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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Art and the Decline of Society

We went to Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design – the pre-eminent art institution in the United Kingdom and reputed to be one of the worlds leading art colleges.

By observation, we confirmed what we already feared.  We have sacrificed art to mediocrity. The commercialisation of art means that the self publicist is more likely to be renowned for the notoriety of their creative output than they are for any meagre talent they may possess. 30 years ago I attended a posh first viewing at a Modern Art Gallery of what at its most polite was descriptively misdiagnosed as ‘na├»ve’ or ‘primitive’ art – it was not in the tradition of Henri Rousseau, my 5 year old son could as easily have mastered and therefore duplicated the canvases on display.

Art and poetry co-exists magically through the enunciation of light and colour, shade and silhouettes through the interpretation of images. But so much of modern art is pretentious nonsense devoid of artistic merit. Art must have more than the ingredients of a contemporary soap opera and a catchy title. So much eloquence to describe a simple canvas appears to be one of the symptoms of our art today. It is as if to paraphrase Disraeli, the exuberance of the critics’ verbosity is needed to mask the paucity and the poverty of the artistic offering. Linguistic hyperbole is good, but like a cordon bleu meal it soon loses its freshness in spite of its inflated purchase price. What shocks one generation bores the next and only longevity can make for great art.  In fact, the test of time is really the only honest predicator of greatness and because of this the con artist is able to sell his or her wares to a gullible public that is desperate to share fame with an identifiable and charismatic, even visionary figure. In a world of individuals made fabulously wealthy through the stock markets and technology, smart ideas and clever merchandising; even the wealthy art buyer can be sucked into the vortex of instant art by talentless hacks whose salesmanship is their art.

Art has always been controversial but the essence of excellence demands that it is not enough to be creative. Any conman or con-woman can create a blank canvas and a black line running diagonally across its virgin surface. What defines a great work of Art is inspiration, technical ability and skill.  I cannot create art.  With practise I could perhaps achieve a minimum level of technical ability but even with my acute observational powers I will never be Picasso or Rembrandt, Hiroshige or Leach. An example of what it takes to be an artist could be provided by LS Lowry. We could observe his factory workers and note his technical skill but before a distinctive, muted style became his recognisable signature his skill proved that he was more than a pedestrian doodler. The same applied to Picasso. His output at the start of the 20th Century was monochromatic, it displayed a sombre elegance that made it essentially unpopular because you could look at his painting and feel as depressed as Picasso himself must have felt at that time.

And that is the essence of great art – it not only conveys it also infects.

I viewed the Honours Course Degree Show held at Central Saint Martins – there were two, perhaps three artists who appeared to possess any artistic ability.  We knew one young person who had attended Saint Martins for four years and he seemed to have regressed in his capacity to produce a work of art.

And art can take many forms but it usually expresses something which while it may not necessarily be aesthetically pleasing, its nature is by its creation an act willing us to remember it.

We have categorised and in our cleverness destroyed what makes art so important to us. Art celebrates the aesthetic achievements of Civilisation. In an era of global communications, video art can be fun and it can also be viewed on the internet at any time.  But it is on the same level as installation art: Tracey Emins’ bed and the Tate Moderns elephant droppings (lumps of clay decorously splattered across the floor at the end of one gallery). None of it expresses the technical skill of genius nor does it provide a hint to our human endeavours.  Much of contemporary art is a cop out by people devoid of individuality and lacking the discipline or the inclination either to study or to observe.

The Emperor’s new clothes syndrome, fear of being ridiculed; it could explain the dire straights to which the art world has been sucked in if it were not for the extent to which the learned professors in their colleges have dictated the fashion.

Film should be taught in a school of movie making.  Fashion, clothing design and furniture making are craft disciplines but at least they require an appreciation of the physical.  The issue becomes politicised when we exclude the decorative arts from fine art. Decorative art is classified as belonging to applied art. It is an unnatural Western differentiation between visual, non functional art and what is inevitably functional, culturally significant art (such as pottery, glassware, jewellery design, metal working and textile design).

Perhaps we need a third category; that which is instantaneous, spontaneous or randomly created.  A more appropriate demarcation between Fine and Applied art on the one side and our third, aforementioned category is that the latter is usually transient in nature and requires little of either imagination or talent to produce and of more importance, can be copied by any third rate mimic.  While it is unfair to include all film, all photography and all theatre in this bucket of slops it has been forced upon us by society’s insistence on catering to the lowest common denominator in Art. There can never be an absolute distinction in Art but by forcing us to define what is and what is not ‘art’ in a modern sense we have opened up a monstrous Pandora’s box to charlatans and charismatic clowns, none of whom have anything to say about real art.

Every day objects do become part of culture when they become an expression of the spiritual journey of the nation. If art represents the sum of human expression then it is also the marriage of art and culture.  For example a Japanese sword is imbued with the philosophy and the art of its society.  A portable Buddhist shrine, a Benin bronze or, a magnificent Etruscan Cauldron created in the 7th century BCE; artefacts from Oceania and Africa, these all represent design and art but also culture, the physical representation of the spiritual.

I do not object to the veneration of the material world. To aspire to be better or to aspire to create something that ridicules our inadequacies as it slaughters our pretensions, expresses the essence of what it means to be human just as to create an object of beauty is to capture the divine. Art is one of the driving forces behind human development. But conquest, domination and unbridled greed are also drivers behind the development of humanity and from humble survival based instincts they have developed their own moral code justifying every wrong we as a species are capable of inflicting on others.  Not everything we produce is beautiful but to represent an ‘essence’ is to influence and inspire.

Honest workmanship produces craftsmanship but it requires years of study, and one must internalise the techniques employed by the great artists that came before us. All of this can be found in the great museums and art galleries of the world. The art I have been witness to seems to have been generated in one of Stalinism’s academies for social submission and artistic irrelevance.  Self absorbed talentless hacks slap together a hodgepodge (I believe that the correct art term refers to a pastiche) of incomprehensible mediocrity devoid of talent or precision of purpose.

The self possessed hedonist may enjoy his or her moment of artistic fame but if politics and fashion is all our art colleges are capable of churning out then instead of world class art, we now have mediocrity from which we must draw our individual and collective inspiration.  To aspire to be great we must strive to produce great art and while great art may share the stage with mediocrity it is to our extinction that it beckons.

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