Wednesday, 17 May 2006

News from the RBA

Some arts websites are determinedly boring, as though their designers are terrified of creating anything that might be criticized as pretty-pretty decorative art. "For God's sake, Carruthers! We're the Art Establishment. We can't have a chocolate-boxy website!"
The website of the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA) arrives like an old Speccy loading screen and is about as sophisticated. When I tried to look at the exhibits for last year's show, IE6 told me the page couldn't be displayed. Oh's the news. The RBA's Annual Exhibition is from 18 to 28 May 2006 at The Mall Galleries, The Mall, London. Its annual Turning Point Debate on 25 May proposes "This house believes that it is the function of art to be challenging". Yawn....
Wise up, lads. This debate would have been anachronistic 50 years ago! It isn't the function of art to be challenging. It is its inherent nature. But it is for the artist to be challenged, not the viewer. When art challenges the viewer, it proves the artist has no talent.


At 19/5/06, Blogger weggis said...

You will have to explain your comment in a little more detail. Is not part of the function of art to challenge accepted conventional wisdom, to open up the mind of the viewer and see [or feel] things differently?
Art [inc. music] is a much more powerful communication tool than just plain old language. It is the repsonsibility of the artist/speaker/player to ensure that the message is framed in a way the the intended audience recognises and understands. Doing that and challenging the audience at the same time is real talent.

At 19/5/06, Blogger Coxsoft Art said...

And this from the person who agrees with me about the Emperor's clothes!
The short answer is "No". You're confusing art with propaganda. It's easy enough to do, because the Art Establishment has swallowed its own propaganda about challenging its audience with third-rate nonsense that's supposed to have an important message. The only message that great art achieves is "Wow!"
To demonstrate that art and propaganda are separate, the best example I can give you is Leni Riefenstahl's The Triumph of the Will, a magnificent film she made for Adolf Hitler. As art, it works for me. As propaganda it falls flat on its face, but then I'm seeing it with the wisdom of hindsight: I'd seen film of the horrors of concentration camps before I saw Leni's film. What the film did bring across to me was how Germany had fallen for and worshiped a pint-sized psychopath with a silly mustache!
Here's another example in the opposite direction: Cathy, Come Home. This never worked for me as art, but it shook the hell out of a lot of middle class people who didn't realise how the other half lived, and it gave birth to Shelter and other forms of aid.
For me, the challenge of art is to create it. If I wanted to challenge an audience to rethink its values or change its mind, I wouldn't paint a picture, I would make a movie or write a book. But then I would be engaged in propaganda, not in art.
Also it is very patronizing to assume that your audience is a passive receptacle that needs a kick up the arse. Think about those Danish cartoons. To me they were third-rate and didn't qualify as art, but they were a bombshell to the Muslim world. I think the last death toll was 130!
If you want to challenge an audience, swear words, porn and blasphemy are the best ways of doing it, because these are emotive subjects. But are they art? No. Not unless you're a brilliant artist to begin with and, if so, why resort to cheap shock tactics?
If an artist accidentally offends people, that's another matter. Michelangelo's David got the raspberry when first put on display. But the best example of an artist creating a shocking and blasphemous masterpiece is Mantegna's Dead Christ. Its dramatic foreshortening and realism convinces you you're looking at a corpse, not at the Son of God. Christians went ballistic! But the art is brilliant and I'm sure the blasphemy was unintended.
To contradict myself, I've just thought of a painting that does work as both art and propaganda, but I can't think of the artist or the title of the work. It shows a terrified and attractive black woman with bared breasts being branded with a hot iron on board a slaving ship. Of course the artist may have been merely recording life as he saw it, rather than trying to make a political point. Whatever, it works.
I agree that music punches straight into our emotions and is therefore far more powerful than words or paintings. It's also pure: it hits you in the gut or misses completely. By itself, it can't be used as propaganda, but combined with the right images it can be a powerful propaganda tool. But then we're talking propaganda again, not art. And you get the same message from the pretentious elements in the Music Establishment that you get in the Art Establishment: challenge an audience to sit through a load of discordant drivel to prove they're intellectuals! Cobblers! If it sounds horrible it is horrible. That's all there is to it. (One exception: tension music in movies, when the director and composer want you to feel scared. Then it's okay. E.g. Bernard Herrman's screaming violins for the murder in the shower in Hitchcock's Psycho. I wouldn't want to sit through an hour of that music, but, in the context of the film, it's brilliant.
P.S. if I find that slaver painting, I'll post it as a blog.

At 19/5/06, Blogger weggis said...

What is it that makes you say “WOW”? And what is missing when you don’t? The artist has clearly made some sort of impact [or not] upon you.

And if someone else says “WOW” and you don’t, why do you assume that they have been hoodwinked by the hype and that you have not missed something?

I used the phrase ‘open up the mind’ meaning encouraging the viewers to think for themselves, to explore and experiment, to be receptive and analytical. The very antithesis of propaganda.

Do you see what I meant by language being a poor communication tool? The words only convey about 7% of the meaning. The rest is in tone and body language, which makes the written word extremely difficult to use. “A picture paints a thousand words.”

Tracy Emin [excuse me I have to spit out that bad taste in my mouth] is reported to have said “It’s art because I say it is!” Bolox! Likewise it’s not art because you say it is, either. Art is defined by the viewer. It has to be that way. This is the free market view of art. The problem is that the market has been distorted by vested interests that have no talent other than making money.

We may agree on Tate Modern and probably a lot of other stuff too, but I do not feel inclined to presume that I have not missed something others may have 'seen'. In order to challenge the accepted conventional wisdom of the Art Establishment it is essential that people like us maintain an open mind! Otherwise we become what we fear most.

At 20/5/06, Blogger Coxsoft Art said...

To prove your point about language being a poor communicator, your (plain) e-mail was stuffed with all sorts of weird ASCII characters, and I had to publish it to read it properly. Blogger has stripped all the inappropriate ASCII stuff.
I actually agree with everything you wrote! What I reject is the inference that I have a closed mind. (Inference is where all hell breaks out.) To prove I have an open mind, let me direct you to my January archive and a blog entitled Contemporary Chinese art. That's modern art. We might also agree it's challenging. Why didn't I reject it as rubbish? Two reasons: I found it aesthetically pleasing and I could see the artist had put a lot of thought and hard work into it.
While you're in the January archive, check out the following blogs and see if we agree: Quote of the Year 2005 (my punchline), Hitler's paintings, Realise Your Right to Art, and Marcel Duchamp's Urinal Hammered (you brought up the subject of Tracy Emin).
Now, let's get back to what we started arguing about: the RBA's debate: "This house believes that it is the function of art to be challenging". The word "function" is the one I'm rejecting, whereas you seem to be concentrating on the word "challenging".
I don't believe it is the FUNCTION of art to be challenging. The challenge of art is in creating something beautiful and/or powerful that communicates directly to the viewer and hits him or her in the gut. If the viewer is challenged to find something worthwhile in a work of art, it is because the artist has failed to communicate, either because he has no talent or because the viewer lacks whatever it takes to appreciate the art. We can intellectualize this as much as we like, but it all boils down to a failure of communication. I quite often miss the symbols used in old master paintings, and I'm fully prepared to listen to some learned art historian explaining the symbolism of, say, cherries in a picture. But I'm not prepared to let him bullshit me into accepting something as art if it doesn't hit me as art.
Take Wallace and Gromit. That hits me as art, maybe because I'm a film buff and I can see all the visual movie referencies, but I'm probably gilding the lily. It's hugely successful, has been showered with Oscars, but does the Art Establishment accept it as great Modern Art and offer it a place in its Hall of Fame? No. Reasons: 1) it's too damned popular - if the untrained mind can appreciate it, it can't be art - and 2) the Art Establishment is clueless about art!
Beauty, like Wallace and Gromit, is in the eye of the beholder. Yes. Coincidentally, beauty competitions for fat ladies have been in the news lately. There's been one in the USA and one in Africa. I don't accept these fat ladies as beautiful. Here I can back up my opinion by referring you to guidelines on health. Fat ladies are measurably unhealthy. I can also appreciate what makes them want to kid themselves that they are beautiful, but they are just kidding themselves. What most of us find truly beautiful in the opposite sex are in fact signs of good health: trim figure, unblemished skin, shining hair, sparkling eyes, child-rearing mammary glands (in women) and flat stomachs (in men).
When it comes to beauty in art, we have no objective measures. But we can certainly appreciate why inferior artists, like fat women, want to be seen as beautiful. We can also appreciate the Anti Art attitudes of the Art Establishment, which has set itself up as judge and jury in these matters. It's the old trick if changing the goalposts to keep everyone guessing and so remain in charge. I'm putting this differently to the way you put it, but I think we're both accepting that the Art Establishment has a vested interest in selling us a bill of goods.
The "Wow" factor. Here I must make 2 admissions: 1) I'm an artist and 2) I'm a trained psychologist. For the art side of me, have a look at the Museum page of my Coxsoft Art website. I'm a mediocre artist, but, bearing in mind the limitations of the old ZX Spectrum, I'm not ashamed of what I achieved.
Sorry to get technical, but there is a bit of psychology I need to refer to in order to get across the importance of emotion. About 30 years ago Rachman published a polemic entitled The Primacy of Affect (the scientic term for emotion). His argument was that emotions take precedence over logic and rationality. "Big deal", you might say, but this dropped like a bombshell into the laps of clinical psychologists who had spent years giving psychotherapy to patients, based on the assumption that people are rational! We're not. We're driven by our emotions.
So, this is why I believe that art must stimulate your emtions to be effective and why anything you try to add to or detract from that stimulus is likely to be piffle.
So I trust my emotional response to art and can justify distrusting intellectualization of the arts: the primacy of emotion.
Then I have my own artistic mediocrity as a bench mark. When art rises far above my level of competence, it may well elicit "Wow" from me. When it falls below my level of competence, as does most of modern art, I give it the raspberry.
I also know it isn't lack of imagination on my part that "challenges" me to accept modern art, because my creativity has been tested psychometrical and it's massive. This isn't a boast; it's merely another reason why I'm self-confident when I give modern art the raspberry. I could creat this stuff, but I wouldn't have the cheek to try and sell it to anyone and I certainly couldn't convince myself I had become a great artist if I did so. And why produce stuff you know to be rubbish? It must be soul-destroying, even if it does make you rich.
By the way, Tracy Emin is a fan of Marcel Duchamp, and her arrogant assertion that what she defines as art is art is precisely what Duchamp asserted when he put his signature to a urinal. She's following the master's example. She is duped more than arrogant. Now, what do you want to believe: Tracy's words or your gut feeling and mine?

At 21/5/06, Blogger weggis said...

WOW! We are driven by emotions aren't we! Calm down its only a commercial.

Couple of things first.
1. The ASCII crap was probably because I typed it off line and cut and pasted it in. I am using Notepad this time so hopefully that will solve the problem.
2. Sorry about the inference, no slight intended. I was merely saying that you have to 'keep' your open mind and not become
one of 'them'. "It's easy enough to do", and I'm disappointed that you felt the need to 'prove' it, which of course you can't. Is this a warning sign?

Back to serious biz.
I agree that we agree. Expressed differently but the message I'm getting is pretty much the same, although I'm still troubled by the word 'propaganda'. see comment on Slave Trade.
I would much rather trust my gut [and yours] but only as a working hypothesis until someone or something convinces me otherwise [emphasis on convinces]. My gut feeling is not infallible, and neither, if I may say so, is yours, no matter how fine tuned it is, you can never trust it completely. That's why I am always asking myself, and sometimes others, awkward questions. Most people don't like awkward questions but you seem to for which I am grateful. It's nice to have somebody to explore these things with.

True a good talented artist will have no trouble communicating. But let's consider communication in a little more detail. Sometimes communication can be very subtle. A message can be imparted without the receiver even knowing or being aware - product placement is an example. Your symbolic cherries another. And sometimes subtle messages don't work unless you are
tuned in and know what to look for, or someone else points it out. I rather like all the symbolism of Victorian values on the Albert Memorial..............

New question: does art reflect the environment/society within which it is created?

Look at today. We have taken spin, marketing, hype, deceit and hypocracy to new heights of dizziness. In an age full of time
and labour saving gadgets very few people have the time to think or reflect. We are surrounded by rubbish and crap. You can't buy a decent piece of seasoned timber any more, as soon as it gets some weather it shrinks, cracks and warps. Try building a Galleon these days and it would sink as soon as it hit the water. The shops are full of 'must have' rubbish designed to break or wear out in double quick time with designer lables that account for 99% of the purchase price. IKAKA and UBS are what's happening today. It should be!

Could it be that the message of the Tracy B. Emin clan is - Look! this is what your life is like, [a Urinal] and unless you get a bit more discerning and start making better choices this is how it will stay. Consider the emotional response. Looking for the sick bucket or a brown paper bag means you are more likely to reject crap in your lifestyle choices. If true, and it gets through to the masses then she will have truly done a great service to humanity. Nah! It doesn't work does it? People are so used to crap in their daily lives, they will accept crap as art and will view good art [I like W&G as well] as a
fleeting piece of entertaining distraction. What do you get from W&G? To me its also a reflection of modern society, full of
totally unnecesary gizmos and gadgets which are mostly frustratingly annoying. I particularly like the 'Botch' power tools being a reflection of modern 'workmanship'. And its funny and the imagery is brill.

Postscript: I am not having a pop at you here, but it infuriates me when people put forward an argument or point of view and
then say "I know, I'm a whatever" or use their qualifications to bolster that argument. I wonder if it is a sub-conscious admission that either the argument lacks weight, or they have no confidence in their own ability to express it, or both. If valid the argument should stand in its own right.

At 21/5/06, Blogger Coxsoft Art said...

Taking your last point first, I wasn't trying to pull rank on you - you might hold a doctorate for all I know -; I was merely explaining why I feel fairly self-confident about my artistic judgement and my emotional response to great works of art (and also to rubbish). To pull rank is to do exactly what the Art Establishment does, and I think you know how much (honest) propaganda I throw in that direction.
I fully agree with you about subtle messages, although I think the ones most easy to miss are the ones that reinforce the main message, rather than the primary message itself. Back in the days when TV broadcast some discerning programmes about movies, I saw an appreciation of a very old movie called "Letter From An Unknown Woman", which pointed out that the set designer had chosen a wolf-chasing-Red-Riding-Hood style of wallpaper for the young woman's bedroom. This reinforced the theme of the movie in a very subtle way that I had completely missed. I'm always pleased to have this sort of thing pointed out to me.
I am going to disagree about us being surrounded by crap. I think the opposite is true: that big business strives to draw our attention by presenting us with beautiful and powerful images. Every time I walk down my High Street I see Claudia Shiffa in her knickers! It may not be great art, but it's a very pretty picture. And I think that modern art is responding to the commercialism of art by being as ugly as it can. This isn't the whole story, but it helps to explain why so many galleries are filled with ugly stuff that doesn't come close to being art. Lack of talent helps.
Did you know that one needs a first-class honours degree in Psychology to get into the advertising business? I didn't make it. Otherwise I might be photographing Claudia in her knickers...sigh!

At 22/5/06, Blogger weggis said...

By far the best place for them. Out of harms way and we get Claudia on our bus shelters.
By jove I think I've got it. I had to listen to the birds and think for a while and relate it to a field I know a little more about. I know damn all about art other than some of it i like and appreciate and some I don't.
In a right angled triangle the square of the hypotenuse equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides. This was known long before Pythagorus. It is now known as his theorum because he proved it is true in all cases. The difficult part is creating something worthwhile. The theorum itself is just another theorum but to those who appreciate this sort of thing the proof has a magical and simplistic beauty that knocks you sideways.
I doubt i get the same WOW factor that you do from art, but I now know what you mean. I also know why I spent exactly 6 minutes and 21 seconds in Tate Modern before retiring to the Youngs Pub.
i am in your debt, sir!

At 22/5/06, Blogger Coxsoft Art said...

By Jove, he has got it! Tate Modern can't hold a candle to Claudia's knickers!


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