What is art? And what does it do for you? and to you?
As we walked through the arty end of Glasgow, along something of a back street, we passed the window of an art studio. We peered inside. We saw a surprisingly large white room containing large bright coloured red cubes arranged across the floor.
My first thought was – this is a very expensive space in a prime city centre location to use for free-to-view art. Why not open an arty cafe or a bookshop and make a bit of money? I liked the visual impact, but it seemed a remarkably generous gesture to provide such a clear free-of-charge view from the pavement.
“It’s rubbish” was the corporate derisory critique of my companions. “I could produce that in 10 minutes” one of them added. As we walked on, we rehearsed the familiar debate about the value of so-called modern art. Must art require skill and application to be worthwhile? Are not the great classic artists admired for their technical skill, their intricate brushwork or precision chiseling?
But then, weren’t they also mainly trying to produce visual replication of reality? This required skillful accuracy of line, shape and shade. We have digital camera for that now, with endless special effects. One can admire Roget for compiling his painstaking Thesaurus, but now we have computers to do the leg-work in seconds. Has not the camera now liberated art to be just that – art? Art for art’s sake?.
If “realism” in art requires precision of skill and technique, what about abstract art? It’s harder for the uninitiated to see skill in abstract art. A mistake in a straight portrait is easier noticed. But did Picasso labour for months over each Cubist creations or slap a quick weird face together after a few glasses of red?
Actually, I don’t think it matters. What matters – as with most things in life – is the output, not the input. The output is the art. The input is the craft and the graft – just a means to an end. It is often simplicity – not complexity and detail – which requires the greater artistry and imagination.
Once created, the artist has done her or his part. The impact andinterpretation is then crystallised in the eyes of each subsequent beholder. Which well may be “rubbish” or stunning or a diverse kaleidoscope of other responses. Just as we all like different music or literature; we all like, or dislike, different visual art. It doesn’t make it any less art for our not liking it.
So the big coloured cubes were art – whether they took 5 minutes or 5 months to design, build, paint and position. And whether my companions and I liked them or not. The fact we disagreed on this, actually made them all the more successful at being art.
So if art is art whether we like it or not, or whether it was crafted or not, is everything art? Is a flower art? Is a piece of string? What about my slippers? Are piles of bricks art? What about an unmade bed or slices of sheep in formaldehyde?
The answer is, of course, all of these may or may not be art. I think anything is art if it has an aesthetic value and-or has something to say.
The aesthetic value is easier to see. Colour, shape, texture, rhythm, shade and melody all produce aesthetics. I saw a painting once in the Tate Modern which was simply bright ochre with a line of vivid red paint slapped across the top. It was stunning in its impact – in its simplicity. Armed with a couple of tins of Dulux and a brush, I reckon I could recreate it in 5 minutes. But I was equally bowled over by seeing an original intricate Monet in – of all places – Las Vegas, which I could never replicate with all the paint in the world. Both paintings made a powerful and purely visual impact.
After our cameo debate, my companions went off to watch some (rather artistic) sport, whilst I took the opportunity to visit the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA). I paid the suggested £3 voluntary donation and admired the pure balance and beauty of the circular staircase running up to the galleries.
The ground floor exhibit was an island of thirty or so old television sets each looping a 2-3 minute film. Nothing aesthetic about this. But it was captivating. The screen facing the door had a hand with a finger beckoning me irresistibly towards it. Around either side were a variety of cameos films – an uncomfortable number of which showed men handling dangerous snakes. Another was of Captain Kirk seducing a woman from some 1960s Star Trek episode.
Maybe Kirk was a being a snake, but I eventually crystallised the broader message. Each film was an example of anticipation, temptation or danger – the cliff hanger. The need to know what happened next was hypnotic. It was almost impossible not to watch to the end. Here was art without aesthetics – meaning without beauty.
Climbing the stairs, I was drawn by a large painting of some hybrid between a spider and a woman, with her front four feet crushing four screaming babies. I stood in front of this piece, rather transfixed for at least 5 minutes, admiring the impact and reading the detail. I searched out a meaning – why did it engross me so? I surfaced a black widow, the angry feminist, the tragedy of the desperate mother. Now it was getting uncomfortable.
Good art asks important questions of us. Good art prompts us to ask important questions of the art. Finding the answers is not always so important as asking the questions. Good art stirs us and moves us, without us always knowing why.
It can be modern, classical, abstract or realistic, easy to make or difficult to make. If it leaves us cold or indifferent, it is indeed rubbish – for us at least.
I left the Gallery of Modern art. It was pouring down on the grey Glasgow streets. Under the gothic frontage of the gallery, a few dozen people were sheltering. A guy was playing Sound of Silence on the “play me” piano – beautifully. He did so without music, his fingers dancing effortlessly across the keys. This is an evocative song from my childhood. I stood still and listened. The provocative TV films and the scary woman-spider were swirling inside my head. As I listened, I watched the rain bounce off the shiny paving stones. I felt mellow and melancholy and yet also quietly inspired – without really knowing why. Was that a tear or a raindrop on my cheek?
I guess that’s what good art does does to you. I walked on with a little bit of (Scottish) art in my heart.
(1) Moyna Flannigan – Manan, 2014