Tuesday, 19 July 2016

How to Understand Modern Art (Part 3)

This post looks at the second half of Grayson Perry's book Playing to the Gallery. If the first part dealt with understanding modern art, the second half is a little more directed to the artist, or aspiring artist, covering problems like the quest for originality, becoming an artist, and has a lot of reassuring content for those of us who are sometimes tempted to throw the towel in.

Grayson Perry, from Playing to the Gallery
Is art still capable of shocking us or have we seen it all before?

The mainstream media's idea of avant-garde art usually uses words such as revolutionary, game-changing, cutting-edge, radical, mould-breaking, and refers to artists as new paradigms. Germano Celant remarked that 'art has to be dealing with some kind of crisis or sustained battle to be truly cutting edge' - think about the art surrounding the AIDs crisis, freedom of speech, and equality. What was avant-garde 20, 30 years ago, the things that were seen as subversive and dangerous, are now seen as a part of normal life. Tattoos and piercings, for example are widely accepted and increasingly normal. A part of cutting-edge nowadays could be, for example, 'tweaking ongoing trends'.
The dream of an artist may well be to be original, but nowadays outrage has become somewhat domesticated, and on top of that, there aren't many things that haven't already been done. Sadly, many artists have to google their bright ideas to see if it hasn't been made before (and most often, they have).

Before you feel too unhappy about it all, remember this: that 'you can do anything now in the art world, and if you do it in the right way, and you're good at it, you will find a place for yourself.' 

The truth is, that 'art history never was this smooth succession of -isms' and that hasn't changed today, either. 'The idea that art moved cleanly on and there was only ever one way to be a contemporary artists seems to be the specialism of a few, mainly male, certainty freaks,' Perry writes. In fact 'the movements of modernism overlapped for decades'. For example, have a look at these paintings which hang in the Tate:

A Favourite Custom,  Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (c.1909)
Woman Washing her Hair, and La Hollandaise, Walter Richard Sickert (both c.1906)
Just looking at the work from Alma-Tadema and those by Sickert you can notice a huge difference in style and technique. Which works were made first? Perhaps surprisingly, it is not the High Victorian painting by Alma-Tadema and rather the lower two paintings by Sickert, which were painted three years earlier. Art "-isms" have overlapped over and over throughout time.

What is most important to an artist is not, as the media puts it, being avant-garde and on the edge of culture, but rather integrity, sincerity and authenticity.


One of the things that happens with avant-garde, or any kind of art at all, really, is that it inevitably (and not purposefully!) leads to gentrification. 'Developers should pay artists to live somewhere for ten years rent-free. We are a very precious commodity', Grayson writes. And it's true. There are countless examples of groups of artists starting work in an area with low rents (think East London, the bohemian areas in New York etc.) and slowly getting priced out of a living as the area is developed as an "up-and-coming" or "trendy" area. Check out this article of 10 of the best gentrification cartoons.
Grayson Perry, from Playing to the Gallery

Inhotim is a creation of Bernardo Paz, a wealthy mining magnate, and an example of "jungle gentrification". Inhotim is a 5,000 acre sculpture park in Brazil with hotels, so the tourists can walk around the complex to look at the large sculptures. The website advertises the space as,
a new model far removed from that of the urban museums. The Inhotim experience mainly involves a spatial relationship between art and nature that allows the artists to create and show their works in unique conditions. The spectator is invited to stroll through gardens, forest landscapes and rural settings, roaming among lakes, trails, mountains and valleys, actively experiencing the space.
Is this an innovative idea, or just gentrification on steroids?
Another problem of gentrification is a re-privatisation of the art world - this can be a huge problem in censoring artists in fear of offending the sponsor. This was seen in 1984 when Mobil oil (a Tate sponsor) threatened the Tate with court action because of a Hans Haacke exhibition which took a citical view of the company's corporate policies. Nam June Paik, an artist, said that 'every artist should bite the hand that feeds him... but not too hard.'

Cutting-edge in technology

The role of artist as a leader of technology has changed greatly over the years. In 1841, the artist was a real innovator in technology, with the invention of the paint tube, allowing artists to paint in the fresh air, and have the ability to buy pre-mixed paints, instead of labouriously mixing the shades themselves. Nowadays, we tend to be using technologies invented by other people... art is now following technology rather than leading it; art is struggling to keep up.' And using technology in art can be incredibly dating... 'nothing dates like the future!' And with the advent of the internet, perhaps we have entered a time of the end of art as we know it...

But it isn't all doom and gloom; these new innovative products can be helpful to artists and designers, improving all sorts of elements of production and sharing. Perhaps the 21st century is 'the age of pluralism', or commercialism, or globalism, or nepotism. And think, 'if Michaelangelo was around today, he wouldn't be painting ceilings. He'd be making CGI movies or developing 3D printing.'

How do you become a contemporary artist?

There is often a view of artists as  'mythological creatures that spring fully formed from the womb, genetically gifted and filled with an urge that's there from birth.' This isn't the case at all! Grayson writes that anyone can be an artist - these mythological creatures are indeed myth! However, saying that, it is also true that 'most artists could cite a crux event in their past, a central motif of some time in their early life, which they can self-mythologize about why they became an artist.' Raymond Tallis, a clinical neuroscientist, writes that 'art is expressing one's universal wound - the wound of living a finite life in complete meaning.' - and that is the goal of the artist - to make meaning.

Saying that anyone can make and enjoy, however, does not mean that everyone is built to become an artist. This is not to discourage people from making art - here Grayson is addressing those with the desire to become a modern artist. The term 'artist' that we are talking about here is a person who chooses to define themselves as thus in the standpoint of a career. 'The need to express oneself runs very, very deep'.

A very important step in becoming an artist is to go to attend art school. It is incredibly difficult to get anywhere in the art world without it. There are a few "outsider" artists (those who have no art education and probably very little knowledge about the art world in general). Choosing to attend art school can be for multiple reasons, and often include one, or some, or all of the following:

  • uncertainty about who you are
  • uncertainty about what you want
  • the desire to know what to do
  • desire for freedom
  • the need to find yourself
Art college is 'a place to experiment, a place of unique freedom. Often that freedom is the freedom to get it wrong... a large part of creativity is making mistakes and then noticing what's good about them. Art critic Martin Gayford writes,
Mistakes are as big a part of art as scholarship or truth. The Renaissance, for example, was based on a creative misunderstanding of classical antiquity. A great deal of nineteenth-century art derived from an incorrect assessment of the Middle Ages (and the Renaissance). 
 Art history is filled with mistakes, but don't let that stop you. 'The best artists can take quite a while to find their voice. An art career, after all, is a marathon, not a sprint.'

from Playing to the Gallery
So, Grayson's final tips to aspiring artists?

  • Take every opportunity, whether it be a small exhibition or a part in a group show - this is how you are most likely to get recognised as an artist.
  • Be committed to being an artist. Be hardworking, be punctual. And when people ask you what you do, don't be afraid to tell them you're an artist! 'Artists are doers! They don't want to be artists, they want to make art!'
  • Nurture your creativity. 'All artists carry within themselves, in their own way, an indistinct glowing ball of creative energy that they have to nurse through the assault course of becoming an artist.

No comments:

Post a Comment