Writing is my overriding passion, on which I spend most of my time and energy. But I also have a great interest in fine art, and I’ve spent years educating myself on different artistic periods and movements.
The Renaissance is overwhelming in the vast amount of sculptures and paintings produced, and I’ve just nicked its surface. I’ve spent a great deal of time enjoying the Impressionist period with its glut of bigtime artists, and the subsequent flow into modernism with Cézanne and Matisse leading the brigade. But I have danced around the perimeters of contemporary art, because for me, it’s a minefield.
It’s true that nearly every movement suffered through a period of adjustment, wherein art and artists were mocked before they were appreciated. New things are difficult to take in, and it does require dedication to receptiveness, and the trust that you will find the keys to opening those doors. I’m missing some keys.
I plunged in with Matisse, who showed us collage as fine art. There are certain shapes that repeat throughout his work, whether paint or paper, that make his evolution as an artist easy to follow. I have a great love for Picasso, which led me to his contemporary Duchamp, whose evolution was made in leaps rather than steps. He was a cubist painter who moved on to what he called Readymade art – he’s the one who signed a urinal and called it good.
Now, that was quite a jolt to the public. People hate to be jerked around, and that’s what it felt like to some – a twisted joke, making fun of their sensibilities. It was one of those Emperor’s New Clothes situations in the art community, where you were either going to join in the praise or fear for your head. Or miss out altogether.
The thing about Duchamp’s urinal was that it was legitimate, in that it was a new definition art. He saw it as engaging the viewer by providing an opportunity to view and define art from a different approach. He said he felt unmoved by these objects, and therefore instead of forcing us to praise the Emperor’s complete lack of clothing, we were allowed to stand back and make an assessment based on our own aesthetics.
I really am building to a point, here. Bear with me.
There have been standout artists in the time since Duchamp busted open those doors. Andy Warhol took everyday objects and arranged them in ways that we couldn’t help but notice, and therefore see in a different light. Jean-Michel Basquiat took graffiti and moved it into artistic statement. The thing is, there are a handful of standouts in a glut of artists. I know when I’m looking at a Basquiat, because there is unmistakeable skill in what he gave us. Put his work beside an admirer’s, and there absolutely is a detectible difference in the use of paint and form and space. We can’t all be geniuses.
So it is with much difficulty that I approach the majority of contemporary art. A signed commode does not speak of greatness to me, it speaks of a lack of originality. A dirty mattress shoved into a corner, a brick on the floor – to me, they read as jaded attempts to mimic a greater man’s work. However, I can’t believe that we’ve wrung all creativity out of ourselves, even as presentations such as these have me asking, “is that all there is?” Have we said everything, done everything? No. And there will be many more innovators who come along and pull us into something completely new. So far, with my present day view of what is and isn’t significant, I have largely been unmoved.
Sometimes, a brick is just a brick.
Which brings me to the second part of this diatribe: Are the plain bricks essential? Are they basic structures upon which the innovators can build their masterpieces? Or are they merely obstacles in the path.
I’m drawing a parallel between fine art and the written word, because I think the same factors apply. You have innovators and you have mimics, and in between there are perfectly acceptable, if not remarkable, stories to tell.
But there’s a new medium that is influencing our output and our standards, and I’m afraid it’s not all for the better. Epublishing is like Duchamp’s urinal. There is the initial innovation and the ability to engage the public in a way that has never before been explored, and then there is the ensuing onslaught of those who would sign their name to anything and call it good, not out of creativity, but because they can.
Finding your way as an artist is essential. There are a few prodigies, and there are a much greater number of those who work their way toward success. That’s true in any art form, including writing. But is it right to pull something half baked from the oven and serve it up to the public? Isn’t that detrimental not only to the artist, but to the audience? Standards will either drop to invisible clothing levels, or leave the public cold.
It’s freezing out there.
And I’m not happy about it, because it’s not the self published would-be artists—who have every right to hone their craft in whatever way they see fit—who are the problem. It is the proponents who are eschewing standards in favour of cheap and cheerful profit. It’s easy to do with a virtual product that requires little more than a push out the door.
And it’s definitely, definitely exacerbating the already existing obstacles in the path of certain genres. Genres that have a sexual focus. Genres that have gender centred focus. I don’t believe this is commode art, I never did. I believe there are innovators, and I absolutely believe there are great strides to be taken in introducing the public to new art forms, new thought processes, and a new way of engaging with the world.
It has happened before. The human body has long been revered as an artwork in itself. Prostitutes have become a revelation, their depiction a thing of beauty; urinals have become Fountains of forward thinking. Ugliness has been ground breaking and glorious. Defacing has offered statements of importance. In fine art, sex, along with several other plain and simple facts of life that have routinely been kept hidden, have become masterpieces of artistic expression. Why should the art form of words be any different?
But we have to respect it in order to elevate it. We have to revere it, and embrace the beauty in order to share it. We have to give the world something that will break through the barriers and allow others to see and experience in a different way. We have to believe in our art and respect ourselves as artists, and our venues and avenues must support that as well. We’ve got to step up and take control of what has become an increasingly precarious situation.
We’ve been used and abused as much as our subject matter, and the exploitation is becoming more and more mainstream. The more visibly prevalent it is, the more widely acceptable it becomes to marginalize. Those who have never before ventured beyond the black curtains are being introduced to a view that is the exact representation of their worst expectations, which greatly influences every subsequent encounter.
We don’t have to call it good, because I know we have something better to show for ourselves. We have prodigies and skilled artists and innovators who can lead the charge, if we as artists and champions of the art of words make it a priority to support them. Are we ready for a revolution? A Salon des Refusés for writers of debauchery, who are poised at the entry to a key shift in culture.
I think it’s time.