Journal October 2022

Changing the narrative

We live in a time when the destruction of art has become art itself. It’s a curious thing when we consider that in times of war people have often risked their lives to safeguard masterpieces while others like Hitler before them try to eradicate a history to replace it with their own narrative, by the burning books to the toppling of monuments. It seems to me a pointless exercise as the tales of such actions endure and it never changes history. It’s caused much debate over what to do about works that reflect the politics and ethical values of the times in which they were created when we have moved from them. We cannot learn from history without such reminders. Past dictators, aggressors and tyrants approved monuments of themselves still get destroyed though, but my question is should they be?

If we destroy all artworks that depict death, torture, poverty, grieve and destruction do they suddenly cease to happen? Do restful landscapes or the beautiful things that cheer us, motivate, inspire and give us hope no longer remain if we do not depict them? Would sunshine cease if we only depicted storms? It is both the good and bad in life or about any individual that gets captured by artists many of whom have had to create works under duress or simple to enable to put food in their bellies.

The act of shredding or burning a painting is most commonly done by artists themselves when they are displeased with their efforts or they put them aside to be covered up or worked on later. I recall one artist filming the destruction of all his possessions and calling it art. To make a public display of destroying a work is a statement if not a piece of theatre but can it really be considered as art? If so then a bomb falling on an art gallery must be too. Look in any dictionary and you’ll get a definition of art along these lines…

Art: (mass noun) The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

Does this drawing of a plain white paper bag depict beauty or convey emotional power? Does Duchamp’s Urinal placed in an art gallery? I think we need to review what we mean when we refer to an artwork as a ‘statement piece’. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and there is a beauty in destruction. It has fascinated artists for centuries. To depict a ruin rather than a idyllic landscape for me involves the absorbing act of mark making, creating shapes and textures and tones that are individually just as pleasing to do as those used to create a heavenly sky, in fact for me more so. And when you consider how many idyllic landscapes there are with ruined buildings reclaimed by nature it seems to confirm that we all find a beauty in destruction and all that is deemed ugly.

Art for art’s sake conveys the idea that it is enough to create something rather than destroy it. The act of destruction however is an act of expression which undoubtedly has emotional power, but I always maintain that no artwork is complete until it is viewed and experienced and responded to by an audience and it is that continuing dialogue of reaction and response that can only endure while the artwork still exists. Destroying an artwork for me ends the dialogue forever.

I am always much more fascinated by the responses to my work as I often learn that I have subconsciously included things I had not intended or were not even in my mind at the point of creation. And if I were to state what I meant to convey, it runs the risk of imposing only one way of responding to it – mine. It is why I restrict my knowledge of other artist’s lives so that I can immerse myself in the joy of discovering the artwork, thereby making it a personal dialogue between me and it. How else can we say the artwork speaks to us? We each lay a claim of ownership on every artwork we perceive. Those who own the object, do not own the art and nor do I think does the artist who merely shares the ownership with us for which I am eternally grateful. The power of an artwork stands up for itself as we never need or have to know about the novelist to enjoy the story. Indeed some artists prefer their lives to remain private.