This paper was originally written in response to a request from the Japanese artist Tatsuo Miyajima as a talk for his students in Kyoto about why art matters. He was dismayed by his students’ haste to become superstars and their relative lack of curiosity. This tendency is being felt worldwide and may simply be an effect of the materialism that has distorted public life since the 1980s. The market success of the YBA group lead by Damien Hirst, informed by the marketing genius of Saatchi probably also has something to do with it. So it is not surprising that the very young are prone to be seduced by this promise. I do not wish to denigrate the art of the YBA here; in fact, there is much to admire other than the spin. It is the displacement of discovery and risk, as an inspiration, by production and market success that disturbs me. Government funding in the past decade has also been prone to a more results based criteria taking industry as a model and I will come back to this.
Tatsuo’s question forced me to wonder once again if art really does matter or if indeed it is just a means to a market outcome. On reflection I can think of some very small, intimate reasons why art might matter and some profoundly important, possibly global reasons. If this was not the case I would not have spent my life engaging so obsessively with art and artists, none the less, we all need occasionally to take time out and examine such convictions.
I strongly believe that art can sometimes change the way we look at the world. It is all too easy to ridicule the preposterous claims often made for art in catalogue essays , however I reject the view that art merely excites aesthetic pleasure and should attempt nothing else. I have a strong commitment to the fundamental importance of aesthetic quality in art, but for me it is the means and not the end. I believe that art has to be grounded in the real world and enhance our understanding of ways of seeing. This involves a constant interrogation of our assumptions about the nature of art and representation. This is not a particularly radical view, after all a close reading of the late paintings by Titian still yields fresh insights into perception and representational complexity.
Experimental creativity is under pressure today as universities and funding agencies adopt the rhetoric of ‘Creative Industries’. As the name implies the movement is based on the assumption that creativity is directed towards known and specified outcomes that lend themselves to instrumental application in industry. While this movement was initiated to provide a rationale for arts funding, what it actually does is to undermine the concept of creativity itself. Artistic creativity is by nature open ended, non-linear and non-instrumental behaviour that constitutes highly experimental research. In order to achieve truly creative outcomes this research is often carried out in the absence of clearly defined targets making it anathema to the market driven creative industries movement.
Creative Industries theorists promote a democratic art that will attract mass markets. Unfortunately, in the process they dismiss the value of individual creativity arguing that one person’s “genius” relegates the rest of us to a servile status. They also raise the spectre of an elite who deliberately generate “difficult” art, because the less the public like the work the more the elite value it.
Firstly, their proposition that if someone is brilliant at what they do they diminish the rest of us by definition is palpably absurd. It seems to me that anyone who takes such a view of life is missing a lot. Who has not come away from a wonderful exhibition, concert or lecture inspired, uplifted and encouraged to achieve more in their own work and life?
Secondly, the idea of “difficulty” is easy to parody, but powerful works of art are not like thirty second grabs on prime time TV . They are slow sustaining adventures into the unknown. How could great ideas be instantly accessible in all their complexity to everyone? Why should we not take pleasure in slowly discovering the layers of meaning or tracing a history of ideas? How else can we increase our sensitivity to reality and learn to value the complexity of life? Like the slow food movement I advocate a slow art movement. This might not make sense in the short term market economy but it rewards the thoughtful viewer with a life time of discovery, and incidentally goes some way to justifying the value of the object beyond the fashion of the day.
What does all this mean in practice? The following examples suggest some of the ways these ideas manifest themselves, starting with fairly modest but significant effects and moving towards more high powered qualities that genuinely contribute to civil society. These stages are not mutually exclusive, for example the simple pleasure we take in the quality of materials and pure form underscores the power of expression of the most ambitious works.
Shiva Lingam stone from the Namada River in India, collection of Anthony Bond and Anne Graham
Consider for example this natural object, a Lingam stone from India. Its powerful form is the result of natural forces acting on stone over time in a river bed but it is venerated as if it were a sacred artefact. It has a perfect simplicity of form that many sculptors might aspire to equal. Similarly if an artist uses materials well and makes an object with good aesthetic judgement, even if it lacks any obvious content, we may still enjoy it for what it is. It may give us simple pleasure as we admire its form and the craft of the artist. This is a small thing but should never be dismissed as useless. There have been great poems written about a simple pot so perhaps pure form can inspire content through our personal response to it just as we interpret something which has no intentionality such as the Lingam stone. For me this is the essence of the matter, as art objects can and often do make us respond creatively. Far from undermining our self belief a beautiful object can prompt us to inspired thoughts.
One of the most important functions of art is to structure our ways of looking at objects and images so that we come to know more about our cognitive and affective responses to looking. Art can make us better at seeing and enhance our enjoyment of being in the world. The Australian artist Ian Burn came to conceptual art from a close study of phenomenological painting.
Ian Burn Yellow Blue Equivalence 1965-66
Burn explored formal effects of colour, proportion and surface. For example, he painted narrow blue gloss stripes on a matt yellow field then reversed the blue to matt and the yellow to gloss. He was particularly interested in the different optical speed of these variations. As the stripe widens the closer it comes to the intervals of the field and the slower its horizontal motion seems to be. Eventually figure and field change places and the process is reversed. If the number and frequency of the stripes reaches a certain density the motion becomes a vertical one. Burn’s purpose was always paying close attention to the nature of our looking.
There are many things about human experience that exceed the representational capacity of verbal language or intellectual analysis but yield themselves to us through art. We can know certain things through language and if anyone asks us we can truthfully say ‘yes I do know all about that’ and yet one day the thing that we thought we already knew in words happens to us personally and suddenly we realise that Now we really do know that! This is an embodied internal ownership through direct experience which is qualitatively different from verbal or intellectually acquired knowledge. This is the territory where the visual arts function most effectively.
For example experiencing time through a work by Miyajima is different from representing time. Some people confuse art with illustration but the strength of art lies in its capacity to create immediate experiences for the viewers that excite bodily memories of the real. In this way we are more likely to rediscover for ourselves ideas embodied in the work and not simply ‘read’ them. Much contemporary sculpture functions as a trace of the subject that provokes memory of the thing by association. For example a lock of hair from a loved one does not look like them but it powerfully evokes our memory of them. It was common in the nineteenth century to place Daguerreotype portraits in small hand held frames that also contained a piece of the fabric from the costume worn by the sitter. The metonymic function of the material in these objects has considerable mnemonic and affective power. When we hold an object like this in our hands its status as a physical trace is all the more powerful.
MIYAJIMA Tatsuo - ‘Region No 126701 - 127000’ 1991 with details of a unit and a sequence, collection of AGNSW
It is not necessary to always use a fragment of an object in such a literal way, sometimes artists can create a material object or installation that evokes real experiences that are parallel, or equivalent to, experiences of a real phenomenon. This has to be the case when the phenomenon is invisible or abstract; for example time. When we look carefully at Miyajima’s work from the Art Gallery of NSW collection, Region No 126701 - 127000 we see it consists of 300 LED panels each of which count endless sequences between one and 99. It never repeats itself, quite literally existing in a state of constant change.
The installation is a composition of units of red and green counters, the kind that appear everywhere in our daily lives: in watches, calculators and score boards. The blinking lights evoke a sense of eternally spiralling time. Miyajima has said that each pair of endlessly counting numbers could be thought of as a human being, the units as families and the large groups as tribes or nations. Each level of the work is moving at a different pace. Individual counters flick round at high speed while banks of numbers change over more slowly and yet all of them are part of the same temporal matrix. The various timescales can be seen as metaphors for everything that passes into and out of existence. These parallel tempos actually give us the experience of time passing in parallel streams just as we experience it in life. Years sometimes seem to flash past, however, waiting for a kettle to boil might seem interminable – we may even experience both streams of time simultaneously as we do in the Miyajima installation.
Visual art is one of the few areas of research where risk taking may still be rewarded. Art should always be an adventure or a journey with no predetermined destination. Visual artists must be allowed to make fools of themselves, to try the impossible. Anselm Kiefer is one of the most famous artists in Europe and yet he rejects or defers at least 50% of his works. He has tried the impossible and failed but he keeps trying and usually, sometimes years later, he finds a new way to successfully recombine the rejected works. Kiefer staunchly resists all attempts to inform himself about what may or may not work in visual representation according to well tried traditions . He wants to find out for himself and maybe that is why when he does succeed he makes things that are truly astonishing.
Kiefer has spoken about making art as a journey and likened it to the travels of Odysseus the ancient Greek king. When his ship was beaten off course he had many adventures never knowing where he was or what new place he would come to. In 1992 Kiefer spoke about the uncertain nature of the creative process, about the necessity of setting out like Odysseus while knowing that the outcome is always unknowable. The act of artistic creation might momentarily allow us to suspend our doubt. Kiefer described a kind of suspension of consciousness that might allow something to happen that may not be possible through direct thought.
Anselm Kiefer Glaube Hoffnung Liebe 1986. collection of AGNSW.
Kiefer often equates dreams of transcendence with creative endeavour. In Glaube Hoffnung Liebe (faith, hope, love), a three pronged propeller floats in front of a rocky flat terrain while near the top of the canvas a narrow strip of sea separates the land from the sky. The tip of one propeller blade just crosses over the horizon pointing to the heavens where it was intended to fly. It is made of heavy lead, however, and will therefore never achieve its purpose. Nearly all Kiefer’s painting yearns towards t ranscendence but he always shows it to be just beyond reach.
Peter Schjeldahl wrote about this yearning in relation to Jackson Pollock :
“The idealism of psycho-spiritual lift off………embodies a desire that is real enough……. But he never claimed that any such thing is made in his work. …..What is actual in Pollock’s best work is the closest, fiercest, most honest asking: asking for transcendence, asking why transcendence cannot be. The Silence of Pollock is a silence of listening down into the self, out of history, everywhere. There isn’t an answer. But there is the listening.”
I believe that the rarest and most valuable thing in the world today is empathy. We must have empathy for natural world and for each other regardless of cultural, religious and ethnic division. Empathy also requires imagination and this is the realm of creativity. I believe that a precondition for the existence of art is an empathetic link between the artist and the viewer, which is necessary for their collaboration to complete the artwork. Because of this the presence of art in the world necessarily encourages empathy. I think this is true for all art but it works most dramatically when the art involves an embodied experience for the viewer.
Titian The flaying of Marsyas 1576
It is interesting that as long ago as the 16th century Vasari made this point in relation to the late paintings of Titian. He noted that from close up the paint is so loosely applied that it is virtually impossible to read the image. All you can see is the brushwork, a trace of the artist’s hand. From a certain viewing distance the marks begin to assemble themselves into a recognisable image finally resolving into a powerfully convincing experience of figure and space. The viewer is invited into a dance with the painting, moving between intimate engagements with the hand of the artist and then finding the place where the paint transforms into an image.
Vasari speculated that as the image has to be completed in the eye of the beholder, the painting is recovered as an internalised or embodied experience, one that consequently has far more emotional impact than a smooth illusionistic image that can simply be read at first glance. The artist has made the generous gesture of handing the work over to each successive viewer allowing us to make it our own.
Doris Salcedo Atrabiliarios 1992 collection of AGNSW
Some artists in the late twentieth century evolved a language of objects that seeks to promote empathy. For example Atrabilliarios by Doris Salcedo depicts embodied memory as it addresses the dialectics of violence in her country, Colombia. It is a memorial that breaks the silence imposed on communities by random abductions. It acts as a silent testimony of loss but it also describes the very idea of embodied memories. Niches have been cut into the plaster wall of the gallery and repeatedly reworked to create the subtle appearance of ancient and much used spaces for commemorative offerings. The niches contain shoes belonging to people who have been kidnapped by the paramilitary or by guerrillas associated with the drug trade. The niches are then sealed over with a translucent membrane of cow bladder. The skin is literally sutured into the plaster of the wall. The plaster around the stitching is made good again and again so that there is a very subtle build up that seems to suggest the passage of time, but which also comes to have the feel of scar tissue. These people she represents are not abstractions for her as she has lost many of her own family in this way. At another level however, this work conveys a profound sense of loss and of mortality that transcends her personal story; it invites us to release our own suppressed memories.
In a very real sense all the works I have discussed are conceptual art, but far from abandoning the material qualities of objects, they employ these qualities to carry the content and to bring us closer to an experiential and personal engagement with meaning in a way that illustration alone can not. Art may be beautiful and exquisitely made as with Salcedo but it can be a great deal more than that. Through great visual art as with literature we may have the privilege of sharing profound experiences with the artist and in the process discover things about ourselves and the world, I think here about something Helen Garner wrote about Raimond Gaita’s book Romulus, my father: “Reading it, with its stiff, passionate dignity and its moral demands can smash open a reader’s own blocked-off sorrows. Out they rush to meet those that the book relates”.
I am using the term aesthetic quality in a specific/limited way to describe the quality of choices made by an artist when creating an object including form, medium, application, context, space, relevance etc getting these precisely right, i.e. appropriate to the message, as a prerequisite for effective visual communication.
Anselm Kiefer ‘Boundaries, tracks, traces, songs,’ paper given at Adelaide Festival 1992 and reproduced in an Art and Australia supplement vol 30, No2, pp3-11
Schjeldahl, Peter. ‘Les drippings’ from The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings of Peter Schjeldahl, 1978-1990. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1991.
I am extrapolating here from Vasari’s original text but this is the sense I draw from it.
Helen Garner, ‘From Frogmore, Victoria’ The Monthly, May 2007.
Glaube, Hoffnung, Liebe
emulsion, synthetic polymer paint, shellac on photodocument paper on canvas (linen) with lead
280.0 x 380.0 x 75.0cm
Mervyn Horton Bequest Fund 1987
Collection Art Gallery of New South Wales
©Anselm Kiefer. Courtesy of the Artist and White Cube
timber, gyproc, cow bladder, shoes and surgical thread
Installation dimensions variable according to wall size
Mervyn Horton Bequest Fund 1997
Collection Art Gallery of New South Wales
©Doris Salcedo. Courtesy of Alexander and Bonin, New York
Region no 126701 - 127000
light-emitting diode, IC, electric wire and aluminium panel, 300 units
190.0 x 1200.0cm
Collection Art Gallery of New South Wales
©Tatsuo Miyajima. Courtesy of Shiraishi Contemporary Art
Yellow Blue Equivalence 1965-66
Acrylic on canvas
72.7 x 164.2 cm
The Paul Eliadis Collection of Contemporary Australian Art, Brisbane.
Image courtesy Milani Gallery, Brisbane.
Curator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales
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