I’ve started to read ‘Aesthetics and Painting’ by Jason Gaiger, and find it giving me food for thought. For example, on page 4 he writes: ‘The more sophisticated or original an artist’s work, and the more remote from our contemporary concerns, the more recalcitrant it is likely to prove as an example for philosophical analysis.’
This has set me thinking about whether I would describe my work as ‘remote’, and whether it’s a concept that bothers me. I suppose I wouldn’t like to be considered to be remote, confined to some sort of abstract ivory tower. In a way, all art has to be both remote and connected. If it only referred to the immediate, it’s very lack of remoteness would give it a shelf life, and once public interests have moved on, that work would be seen as past its sell by date, irrelevant, no longer pertinent. Good art to my mind carries within it something that lasts much longer than that, so it somehows connects with the viewer on a level that goes beyond immediate concerns. So there is a definition of remoteness that should apply to art. However, at the same time art has to engage the viewer, otherwise there is no communication with the artist, and most artists want to communicate. If the art I make is remote in the wrong kind of way, the viewer will have little interest in seeing what I have to say. Of course the viewer may well see in my work something I had not overtly intended, but that worries me less than seeing nothing in my work that will capture his or her interest. If the viewer’s thoughts go off anywhere I would see that as a creative response for which my work has been the trigger. No bad thing.
The problem with the word ‘remote’ is that is implies that I have little interest in people, and little care for what is happening in the world around me. I’m actually quite a political person, and socially conscious. I have to spend a fair amount of time in self imposed isolation, otherwise I would not be able to make art, but that is different from being disconnected from other people. So I don’t consider myself to be ‘remote’. Which brings me to the subject of social content in art. As a non-remote artist, should I secure my non-remoteness by being more socially aware in my work? I think that’s a legitimate question to ask myself. There has always been place in art for the artist to express their concerns, as German artists like Max Beckmann and Georg Gross did, as Picasso did with Guernica and Weeping Woman. Like most artists, I would not like to confine myself to making social comment, but on the other hand, I am one of those who find it rather peculiar that Matisse never expressed any feelings about the war at all when he made his work, wanting only for his work to be for the viewer ‘as comfortable as an old armchair’. In a way I understand his position, but I find it unsatisfactory and unsatisfying.
Does my own work reflect social or political concern? No, not in any overt way. Yet as I write this I realise that the piece I’m making at the moment does have this kind of content. It’s an abstract painting springing from a Norse myth about Balder the light god. In the myth Balder is killed, and attempts to bring him back from the abode of the dead end in failure. As a result there are tears, many tears, as the world seeks to cope with the death of light and learning. I’m conscious of how terrible that is as I paint, so although there may never be a viewer who shares that, who sees that painting and responds by thinking about our current educational system (that only values what can be tested and is not interested in communicating the joy of learning), or who is encouraged by that painting to reflect on how shallow are the interests of our contemporary popular society that only wants endless entertaining with trivialities rather than a searching for wisdom and understanding of our world and how we stand in it, even if no-one else is pointed in that direction as they view it, it was important to me at the time. And that brings me back to archaeology. As I try to learn a little about this fascinating area of knowledge, perhaps that is one way in which I am searching for wisdom and understanding of our world, and I am making art to try and process some of these thoughts and questions.