Sunday, 19 February 2012

Art is History

It is said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing but it does not follow that a lot of knowledge is any less dangerous. Proof of this theory can be found in the discipline of economics which, despite its elevation to the status of a science, has not yet found a cure for the world’s financial woes. In fact, the mind-boggling confliction of economists’ analyses makes me question whether they will ever learn from the past.

I turn, for solace, to the less worldly subject of art - not as an artist but as a consumer - and while I readily concede that my limited knowledge of the subject could be classified as ‘dangerous’, it could only be so to me since I have little or no influence over what others may deduce.

I used to believe that art is a product of leisure time, given the fact that the richer a society becomes the more art it will sustain, but when I saw the 33,000 year-old Chauvet cave paintings I had to question my assumption. How much leisure time was there back in the Ice Age? How were those early humans motivated to make art when they had more pressing concerns such as foraging for food and fending off fierce, predatory beasts? Surely the need to sustain oneself must trump the need to create art?

But artists, I suppose, are not all from the same mould: some are tortured souls who need to express themselves at all costs; others are skilled professionals who work for the market; yet others are amateurs who inhabit the fringes. I do personally know artists who, whilst not prepared to forego food, are willing to put it in second place and to rely on precarious networks to sustain them until the market recognises their talent and rewards them handsomely (preferably not posthumously).

All of which makes it hard for the uninformed art-consumer to make sense of their output - which is why I was at a lecture recently on the history of art. (I persist in my quest for knowledge, despite the unlikely event of my enlightenment, on account of another theory: the more you get to know about a subject, the more interesting it becomes). The lecturer made the following point in respect of the appreciation of works of art: ‘liking’ and ‘disliking’ are best put aside, not because they are invalid responses but because, being emotional, they are likely to cloud the perspective and context within which the work may be understood. He advised instead that we think of an artwork as “an invitation to a journey”, so that we may then consider whether or not we want to go along. If we decide to go we might learn something along the way: if we decide to stay we learn nothing new.

I like this focus on perspective and context and find it useful in understanding how artists build techniques on what went before and how their subject matter is affected by prevailing social conditions. Applying it to the Chauvet cave paintings, however, does not bring such rewards since nothing of what went before survives and we know very little of the social conditions of the time. We depart on a journey to that past without any charts to guide us: all we have is the images that remain which, despite their being a direct and uncompromised link to our ancestors, present many more questions than answers.

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