Art and difficulty

Art and difficulty

A recent piece in the Guardian newspaper asked whether smartphones were killing the art of photography. Central to its argument (for and against) was the idea that smartphones represent a “democratisation” of the art form. This argument has been made in other areas, most obviously in relation to music, where it’s been claimed that software like Apple’s Garage Band eliminated the need for traditional musical training or instruments – that now anyone could make music and this was a good thing.

It seems to me a good thing if the relatively easy availability of such tools brings more people to explore expressive media and find out what they can do. But it’s something else altogether to suggest that democracy is a good thing for art.

Strictly speaking democracy only makes sense as a political concept, as a system of government accountability. What people mean when they speak of an art form becoming more democratic is a vague notion of putting that art in the creative hands of many more people, possibly even the majority of people, and trying to arrogate the generally positive feeling most of us have about political democracy to a more dubious proposition about art.

It’s dubious because one of the things every culture has valued in art is the sense that it is something exceptional, something beyond ordinary abilities or experience. The expectation that some craft skill at least will be visible is why the ordinary (democratic?) response to much abstract painting has been “a child could do that”.

While I understand the ideas behind abstraction, and can enjoy the results, this popular response is a problem for the art world, which from time to time makes claims that visual art in particular has reached out into mass culture, is no longer tied by the patronage of the rich (though that’s a strange claim given the continuing influence of individual collectors like Charles Saatchi).

The claim about accessibility is even stranger, given that in the early 20th century art in all media began to turn away from any kind of populist pretensions just as full political democracy was becoming a reality. Art became self-consciously difficult, pre-occupied with its formal unreality, which in turn produced an exclusive focus on the artwork as object rather than representation (which is why it seems we have to talk of work being “made” rather than “painted”).

Contemporary practice has mostly wanted to hang on to the formal self-consciousness, but has become uneasy about the difficulty. Ironically though, there’s nothing more baffling to ordinary people than the art world’s attempts to find a new immediacy, through “readymade” objects, performance and so on. It’s ironic because it’s trying to solve a problem that didn’t exist in western art before the 20th century. Western religious painting was explicitly conceived to offer something for everyone, and while more aristocratic art could include elements that might only make full sense to the cognoscenti, even the least-educated might still find ways to enjoy what they saw.

The fact that any exhibition of (say) Turner is likely to be far more popular than (say) a Martin Creed show doesn’t in itself mean that the Martin Creed is worthless, but it points to a disingenuousness in the way the art world talks of itself. What’s exhilarating about Turner is partly his vision, but it’s also his mastery of his medium, his virtuosity, giving the sense that you’re in the presence of something quite exceptional. Contemporary visual art dogmatically rejects virtuosity, claiming (more or less) that it’s irrelevant to the power of art to recast and refresh ordinary experience. But there’s the paradox, the irony: in its attempt to engage with the everyday, the commonplace, contemporary visual art (and particularly conceptual art) has become the most elitist phenomenon in cultural history.

Photography, arguably, was the cause of all this, quickly forcing people to question the traditional representational value of painting, and one of the obvious things about photography as an art form is the more limited scope for virtuosity. There’s a technical element of course, particularly around the knowledge of how to manage the inevitable compromises of exposure. But then such decisions are not just technical; exposure, depth of field, focus and above all the way the shot is framed will all determine the final image, so are part of the creative process.

Even with these limited means, and a dependence on the physical world of objects (including people and landscapes), it’s still possible to produce images that are personally expressive and distinctively characteristic. But any photographer will also have to acknowledge the possibility of the usefully accidental, the unforeseen. Photography, the art of stilled life, is unusually open to the accidental, and this can be a real strength, but it’s also what makes it vulnerable to the claims of “democratisation”: anybody with the technology (ie a camera) can press a button and create an image.

Then again this has nothing to do with smartphones. It’s been true since the Instamatic cameras of the 1960s (or arguably Box Brownies before that).

Digital compact cameras replaced the Instamatic and its film derivatives, and because digital removed the cost of film and processing, it brought the possibility of the accidentally great shot within reach of everyone.

What’s different about smartphones is their ubiquity. Few people carried their compact cameras everywhere, but a phone is usually in your pocket, and social networks offer an instant virtual gallery. Smartphones and social networks have nurtured a mania for recording and presenting aspects of our daily lives, usually artlessly. While this is interesting culturally, and perhaps psychologically, satisfying an urge that has traditionally been the preserve of art, does it make any sense to call the results art?

Few people taking and showing these shots would make that claim, because few of those shots would benefit from that kind of claim, or the scrutiny that should follow.

Then there’s a technical issue. The best smartphone cameras struggle to match the quality even of a decent mid-range compact, let alone a good dSLR. I appreciate that the artefacts, the graininess of the smartphone pictures can contribute to their quality, but why would anyone choose to work with a tool that constrains your options rather than opening them up? It’s like a painter choosing to work with a ballpoint: he or she could still create images, and they could have their own interest (certainly working with constraints can be inspiring), but for most creative work it is self-evidently better to have enabling rather than disabling tools.

Far from “democratising” photography, it would be truer to say that the possibility of getting interesting images from something as crude and immediate as a smartphone challenges the artistic pretensions of the medium: if what we respect in other art forms is the sense that something special has been wrought, that difficulties have been overcome, then the push button element of photography will look as though it belongs to a different kind of activity.

But this is probably an illusion. Backgammon seems to involve a large degree of luck, but good players consistently win. Likewise great photographers take consistently great images. Their work reveals a way of seeing, a characteristic attention to certain details or ways of framing their shots. These things will come through whichever type of camera they are using, and simply having a camera does not make you a good photographer: in this light the argument that the easy availability of the technology represents some kind of “democratisation” of an art form is stupid on every level.

Paradoxically, the way smartphones, and digital technology more generally, makes it possible to record and share our everyday experience highlights the way that art, while often rooted in the urge to record and share, is something quite different and more reserved. I think if it is to mean anything, it has to denote something special, something probably founded in the everyday but which lifts us above the everyday, which demands and (crucially) rewards our attention.

A further irony surrounds our veneration of artists. Because art is something special, it’s natural enough to respect artists. Perhaps inevitably this respect has got tangled with the cult of celebrity, which in turn seems to have weakened the critical faculties of some who should know better. Not least, to do any art requires a degree of self-belief, but hearing the way many visual artists talk about themselves it’s hard not to wish they had a little less self-belief. I have been arguing that art is special, something above the commonplace, but that doesn’t mean we need to treat art as if it was exempt from ordinary critical standards. It’s pretty hard to define what constitutes art, because doing so takes you quickly into elusive abstractions, but it’s not so hard to articulate why we like some things and think others are bad, not so hard to challenge hollow pretensions and laughable posturing. There might always be room for argument, but it’s an argument worth having.

Death and politics

Death and politics

I heard today that an old friend had suddenly dropped dead, alone in her flat where she was discovered by the police a day or so later. She was a very smart, warm and gifted woman, in her mid 50s. I’ve been told it was probably a heart attack. She wasn’t overweight, didn’t smoke, or (as far as I know) drink excessively or play with life-threatening drugs. It was just one of those things, without significance but for the grief of those who have lost her.

And yet there’s nothing like death to send us scrabbling after meaning, wanting to make sense of our lives, other lives. It’s why the grieving often throw themselves into charity work, trying to help others (often with some kind of connection to whatever caused their loss): this can’t really make our loss meaningful, but what it does I suppose is re-establish us in a place where meaning doesn’t elude us, instead creating value (which for good reason feels meaningful) by doing the best human things we can do, asserting the value of our common humanity.

It’s either ironic or just plain miserable then that our political leaders will clutch at the illusions of geo-political meaning to obscure their personal murderousness. As the G20 summit grinds to a predictable halt (you couldn’t call it a conclusion), as Obama, Putin (and somewhere down the line, the pathetic figure of David Cameron) jockey for global positioning and elsewhere al-Assad and the Syrian rebels do their version of the big boy posturing, it’s hard not to reflect that the powerful have always felt entitled to kill hundreds, even thousands of people in pursuit of whatever they might feel are their immediate interests, interests beyond their personal lives, and seemingly working on a different scale.

This chasm between personal and political life has long been noted by sensitive writers. It runs through King Lear, and the great late metaphysical English poet Andrew Marvell wrote of Oliver Cromwell (who he knew)

“Tis madness to resist or blame
The face of angry Heaven’s flame;
And if we would speak true,
Much to the man is due,

Who, from his private gardens, where
He lived reservèd and austere
(As if his highest plot
To plant the bergamot),

Could by industrious valour climb
To ruin the great work of time”

(Marvell, though on the parliamentary side, also famously said of the English Civil War, that it was a “cause too good to have been fought for”: violence destroys the principles it is supposed to be defending.)

I don’t want to end up sounding like John Lennon: I’ve long detested the saccharine vision of Imagine (a candidate for the worst song ever written, despite the great piano riff) just because it blands out the real hardness of life and the absorbing complexity of that hardness. I rather doubt the world will ever live as one, but all the same we should be clear headed about how utterly disgusting our leaders are, embodying all that’s worst about humanity, forcing us to ask where their humanity got lost.

Alex McKie, who spent her working life thinking about culture and social interaction, was herself cultured and mindful of other people. Perhaps some political leaders have these qualities, but if so it seems they need to suppress them in their working lives, and always have done, and that’s exactly why the world is as fucked up as it is.  

RIP Alex, whatever that means.

Unacknowledged legislators

Shelley once wrote that poets were the “unacknowledged legislators of mankind”. Well, he was young, but in the mood of the times he could probably be forgiven for thinking the liberal imagination was rising to a new pre-eminence. Where “society” once indicated a tiny elite it was beginning to embrace whole nations. Literacy was spreading in an unprecedented way and with it an interest in literature of all kinds. Tennyson, though always uneasy about being the voice of anything but himself (even when he was laureate) became wealthy on the sales of his books.

This popular success would be unimaginable now. Poets once again address a niche interest. You could point out that from Pound onwards this was a deliberate choice, a reaction against Victorian populist writing, but it marks too a shift in the way writers see themselves in relation to their readers, a shift influenced in one way then the other by technology (cheap printing). Now I don’t want to get bogged down in too academic a discourse here, but I do want to think aloud about how this new publishing technology, the open space of the internet, could affect how writers (or indeed other artists) think of themselves, and what they are doing.

I don’t mean left field experimentation with collaboration and interactivity (though I think that will come into it). I’m talking about a something that will influence practice whether or not it results in formal experimentation.

That probably sounds mysterious, but I hope what it could mean will be clearer over time (not least to me). And there will be a few by ways to explore. It strikes me that in the visual art world the pre-eminence of the artist as someone with “something to say” is practically unquestioned, with dire results. One of the interesting consequences of working in this open space of the internet is that while every voice might find two or three listeners, the availability of millions of voices means that artists will have to work harder to justify the attention they want to claim. Quite how that it is going to work is very much what this blog is about.