Opinion

My work can be termed contemporary realism i.e. my style is realist and I’m doing it now. One of the things that annoys me about the art world and its institutions today, is their hijacking of the word “Contemporary” and the skewing of its literal meaning to exclude any style that is reminiscent of the art practiced and taught before the student revolution of the 1960s.The effect of this is that now this type of work is usually simply ignored by the critics, or if mentioned at all, is spoken of in a dismissive, or derogatory manner.

I am often asked by intelligent, bewildered, non-artists for my opinion of what is presented as art today, work that at best is meaningless to them, and worst seems deliberately to insult their intelligence. Rather than write at length my own thoughts on this subject, I would like to recommend Petrified Revolutionaries, an excellent, well written article published in the August /September 2001 edition of Art Bulletin, the magazine of the Artists Association of Ireland. See below:

Petrified Revolutionaries

Simon McGarr is a young graduate with a keen interest in the visual arts. Following a summer working beside the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Dublin, one of the foremost “contemporary” galleries in Ireland, he became frustrated at what he considered the low quality of the pieces shown in such a prime space, and was prompted to think about why they were being chosen. The following is an extract from his article which was published in the August /September 2001 edition of Art Bulletin, the magazine of the Artists Association of Ireland:

“To put it bluntly, I am deeply unimpressed by much of what is presented as art in galleries and exhibition spaces in Dublin. Ever since the students rebelled against having to draw from marble statues in the College of Art in the 1960s by occupying the building and painting the decapitated head of Michelangelo’s David blue, there has been a firm rejection of figurative representation as the primary method of artistic expression for Irish artists. It is seen as conservative or even reactionary at best, and the mark of the amateur Sunday painter at worst. To attempt to represent what you see figuratively on the page or canvas seems now to be akin to painting by numbers in terms of critical appreciation.

And yet at the same time attempts to keep the modernist movements alive by pretending that their tactics are still revolutionary, are wearing thin as the same ideas are presented as were used 75 years ago. It is hard to persuade people that your methods are so shocking and original that they are challenging the idea of what art is when we have seen the same things done fifty years before. If a urinal was art in the 1950s, it is only because the idea of such a thing was so shocking to the critics and the public that it provoked some new thoughts. It was a work of, and in, its time. But we still have people today challenging long gone orthodoxies without asking whether or not they still hold sway. It isn’t even tilting at windmills. It is tilting at the empty fields where windmills once were.

Without the strength of the new ideas the original modernist artists undoubtedly had, and their monolith of a hostile establishment artistic culture to rail against, today’s bold artistic statements have no meaning. If critics accept unquestioningly that a shark in formaldehyde is a viable sculpture (rather than a clever advertisement for its creator) then the only value it could have, the shock value, is gone. It is time to accept that the revolutionaries are now the establishment, and are proving just as hostile to outside influences as their predecessors.

The vital difference here is that that hostility has co-opted the rhetoric of innovation and progress. When students in NCAD [National College of Art & Design, Dublin] meet their teachers, they are meeting the very people who knocked David’s head off to mark the end of the reign of conservatism. They are unlikely to find themselves being praised by these teachers if they then start producing the kind of work which the person marking them rejected thirty years ago.

This has had serious negative effects on both the artists and the community as a whole. If young artists are channelled into a dead ends (such as moving into the sterile world of Installations for example) their creative energy is wasted and the satisfaction an artist gets from connecting with a viewing public is lost. And that connection is being weakened continuously by the current view of art as something which needs to be interpreted for the ignorant masses.

The phrase, “I don’t know a lot about art, but I know what I like” is used as a shorthand for describing a philistine’s mind set. But why should it be? If you examine the ideas underlying that presumption you find some very questionable notions. Firstly, that to appreciate art properly a person has to be trained for it. This means that you shouldn’t connect to art on an emotional level, but rather that you should realise what it means, what the artist is saying. The logical end point of this idea is that art needs critics to give it meaning. So it is hardly surprising that this view has found such lasting support amongst critics.

In truth, the only thing an artist can say which will have any lasting value is, “This is my world”. A vision of life as seen through someone else’s eyes gives us a new perspective on our own experience. Van Gough’s stars are startling and powerful because we can imagine what it would be like to see the night like that. It changes our own view when we look up into the darkness, forever to know that there is another way of seeing the sky”.

Simon McGarr

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