Friday, December 03, 2004

Art and artists

Travellers on the London Underground are bombarded with images. Adverts, tube maps, the newspapers of your fellow commuters, and from time to time "Art". Currently on show at Gloucester Road there are huge posters made from photographs of zebras in the snow by "Italian born artist Paola Pivi", as the Transport for London website describes her.
These are pretty good images and enhance the travelling experience but this sort of thing always gets me thinking about the meaning of the words art and artist.

Forget the cliché about "I don't know about art but I know what I like". Everyone knows something about art. Or at least they do if they accept my definition of art, which is as follows: [clears throat, prepares well modulated voice]

Art transcends the medium from which it is produced for the purpose of stimulating the senses and imagination of the person experiencing it.

Transcends the medium means that something is created that wasn't there before and you cease to be aware of the raw materials. Thus
  • in painting, you see the picture and not the blobs of paint and the surface of the canvas
  • in music you hear the sounds rather than the scrapings of the bows, the banging of fingers on keys or the raw breathing of the singers (Bob Dylan may a special exception here)
  • in sculpture you admire the object, the shape and the texture. You don't think oh look there is a lump of stone with a hole in it.
  • in film you believe in the characters and the situation on screen. You don't hear the film scraping in the camera sprockets, the sounds of the editor snipping bits out, the director shouting at the actors, see the sets wobbling or the makeup flying around.
  • in ceramics you see a finished piece, be it a decorative vase or just a peanut bowl. You don't see a lump of raw clay with a hole in it.
If you can't see the finished product because you are aware of the way it was made then this is not Art. It is merely a collection of raw materials. Why, however much we may coo and admire the scribblings of kids with crayons when they proudly bring them home from school, is this stuff not Art? Because no matter how worthy the intentions and no matter how much concentration has gone into it, it is still just crayon scrawled over paper, and printing the words "Mummy and the dog outside our house" doesn't change anything. It only means something to you because it is your kid who has done it., and it means nothing to anyone else.

So what then is an Artist? By my definition it is someone who produces Art. That was easy, was it not? But it is not the currently accepted meaning. In today's parlance anyone who wishes to be an artist is an artist. You just say "I am an artist" and what I do is "art". And if you can find a rich mug like Lord Saatchi who believes you then you are on to a nice little earner.

This is not a trivial point. If someone says they are a policeman then it means they work for a police force. If they are a doctor then they have medical qualifications. If they are bus driver they they drive buses. But Artists define themselves. "I am an artist and what I do is art". Thus Tracey Emin can display her (unmade) bed as art because she is an artist. She didn't make the sheets or construct the mattress. She presents the bed as it is - there is no transcendence of the raw materials, we are simply shown the raw materials. This is not art, it is exhibitionism and therefore she in my eyes is merely an exhibitor. Ditto most modern artists who think that taking objects made by someone else and displaying them qualifies them as artists and their exhibits as works of art.

I blame it on Duchamps and his stupid toilet bowl of 1917. I've got a toilet. Is it Art? If I put it outside my house and stood there holding a sign that said "I am an Artist and this is Art", would that make it art? What of the poll of 500 "arts figures" announced yesterday naming Fountain the most influential work in modern art. Actually this does not mean any of them like it or even regard it as art - but they believe that everyone else does.

Actually it is we who are the fools. We should laugh at exhibitors and disdain their works. And we should insist on real art, on things that have been made to delight our senses and make us think, on things that require some real effort and imagination by the creator, on things that tell us something about the creator and the feelings towards the work.

So, what then of the zebras displayed so dramatically against the warmly lit mellow brickwork of Gloucester Road? Photography always presents a problem when judging artistic endeavour because it always transcends the medium (unless the photographer deliberately blows up the picture to show the grains or pixels from which the image is composed). So you have to ask if the picture moves you, changes your emotions, conveys an idea that remains when you turn your eyes elsewhere? I do like the zebra pictures but they fail the test. Its just a gimmick, putting two tropical animals onto a snowy mountain top so that a photographer can indulge a whim. How about dropping la Pivi onto a mountain and photographing her as she looks round bewildered, slips down a sheer slope and cries out for help. Now that would be art!

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