Letter to the Artist's Mother
An open letter to my mother for whom conceptual art galleries are anathema.
I visited a group exhibition yesterday called Pokoje VI that I know you would have hated. Of the 62 rooms which were showcasing as many multidisciplinary 'art schools‘ from around the Czechia there were perhaps only four items of the thousand there which you might have called art. Three nice Statues and one bad painting.
"What on earth were the other nine hundred and ninety eight things?" you ask.
I have attached photos of some of the exhibits. Photos which will no doubt make you angry, frustrated, confused and/or sad.
Before you look at the pictures I would just like to say something in defence of what you will see. I would also urge you to read this letter to the end; my conclusion may not be exactly what you expect.
I will not make you like this art any better but I hope to help you understand it better.
First please indulge me. I would like to share two quotes.
- A bystander has no right to complain of something with which he has nothing to do. An appreciator facing a work of art has no need to question the fact that it is different. He should simply recognise that it is different, and then try to see on the basis of the work whether the artist's sentiments are based on something false or on his innate sincerity. - Takamura Kotaro
- Modern art rejects all the means of pleasing that were employed by the greatest artists of the past.- Guillaume Apollinaire
I choose these not to reinforce my ever failing argument with you that there is often more to a piece of art than meets the eye, but to point out that these quotes were made in 1910 and 1912 respectively. These attitudes were propounded 30 something years before your own birth.
For most working artists the term 'Modern Art' itself applies only to old art. While your own mother was but a twinkle in her father's eye, millions were already being introduced to Picasso, Matisse and Malevich. I ask you to think about that. In 1915 Malevich painted his famous plain Black Square. He also painted a famous white square on a white square. 102 years ago!
In 1930, as a result of his work, Malevich was interrogated and jailed for two months. He had been accused of 'formalism', and his paintings, classed amongst the Russian nation's 'lowliest treasures', were stored for years deep deep in the soviet archives. Those monochrome paintings were clearly more than just 'bad' paintings of nothing.
Now this does not in any way mean that you should have to 'like' it, but take a moment to wonder at his century-old arguments for their existence and his own longevity and subsequent influence in the art world.
Have you done that? Now let's try an experiment. I will now show you one of the exhibits from yesterday.
Shocking stuff. On Hybernska street in Prague 1 where the Pokoje VI exhibition was, there were no riots, no protests, no noticeable bad reviews even.
So what of Pokoje's contributer's provocative work? Let me show you a few more.
"Who are they trying to provoke and why?" you ask.
I don't know.
I myself was filled with doubts about the worth of the artworks on display and there were many I disliked. The general atmosphere of the place was…well…weird. Empty. Quiet. If I am not mistaken the majority of the viewers were not even undecided. It was worse. They seemed unaffected.
Think of the joy Malevich felt when he received his first 'WTF!'. Imagine his delight as he explained the purpose of his revolutionary work to angry non-believers; his appreciation of the attention.
Now think of the young artists today who have 100 years of abstract/post-modernist/avant-garde reasoning and non-reasoning to contend with as they vie for their very own superior manifesto. There is nothing which has not been said for and against ugliness, nothingness, beauty, shock, boredom and sheer puzzlement in art.
I would say there is evidence of confusion here in Czechia's art scene; I think you would agree with me there. On the other hand you might agree with me also that on a social level their confusion correlates with our confusing global political situation. In other words I do give all of these artists the benefit of the doubt and trust that they know what they are up to.
Pokoje VI is perhaps representative of our current universal psyche and this is indeed infuriating, frustrating, confusing and sad.
You told me that you didn‘t understand some of my recent art blogs; that you zoned out quite quickly. This means I am not achieving what I set out to do when I started this project. I want to share my excitement, un-demonise ‚tricky‘ art and maybe reveal some of my processes in a way that might intrigue a lay person. I must remind myself to consider my target audience when writing. Thank you for your honesty.
The big challenge for me here is speaking on a subject which lots of people have already made up their minds about.
"I'm sorry I just don't get it," you say.
But this self indulgent idealist has not given up yet.
You turned me on to so many good things growing up. You taught me to be curious. You inspired me to keep an eye out for the best of everything. And most importantly you have supported my search in a way that would make many people I know envious.
So please let me pass something of what I have discovered back to you. You deserve it.
I am digging deep for an analogy; one which would have you say, "Ahh, oh, wait, YES! I get where they are coming from!"
My first thought is ‚What do you like which I think I will never like.‘ I can only think of certain newspapers you read which I will never read for political reasons and certain comedians who I will never laugh at for 'difference in taste' reasons.
Nothing - which really relates to 'artistic' differences.
Let me see...
You turned me on to:
Dr seuss (word play)
Enid blyton (fantasy)
Rock and roll (rebellion)
Simon and garfunkel (hippies)
The Beatles (perfection)
The Brontes (feminism)
Tolkien (invented histories)
Catcher in the Rye (bitterness)
Rebel without a cause (heroism)
George Formby (laughter as a weapon)
Combine these and you get your Michael. Now imagine trying to put all that into one rectangle painting.
After 2000 years of easel paintings does it not make sense that the Tempera/oil/canvas/frame format would become a bit predictable and tiresome for some? Not to mention the popularisation of the camera in 1888, which many said did the job of copying stuff better than any artist!
"What can we do that a camera can't?" the artists asked.
The artist's temptation has always been to show more, say more and reveal as much as possible. This sometimes means going non-figurative and it also means sometimes going outside the lines (frame) and into the room in which the canvas hangs. You can easily see from these simple steps how an artist may decide to abandon the canvas as a tool completely. Well, this also happened one century ago. It is in fact the 100th birthday of Marcel Duchamp’s infamous Fountain (toilet) this year. That’s one century for curious artists to deliberate over what ‚next’ might look like.
Multiply the canvases? Make canvases out of anything except canvas? Turn the canvas upside down? Eat the canvas? Paint the room? Eat the paint? Destroy the room? Don't use a room at all? Don't do anything at all, just describe it? Don't describe it, just think it?
In physics and sport it is easy to recognise when the limits are being pushed. In art it is not so clear how to push the limits. In physics you discover things and you prove things. In sport you run faster. In art what do you do?
"But where is the art in trashing a room or in doing nothing at all?" you ask.
As soon as you 'do' art you are doing something even if it's nothing. As for trashing a room, isn't 'trashing the past‘ part of the fun of creativity? J.D. Salinger trashed formal literature, James Dean trashed parents, Rock-n-Roll trashed bland Muzak, The Beatles trashed obsequious interview techniques, Simon and Garfunkel trashed the Republican government, Dr Seuss trashed the dictionary.
Trashing is a necessary step forward in creating. It doesn't all sound as good as 'Bridge Over Troubled Waters' or look as good as James Dean, but it's always comforting to me to see there are people striving to share a better world perspective; better than the psychological/sociological disaster zone we find ourselves in today.
I am focusing on the 'trash' element because I am very much trying to remind myself, even convince myself that the majority of the Pokoje VI exhibition was not as rushed or dreadful as I originally thought it was.
It is becoming clear to me that artistically Czechia has reached an apex beyond which it does not know where to throw itself.
„You see this obscure art all around the world though, not just Prague,“ you say.
You certainly do, and I would indeed apply what I said about Czechia to the rest of the planet. I would go further and say that this artistic conundrum does not only hold for our current situation but has held throughout history. It is art’s job to perch itself on the creative threshold of any society which claims to have God’s or masters and attempt to expose the lies and unveil, even reinvent reality.
Well, perhaps I have gone some ways into encouraging you to sympathise with the more, shall we call them 'Obscurantist‘ artists, after considering the century of artistic intellectuals, theorists and philosophers who have been busy at play for so many years.
In closing I just want to say thank you, Mum, for pointing me in this direction and for supporting my exploration of this infinitely varied art world which I love so much.
Much Love to you too
p.s. See below the latest addition to my 333 project. I hereby dedicate it to you. Don’t worry, I do not expect to see it on the fridge door on my next visit :-)
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