Creative Scotland (Alba Chruthachail) is a development body for arts and cultural industries in Scotland.
It inherited the functions of Scottish Screen and the Scottish Arts Council on 1 July 2010, and has an additional remit for the Creative Industries. The Scottish Government brought it into being in 2010, and an interim company, Creative Scotland 2009, was set up to assist the transition from the existing organisations.
I had some thoughts on art and the arts some time ago – perhaps some of them are relevant to the discussion and criticisms in the video clip.
But is it Art?
Anyone with any interest in the arts will recognise that recurring situation, a sort of Groundhog Day moment, when one is cornered by someone who, with wide-eyed innocence, says “But don’t you think all art is just a matter of opinion – of personal taste? And what about modern art? Do you really think …?”
And you know that you are headed for an utterly sterile discussion, one in which the innocent will gradually reveal himself to be deeply hostile to the idea of art, and will unburden himself (it usually is a ‘him’) of opinions formed from Daily Mail headlines, a primitive world view that effortlessly encompasses homophobia, racism, sexism, paranoia about young people, crime, a desire for the restoration of capital punishment and a denial of man’s contribution to global warming, or perhaps even a denial of global warming itself.
But inexorably I get drawn in, in the almost invariably mistaken belief that this person may just be a truth seeker, wanting to understand …
My knowledge of the arts may best be described as limited and partially informed. Certain art forms are virtually a closed book to me – ballet, some musical forms and some aspects of literature. I do appreciate literature and music, but my experience and preferences tend towards what is sometimes called popular culture – cinema, popular music and jazz – but with a limited knowledge and appreciation of orchestral and chamber music and literature.
I do also have a very definite bias towards form and structure in the arts, and a respect and admiration for technique in art. This question is like asking What is Jazz? – one that prompts an Ellingtonian response along the lines of “That kind of talk stinks up the room …” But the question will continue to be posed, because art is a multi-billion dollar business and art is always political, not least in the area of arts funding and education.
I would venture to to say that most artists, like most jazz musicians, never ask themselves this question – they are driven by an imperative to create, not by definitions and labels. But once they want money, want to sell their art, or want a job in the arts, the question will arise in one way or another.
Walter Pater’s dictum that all art aspires towards the condition of music may be a useful point to start, although it is one of the most over-worked clichés about art, trotted out by every arts critic and blogger at every opportunity.
A musical anecdote -
In the mid-1970s I took up a new appointment in the Newcastle Breweries in the Personnel Department. A colleague, Derek English was a passionate lover of classical music, and quickly assessing my limited knowledge in this area, set out to educate me by generously offering to loan me items from his treasured LP collection.
“I’ll start with Beethoven,” said Derek. I then crassly replied that I didn’t like Beethoven. I got a long speculative look, then the observation that was a kind of Damascean moment for me.
“It’s OK not to like Beethoven, Peter, so long as you realise that the problem lies with you, not with Beethoven …”
So - what is Art?
I reach for my New Oxford dictionary, realising that I have never read a dictionary definition of art, and the content surprises me.
art noun 1 (mass noun) The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power … works produced by such skill and imagination – creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings or sculpture.
No mention of music, literature, or drama - they come under the arts.
This takes me full circle, because this is what I understood as art as a child and as a young man, and it is perhaps what most people understand as art – painting, drawing and sculpture. The arts, a concept I came to later, embraces music, and drama. And of course, Goldsmith’s offers much more than painting, drawing and sculpture – it teaches music, literature, drama, design and more besides. The art college is simply part of the Visual Arts department. Much art - including my son’s art - includes text, music and dramatic elements as well as painting, drawing and sculpture.
So I must offer my thoughts on the question What is Art? in the wider definition of the arts.
Let me start with jazz, now generally accepted as an art form.
Immediately, we run into the definitions problem – what is jazz? – and the firm assertion of many ‘jazz’ musicians that they play music, not jazz, and are not prepared to be restricted in their creativity by a label.
What is jazz? Well, I know it when I hear it, but my judgement perhaps reflects my age and my generation, although I believe that I could establish a consensus with most jazz musicians and committed listeners on what is and what is not jazz.
Most Edinburgh aficionados of ‘jazz’ over about sixty five years of age would, in my experience define it as so-called traditional jazz to mainstream jazz. as performed by a legion of small groups of musicians and vocalists of a similar age and era. I suspect that most Glaswegians would define it as mainstream or bebop, and most younger people would recognise it as bebop - or later dialects of the bebop language - or as smooth jazz, although they might not recognise the terms – hard bop, fusion, etc. Some in both camps would reject utterly one or other of the forms as being jazz, echoing the narrow-minded divisions of the 1940s triggered by the emergence of bebop. Asked to define the music, they would tend to fall back on concepts of improvised or not improvised and instrumentation, none of which define jazz, and few would think of it in terms of art.
Yet jazz, almost uniquely, has the capacity to crystallise in a moment - for me at any rate – the answer to the question What is Art?
That moment has been repeated a thousand time since then, often with musicians simply warming up before a performance, but always with that instant recognition of the art of jazz – not a matter of technique or study, but an innate artistic and musical sensibility and something called at its lowest level talent and at its highest, genius.
But here I must make a fundamental distinction. It is possible to play so-called traditional jazz (a very British term) with very basic instrumental technique and little or no theoretical knowledge but huge emotional intensity, but without a relatively high level of technical skill, and a sound understanding of harmony allied to a good ear, you won’t play bebop, or as it used to be called, modern jazz, a term now inappropriate for a musical form that is about seventy years old.
Another question therefore presents itself – Is art enhanced or inhibited by technique – by technical proficiency?
THE NATURAL ARTIST – TALENT versus TECHNIQUE
Goldsmith’s College of Art and Design, for example, has never emphasised technique, concentrating instead on helping the artist to define his or her objectives and artistic concept, and it can certainly point to a glittering record of success of its alumni, a record of both prestigious art prizes and commercial success. The names are a kind of litany of British art – Damien Hirst, Antony Gormley, Lucian Freud, Mary Quant, to name but a few – and many Turner prize winners are in this number.
Goldsmith’s, for better or worse, is also associated with the art collector Charles Saatchi … So the tutorial regime and policy seem to work, insofar as one accepts the art world’s definitions of success.
(My son Michael has a first in Fine Arts from Goldsmith’s and is a working artist based in London.)
Does technical facility in itself deliver artistic validity? Does a well-made painting, drawing or sculpture equate to art?
The New Oxford definition again - the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power … works produced by such skill and imagination – creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings or sculpture.
Not a word about technique, unless you regard it as being implied in creative skill – and note that “beauty or emotional power” which seems to imply that a work of art can have emotional power without necessarily having beauty. If that was the intention, the converse could not have been intended, since (I would argue) a work of art cannot have beauty without also having the power to stir the emotions. There also nothing about the intellect or intellectual power, but then the mathematician would argue that a fundamental mathematical proposition can have intellectual and emotional power and beauty …
Let’s take for the purposes of analysis technically skilled ‘artists’ who produce work for corporate clients, ‘artworks’ that will be placed in public places, in the foyers of public buildings, that will stand or hang in boardrooms. I place the words artist and artworks in parentheses so as not to beg the question.
(As an aside, the phrase begging the question, currently widely misused as meaning requesting or demanding that the question be asked, in fact means presenting a proposition that demands proof without actually presenting proof. In other words it means avoiding a necessary justification.)
There can be little doubt that much of this kind of ‘art’, however technically impressive, requiring considerable technical skill, is not art in any real sense of the word. If a work of art results from this process, it is either serendipitous, or the patron has found a true artist, not just a skilled technician. For example, the music, painting, sculpture, drama and film produced during the Third Reich was in the main competent and well-executed, but was not usually art. But the propaganda documentary film of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremburg, Triumph of the Will, was high art and an enduring masterpiece of cinema, because the Nazis chose a highly gifted artist to make it.
(The film incidentally showed many examples of execrable Nazi art, something that Riefenstahl must have been aware of, whatever her personal allegiances.)
Of course another position may be taken on artworks – that they are all art, but some are bad and some are good. The only criterion is – did the artist intend them to be art? But then we are back to the question – can a work of art be produced inadvertently by someone who had no such intention? A photograph that was perhaps simply intended to be an accurate record of a scene or events, may turn out to be art, and utilitarian objects and buildings may likewise be judged by an experienced and expert eye to be art.
Other perennial questions arise, among them -
Can art result from unintentional or random effort?
Are beautiful patterns in the sand on a beach or ice crystals on a window art? They may certainly be beautiful – beauty does not necessarily require intent or creativity, unless one invokes a Creator – a Supreme Being – or a Gaia principle, but they are not art. From the Lascaux Palaeolithic cave paintings through to Damien Hirst, art requires a human creator and an artistic intent – a vision.
Must an artist also have a motivation to communicate with an audience?
Most certainly do, but I have known artists who, for all or part of their creative lives, seemed to wish to communicate only with themselves. Some indeed appeared to be satisfied with the process of producing the artwork, and destroyed it after completion. And historically there have been artists who wished only to communicate with their God.
My son reminds me that Samuel Pepys had no apparent intention to communicate with anyone during or after his lifetime, yet undoubtedly produced a great literary work of art. That other great essayist, Michel de Montanus – Montaigne – initially had no thought of producing art or literature, but he achieved both, and did publish in his lifetime, but with no intention of achieving a wide circulation. Since I cannot conceive of life without either of of them, I can only be grateful that their intentions were frustrated by posterity.
Must a work of art communicate with and be appreciated and enjoyed by a large number of people before it can be considered as art?
I would answer a pretty definite no to the question, indeed some artists only achieved success posthumously, but the works were clearly art even before the judgement of posterity. And some great works of art have only ever been appreciated by a comparatively small number of people, but a small group that could tell shit from Shinola – people who have devoted their lives and their energies to art, and who know what they are talking about. An elitist argument I know, but although as a citizen I am a democrat and believe in the voice of the majority of the people, in matters of taste I am unashamedly elitist.
To the argument that it’s all a matter of taste, I reply, yes – good taste and bad taste. The problem lies with you, mate, not with Beethoven, or Van Gogh or Leonardo Da Vinci or Goethe.
SOME TENTATIVE STATEMENTS ON ART
The production of a work of art demands -
An artistic concept, idea or vision
A wish to realise that concept tangibly and to communicate it to an audience, however small, and perhaps consisting only of the artist
Sufficient technical capacity to realise the concept or vision, however imperfectly
The verdict on the artwork by art experts, leaving aside entirely commercial judgements will usually include seeing the work in the context of its intentions, its impact on the observer, the artist’s other work (few artists achieve a reputation solely on the basis of one work, although its does happen) and to some degree its technical competence.
When a work of art has been consistently highly regarded by experienced art critics and collectors over an extended period of time – decades, perhaps centuries – then it may well be styled a masterpiece. Some art is very much of its time; it is in vogue then it becomes part of art history, but perhaps no more than that.
Bear in mind that all of the above represent the thoughts of someone who is not an artist, has a rather narrow range of artistic understanding, but to whom art has always been a vital part of life. In that sense, I perhaps understand the ordinary man’s perception of art better than the art expert, and I may have an insight into the thinking of the art Philistines, whilst rejecting their negativism.