The meaning of art

After a lifetime in health care with varying degrees of responsibility, it was a joy to retire and do something less critical. Art would be about footling around with paint and getting charcoal on your nose, and nobody would die if I forgot who Matisse was.

I was wrong on all counts except, obviously, the one about people dying of my sudden-onset Matisse Amnesia. Art has a complex history of decoration, illumination, and exploitation, but latterly has also had a political edge – take Banksy’s various visual commentaries, especially his dystopian fairground, Dismaland.

I had been largely unaware of much of this due mostly to not looking very closely, but also because artists have an irritating (to my mind) habit of leaving it up to us, the observers, to figure out what their work means. They have also in recent years had a tendency to look inwards for inspiration, drawing (not even a pun) on their own conflicts and experiences to make their work. Post male-gaze perhaps but nevertheless essentially the private made public.

The current situation though, has brought into much sharper focus my thinking about what art is, what it’s for, and what our responsibilities as artists might be. There is a place for cheerful material that is easy on the eye and doesn’t challenge, or that has personal significance to the artist or the audience.

But isn’t art actually about communication (and see The Lonely Palette for some really good examples), engaging people with commentary and documentation. In short, telling a story. We have had years of relative stability and this, I think, has encouraged a more self-exploratory approach to art, an indulgence that has popularised personal disclosure and even exposure by artists to their audience.

But I believe the story we need to tell has changed. It is much larger, more global, more urgent and significant. So even as students, or perhaps especially as students, integrating communication with the necessary exercises and assignments would seem to be an essential learning edge, not just for future practice but so that we become accustomed to observing and managing the political, ecological, and ideological zeitgeist without it spilling over into emotional incontinence.

Not everyone will be comfortable with these ideas just as I am not comfortable with the current emphasis on what I see as trivia in some parts of the course, and so I am arguing here for a broad vision and flexibility where communication is as much a part of the learning as materials and technique.

Clearly this is not an exhaustive essay, nor is it intended to be. It is more of a thinking-out-loud line-in-the-sand point of discussion, albeit a point I don’t see myself being persuaded from very easily. I should also say that I am not arguing for a world of weighty pieces designed to educate and inform through the sheer force of worthiness. We all need Fleabag and Tik Toks with cats on robot vacuum cleaners just as much as those shocking exposes of the likes of Harvey Weinstein. What I don’t much care for is fluff, inconsequential trivia presented as ‘work’; wasteful use of resources such as foodstuffs to ‘paint’ with; and interminable self portraits, although that could be just me.

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