State of the ArtThis is the text of a lecture given at Maltby Contemporary Art Gallery, Winchester, in 2003
l to r: Leonardo da Vinci, Gilbert and George, Sarah Lucas, The Chapman Brothers, Julian Schnabel, Michelangelo
I have always liked a sketch that Peter Cook used to do in Beyond the Fringe, years ago. He is in his character E L Whisty and talking about working down a coal mine. At one point he bemoans the level of conversation in the mine. It consists he says mostly of people saying ‘Allo – I’ve found a piece of coal’ the response to which is ‘O jolly good – just the thing we’re looking for!’ Whisty heaves a sigh after describing this at great length and says ‘Its not enough to keep the mind alive is it’.
Well I have been doing a bit of research for tonight’s session. I’ve been looking at what involved people – critics and artists – have been saying about contemporary art. And E L Whisty’s phrase kept coming to mind.
I do not want to talk about the actual works on show these days – not even those at the Turner prize exhibition - although some reference is inevitable. What concerns me here is the state of the ongoing conversation, the discussion about art and the intellectual level of that discussion.
I know it is easy to take things out of context and make fun of them – so I’m going to do a bit of that – although I hope you will see that I am working towards a serious point. So let me first have a little run through of some of the things I have found over the last week.
‘My claim is that the value of a work of art as a work of art is intrinsic to the work in the sense that it is (determined by) the intrinsic value of the experience the work offers (so that if it offers more than one experience, it has more than one artistic value or an artistic value composed of these different artistic values). It should be remembered that the experience a work of art offers is an experience of the work itself and the valuable qualities of a work are qualities of the work, not of the experience it offers. It is the nature of the work that endows the work with whatever artistic value it possesses, this nature is what is experienced undergoing the experience the work offers; and the work’s artistic value is the intrinsic value of this experience. So a work of art is valuable as art if it is such that the experience it offers is intrinsically valuable; and it is valuable to the degree that this experience is intrinsically valuable’.
Now I think I almost understand that – no perhaps I don’t - but the manner of its exposition is so unfathomable as to make it seem not worthwhile unravelling. I gave up and moved onto interviews between critics and artists. This is an extensive field now with interviews on many web sites like the Tate’s or in glossy magazines like Modern Painters. I admit that a great deal of this is self-parody or that menace of today’s art ‘irony’ but that makes no difference in the long run to the point I am making.
From the Journal of Contemporary Art, admittedly of about 4 years ago I found an interview with Jake and Dinos Chapman, the sculptors. In the transcript I found they seem to talk with one voice which is a bit odd. However they seem to have a rapport with their interviewer, speaking in the same language. At first I thought this was a spoof and I’m still not quite sure.
This is a taster:
MD: Bedsides alluding to instability, vulnerability and mortality, your anatomical phantasmagoria seem to suggest anarchistic unleashing of forces capable of intense transformation. Is your playground of images a metaphorical flight from various authoritarian enclosures?
D and J: No. Mortality is committed to the physical phobia of entropy. Even ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ frame the organism in a non superconductive state weighed down by burgeoning effects of gravity. The Freud-Newtonian theory of resistances suggests neurosis as an inefficient or blocked passage of energy residing within the organism, while psychosis suggests superconductive discharge because it is uninhibited. The body can be jettisoned beyond identity, ostensibly because it is obsolete.
I have no idea what that means. Nor this question.
D: The efflorescence of excess, mannerism and perversity is one of the most exciting features of your work. In the Fuckface series, for instance, mutant nude children depicted with arseholes for mouths and penises for noses, or fused into Siamese twin anatomies. This would seem to suggest that clarity of vision would also require a clarity or harmony of situation that is in rare supply today. Are you structuring provocation out of a rhetoric of the controversial and contestable? Is there any image that you would consider both a capable and viable response to today’s nanosecond spectacle? Does your image of violence attempt to counter the bankruptcy of the collective gaze with shock value?
Well the sculptures might be very good and effective, I’m not talking about the work, but is this kind of impenetrable language necessary or useful. What purpose does it serve? What kind of communication is here?
Lets move on to others from the current generation. This is Sarah Lucas and she speaks a different language:
SL: I don’t know really. . . . I mean, I never liked getting out of bed in the morning. I never really had a proper job – I had lots of jobs, but none which required me to get out of bed five days a week in the morning. I think that had a lot to do with wanting to be an artist.
I: You started producing work that was incredibly elaborate, and the process of making these pieces, particularly the cigarette ones, was very laborious. .
SL: Because I’m pervy.
Are you now much more interested in process, or was it a response to the people who said you couldn’t do it?
SL: Well, I’ve always been interested in it. I’ve always liked to use my hands and I do use a few trad materials. I’ve made quite a lot of things out of plaster in a rough way. And then I just started doing things with the cigarettes. I mean, I dunno, everything’s much more similar than it looks.
Some lines from Julian Schnabel from an interview with David Bowie in Modern Painters:
JS One of them (paintings that have a greater resonance for JS) is St. Sebastian. that painting with the veins on it or whatever. I think that’s a very emblematic painting for me about who I am. Always was. I sold it for 1,200, bought it back for 90,000 years ago. Yeah, I love the image of that guy with the arrows in him.
Well – that’s good news for everyone exhibiting downstairs in Maltby Contemporary Art.
I did find this which you might find interesting, especially for that last minute Christmas present idea. Its for those tired of reading stuff I’ve been quoting and need a refreshingly new look at art.
Its a book - ‘Van Gogh’s Table at the Auberge Ravoux’ - by Alexandra Leaf and Fred Leeman. The review says. .
I want to end this part by quoting something from Gilbert and George. This is from an interview with the Late David Sylvester:
Gilbert: We made a big decision a long time ago – that we are it, and with all our failures and everything. With all our complications, that’s what’s important. We are not it only being brilliant, we are it with everything, and that is why it works, because we accept it all in that form which is in front of us.
George: One of the first rules for ourselves was ‘Never discuss’. That was in 1970.
This is the problem at its base. I noticed that in many reflections by contemporary artists this, to me awful, rejection of any real analysis. As if there was something very wrong or bad about asking a serious questions about art and its processes and purposes. Time and again I saw it – Marti Creed (turner prize winner) quoted as saying he is a believer in mystery and dislikes trying to explain his work – ‘I feel I’ve been talking too much about my work because sometimes I hear myself saying the same things I’ve said before and I don’t like that’.
In the past artists have been at the forefront of intellectual development in the western world. We know, for example, that Michelangelo’s early philosophy was moulded by his association with the intellectuals surrounding Lorenzo de Medici, the Neo-Platonists. That Renaissance artists of the highest repute were respected both as practitioners of their art and as thinkers in their own right. In the enlightenment, in all cultured centres of Europe artists were recognised as following an equally profound and complex route as the philosophers and writers of the age. Up to the last half of this last century intellectual development in the world included its expression and exploration in the visual arts. Now that seems to have changed. One only has to look at the Tate Modern’s web site at the moment and listen to Damien Hurst talking about his new installation ‘Pharmacy’. The level of discussion would be rejected out of hand in any other artistic or intellectual discipline as complete piffle. And this from one of the great public institutions which should as its hallmark insist on some intellectual rigour.
Well – what has happened? It seems to me that the discussion has lost its way. That the post modern wave (its impossible title being indicative of mental confusion) has crashed onto indifferent rocks and is now seeping into the sand seems obvious. The deconstruction of works of art has seemed like a child taking a toy to pieces out of curiosity and not knowing how to put it back together again. And the pieces lie there useless and the child wonders why it doesn’t work any more.
My own response to this situation is that of deep, stultifying boredom. Its not even funny – I haven’t found a decent joke in all my rummaging. I have looked for years for a way forward into the dizzy heights of what I always suspected art was capable of – of being a fundamentally important part of life where the great adventure of life can be augmented and explored, the most exciting arena for discovery and high emotion. I didn’t find it years ago in myself, nor in the seventies when I started, nor in any movement or fashion since. The reverse – the potential meaning and vitality of art seemed to me to be dribbling away into fashionable, shallow posing, and of an art eternally referring to art. I discovered that I wasn’t really interested in art – I was interested in life and that any art I responded to had to be totally entwined with life itself to have meaning or a sense of adventure.
It has only been in the last few years that I have discovered that there is another way of looking at things of this nature. And I discovered it not in the art world but in the world of science. In particular I found it in the extraordinary and revolutionary ideas and discoveries being at this moment revealed by research into the ways our brains function. The revelations that are currently available in this relatively new science are quite startling and the implications not only for artists but also for society in general are immense. I would say having considered this revolution for some time now that it will have a more profound effect on human life than those other great revolutions of the past, say the Copernican or the Darwinian revelations about the universe and our place in it. That’s a big statement.
OK - let me begin by giving you some concrete examples of what I am talking about.
However, over the last 15 years or so new technologies have arrived along with those scientists and thinkers with the imagination and curiosity to use them which is in the process right now of dismantling these old stances. So lets have a look at one or two examples from recent research. These seem slight on first hearing – but on reflection the ramifications become more and more disturbing:
Surgeons recently discovered ‘despair’ in a patient. That is they were carrying out a familiar operation on a woman who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. It entails trying to find a clump of neurons in the brain which control tremor. By accident they put the electric probe into a nearby area and suddenly the women, who was fully conscious, started crying and moaning and was in deep distress. She said ‘I don’t want to live any more – I’m disgusted with life’ This person had no record whatsoever of depression in her life. When the probe was removed she was back to her normal self. They continued the next day, in carefully controlled conditions, with this treatment and discovered they could turn this normal and relatively happy woman into a suicidal depressive at the touch of an electrode.
A further instance of this was during another wide-awake operation on the brain, where the surgeons were trying to locate the seat of a young woman’s epilepsy. Again the surgeons happened to touch a neighbouring area of the brain. At this point the patient started to giggle. They asked what was funny. There seemed nothing around to laugh at in the operating theatre. She said – ‘You guys – standing around – you’re so – funny!’ Later they touched the same spot and she burst into hysterical laughter and pointed to an inoffensive calendar picture of a horse saying – ‘the horse! It’s so funny!’.
A further idea worth contemplating is our knowledge that the areas of the brain devoted to one function often overlap with their neighbours. Have a think about the fact those areas which react to genital stimulation are very close to those which react to stimulation and control of the feet. Perhaps a clue to not only foot fetishism but also to the popularity of reflexology.
Further and more dramatically it has been discovered that there are areas of the temporal lobe of the brain which, if stimulated, will produce in the subject feelings of intense religious transcendence and in which the patients describe a feeling of oneness with the universe and an ecstatic feeling of love for the whole of life. It has also been shown that people who have slightly larger temporal lobes than is usual are much more likely to experience religious feelings or revelations than others.
These are pockets of emotional reactions residing in the brain simply waiting for the right trigger in the real world to give rise to their appearance in the conscious mind. Before now we have been at their mercy, reacting to each stimulus and treating that reaction as a profound indicator of our own identity. We have often found trying to control both our emotions and the resultant demanded action extremely difficult. Quite simply that situation is now no longer the case. Not only can physical or electrical intervention in the brains operation produce these feelings at will, there are also drugs being produced now which can alter not only our states of mind but our very personalities – our ‘sacred’ sense of self. These are becoming more and more sophisticated and can be targeted with greater and greater accuracy at particular centres of the emotional and intellectual operations of the brain. This is happening now in laboratories all over and it will not be long before these investigations start showing a real in effect in everyday life.
What we are now doing in effect is watching the brain create meaning in life itself – that is watching the processes which make emotion, invent situations and relationships, construct meaning and morals from an indifferent and amoral universe.
These ideas are often, in my experience, repellent to people. It seems as if everything that gave meaning to their lives and the under pinning of their essential sense of self is being taken away from them. Well – in a sense I’m afraid it is. The old sense of human identity is being washed away. The perceived authority of personal or received revelation or inspiration about the outside world, based on an emotional response to our perceptions of life, is weakened almost to nothing. A potentially terrifying image is being put before us. However, looked at another way – what we are being handed is the unprecedented chance to take control of ourselves. We have the chance to take full responsibility for our actions and to over-ride outdated structures in the psyche which having been produced by evolution and are now useless and often damaging to both the individual in particular and society in general. One can state here as illustration the fact that our brains are absolutely brilliant at making generalisations from scant information – they thereby construct stereotypes which our super-egos have to fight with tooth and nail to over-ride and avoid the potential misjudgements inherent in this system. Before we became self-conscious creatures the moral implications of a number of brain systems like these were of no importance. The trouble is we still have them and they are of crucial importance. The extraordinary fact is that we may soon be able to alter that set-up. And we don’t need genetic engineering to do it.
We must grasp these ideas immediately or it is quite obvious that they could be used for oppressive and negative purposes. They certainly must be brought into the public domain and wrested from those who might manipulate them for their own ends – the drug companies and oppressive or dictatorial political or religious organisations. I’ll leave that there and go onto out main subject.
I believe that it is in this area of research that a new and vital adventure is being offered to artists - if they are willing to take some of these ideas on board an re-examine their motivations and accepted ideas about how art works and about its purpose. This is where I believe the deeper discussion should go. It must, because not only will the basic premises of political thought, social organisation and the very sense of the individual self need to be re-assessed, but the position, use and motivation of art and artists re-examined.
My own view is that this must lead us back to basics. We must ditch self-referential art about art, social posing, shock tactics and, if I might say, sensation seeking art. We must strip the thing down again and look at not only the effect of colours and shapes and optical illusions on our brains but look at the way art-works can be involved in the highest and the lowest emotional and intellectual states of the lived human experience – and this in the clear light of, or rather hand in hand with, a scientific approach. This will not dissipate the wonder, mystery and awesome nature of being alive in the world, but will enhance it, give it a base from which to launch out into new explorations. It has the possibility of regenerating art and placing it once again in the very centre of human interest and activity. If one is looking for a cutting edge – this is it with a vengeance.
The implications for my own work have been of great interest to me. It has led me to discover certain extremely interesting, well vital, aspects of my own work and the work of others and to think about how art makes its effects on the psyche. For instance – I now believe that effective art makes use of paradox as a way of forging its way through the everyday learned and accepted manner of perceptio and marries an external experience to a subconscious archetypal feeling. In this it it colours or brings to life the numinous experience of life hidden from out day to day transactions.
This research has also lead me to examine which emotions and accompanying reactions, produced by these paradoxes, are not only the most powerful and awe-inspiring or delicate and sensitive but also, which are beneficial to me and which are useless or damaging. This has become a stimulating dialogue with myself, using the created image as a mirror, but a mirror which talks back. It is part of an exploration of the self I can pursue with greater efficacy with some knowledge of how my brain is working. It is a way to greater consciousness.
It has also led me into this marvellous and almost infinite world of wonder which is enclosed within our skulls. Because some latest research is indicating that the real situation we are living in the world is one in which we are dreaming ourselves into existence. That that dream is entirely of human construction and that it only has to alter slightly when a piece of matter is, as it were, tripped over. This dream of life, the human dream of life, through the new revelations about brain function I have been talking about, is open as never before for our own construction. We have the possibility of becoming truly our own creators. Or rather we not only can create ourselves but recreate ourselves and that over and over. In art we can explore that dream and go about the, not deconstruction, but reconstruction of ourselves and our work in a freedom unheard of in any previous era of human existence. This is the way into a great adventure. And its an adventure artists must either take part in or be left behind – become a species of flat-earthers of little relevance in a world where creation and recreation is happening elsewhere. Better to jump on the brain train.