ll not be reading the right material when something comes up in conversation. Art magazines can feel voyeuristic or worse, self-indulgent.

I got a complimentary copy of the magazine, Intelligent Life, published by the Economist the other day, hoping I’d subscribe. I’ve read this magazine before. I can only say it feels like a intelligent version of the FT’s How to Spend it. But not something to subscribe to.

Sorry Economist.

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The Artist as Entrepreneur

Spot the entrepreneur

Spot the entrepreneur

Art of England (issue 68, 2010) has published a short piece of mine. It is about the ‘grants welfare state’ and proposes that artists should be funded more as investments, over a few years, leading to artistic and financial success, rather than supported through project grants.

I see this as a recurring theme of relevance to artists as the future for many will require them to become far more entrepreneurial and commercial. Financial difficulties within public sector funders will only be heightened with rising public debt. There is, too, the continuing debate whether art has intrinsic value and should be funded for its own worth — but of course the problem as always is deciding the features of intrinsic worth.

It also points to the need for more commercial content in the post-secondary arts curriculum. Should art schools and business schools develop some common courses for students to hone their abilities?

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