Some thoughts on how we see art, by Sam Bell
(Images of numbered artworks in the text are offered at the end of the essay.)
Understanding Western art is a 20th century problem, essentially invented by ourselves, and springing in the main from the huge changes in what artists produced as art throughout this period. Perhaps the issue goes back as far as the Impressionists in the 19 th century, and the post-impressionist Cezanne, whose early reception from public and critics alike drew mockery and outrage. Of course, art has always been changing, with, in particular, astonishing varieties of work being made across Europe from the Renaissance onwards. So much so, that some of what constituted the art dilemmas of the 20th century had already been signalled in one manner or another. Personally, however, growing up in the middle of the 20th century, in the provincial culture of Northern Ireland, art, for my parents, was a landscape on a wall at home or, for my neighbours, a seascape with horses. This being Ireland, there were religious icons as well, but they were on display not as art but as devotional objects. Perhaps rightly so, as the icon is a tradition that originates in a pre-individualistic age and may not have been seen as art as we now understand it. Statuary has always been with us as well, right back to the stunning achievements of 5th century Greece, to Michelangelo in quattrocento Italy, and often nowadays in the form of bland bronze representations of public figures of note. I hear you yawn.
By the mid-20th century, however, all this was beginning to change, despite the narrowness of how we understood things in Ulster. By the 1950s representational art could be contrasted with various forms of abstract or ‘non-objective’ art, actually fully established since the 1930s, and perhaps originating as early as the 1910s. In the 1960s the Impressionists were beginning to appear on chocolate box lids, although perhaps for the wrong reasons, and by the 1970s prints for our walls at home could as easily be a Miro or a Braque as a Constable. By 1970 the most famous artists in the world were what we call Modernists, a movement that, in art, began with Picasso and Braque in the 1910s and was now represented in Britain by figures like HenryShirazeh Houshiary ‘Veil’ 1999
Moore, Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Anthony Caro and a new generation led by a young David Hockney. Statuary was having to compete with large Modernist works being commissioned for public spaces, few of which were simply representational. In fact, none were. By the end of the 20th century, art galleries and museums could put on exhibitions of the most radical of the moderns, and added to that the even more radical post-modernists, and charge the public to see them. Timed tickets were invented to manage the demand, and then, in 2000, in the UK, Tate Modern was opened where thousands flocked to see NOTHING BUT the moderns.
Alongside these massive changes in art practice, and public taste, there arose the issue of what exactly art was. Not only among the general public, which was understandable, but in the minds of artists themselves, and, yes, the critics of course, that same bunch who found impressionism too difficult a century or so earlier. How were we to reconcile that landscape painting on the wall with a wholly black canvas by Kazamir Malevich on a London gallery wall, or a piece of performance art or a video? How were we to respond to Damien Hirst’s ‘Mother and Child (Divided)’ 19931 and the challenge it sets, in the title alone, to the history of art, referencing back to the madonnas of the great European tradition, and inside the formaldehyde tanks, to the biological reality that we see on display, organ for organ. How were we to take all this? How were those finely rendered bronze figures in open spaces everywhere to be compared to the seemingly ill-defined bulk of a public Henry Moore, human figures, some of which were satirically referred to as ‘Mrs Blobbies’, that could be two or three interrelated pieces as often as not. What had happened between those first attempts to render people and the world as actual individual persons in a realistically defined space, that we might trace back in painting to Cimabue and Giotto in 13th century Italy, and the artists of the1930s, 1940s and 1950s who, following the developments of the first half of the century, no longer saw any need to make reference to the visible objective world in their work?
Of course, Western art has been traditionally seen as representational, and before anyone thought of deleting reference to the primacy of the objective world in art, there had to be the movement, in the first instance, to free art from its subservience to religion, and effectively, to illustration and narrative. That happened, as we now know. There was also the need to release art from the demands of its traditional established patrons, from the great popes and princes of Renaissance Europe to the landed gentry of England. That happened too. Equally important, as all this was happening, was the gradual recognition of Nature in its own right, and not just as backdrop to a crucifixion. Art was coming to recognise a new set of subjects, from the landscapes and cityscapes of the northern Renaissance in the 16th century to the apples of Cezanne in the late 19th. Only as a result of all this change could artists begin to use art as the individuals they had become in their gradual release from religious orthodoxies and the demands of social hierarchies that offered them a living. What the rigidities of society demanded was gradually being set aside and rethinking could proceed: what, then, to do with that picture plane that was the canvas and the material, the paint, that we applied? In effect, the question had arisen: what constitutes art in the making of art now that you can do what you want? And what role does the artist play in all this now that he is no longer a mere craftsman? Only after this, could Van Gogh begin to paint the canvases that described the shrill glare of his vision and troubled mind, rather than succumbing to the visual data of the objective world2. Only then could he apply paint like the building site plasterer to heighten the sense of crisis. He was deciding now what to paint, how to do it and what it meant to be an artist. Prior to Van Gogh, there were the so-called Impressionists, the first ‘existential’ artists, painting en plein air the effects of light
on the eye, right there in that field, on that beach or on the banks of the Thames. Nature, now without super-nature, as William C Seitz described it, art “without need for metaphysical justification.” Consider the transformation for a moment: take a 13th/early 14th century fresco by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua3; take any of the figures and the stylised natural world as depicted in Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ c.14804, and then compare them to Monet’s paintings of haystacks of the 1890s5. What a shock to the history of western art these haystacks are: gone is any vestige of religious meaning or any element of the social classes that commissioned and determined the fine subjects of earlier art and the kinds of meaning that went with them. Monet’s haystacks are presented as the central subject of the canvases. It is worth comparing them to the landscapes, for instance, of Pissarro, that other great impressionist, who also offers us haystacks but in a wider context where the labouring poor might be seen to be the central subjects. Many of the Monet haystacks take part in an almost abstract space, offering no human focus and the wider aesthetically enriching context is almost wholly given to the application of paint and the colour palette used to convey light. Step forward in time to the 1980s, if you’ll excuse the slightly ludicrous jump, when Rachel Whiteread was enraging London with her ‘House’, a full-size cast of the inside of a working man’s house about to be demolished, and the startling resin casts of the same period. Take a look at her casts of the space below a common household desk and chair, ‘Table and Chair (Clear)’6 1994 or ‘Untitled (9 tables)’ 1998, with the desks and chairs removed. Even 3 dimensional art was rethinking itself. Here, Whiteread had made the meaningless space below a desk the subject of public art. This work originally astounded me because of what it seemed to do. It took a space that we have possibly never seen foregrounded in art before (and certainly not in sculpture) – that is, the space underneath a table and chair – casts that space (in resin) and puts this ‘space’ on show. It only takes a moment’s reflection to see what is happening here. Historically, the ‘spaces’ represented in art are hierarchical in value – the spaces that sculptures take up are filled by figures or forms that are chosen for their higher value, social or aesthetic. It is a form of subjective and spatial discrimination which proposes that only ‘special ‘or ‘significant’ objects or subjects are to be the content of art. Whiteread breaks with these received rules – her subject is a space that is utilitarian, of little aesthetic value and one that is, in the hierarchy of value, purely functional. In casting it she carries this issue further. The cast itself is literally of the space beneath these objects, and when taken out from under the table and chair, the art object comes to fulfil the traditional function of art as representation (it moves from BEING the space to representing it). This is a breathtaking artistic trick, and a significant one. Whiteread has moved away entirely from received hierarchies of artistic meaning, as represented by traditional subjects and rethought, in her own way, the artistic motives for artistic practice. A modern sensibility and appreciation of form is evident as well as a new sense of what we do as artists when we choose forms and subjects. Here, in Whiteread, space itself has been rethought, and comes from an age that has focussed away from the human and given a new status to the objective reality of the material world that sits beyond traditional representations of it. Like the haystack, who is to say that the spaces below our desks are meaningless? We need haystacks like we need fine Palladian villas; we need that space below the desk just as much as the desk or the room it sits in. Equally, as the richness of the painted surface of the haystacks reflects a time and era, and a chosen palette, so the use of resin by Whiteread speaks of a new era in making. We are watching here the gradual democratisation of art, as the freed artist engages with what is there, the world as it confronts us, and steps away from the hierarchies in art that has driven it, how the artist was expected to see the world and the aesthetically agreeable material reality of the work.
Most important of all, we could also now begin to see art as a practice, about the artist’s action in the world. Following on from Monet, and then Cezanne and the wonderful Fauves, the 20 th century turns out to be an era when “the body is at home in time and space And loves things....”, as the poet Don Paterson pointed out in his poem ‘Souls’. We are confronted with the physicality of Picasso’s analytic cubist phase7, of Matisse’s complete flattening of the picture plane in, for instance, his painting of interiors8, reducing all seen to exactly equal value in the paintings, of Anthony Caro’s sculptures made from steel girders, followed by Whiteread and resin. Art had come to be about people working in time, in the onrush of history. We all now belong to a time when larger perspectives are more likely to be evolutionary than religious, where the orthodoxies are increasingly materialistic and the individual sensibility is adrift in a sea of individual understandings and responses to life. The shock of the first world war also added dramatically to the decline of traditional forms of art; how, after all the carnage and destruction, could we go back to the complacencies of the landscape painting? Hence Dada, and Duchamp, and anti-art. Like everything else at the time, a unified theory of art, and its subservience to conventional perceptions of art’s function, had crumbled and from the ruins a multitude of avenues emerged.
Having overcome religion and the demands of social hierarchies, however, a new challenge emerges, in the shape of post-Renaissance art’s recognition of the material world. This too threatens to become art’s master and to subjugate it one again to representation. After the representation of religious stories and the representations born of the whims of the wealthy, art now faced enslavement to the representation of the world of nature. Was that it then? Was art always to be about depicting stuff? Clive Bell, in ‘Vision and Design’, states the problem clearly when he writes, with a certain evolutionary perspective, of how “Biologically speaking, art is a blasphemy. We were given eyes to see things, not to look at them”. A major shift in those impressionist paintings was to begin to offer the ‘looking’. Hence those painters like Monet, who represented the artist in action, and an art of being-in-the-world and of response. Those astonishing London paintings, of the Thames and the parliament buildings9, where the artist seeks to make art through the process of the eye’s catching a moment of light’s action on fog. This is an art that takes to its subject in a new way: as an act of witness, with the relation of object and eye becoming inseparable elements in the making of the image. Now, art could perhaps begin to challenge this latest attempt to drive it into subjugation by placing the relation of the seen with the seeing and the seer. The artist could now take centre stage as maker of both the art and the vision that underpins it. This personal vision transforms the painter from the craftsman of the past. In doing so, craft itself was becoming suspicious as a kind of slight-ofhand that would trick us out of seeing art for what it had become: the artist becoming a witness to his own experiences, constructed in the face of the discrete world and of life’s glare. Monet’s outlook was also to undermine that fractured utilitarian vision of the world we all possess in everyday life, and in traditional painting, and replace it with the act of envisaging and the wholeness that we bring to the act of seeing. J M W Turner was to demonstrate this very thesis in his movement from a kind of romantic realism early on to his later rich experiential canvases. We are offered, in Monet, a world of “light (that) becomes what it touches”, that is, the unity of object, light and eye. This startling insight by Leissel Mueller in ‘Monet Refuses The Operation’ points to the existential, holistic present that is primary in Monet’s art. How we see, and the problems with what we see is the subject now, not the external world as a given fact independent of our presence. In reality, the objective world was always a kind of mystery, once solved by religious outlooks, then made the single and only subject by science, this becoming
the fact-driven agenda of the modern world. But, alongside these artists, it was to be modern science that also clarified for us that the visible field that we take as fact is itself an act of human invention before we even begin to paint. After impressionism, if we are to be true to the world in our art, we will have to step away from treating what we see as reality.
Before we get to Rachel Whiteread’s late 20th century innovations, however, we go through the explosions in art practice and ideas of the 1940s and 50s, the eras when abstraction was a dominant force, and then the 1960s, that threw just about everything out. Modernism had morphed into Post-modernism and alongside an undercurrent of existentialist thought from the 1950s, with its emphasis on freedom and the primacy of the individual’s being-in-the-world, the foundation was set for the overturning of just about every imaginable convention. In art this included the final abandonment of the hierarchical values embedded in ‘traditional media’, such as painting and marble sculpture, and the beginnings of performance art, where no object exists at all, or ephemeral art, created not to last. This was the time of Richard Long, and his travels across the barren, primal places of the world, making stone shapes that were left to be reclaimed into nature’s miasma. When he took long walks he turned the walk to art by placing a stone every so many yards. This was an art work that literally followed the footsteps of the artist and was invisible to the viewer: art that was never to be seen, only made. By the year 2000 work is being created that exists in a kind of netherworld, such as Martin Creed’s ‘Work No. 227’, in Tate Britain in 2001. This work consisted of gallery lights going off and on, at short intervals. This is a work that only exists as light on walls and floor and as impacting the eyes of the participant/viewer. We can no longer determine the existence of the work at all, other than its impact in bringing the gallery space, and the viewer, into a momentary visual field. A work of sheer presence.
To clarify these new developments in the understanding of the nature of the art object, I would like to refer to a position loosely sketched out by Barnett Newman, an American artist associated with ‘colour field’ and abstract expressionist painting. Newman initially trained in philosophy and anthropology as well as being an artist, and in his essay of 1947 entitled ‘The First Man Was An Artist’ he proposes that man’s first acts of communication were not for practical purposes or to convey information. Newman argues: “Man’s first expression, like his first dream, was an aesthetic one. Speech was a poetic outcry rather than a demand for communication. Original man, shouting his consonants, did so in yells of awe and anger at his tragic state, at his own self-awareness, and at his own helplessness before the void.” It’s a point of view that had currency at the time, and makes reference to a dilemma in our thinking. We imagine that early communication would be factual or functional. Newman’s reversal of this places our presence in the world and our response to being as primary. He goes on: “The human in language is literature, not communication. Man’s first cry was a song”, the result of which, he argues, “The artistic act is man’s personal birth right.” His challenge, in fact, is to the science that underpins this misunderstanding: “It is the materialistic corruption of present day anthropology that has tried to make men believe that original man fashioned pottery before he made sculpture.” This bias towards a functional materialistic answer to all issues is characteristic of all the sciences. By contrast, the artistic act, for Newman, was the first act. Life is a creation story, not a survival story. Note that Newman is not stating that man is the creator of art objects. Elsewhere in his writings he is well known for proposing that artists only make one work throughout their lives, the act of creation being primary and the work that is made part of an undifferentiated ongoing whole lived creative life. This living creative force parallels, for me, the paintings themselves. The colour fields of these massive hand-painted single fields of
colour, only interfered with by a line or two running vertically, offer us a sense of the presence of the conscious mind that creates the painting in the first place and then again is recreated by the viewer in the seeing of it. For we can see human consciousness as a kind of field, like these paintings, within which the objective content of the world sits. Setting aside the clutter of life for a moment, Newman’s paintings allow us to confront that sublime insubstantial mystery of consciousness in action and to see its action, right there in the gallery10 ,in your act of looking. In everyday life colour comes to us in the form of objects. It is the result of lights action on the surface of things. In Newman colour flies clear of its objective associations, other than the canvas rectangle and the lines, that act like a necessary frame to the transcendent act that the painting involves. You may be reminded of Martin Heidegger’s notion of the action of the human mind as, analogically, like a clearing, a lichtung, and all that enters that clearing is given life and being whilst in the view of the seeing individual. This is the created world of the conscious mind, everything suddenly given definition, shape and individuality. Without that human view, that same clearing would be sheer material forces acting anonymously, without individuality and devoid of value.
Newman, the anthropologist, also reminds us, of the value of creative thinking, and rethinking, in his use of Adam from the Garden of Eden story in Genesis. Inviting us to set aside petrified interpretations of the story, he proposes: “The fall of man was understood by the writer and his audience not as a fall from utopia to struggle, as the sociologicians would have it, nor, as the religionists would have us believe, as a fall from grace to sin, but rather that Adam, by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, sought the creative life” to be, like God, “a creator of worlds.” In effect, Newman invites us to put aside the inherited ‘authorised’ interpretations of the story, culturally inherited readings that Newman also seeks to undermine in the eyes of viewers of his paintings. His challenge is to inherited notions of what art is. Looking at art becomes a creative process, and always should be, as is the case with the reading of texts.
Following on from Newman, and looking again at Genesis we can see two creation stories, neither of which agrees with the other. In the first story (Gen:1;1 on), possibly originating about 600 BC, it is an omniscient, all-powerful Creator we meet, the one that actually comes down to us through Judaism and Christianity. In the second story (Genesis 2:4 on), we have a very different God. This story, added by the original editors of Genesis despite its very different nature, originating some hundreds of years before the first story, offers a kind of ‘garden god’, not an all-seeing monotheistic figure at all. This god story begins with a barren world primed with potential, and into this nothingness the god brings forth Eden, for his own pleasure, it seems, and in the story we hear of him walking of an evening, in this world of his own creation We know this feeling when we walk in our own gardens, and even when we visit our studio/workshops and survey the world of our own creative life. This is the conscious world of humanity, capable of taking pleasure in our made environments, given our presence in the world. This god, unlike that of the first story, acts with the same motivations as human beings. He then creates Adam, as perhaps no more than the gardener: “to keep it (Eden) and tend it”. Certainly this god initially sees Adam as a lone occupant of Eden until, unforeseen by the god, Adam’s loneliness drives Him to create companions for him, in the first instance, the animals of Eden. Not Eve, it is worth pointing out. This doesn’t work; Adam is still lonely, and as a result Eve is created. Thereafter, God’s creation gets out of hand, and in a fit of piqué, Adam and Eve are cast from Eden. I agree with the point of view that the serpent in this story is a trickster or joker, offering Eve, and Adam, the opportunity to become Gods themselves by eating from the Tree of Knowledge, as their eyes are opened and their lives transformed. It is an intriguing
narrative in itself, a tale worth the telling, unlike the first highly formalised account of Genesis of 1:1. The Eden story also tries to do what the first Genesis account does not: it is an account of man’s first consciousness, and the Fall is the fall into full humanity from the blank mindlessness of that Edenic garden. From God’s initial act of sculpting Adam from the clay of the earth, there arises the new creative gods, making their lives as self-conscious creatures, who in a sense parallel the god in now being able to act creatively as He did. But what a mess! We have a god here that acts and lives like an artist, and whose creations fail Him. The god of the first story ends his creative splurge with ‘And he saw that it was good’; this second god is a bumbling, human figure, trying to make something out of his very human dilemma. Our Edens, or utopias, will not save us, we learn, but after the Fall, as gods now, and artists, we can all have a go at the creative realisation of our worlds and commit to them even in our failure. By being released from Eden, man and woman finds themselves in charge of their own lives, and to use another concept from Martin Heidegger, they also find themselves in a state of ‘thrownness’, thrown into life rather than entering it. In that state of being, making is the primary reality embedded in the nature of the human mind. Our angst in the face of this ‘thrownness’, however, has its consequences: it can lead to us throwing our inherent creativity away. Having failed to grasp that the creative urge cannot be substituted, we are reluctant to acknowledge the creativity of artists who refuse the conventional tricks we play to evade the anguish of being. We all too readily accept the narratives of others, whether those of our immediate social and working lives, of religion or simply by adopting modern life as taught us from our early years: the “fossilisation of mindsets” as Sergio Pitol characterises it. It is worth remembering the bohemian nature of artists in the 20 th century, and the extent to which artists have been figures living on the edge of society. Consider the Young British Artists of the 1990s, and their challenge to conventional, bourgeois tastes and values. Perhaps the Royal Academy’s 1986 exhibition that established many of these young artists, ‘Sensation’, sums it up. The title along speaks volumes.
So, where does all this leave us with understanding art? For me, there are perhaps three positions. There is the jaundiced position; the scientific position and the problem of abstract nouns. The jaundiced position is straightforward enough: it is the result of prejudices established in the process of ordinary life. Art is what has been commonly acknowledged as art in your own social context and given the parameters of your lifestyle and interests. It is a form of imaginative petrification. Art may, therefore, be no more than that landscape on the wall. This kind of narrowness results from what Clive Bell refers to as our ‘biological function’, that is, our need to clearly define, categorise or allocate a function to objects as part of the evolved process of identification. The result is that we may be unable to acknowledge the full range of art objects in the world around us, or spend enough time with them to begin to appreciate them. To quote Bell again, art is “quite distinct from the practical vision of our instinctive life” but it may, in our actual practical lives, end up categorised as little more than an emotionally supportive form of decor. In effect, Bell is pointing to the creative vision that makes art, stemming from ‘looking’, not ‘seeing’, and from the need to create. If labelled, as the ordinary need to place things demands, art becomes a static thing, bound in by the labelling process and it cannot become more than its already agreed socially determined function deems it to be. Hence, the common responses to modernist work: “that’s rubbish”; “my child could do better”; “it’s a con”, etc. The rule at work in these responses is not creative engagement with life but the dead hand of conformity.
The scientific position suffers from a variety of problems too. As with everything, art can be seen in an evolutionary context, offering a path to power, wealth and sexual success, as invited by our basic instincts. There are needy people in the art world as well as in banking. Acquiring developed mental powers, becoming more adaptable and seeing complexity have evolutionary advantages. Our tastes, to some degree, are determined by our evolution as homo sapiens, and I have to say, I like a good looking woman as much as the next man, or woman. This is our biological inheritance. And no doubt our artistic actions have direct links to biologically determined factors in our lives. But science has tended to focus the debate around art and aesthetics in a narrow manner that reflects its own prejudices and the outlooks of professionals whose focus is really only the INSPECTION of the phenomenal world and the desire for all conclusions to produce something that can become data or be given form as a research essay with categorical conclusions. These are, in a sense, the creative parameters of the scientist.
Let me take as an example of this problem a book published by Oxford University Press, in 2009, written by Dennis Dutton, called ‘The Art Instinct’. The book, heralded by no less than the ultra-rationalist Steven Pinker as ‘ Bold...original... exciting’, hardly begins well when Dutton proposes “to start with what we know by direct, first-hand experience: the state of the arts worldwide today.” This is quite a claim in itself, and is standard scientific procedure: to propose objectivity by working from experience. Remember, however, that this is not experience itself Dutton offers his readers. The conclusions we will be offered are a kind of meta-text based on that experience, a verbalised version of visual experiences, resulting in highly rationalised endorientated material. That aside, there also has to be objectivity in the researcher as well as the method. We are, after all, not looking at something under a microscope here. And Mr Dutton early on sets out his collection of misunderstandings for all to see: “The arts”, he proposes, “must be understood in terms of a cluster of features – skill display, pleasure, imagination, emotion, and so forth...”. Moments later he refers to the “pleasure-seeking at the heart of the artistic experience”. Art provides “emotionally moving experiences”, and in the finest examples of art, from Homer to the Romantics, the end effect is of “nobility and grandeur”, oddly classridden and outdated terminology for a scientist. What we are offered here is a vision of art as an end product of the animal kingdom’s pleasure principle, with art utterly trivialised, however complex or ‘rewarding’. Add to all this the proposal that “Darwinian aesthetics can restore the vital place of beauty, skill and pleasure as highest artistic values” and one can see Mr Dutton’s outlook on art that does not meet these criteria, art that does not propose to be beautiful or that is made without profound traditional skills. Science, then, if Mr Dutton has anything to do with it, can begin to teach artists how to behave. Having cleared up the issue of religion, it is now for science to also put art in its place. And what a place that is to be. By turning art into a matter of instinctively determined discrete qualities and characteristics, into a set of emotions, such as pleasure, abstract notions such as beauty and profound skill-based activity, Dutton’s application of science is actually the death of art by its data-driven nemesis. The lived-in mind of Monet on the banks of the Thames is quite beyond such ‘scientific’ versions of art. What scientists offer in their assessment of art is categorisation and tabulation. It’s not actually about their confrontation with or experience of art. What we get in the form of data is a truly dead thing that voids the living artist who made it.
I would contrast this kind of clinical dissection of art with the work of an actual artist: Shirazeh Houshiary, currently showing at Tate Britain (Oct 2022). Her single black canvas contribution to the show ‘Sixty Years’, called ‘Veil 1999’11, is what the artist calls “a protest against knowing”. Her work in general sets out to “explore the nature of seeing, how we perceive the world and
how we make judgements in relation to what we see.” Confronting ‘Veil’ in the gallery one initially sees a singular black square space, and only gradually begin to tune in to a smaller black square emerge in the centre. The work, I felt, offered me my own seeing eye in action as it found from moment to moment the nature of the work emerge to my looking. Houshiary is known to have spoken about how “perception is everything” and how “doubt and uncertainly are the core of what I do.” We are dealing here with art that offers an indeterminate understanding of the world, of a world emerging in the mind of a witness, and a world where uncertainty stands above certainly. If perception is everything, then understanding is secondary. This is why we go to art, and Mr Dutton’s verbal rethinkings at his desk in his university office are the antithesis of it. Compare the academic abstractions of Mr Dutton to that understanding of life in Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson’ of 1632, with the gentleman onlookers focussed on the diagrams of the anatomy book, and the naked reality of the body lying before them. This is the body, in actual life, of a petty criminal, but also, I think, the artist. For the scientist it is an exercise in converting life to diagram and by the use of diagram to action on the body. The body itself, by contrast to the audience in the painting, is so real, so actual, so entirely beyond its finely bearded and moustachioed onlookers and the kind of gaze they apply.
Finally, a word about abstract and concrete nouns, and about the trickiness of language. ‘Art’ is an abstract noun, like beauty, love and justice. Abstractions are very much part of how our minds function and you only have to take a moment to consider how that particular dog in your family home with its particular name has its abstract categorisation, as an instance of the canine species, because of the human capacity to categorise, to dismantle and to group things. We can talk about dogs as a concept and we can talk about your particular dog. But the case is rather different with pure abstractions, as with, say, justice. The abstract concept is one thing; the body of law on the statute books is another. We can’t claim a dog to be a cat, but we can build all kinds of injustices into law. We simply find it difficult to agree on what is just, in life or in law, from the child’s cry of “That’s not fair!” to the complex matters where we can all disagree about the justice metered out in a court of law. Beauty suffers from a similar problem, and the adage ‘beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’ reminds us of the difficulty of defining it at all. The beauty of the fashion model I find appalling, but I presume many would disagree, which I also find appalling! In some ways, abstract terms like this cover a lot of ground: it is hard to know what someone means exactly by stating that ‘it’s a beautiful day’. It might mean that it is a contrast to recent weather, that it is unexpectedly fine. It just might simply be a way of conveying a sense wellbeing. Visitors to my art workshop can be heard saying, at odd times, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful!’, although I can say that it was never intended to appeal to any concept of beauty at all. It might be that the word acts as a kind of ‘catch-all’. It is a conventional way of stating approval and comes easily to mind. It’s a complement. In sexual terms, beauty can merely mean ‘attracted to’, or sexually appealing. Similarly with ‘love’: I’ve never quite grasped how this word is used or what it’s referent actually is. So, when we propose to define what art is we are really trying to define a word that is not tied to its subject material, any more that beautiful is tied to a pleasant day or love to a particular object of desire. Words slip and slide, and the human mind specialises in slipping and sliding. Words are not facts; they might be better seen as mental placeholders that stabilise our environments, external and internal. I can agree that someone is beautiful, not because I have a clear sense of beauty that I am applying, but because I have a desire to assert some common term of approbation that perhaps exalts the referent, as opposed, say, to calling him/her ‘pretty’. I have no clear idea of that either, but I know, on a sliding scale, it’s less complimentary than ‘beautiful’. Art, then, will slither around as
a concept, and rightly so, because, like all these other abstract terms, it has a range of functions, including, bizarrely, invading the territory of other terms, such as ‘craft’ or ‘skill’. It can also take on newly defined arts, such as graffiti, once a visual abhorrence. It was Ernst Gombrich who raised something like this as an issue at the beginning of ‘The Story of Art‘ in his proposal that “There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.” Art, with a capital A, he proposes, “has no existence” because the abstract noun can be used for a vast range of objects and vary from age to age in its application. Mr Dutton will no doubt argue that the notion of ‘Art’ as a cluster concept can deal with all these variations in outcomes and practice. My point is somewhat different: in our all-to-human desire to categorise, to define and set boundaries on things we distort the reality of all things. We fail to, or refuse to, acknowledge the slippery nature of the world. We are determined to pin it all down. When Barnett Newman proposes that artists only make one work in their entire lives, he is reconnecting the discrete fragmentation that the human mind demands of us in ordinary everyday life. Even the individual art work is not the discrete item it might appear. In ‘Art Since 1960’ Michael Archer refers to the method of working employed by Enzo Cucchi: “Cucchi’s energetically worked surfaces drew their imagery from themselves, envisaging the act of painting as a continuous process of making, rather than a fixing of representations on canvas.” This continuous process of making is the key to understanding art, to be seen throughout the last century, from the perpetually reworked paintings of Alberto Giacometti to Kurt Schwitters’ endless development of the Merzbau collage.12 It is also the key to relocating art in the living consciousness of the artist.
My final point is an invitation: avoid visiting art galleries too much, where you will see a range of art objects, absurdly displayed in all their finality, discrete objects in the external world and no longer yours. Go to the artists’ studios and workshops if you can. See there the worlds the artists are creating. See the interconnectedness of all the things that preoccupy the artists and that are part of his/her creation act. Step away from seeking to pin everything down and punish it into objecthood. Take a walk like Richard Long or visit Martin Creed’s ‘Work No 227’. See, finally, the space that your conscious mind is creating. When you do this you will be acknowledging your mind’s fundamentally creative nature, and the real Genesis of life. Take to your garden and participate in that ancient tradition of garden-making, from the great ancient traditions of Gilgamesh, Japan and Egypt to New York City’s homeless gardens, and Eden. Take to the ongoing living art gardens of your own creative life. I’m reminded of W G Sebald’s account, in ‘The Rings of Saturn’, of one Federick Ferrar of Lowestoft and his three sisters called Violet, Rose and Iris. After retiring from the life-long barren environment of his legal duties as a judge, and his sisters now deceased, Frederick took to the creation of a garden and the breeding of rare roses, violets and irises. His wanderings in his garden, recounted by Sebald, remind me of the creation act that binds God in his Eden and Frederick’s later creative life into one. Paradoxically, we all seem to evade this understanding in the onrush of life and the tunnel vision that can accompany it. So, don’t try to fix it all down. ‘Let it be’, to quote the Beatles, and Paul McCartney’s wise mother. Then you will understand art, as long as you can also hold in mind that Art doesn’t exist. It’s you that exists, conducting your very own art event, or perhaps not, as the case may be