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Everything’s normal…

It just struck me I haven’t posted here for over a week. Nothing momentous to report, no flashes of insight into the meaning of life, just solid nose-to-the-grindstone work.
Well, sort of. I’ve been marking distance learning scripts and musing about how we can motivate students. I’ve had conversations with others involved in the marking, to discover that ideas I put forward at the back end of last year are actually under active development. I just didn’t know about it because the person doing the development work is one of my colleagues who has more computer skills (the developments I suggested involved setting up various forums and website add-ons that are his expertise, not mine).
I’ve finished off and dusted down a short story, sent it off to its uncertain and fragile future. It’s a strange one for me in that it’s not horror or scifi or fantasy, but based on a conversation I had with a very depressed person and some of the more or less standard self-help advice that’s on offer. The advice, generally speaking, is very good: it revolves around realising that the world isn’t perfect, there isn’t a binary ‘everything’s perfect/everything’s shit’ scenario, and if you don’t succeed that doesn’t mean you’re a failure. There may be room for improvement but you can also take credit for what you have achieved. The ‘USP’ of the story is someone for whom the advice brings unanticipated results. Not having written anything quite like it before, I had to do quite a bit of poking about on Duotrope.com to find a possible market, and we’ll see. If the place I sent it to don’t like it, I haven’t failed, just not succeeded yet. But I probably won’t find out for months.
In the in-between times I caught a programme on BBC about young and struggling artists, and another one on fashion photography in the 60s.
The first tried to open up the question of ‘what is art’. One of the lessons aspiring artists are taught, apparently, is that they need to be able to network, talk about their work and explain what their art is about – what it ‘means’. And it struck me that if you could do this and the explanation was sufficient, what would be the point of the art? On the one hand, there’s a qualitative difference between, say, being told that an artwork is ‘about’ some issue or concept, and seeing the actual product, the real object, with your own eyes. Art often does ‘make a statement’ but it’s not necessarily one that can be easily encapsulated in language. Surely that’s the point?
The second programme wasn’t ‘about’ the point I took from it. There was a segment of maybe ten seconds in which someone contracted Allen Jones with Brian Duffy – the former an artist who made strange, fetishistic artworks but was generally regarded as extremely sensible and normal in his private life, and the latter a photographer whose work was widely seen as exciting but in many ways ‘straight’ though whose mental processes and social relationships were (apparently, but I haven’t read up on this so I’m relying on what was said) very strange. The point was that it’s not possible to make an assumption that strange work is made by strange people. Zen-like poise can be the product of chaotic turmoil and vice versa.
Quite what I want to do with this insight I don’t know. But it already sounds like the starting proposition for a story. I’ll add it to the list – I’m slowly plodding through ‘to do’ list of things I’ve been meaning to write, some of them for months now.

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  1. Author
    April 22, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    Hey, Jon. Good to see you’re alive and well. So, let’s begin this subjective discussion on art.

    “Art often does ‘make a statement’ but it’s not necessarily one that can be easily encapsulated in language. Surely that’s the point?”

    I’m not sure I quite understand your question – are you questioning why the meaning of the artistic piece has to be explained?

  2. April 22, 2010 at 4:39 pm

    I think this is going to get quite tangled, quite quickly!
    I’m not asking why it has to be explained, precisely – the answer to that is relatively simple. People who buy artworks often expect to be given some verbal account of the work that makes them feel secure with what they’re buying. Essentially, artists who can talk about their work sell more than those who can’t.
    My point is the more theoretical one about whether, how, under what conditions, it’s possible to explain their work in language at all.
    Artists are often asked what ‘statement’ their work makes, what ‘questions’ it raises, etc. This presupposes that the statement, question etc can be expressed in words, written or spoken.
    Sometimes this may be relatively easy; often it may not.
    It may be possible at the level at which, for example, we ‘decode’ a Constable painting to understand what it says about class relationships, or some Spanish painters to understand their work as a symbolic comment on the political regime. I’m relying here on the kinds of arguments in say John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’.
    However, in many ways what art ‘says’ can’t be said in words (or at least not easily). A work of art typically draws on symbols available in wider culture, that have multiple resonances and meanings, and that the artwork puts into some kind of play or relationship with each other. I’m drawing here on an eclectic group of cultural commentators, sociologists of art and psychoanalytic writings but the basic point would be that trying to ‘explain’ those resonances and their implications couldn’t easily be summarised, and many of the meanings are drawing on symbols and archetypes that address nonverbal parts of our consciousness.
    I’m not trying to imply that an verbal formulation of what an artwork ‘means’ isn’t possible; but I am trying to say that it would be a lengthy and complex business that would inevitably leave much unsaid, or vague.
    The net result is that asking an artist to explain in words what they ‘meant’ is unlikely to produce any clear and quick answers that adequately explain the work. It’s an expectation not unlike asking a composer to express the meaning of a piece of music in pottery. OK, so musicians do set poems to music, write music inspired by literature, and artists do take inspiration from other artistic works – but there’s no direct and simple translation of meaning from one art work in one form to another in another form, or from either to a form of words.
    And that’s just based on what the artist ‘intended’. There are distinctions to be made about what artists intend and how their work is understood, both in their own time and later, and the shifting of meanings as culture changes. But let’s not go there for the moment!
    How much this helps as a response to your comment I don’t know…

    • Author
      April 22, 2010 at 5:15 pm

      I completely understand everything you’ve said, and it seems to me that your question or musing isn’t necessarily concerned about the “meaning of art” more so how that “meaning” is needed to justify its economic value? Or more simply, in the business of “art”, how can one monetize something so transient and dependent upon the viewer’s subjective interpretation?

      The economic value system of art tends to be more contentious, I think, than the philosophical value of art. When these two values clash, like in Pop Art, that’s where the “fun” deconstruction and value justification begins – then the esoteric elitists rear their ugly heads.

  3. April 22, 2010 at 7:12 pm

    You’re right, there’s more that one issue here. You’ve succinctly expressed one of them, which is that in order to monetize art the artist needs to be able to describe and justify his/her work in ways that appeal to the market. It’s just that at another level, I think any such description to justification will have an inherently a difficult-to-define relationship to the artwork it’s about.
    As to Pop Art – I don’t know, do the economic value and philosophical value clash? Some Pop Art fetches very high prices these days. But if you’re saying much of the economic value depends on the philosophical justifications – maybe the ‘education of the viewer’ to see certain significance in the artwork – then I’d agree, and that is a point at which fun deconstruction starts.

    • Author
      April 22, 2010 at 8:24 pm

      “It’s just that at another level, I think any such description to justification will have an inherently a difficult-to-define relationship to the artwork it’s about.”

      I agree – but at the end of the day, in economics, it is only worth what the buyer is willing to pay for it which may or may not have anything to do with what the piece “is about.”

      “As to Pop Art – I don’t know, do the economic value and philosophical value clash? Some Pop Art fetches very high prices these days. But if you’re saying much of the economic value depends on the philosophical justifications – maybe the ‘education of the viewer’ to see certain significance in the artwork – then I’d agree, and that is a point at which fun deconstruction starts.”

      They can clash depending on one’s view – the whole “high-brow vs. low-brow culture” thing…I have this debate all the time with a certain economist in my life about the value of Pop Art. To him it’s pretty much the “Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome – where the value of something depends more on personality, marketing, connections and “in-group think” more so than its aesthetic merits. But, we never come to a consensus…and it’s a perennial debate that extends all over the creative field.

  4. April 23, 2010 at 3:58 pm

    ‘…at the end of the day, in economics, it is only worth what the buyer is willing to pay for it which may or may not have anything to do with what the piece “is about.”’

    Well, yes. Buyers will only pay what they’re prepared to pay, and this will be influenced by a range of factors and motivations. Some of it may be purely financial speculation, banking on artworks increasing in value. In such circumstances the idea of what the piece is ‘about’ may not matter much. However I’d guess that what younger, just-starting artists can say about their piece in order to get buyers interested would be likely to revolve around the idea of what the piece is ‘about’, though as we’ve already discussed, what they say may not be very illuminating.

    Highbrow vs lowbrow – personality, marketing, networking etc. will have their place in establishing demand, but so will other factors. Aesthetic merit, perhaps, and cultural connotations? If the debate with your friend is about what kinds of factors are more important, I’d imagine these would change depending on the nature of the market, the pool of potential buyers (e.g. galleries and museums vs individuals), the provenance of the piece, etc.? I don’t think I’d expect there to be a consensus at any point in time though there are likely to be trends and market subsectors, like there are in most markets. But I’m not an authority on art markets and tend to stay more on the cultural commentary side of things…

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