A Death Affirming Experience


I used to enjoy visiting exhibitions of contemporary art especially those end of term degree shows at Art College. It was fascinating to see the work that young artist could produce given the three- 4 years out of the normal things and the humdrum business of earning a living to devote the time and concentrate their minds and skills in inventions and enthusiasm to explore and create .

I still go, but increasing I find it a bleak and depressing experience. I viewed one recently and it left me with a desperate sense of despair that was hard to shift. It was not all black. There were glimmers of light but even these beams seemed to be suppressed under a dreadful dead hand determined to drive any hint of beauty of light of meaning of truth into the dust. There was guillotines and ropes, gigantic pictures of genitals with birds wings, flickering repeating images, wobbling plates, doors made of beeswax, temples protected by demons, and nudity in abundance -because nudity attracts as it also repulses. I hated it and made the earliest excuse to escape into the fresh air outside to be decontaminated.

Listening to the stories of those who have come through the art school experience, I hear the same repeated story.  They came with high hopes and naïve excitement only to be faced with a regime that subtly bullied them into a well-worn rut to emulate the stars of the day. The celebrities: Auerbach, Caro, Chapman, Emin, Freud, Gormley, Hockney, Hirst, Gilbert and George, who define what they do as “art” simply because they self-identify themselves as “artists”. So it doesn’t matter if it sculptured faeces, plucked chicken morphed into genitalia, lights going on and off or just an unmade bed it is “art” because it is in an exhibition and “I said so”. One of things that unsettles me when I view an installation in one of these white painted rooms is that I can never tell if that sink in the corner and the painted light switch are really part of the piece or just happen to be there or if it actually really matters.  I suspect the answer would be it doesn’t. Anything that was lovely that was life affirming that was beautiful is dismissed as crass.  In the eyes of the “art masters”,  it is  suspect, phoney and bourgeois. To be real it has to be misery, shock and outrage, the grittier, the uglier, the edgier, the more turgid and prurient the better. The “art” has shifted from the work itself to “exploring the concept of…. painting, sculpture, jewellery or whatever”.  The fact that it is copying the copiers, repeating the same shock tactics so that they shock no more, overplaying and squeezing the idea to its death, demonstrates the total bankruptcy of ideas or of anything of purpose or value…. and all this, almost 100 years since Marcel Duchamp signed his fountain.  And so the young artist is left and discharged from college with a degree, but little inclination or vision to continue their work. Most give up and look for some other way to be creative. Only a tiny minority survive.

But it is easy to be cynical and pour scorn on the poor naked emperors who don’t know that they and their swanning retinue are making such terrible fools of themselves. It takes a child, it seems, to notice. But there are some really fine and true artists out there who have defiantly turned their back on the crowd and steadily with great persistence and perseverance, stuck to the task, honed and developed their skill, learned from the great masters and build up a body of work of genuine quality.  I visited the studio of a young painter recently who works in oil on figures and landscapes. It was a fascinating hour. We could have talked for ages as he spoke about his work, the artists he admired and the struggles. He had spent the previous fortnight working on a hand in the foreground of a composition. He was just not happy with it. Finally frustrated, he scratched it out and started over again. That single minded devotion to truth and beauty shone through in his work and it is a wonderful thing. You know a great painting when you just want to look at it, keep looking, never tire of it, and always see more. I am currently looking after another work by a young artist. It sits against the wall in my studio and every time I see it, it fills me with, a hard to describe, joy. I look at it from a distance and up close and the warmth and beauty that emanates from it is irrepressible

Recently I organised a one off exhibition of local artists as part of a “doors open days” event here in our city. It was put together in a very ad hoc, last minute fashion and I wasn’t sure, up until the day of hanging, if it was going to work. But it was exciting to see the pieces come together. There was a wide range of interesting and good material ranging from portraits and still life in oils, water colour landscape, a series of posters on “liminality”,   pencil life studies, a mixed media storm theme and a series of pictures relating a personal story of recovery after a coma.   The exhibition was called “Truth and Beauty”, precisely because these are themes that seem to be so despised in much of contemporary art. If I was just able, somehow and in some way, to encourage and foster that talent, have that conversation and perhaps even restore a life affirming vision, I think I might have done something worthwhile.

Crawford Mackenzie