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What is Art?

posted 15 Aug 2010, 09:33 by Taymaz Valley   [ updated 7 Feb 2013, 15:53 ]

The crowd ascend the steps of the Wisbech and Fenland Museum, walking through the carefully organised displays of antiques and artefacts detailing ages from prehistoric to different civilization succeeding one another throughout history; they reach another entrance which is being contemplated by an ancient marble Buddha on the opposite side of the hall. Indeed this entrance is for the Atelier East 5th Annual Summer Exhibition and like a well placed time portal transports the visitor to contemporary times and artists who represent our own age. The room dedicated to the Summer Exhibition differs only in light; all other aspects including the works of art being displayed sit comfortably within the milieu of the Museum.

This opening night is a triumph and I always take pleasure in meeting fellow artists and art enthusiasts who share my passion for art. This Summer Exhibition has attracted works by artists ranging from local to all over UK as well as international artists and the organisation and the use of space is immaculate as always. I take a glass of Red and start my observation of different pieces being showcased. I notice a wall being dedicated to SAC Young Artists’ pieces which had I not read the labels would have assumed was done by professional artists. This fortuitous discovery prompts the question of who is an Artist, and indeed what is Art?

All children create art as part of their learning process, however for them there is a play element which they innocently explore until what they create goes further than what is seen as expression and it becomes muddled half finished sentences, as though they were bored with one idea whist they were expressing it and readily moved onto another within the same work. This is fundamentally what is different between the art produced by children and those who become interested in Art later on and rediscover the joy of producing artwork. So next time you find yourself in front of a Jackson Pollock please remember that a child could not have produced such complicated emotional work. SAC Young Artist exhibiting are just those who have rediscovered art and are on their way to finding their voice within the creating process. Brandon Mattless ‘Bottles’, Beth Keeley ‘Kung Fu Hedgehog’, After Van Gogh (Night Cafe) by Bethanie Eaglen and all other Young Artists’ work are finished thoughts and cannot have been produced by children, yet they contain a harmony and balance that lacks in older artists. Take Bethanie Eaglen’s homage to Van Gogh as an example: Vincent’s Café Terrace at Night is indeed a twisted emotional piece which produces a feeling of despair and self-destruction and is not what Eaglen had in mind; her homage is actually to that of hope and merriment which is evident by her use of bright colours and harmony which one finds invoked by her work. Vincent later on painted the Café again using similar contrasting colours writing: “I have tried to express the idea that the café is a place where one can ruin oneself, go mad or commit a crime. So I have tried to express, as it were, the powers of darkness in a low public house, by soft Louis XV green and malachite, contrasting with yellow-green and harsh blue-greens, and all this in an atmosphere like a devil’s furnace, of pale sulphur. And all with an appearance of Japanese gaiety, and the good nature of Tartarin” He also wrote: “It is colour not locally true from the point of view of the stereoscopic realist, but colour to suggest the emotion of an ardent temperament.” Indeed by labelling her work Night Cafe unintentionally and rightly Eaglen’s work is being separated from that of Vincent’s, which produces a piece that can be done only by her and evokes emotions deservingly unique to an original. In simple terms the question of mortality and death which was so bound to Vincent Van Gogh’s notion of art is less evident in the piece being exhibited, yet one cannot deny it still exists unconsciously in all artworks even those of SAC Young Artists.

And that is my point, all art created by man throughout history is an unconscious attempt of escaping our mortality, be they cave paintings in France, Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath, Manet’s Cut Flowers to Damien Hirst’s Diamond Skull. What we create is there to help us deal with our self conscious sense which we can claim unique only to us humans. You might point out that not all pieces being exhibited are alike in genre or even style; however I would argue that they all contain that desire so bound to our unconscious. Most figurative works in the Summer Exhibition like: You Were So Smart Then by Benedict Mayer; Memory by Yi-Han Chen; Woman in Blue and Ochre and Deep Reflection by Prue Pye; Nude by Rachel Ashby; Untitled by Moria Lahis; Reflective by Karen Radenkova; apart from the definitive portraits, share a common feature and that is the obscurity of facial features, those features which make us alive and recognisable are missing; as if the figures, who we must assume are still alive because of the contemporary nature of the works, are but a memory preserved for the future generation. It is their presence in the past which matters, not their features which we put so much importance on when we are alive. It is the idea of them which matters. We do not need to recognise them; we know that they are beautiful. A beauty which is timeless and immortal. No other work in the exhibition illustrates this notion more coherently than Hopes & Fears by Stuart Bush. The man in this painting seems like he is dissolving because we can observe the buildings through his arm. His face has no recognizable features, only outline of spectacles are visible and so we recognize him as a presence. The buildings behind him and the road he is walking on are solid, yet the man is not, he is perishing right before our eyes. But the artist knows even buildings and roads do not last forever, and eventually they will end which is why the road dissolves towards the edge of the painting. The streams of colour left on the unpainted canvas seem to awaken us to the fact that this is only a painting after all and what will survive it is the idea he presented, just like the idea of the man and the buildings and the roads. And isn’t that what Art does? Communicate an idea which awakens in us an emotion we might have forgotten or unconsciously repressed?

I cannot help but to think of all these works as beautiful. I have no interest in intellectual aesthetics and academic rules which govern certain schools of art. What interests me is the idea being expressed and communicated. Beauty has come to be dismissed in art for generation after generation and replaced by a form of anti religious ideology which forces artworks to seemingly cater for a few elitist groups. I do not think religion has the monopoly on beauty in the same way that it has stopped having the monopoly on light. For centuries light was associated with morally good and in particular religiously approved good against evil; however within our own secular society we have seen light return to represent what is good in art. In similar manner I can see beauty returning to reclaim its rightful place in art. When speaking of beauty one no longer has to picture holy radiant beauty which only virginal blessed or angelic supernatural beings posses. One can find beauty in all that exists and all that is being expressed. Take Christine Pike’s Archangel as an example with its crimson receding hair and wings resembling Lucifer being immortalized in stone, and one cannot help find it beautiful and sacred. One can also see the beauty in the very expressionist work of Dixie Turner titled Night Vision. And art posses that quality of being sacred which predates monotheism and polytheism. One can observe the sacred nature of art in the African Tribal and Aboriginal works. So one must assume, based on abundant evidence, that the beauty of art and the attraction it holds sacred in societies is not unique to religion, however it is related to the question of mortality and the desire for finding immortality. One can see these sacred qualities in Behold, Blessed, Beloved by Tim Howley; Venetian Tile by Jenny Furlong; Celestial Sphere by Samora Sanders –Yeboah and also West Facade by Helen Breach; or in the very creative work by Karen Fevyer titled Buttons.

When we talk of beauty we are not referring to physical beauty only of course, we are referring to what is appealing and desirable to us in all its aspects. They say art is subjective, and I tend to agree with that because what I find beautiful you might not, however that is beside the point. What matters is the fact that beauty exists within art, and I find certain pieces beautiful whereas others I give importance to because of the skills being portrayed by the artist or the techniques being used. I find Aldhams Barn by Verity Mansfield thoroughly beautiful, not just because of the style and technique used by the artist but because it produced a very secular sacred feeling in me, as though I could happily wake up every morning and spend my time exploring the work. The painting itself could not posses less colour, and when you find out that I spend years studying the impressionist, you might ask yourself why would I be attracted to this piece; and that is precisely my point, with Mansfield I am being transported somewhere deeper than my conscious, somewhere much darker in depth of my psyche. The gray Barn amidst darkness is where my unconscious comes alive, and my desire takes me further until I start comparing the painting with other beautiful unprecedented things. I am reminded of the first time I read Chekhov, I am being reminded of my first time falling in Love, I am being transported to the first time I saw a red toy train in the shop window on New Year 1985 and was actually given it as present the next day. There is a link between what we find beautiful and what our desire searches in all. This desire is much more complicated than desire to posses, eat, drink or sexual desire so essential to Freudian ideas of unconscious, although not unrelated; because all these desires are bound to the desire of escaping nothingness. We seek immortality, or more coherently we desire immortality and this is what we find in the beautiful. Evolutionary Theorists link this desire to the need to pass on our genes in terms of survival, and following their ideology when we find someone beautiful we want to produce offspring with them and thus survive. However for them this is an instinct built into us through millions of years of natural selection; however I would dispute that this desire is linked to desire for the beautiful because we cannot explain the affinity toward one’s own sex through this theory.  The desire for immortality can be linked to desire for the beautiful because we are aware of mortality with its inevitable path. We revere our dead, we build shrines to their memory; our cemeteries are filled with headstones trying to keep their idea alive because we know we will want to be remembered too. Life must not be in vain, and this doctrine is the corner stone of all sacred ideology, and indeed all human endeavours. I am reminded of this notion when I find Karen Harvey’s Japanese Vase which for me has the beauty and sacred nature of an urn; or when I see the photograph by Moria Lahis which for me tries to capture that very significant moment of a child’s life visiting the beach with one’s mother which one might have suppressed in fear of dealing with one’s mortality.  So this question must be explored further: is all art we find beautiful linked to our desire for immortality?

I finally find myself face to face with that enchanting painting by Bob Davis titled Sun Below Cloud Over Sun which brings my thoughts into a conclusion. The painting posses light in its glorious illumination shining from the division between the Heavens and Hades, as if the artists is placing us where we belong: on earth where it is far more brighter than anywhere else our imagination might take us. Bellow the horizon there is darkness just like the depth of our unconscious where the desires are born driving us up toward our consciousness. Above the horizon the faint light dictates our memory, our ideas and beauty which we leave behind and communicate after our inevitable end. But the horizon is light, it is where we are, it is where hope shines, it is where the power of art lies. I do, I make, I express, I communicate, and therefore I am. Evolution for mankind differs from that of other animals, because we keep sacred what could improve our lives. We learn from the past, so that our future might improve. For me Art does precisely that. Art brings beauty which in turn immortalizes our ideas, so that maybe, just maybe tomorrow someone might be inspired to do better.