The following black and white prints were inspired by an excerpt from the novel, Elizabeth Finch by one of my favourite writers, Julian Barnes.
Barnes also poses the meta question – “is art a depiction of reality, a concentration of it, a superior substitute for it, or just a beguiling irrelevance? ” This query gnaws at thinking artists and opens several cans of worms.
Is art a depiction of reality? Is the job of artists to reflect the times we live in so as to make our fellow citizens aware of the historical mistakes we as a society may be repeating? Should artists be confronting us with our present greed, stupidity, and all the other deadlies we so demonstrably commit? Or should we be celebrating the slow progress of conscious human awareness? How can an artist distinguish between their own perception of reality and what is actually going on out there? How do we know if our sins are more numerous and deterministic than our saving graces?
This is the quandry posed by the post-moderns, post-post moderns and more recent schools that trace their decent from them. Their answer is that we can’t perceive what is real because reality is made up of momentary impressions that we superimpose on the world around us. Some might even suggest that there is no independent reality, there are only disparate individual perceptions created by cultural norms, personal histories, situations and emotions. By this logic, artists cannot depict reality as it is an illusion and must avoid attempting to impose their personal understanding on their audience as this is dishonest and even unfair.
Is art a concentration of reality? If one accepts the logic outlined above, then reality cannot be depicted, let alone concentrated. But perhaps artists, through their craft, discipline and experience , are able to distill experience into a hyper-real depiction of the world around them. This is the case in many non-Western cultures and was the case in earlier European cultures before the pursuit of realism became the measure of excellence. In First Nations cultures on the west coast of British Columbia, artists capture the history, stories and spirit of their culture rather than individual emotional states or experiences.
The power of a work such as this can’t be denied and its concentrated energy negates the idea that art can’t depict reality. But this is a reality on a different scale that the reality debated by the post-moderns investigating questions about whether the artist is trying to impose a world-view on the audience.
Early Europeans also use powerful images to concentrate the communicate the essence of their culture, such as this sculpture:
Neolithic “Steatopygous Goddess from Pano Chorio”, c. 5800–4800 BC, terracotta, Crete;
These works provided a schematized, abstract rendition of human traits, in this case, fertility (mother-goddess). They were depicted in stages of pregnancy, giving birth or showing maternal affection, parts of real life independent of distorted individual artistic bias.
Is art a superior substitute for reality? Can we attain the same level of understanding from an excellent novel by Julian Barnes as we can by exposing ourselves to life in all its variation, wonder & squalor? Does a well-written novel, riveting play or mind-altering painting represent a more refined and accurate conception of reality than the lived experience of a non-artist?
This topic is immediately diverted into the issue of digital vs. non-digital reality and the current worry that for many , if not most of us, “real” reality has become a dull reflection of what we can find in our devices. Is a well-written novel, riveting play or mind-altering painting intrinsically more valuable than an hour or two on Facebook, Snapchat or TikTok? If we accept that there is no “real” reality anyway, it’s quality doesn’t make any difference. But if we don’t accept this, we might suggest that an undifferentiated virtual world with no limitations or standards is a formless, dumbed-down alternative to a well-written novel, riveting play or mind-altering painting. These collate societal experiences into artworks that don’t substitute for reality but distill it into something greater than all of our busy minds. So in that way, good art is a superior substitute for mindlessly getting through the day.
Is art just a beguiling irrelevance? This is the big question. Is it defensible to be working diligently to create artworks in the context of world hunger, war, climate change, mass migrations, mass species extinction etc.?
Shouldn’t we all down pens, paintbrushes, ballet shoes and violins to distribute needed supplies to exhausted refugees? Remove invasive species from nearby wildlife habitat? Sit in front of our legislature with a placard demanding a sustainable future?
We artists defend our practices by arguing that in a world of greed & violence, the arts preserve the best part of humanity and provide an alternative paradigm to getting & spending.