'Imagination will take you everywhere'
This is my entry for the Telegraph Features Cassandra Jardine Memorial Competition. I had to submit a feature article between 1,500 – 2,000 words, so it’s quite long! You could write about anything that took your fancy, naturally I chose to write about art as that is what I’m passionate about. I haven’t heard anything from the newspaper, so I’m guessing my work hasn’t been selected – but it was worth a try! Here it is…
Let me ask you this: what is art? Hard question isn’t it, one which I’ve been pondering for a month or two. Is it the wild abstraction of a Picasso, the loose shapes of impressionism, the cut of a Valentino dress or the light and dark within a Rembrandt? Or maybe it’s the boldness of a Heatherwick design, perhaps the grotesqueness of a Hirst or even the flash of scarlet from a Louboutin? Or is this a trick question? One which can never truly be answered. Because art is like people; it comes in an array of shapes, sizes and colours. That is what makes it interesting. It is both physical yet emotional. A gateway into another world. A place in which both the creator and viewer can lose themselves. Yes I know it sounds arty-farty, but before you start spluttering into your coffee could you really imagine a world without art? Our walls and lives would be very bare indeed.
We as a nation are one of the best at picking up a paintbrush (or pencil or needle or camera etc.). Blame it on the Young British Artists (YBA’s) – who never seem to be past it – as Britain’s creative industries are thriving, despite the fact that our economy is still heaving itself out of a black hole. In 2008 when the noose around the global economy had just begun to tighten, Damien Hirst staged his first major retrospective in London. He raised £111 million – it didn’t seem to matter that the Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy the very same day. But it’s this consumer crazy, money focused attitude which many argue is destroying the essence of art. In this year’s Venice Biennale, British artist Jeremy Deller made his views clear through the medium of paint. He depicted the legendary textile designer, William Morris throwing a large luxury yacht into a lagoon. The yacht in question belongs to Roman Abramovich and is a poke at the controversy during the 2011 Biennale in which the Russian Oligarch moored his ostentatious £115m ‘Luna’ in front of the Giardini; dwarfing the buildings and symbolising the increasing notion that wealth, greed and class dictates the art world. Yes, some art is eye-wateringly expensive – check out the 11th annual Frieze Art Fair in Regent’s Park (17th – 20th October) and prepare to be astounded, just to enter costs £34.40 – but that doesn’t mean art is purely about selling and only reserved for the financially privileged. Simply viewing art gives great pleasure. Britain is home to some of the best galleries; the National Gallery for example, sits like a lion surveying its territory – gazing upon the flocks of tourists gathered in Trafalgar Square. Currently you can view – and take part in – the physical destruction of Michael Landy’s mechanical saint sculptures (warning: shocking material) and you won’t even have to loosen your purse strings.
The true beauty of art is in the messages and stories behind the imagery. Scratch through the surface and you will find something extraordinary beneath. Take Van Gogh’s glorious sun-flower paintings; all mellow-yellow and golden – the shining embodiment of optimism and happiness. Yet in the same year (1888) he cut off his ear and two years later had shot himself. This stark juxtaposition between art and artist has helped biographers and historians come to the conclusion that Van Gogh suffered bipolar disorder – periods of utter elation and downfalls into the dark depths of depression. Without his art his mysterious death may have never been fully explained.
But of course art is not merely traditional painting – as in all aspects of life, the norm is there to be subverted. Conceptual art began with Marcel Duchamp and that urinal, while it originated in Britain after the rise of the naughty YBA’s. Basically art with no boundaries. Think Tracey Emin’s intimate yet confessional portrayal of her bed, including stained sheets, cigarette butts, empty vodka bottles and condoms. Not forgetting the world famous shark frozen in time by Damien Hirst, which actually captures a poignant and universal feeling – exploring our greatest fears and the difficulty of expressing them, particularly the fear of death. It’s shocking stuff, but that’s exactly how they courted media attention. With change came uproar; the Chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Ivan Massow, described conceptual art as ‘Pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat’. But sometimes that ‘tat’ can translate important messages. Conceptual artist and sculptor, Michael Landy’s 2001 exhibition, Break Down, focused on him obliterating all 7,227 of his material possessions, including his car and birth certificate. He made a list of everything he owned before sending them along a conveyor belt and crushing them into oblivion, thus raising issues surrounding destruction, disposal, importance and possession. An invigorating change from the rage of consumerism that plagues these modern times.
The great connoisseur of public art and anonymous mystery, Banksy, uses his graffiti-style wall art as a vehicle to address political concerns surrounding homosexuality, gang culture, war and slave labour, yet all with a touch of humour (remember the kissing coppers?). His art livens up the brickwork of streets worldwide; currently he is embellishing the crumbling back-streets of New York (view the masterpieces on his website, ‘banksy.co.uk’, entitled ‘Better Out Than In’). Critics have slated his work as glorifying vandalism, but in July of this year a Banksy mural was removed from a wall in North London to be sold; this followed a previous removal of a Banksy work in 2012 which sold for an estimated £750,000. His highest selling work, ‘Keep It Spotless’, went for a cool £1.13 million in New York during 2008 – a lot of money for a piece of graffiti. Who says art has to be solely displayed in a gallery? After all art originated from cave drawings by early Homo sapiens who used their hands as stencils and drew dots on the walls along with pictures of animals. Europe’s oldest dated art is 40,800 years old, found in an ancient Spanish cave. Many archaeologists believe the purpose of the cave art was to depict religious beliefs or as ‘hunting magic’, meant to increase the number of animals they hunted. Wishful thinking. So art is not only a crucial part of our culture but also our history. It is in our natural instinct to express how we feel through imagery and art is the perfect way to let it all out – as Banksy would say, better out than in.
But still after everything art has to offer (pleasure, money, mystery, release) there are critics – not as in the art ones but the ones who dismiss art as nothing but useless. Even Andy Warhol once said that ‘An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have’. Well in a world full of rules, restrictions and practicality, isn’t it a refreshing change to covet something purely for its aesthetic and emotional impact? To savour the power and magic of imagination?
I can tell you from experience that art within schools is commonly thought of as an easy subject, so much so that there has been speculation that it may be wiped off the curriculum completely. 15% of schools surveyed in 2012 for the Department of Education had dropped one or more arts subjects (music, art and drama) since the English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC) was announced. The EBC was heavily criticised for its lack of focus on the arts and therefore was scrapped, however the government is still planning an overhaul of GCSE’s and the national curriculum by making them more focused on the core subjects (English, Maths and Science), meaning the arts could still slip by the wayside. This risks starving children of enriching contact with the arts and depriving them of basic resources. Surely the government doesn’t want the youngsters of tomorrow growing up as philistines with no appreciation of culture. How will we encourage the next generation of artists, musicians, filmmakers, designers? Will we ever have a second round of YBA’s? Arts education is at the heart of a civilised and creative nation – something Britain has excelled at for centuries – without it we are weakened. Chew on that Michael Gove.
Art has the ability to draw a shy child out of their shell, to soothe traumatised or ill people and gives those with severe disabilities the chance to connect and communicate with others. Allowing people of all ages to blossom, gain confidence and most importantly to spread their wings and realise their creative potential. It should be an honour to hand down the treasured baton of art and culture to the next in line. As a teenager of the digital age where everything is demanded at the click of a button, I take refuge in the slow yet fulfilling process of creating art and take pride in the sense of achievement I feel after producing a successful piece of work. Having been inspired by the enthusiasm, energy and sense of humour of my art teachers (art teachers are always outrageous fun), I relish art as there are no rules; nothing is ever wrong or a mistake, it is always about the journey, the process and the experimentation – you never know how something will turn out. It’s the thrill of the chase for creative freedom, allowing your imagination to run wild with no restraint. And this is not only what art should be about, but also how life should be lived.
Take the artists of today: Sam Taylor-Johnson, the epitome of cool; artist, photographer, filmmaker – showing young girls that you don’t have to dance around naked online or flash your boobs to get noticed (sorry Miley Cyrus). And Danny Boyle – undoubtedly the games maker, creative director extraordinaire who put the pizazz into the Olympics opening ceremony. Next time London hosts the Olympics, who will they turn to?
Another inspiring artist is the eminent Anthony Green – who I was fortunate enough to interview – he conjured up something particularly stirring (both with paint and with words), saying that “We all have dreams but artists make them tangible; they are either musicians, or poets, or sculptors, or novelists, but they make their dreams come true.” That just about sums up art. And long may it continue.