Art For Our Sake

Text and images of my talk given on 9th July 2017 at Conway Hall. Holly Tingley and Lawrence Mathias also gave presentations to the Conway Hall crowd.

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At one of the first speeches Nick Serota gave when he became Chair of the Arts Council he referred to the experience of art:

“First, the arts change lives.

I think that for everyone here today there will have been a moment when hearing a piece of music, reading a book, seeing a particular play or looking at a painting or a sculpture gave us a new insight into our own sensibilities, or stimulated new ways of thinking about the world, helping to shape our values.”

So, let’s take that idea for a walk…

We say we want real experiences, a sense of depth to our lives and sometimes even a sense of community.

But, why aren’t we getting these experiences? Why aren’t we going deep? And why do we sometimes avoid community?

Fear.

We worry that we might get unsettled. The balance achieved in our lives could be overturned and our safe, comfortable, existence lost.

My premise is that art can give us real experiences, depth and a sense of community, but we have to let it in… we have try new things and go beyond the safe, the comfortable and the known.

Jeanette Winterson, in her essay on Gertrude Stein in Art Objects, exposes this issue by presenting a thought experiment in which a writer tries to create something genuinely meaningful, and not just bland and repetitive:

“Suppose there was a writer who looked despairingly at her readers and who thought: ‘They are suspicious, they are conservative. They long for new experiences and deep emotions and yet fear both… How to smuggle into their homes what they would normally kill at the gate?’”

How does an artist get past this ‘conservative’ fear and demand for art to be subservient?

Following on from Jeanette Winterson’s recommendation that artists need to smuggle their art across unsuspecting audience’s horizons to prevent the usual slaughter at the gate, we come across another problem: the attention span of the audience. It seems these days that even if an artist can get their art onto the doormat of the audience’s mind they still aren’t guaranteed to make an impact. There is the decidedly annoying problem of getting them to pay attention.

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In these days of fast moving technological advancement, we seem to find ourselves all too often content in our flighty attitude of continuous-partial-engagement; that uninspiring residence of stupidity that is constantly on the alert for the next sliver of gratification. Humility and patience do not sit well with coffee-fuelled frenetic sloppy thinking. Consequently, trying to get anyone to ‘sit down and enjoy the show’ is a deeply troublesome and unrewarding task.

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In the face of such a futile and seemingly thankless undertaking, it’s not hard to notice that certain artists have got wise to the fact that their once thoughtful and emotionally susceptible audience is probably now going to send a text or take a selfie, whilst standing in front of their life’s work. Some artists, indeed, seek to rally themselves and resist the creeping miasma of contemporary dull-headedness and actively fight back with high explosive counter measures and a range of consciousness disorientating techniques to prevent such disinterest, vapidity, and moronic behaviour as we, their dubious audience, fumble in our pockets and bags to mute or answer phone calls. No real weapons are employed, but all the same we are kidnapped.

One such kidnapping took place in Colchester, in 2009. The scene of the ‘crime’ was Holy Trinity Church, a space had not been opened to the public for fifteen years.

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Conceived many centuries past to allow the maximum amount of light into its otherwise cold, damp, and dark enclosure, all the windows had to be ‘blacked out.’ When visiting the site prior to the installation of her work, Kathleen Herbert, the artist, realised that her low lit, dark palette, film would be compromised by streams of daylight pouring in from the many arched windows of the gothic space. Consequently, in an effort to allow the film to be seen, black self-adhesive plastic needed to be cut, trimmed, and placed over every window, stained or not. Scaffolding to the ready, the interior of the church was gradually cast into the permanent dead of night.

Arriving as a member of the audience means first gaining access to a previously locked cemetery within the town’s centre and then edging along a small path to the main entrance of the church. Bespoke wooden doors allow entry into Holy Trinity’s portico. From here, an invigilator informs you of what is to be expected inside the church; makes you aware of health and safety matters; opens the inner doors to grant you access; and then finally closes the inner doors behind you. Unbeknownst to you, of course, partaking and agreeing to all the preceding activity swiftly delivers you into the kidnapper’s grasp. Every movement and interaction that went before has led you to a place that can not be walked away from with any simplicity or ease.

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Unlike standing in front of a painting in a museum and then moving on to the next without a moment’s thought, a trap silently awaits your entrance and then quietly closes behind you just at the moment when you begin to grapple with the realisation that you are in an extremely dark space and have no real knowledge of where you are. At first you can’t even make out your own hand in front of your face and you have to wait for your eyes to acclimatise in the darkness so that you can meekly shuffle forward across the smooth cold stone floor, which gently undulates beneath your feet. The artist due to the diligent execution of their kidnap has triumphantly gained your attention and you are effectively blindfolded whilst you agree to their demands. Once inside the church and having taken a few faltering steps toward what you dimly perceive as the film screen, your commitment becomes total. You will now watch the film and not simply walk away as you would from a painting in a museum.

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There are, of course, many other types of kidnap. The list is probably endless, but to build a fuller idea of the power employed it is perhaps worthwhile exploring one further illustration in detail.

In February 2005, New York City found it’s much beloved Central Park the subject of intense activity over the course of a few months prior to a grand unveiling which, as the saying goes, ‘the like of which had never been seen before’. Two artists, the husband and wife team that was Jean-Claude and Christo, finally managed to activate a long-held ambition for the city of New York and put into place a spectacular artwork that stretched the length and breadth of the city’s largest park. The installation of The Gates, was an immense tour de force.

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7,500 gates, each twelve feet tall with a five foot saffron coloured fabric panel hanging beneath a cross bar attached to two uprights posts, would be spaced at ten to fifteen foot intervals throughout Central Park’s winding pathway system.

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And on 12th February 2005, after all of this activity, Christo and Jean Claude’s audience trickled through the many entrances to the park and began to walk among the gates themselves.

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Their experience was akin to being eight years old, waking up on a cold winter’s morning to discover that it had snowed deeply outside. To wander through those gates on that first day and discover how their vibrant colour and shape re-animated the already beautiful park was breath-taking. The feat of engineering and project management had yielded its payoff and delivered to thousands an experience that changed the most hard-nosed and cynical native New Yorker into a wide-eyed child, once again filled with wonder, curiosity, and the possibility of hope.

A few days later Manhattan, succumbed to a recent vogue for deep snow in February and the magic was doubled.

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Any park in snow is a special place that disrupts the normal grind of daily routine, but to have the gates intertwined within such a setting was a unique encapsulation of beauty and it induced child-like wonder in all. However, getting lucky with the snow in no way should overshadow the achievement of the gates upon their audience. The experience of the gates themselves in their execution was awe-inspiring, and it is this quality that belongs solely to the artists because they managed that rare thing of kidnapping hearts.

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Gates, then, aren’t all bad. As well as being smuggled past they can be artistically used for widening audiences experience, perception and understanding. Jean-Claude and Christo’s use of play within their installation worked. It got audiences to engage, to forget their usual ways of understanding the world and it got past their barriers, their internal gates. There was no fear, audiences were out of their comfort zone and having rich and powerful experiences. Art was doing its job.

Now, when I agreed to participate in this talk that was going to be my finishing point.

A couple of weeks ago that changed when I came downstairs to see the final pieces of Raquel  exhibition Transitions being installed.

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Like everyone in this room, I’m sure, I have been appalled by the plight of refugees over the past few years and also the dehumanizing responses by those on the hard right that we have had to witness in our once open and tolerant society. However, also, possibly like some and certainly not all of you, I have shielded myself from the full impact of the refugee plight. I’ve read the news, followed the events and been stunned by the horror of human tragedy… but at the same time I have always preserved a distance and not let myself get too affected by the individual stories and onslaught of news items.

That changed one Friday, two weeks ago.

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I stood looking at Abou, the human in the suitcase and made myself let the work into my mind. I rationally thought about and understood what was going on in the painting and probably even puffed out my cheeks, widened my eyes and breathed out in a gesture of incomprehension at how someone could go through that torment of claustrophobia.

I then turned to the interpretation panel opposite. As always, when reading such panels I glanced and skimmed across to find something that catches my eye before I choose to read in a more considered manner. This time my skimming resulted in one word standing out in front of all the others. ‘Boy’…

This is one of the words I use to call my nine-year old son. “Hey, Boy, up and at ‘em, school today.” The realisation that the human in the suitcase was someone’s son and that the parents faced such a terrible choice as to his survival that he ended up in a suitcase came like a wave of emotion to me as I spun back round to look at the painting again. The blood drained from my head to my feet and I felt like I was punched in the stomach. Fortunately, this experience happened at the end of the day and feeling quite overwhelmed emotionally I made my way home. That evening as I described what happened to my wife the obvious emotion outcome occurred and I burst into tears.

Raquel’s art had managed to do in practice, here at Conway Hall, what I have described in the preceding text and images. Her work had made a genuine connection with me and got past the gate of my rationality that protects me from the horror and suffering of those around me whilst at the same time allowing the continuation of my privileged ‘western’ aloofness from such misery. Her work had catapulted me out of my emotional numbness, as she explained later when I met with her, and into a new space of emotional integrity and depth. The potential depth of experience and emotions that Nick Serota and Jeanette Winterson wrote about had reached out, gripped hold and shaken me. In those moments, art had connected me as a human to that suffering experience of Abou and his parents. Art had suspended my self-protective shield and given me back some of my humanity.

That’s what art can do.
That’s why culture matters
And that’s why art is for our sake.