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Censorship and Arts: a commentary

"Study drawing shows the allegorical figu...

Do we applaud the reading or censor the nudity? A censor’s job is never done!

In Art of England magazine (Issue 78, February 2011), I wrote an opinion piece exploring arts censorship in the context of WikiLeaks.

The WikiLeaks saga is important for a number of reasons I have explored on my policy blog (The Cognologist) in particular what I call ‘digital exceptionalism’. This simply means that for arts, an art show in a bricks and mortar gallery is not the same thing as the same exhibit on the Internet — images in a gallery can be pulled from the wall, while once on the Internet, they are there ‘forever’. Authorities and lawmakers are grappling with this distinction, which in my view is fundamentally specious, but which is driving a considerable amount of excessively intrusive conduct by governments and enforcement authorities. Of course, there are sensible reasons for this: mainly the ease of access to the material, frequently by vulnerable and impressionable or young people. But such illiberal conduct in the past has been justified on similar grounds.

The real reason for concern lies in an observation by Nicholas Negroponte in his book Being Digital: the Internet facilitates the one to many relationship between an individual and the rest of the world. Individuals have much greater social reach and with appropriate search engines, just about anything can be found within a reasonable period of time. Contrast this with the pre-Internet world, of bookstores which stocked only so many books and you had to specially order some, or libraries with paper-based card catalogues — if you didn’t understand the Library of Congress or Dewey Decimal filing system, you might not find what you were looking for.

So in this brave new world (Huxley said it first) the censors have found new energy. The real problem is that in the Internet WikiLeaks type world, it is becoming harder and harder both to hide and to keep secrets. It is almost like living in the film The Invention of Lying, or Liar Liar. It used to be much easier to be duplicitous — the chances of being found out have escalated considerably.

In the article I note that the arts have always attracted the attention of officials particularly during times of crisis (now, perhaps?). Artists in the UK during the 1914-18 war were viewed with considerable suspicion — marine painters were virtually banned as the paintings of ships might aid the enemy, as might a landscape painting reveal the relationship between buildings and the lay of the land. We are perhaps a bit beyond this today, but the censorship of artists remains a real concern in some countries where freedom of expression is curtailed.

While I have always held the view that some artists seem at a loss for something to say, and produce appropriately poor work, other artists express deep political and social commentary, threatening to regimes depending on terror and repression. And some art is just socially challenging and fall foul to political correctness, a socially enforced form of self-censorship.

We are not yet free — even Mark Twain’s book Huckleberry Finn, the most banned book in the US, has had a rewrite to remove his use of certain terminology which today is seen as unacceptable. The Soviet Union used to rewrite history like this and were justly criticised. While the faces have changed, the objectives remain the same.

Hinge-point: the social media and technology revolution in the art world

“Hinge-point: the social media and technology revolution in the art world”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 65, 2010. Reproduced with permission.

Recently, I went to an exhibit of a friend, who with colleagues, produced a piece called “Cases” using iPod videos as an installation probing the nature of health and the senses – son et lumière for the iPod generation. Their work resonated with thoughts I’d been having of the impact of new technology on art. Art and technology have always been linked, but it seemed to me as I looked at the iPod videos and listened to the eight different ‘cases’, that something potentially more disruptive might be on the horizon.

What interests me is that new and emerging technologies enable art to be made by a wider range of people, through a social-democratising, accessible and open process. “Who is the artist?” becomes a very interesting question.

Some food for thought…

Commuters crowd many corridors across the city during the morning rush-hour, all is hustle and bustle. Their sighs, words, movements, are captured by sensors, and translated into real-time images which animate the otherwise naked walls. The work is called “I’m thinking of you right now”.

My hand flicks, a gesture in space, and a coloured beam races across a wall embedded with nano-particle sized LEDs. I toss the Wii-Art wand into the air and another light curve spreads across the ceiling. The room will remember what I have done, but I can always change it later.

The 3D printer buzzes on the table beside me, chunks and bumps while a 3D sculpture takes shape made of polymers, resins and colouring. I have created a probably impossible object from samples of space that I bundled together with my smartphone camera and downloaded to my computer.

Slouching in my comfy chair, I put on the headset to have my thoughts read. I call up the latest issue of Art of England on my Plastic Logic e-reader. The computer records what I am thinking and produces a picture which I can play with later, or print out on canvas. Apparently, some people still use paint – how yesterday!

The artificial intelligence, called Alicia, shares my likes and dislikes. Alicia is my writing buddy and editor as I work on my next novel; she has a real instinct for narrative. My friend’s AI, he calls his Boris, is a painter and together they are an artist collaborative. Alicia apparently wrote Boris a poem. Should I be jealous?

One hundred people link their smartphones and flash-art a sunset, capturing what they see and collectively producing a single painting from 100 different perspectives at the same time. The image appears on YouTube and is viewed by 100 million people. 100,000 people buy the image for a pound.

I am less concerned with how artists today are using technology. Artists always adopt and test out new technologies, e.g. watercolour, acrylic paint, plastics, video, computer animation, digital printers, PhotoShop or GIMP, and so on.

What is significant is that new and emerging technologies lower the costs and time of art-making, and reducing these hurdles increases accessibility for people who in the past found the existing technologies (of paint, canvas, stone, clay) formidable. I think we’re at a hinge-point in art and art-making because of this and which could radically alter what we think of as the ‘art world’.

In the end, anyone can be an artist. Technologies will facilitate creativity to enable more people to have artistic expression. The Web and social media make collective art-making possible as we move beyond individual authorship. There will be implications for art schools – whom and what they teach; commissioning bodies — whom they support; galleries – what they are like; and artists – what they are for.

And the meaning of art will change. Art is often thought of as special, in public places, commissioned, housed in galleries where you can’t touch, exclusive, remote. Art can be obscure, requiring specialist interpretation; it is often inaccessible and mute to the majority of people. Through technologies, art will become embedded in the fabric of our lives; it will be ambient and ubiquitous. It will be social and shared as much as individual. By democratising art and art-making, new technologies and social media will make it more important and relevant.

Please touch the painting.

Flowers are not the only late-bloomers…

“Flowers are not the only late-bloomers…”

Originally published in Art of England, Issue 64, 2010. Reproduced with permission.

We live in an ageing society. There are for example more people are over 65 than under 18. But many baby boomers, a factor in this, are still in their 50s, so imagine the social changes to come over the next 10 or 15 years. What if they all wanted to become artists?

A recent report (“The Future for Lifelong Learning” by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, and chaired by Sir David Watson) has found that 86% of the £55 billion annually available for public funding of adult education is actually spent on people in the 18-25 age group, leaving the growing numbers of ‘older’ adults with very little. The report observes that our priorities are confused and that the resources should be oriented more toward the post-25 age group, and perhaps more importantly toward those closer to retirement and older. I would add that with increased pressure on the public purse, the best use of this money is also a new imperative.

Without falling into ageism, I believe the art community is trapped in a constellation of assumptions about the origins of creativity and when artistic talent can bloom. Clearly not all important creativity comes from the young. That much is indeed obvious. Could this be seen as a ‘cult of youth’, or of the worst sort of ageism?

I was feeling pretty depressed at this point when Art of England surprised in the August 2009 issue with an article, “Second Life”, on the painter Nasser Azim, , who is renewing himself through art, following a career in the financial sector. Nasser is not alone in his endeavours, as many people are similarly motivated to do what he has done.

Indeed, with the ageing of the population, increasing numbers of older folk may be late-blooming artists. What I wonder about is whether the art community is ready to embrace them, despite stories such as this about Nasser Azim?

In education, art programmes are built around the needs of younger, first career artists, not adult learners. Serious part-time programmes are limited, while many adult education programmes approach art recreationally and do not offer opportunities for late career development. Grant programmes can be selectively discriminatory. Art galleries are looking for that special new (young?) talent, and the art community feasts on the “graduate art shows” with their often inscrutable products, despite evidence that very few graduates actually pursue careers in art. And so it goes.

I was interested to watch the new television show “Design for Life” which has no contestant over 35, yet the host, Philippe Stark, the real genius is clearly older, and apparently more creative, insightful and energetic than the “designers” (I’m being polite) chosen to be on the show. Indeed, one of the first contestants to be sent home hadn’t even finished his university studies. Of course, television isn’t about the real world, is it, and perhaps design isn’t art?

So how are we to make sense of the late-blooming artist? For such people, they may be seeking an opportunity to put away the career choices they made as a younger person, and embrace what might have been a lifelong artistic desire, never fulfilled. But a late-blooming artist is not an oddity of nature. I think they could be a major source of renewed vigour within the art community. I see these older artists providing challenging alternative artistic perspectives, as they put mature ideas and images before us. Such art may speak to us in ways that much art now fails. Is the art community prepared to listen?

Where do you go to my lovely when you’re alone in your bed?

“where do you go to my lovely when you’re alone in your bed?”

(title from the song with lyrics by Peter Sarstedt, 1969, listen to it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRDaeLs69i4 )

Originally publised in Art of England, Issue 76, 2011. Reproduced with permission.

Fantasy, imagination and dreaming have been acknowledged sources of artistic inspiration as well as scientific discovery. Dreaming is particularly interesting as we all experience it, doesn’t require a university degree, or that we consort with the assorted wildlife in the art community.

Many artists have drawn on dream states in their work. In Deirdre Barrett’s The Committee of Sleep (2001) we learn:

  • Albrecht Durer’s 1525 watercolour of a storm came to him in a dream;

  • William Blake’s “Young Night’s Thoughts” (1818) is a dreamscape as is his “Man Who Instructed Blake in Painting His Dreams” (1819);

  • Edward Burne-Jones’ pre-Raphaelite paintings frequently depict dream states, such as “The Rose Bower”.

The Surrealists were consummate dreamers – Paul Nash’s “Landscape from a Dream”, Dali’s “The Dream”, Max Ernst’s “Dream of a Girl Chased by a Nightingale”, and others. According to Barrett, Dali developed specific methods which he encouraged artists to use to facilitate entry to and exit from sleep in such a way that the dreams would be remembered – the trick here is to wake up before you go into REM sleep.

And not all dreams are pleasant. Goya’s paintings frequently document nightmares; “The Sleep of Reason Begets Monsters”, in his Los Caprichos (1799), is one example as are his lesser appreciated ‘Black Paintings’. As dreams these provide an additional layer of meaning, extending on the more rational interpretation that he was depicting the state of man. However, these works were originally painted on the interior walls of his house, as though he were creating an immersive environment for his mind – perhaps to live in his dreams rather than the real world. They were subsequently removed (placed on canvas) and hung on walls in the Museo del Prado, but this is the vandalism of art historians and their failure to grasp the subtlety of their genesis.

As someone who prefers the abstract, dreaming is particularly interesting as our dreams are pure creations of our innermost self. The brain (the bit our minds live in) likes to create patterns, likes to play, and do this much more than people realise.+

We all wonder what dreams mean, and whether they carry messages to us from ourselves, like we were whispering life’s little secrets. But beneath, or above, all this sits the mind itself, quite independent of degrees from art schools, or social status. That we all dream bestows democratic creativity on everyone and not just the chosen few.

Despite or perhaps because of this, we can be mystified at the sources of artistic creativity when we get to journey with it. Charles Saatchi’s television and artistic disaster School of Saatchi (remember?) showcased chronically insecure self-promoters failing miserably to produce anything of anything, but perhaps that is the point that Saatchi was making – and in the end the joke is on us for taking all this seriously.

Do we think differently about art if we knew the artist were documenting a dream, or were instead probably insane like in Wittgenstein’s later work? In such cases, do we become mere voyeurs of madness, safe in our own smug sane little worlds?

But many of the ‘dream’ artists, do challenge us with the sensitive and intelligent translation of inner visions into outer thought-provoking imagery. The Dulwich Picture Gallery show “Twombly and Poussin” illustrates the contrast between the abstract and the figurative. And we are left wondering what dream Twombly was suggesting in his The Mathematical Dream of Ashurbanipal, but mathematicians offen solve problems in their sleep so why not the rest of us?

And so, underneath all the analyticity of so many figurative artists, or the safe critiques of well-grounded critics, lies the murkier and far more interesting idea generator at the centre of our own being. Finding our way into ourselves is always harder and perhaps scarier and that is perhaps why art today can be often be so uninteresting.

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?