At one point on my recent trip to Yorkshire I entered into a public conversation with our new and good friend, artist/poet Laureate of Birmingham Brian Lewis. I had given a talk about my artistic influences which include things like punk rock, Shakespeare (specifically Kenneth Brannagh’s Henry V) and Robert Lepage – I did begin my career in the theatre after all, and Brian commented on the fact that all art must have content otherwise it was pornography. He was alluding to my influences but also pointing out that if art is everything it might as well be nothing. At first I wasn’t sure if he was saying that I was someone who made everything art or not but he then later qualified his comment about me suggesting out that these influences showed a strong catholic degree of content.
Phewf. I really didn’t want to disappoint Brian because he seems to know everything. At age 75 he is now a kind of Yorkshire version of Kenneth Clark; we toured a gallery’s collection together and he was able to tell providence on each piece we looked at. He isn’t a huge fan of my work however; he tends to have that Prince Charles idea of art, that it’s a skill with technique and scholarly breadth. But he liked my mixed media representations of coal fields because he thinks they have content. BTW don’t tell Brian I compared him to the Prince, his anarchistic leanings would protest loudly.
Now content is a word I use all the time because I am in the business of creating it everyday. Not only do I make paintings but I write this blog and organize digital imagery & text for clients who want to use social media in their marketing. Content is what fills the ‘fields’ in technology; you have to have something to look at and read online. For Brian content is the intelligent understanding and literate appreciation of the subject matter you are working with when you make your art. In many ways both explanations are the same but seem different in separate contexts.
Brian might think that putting text & imagery online into applications like Twitter more like pornography than art. I would like to think that my strategic understanding of my client’s campaigns and how these applications work make what I do a lot more involved. But this online stuff isn’t art either and I would never pretend that it is since people online spend just over seven seconds looking at things on social media. How can that even be pornography really?
Brian skirted this issue of what is art, a query I hate into something far more intriguing. In 2016 the world will celebrate 100 years of readymade art and its creator Marcel Duchamp, known mostly for putting a urinal on display in an art gallery and calling it Fountain. He is an unlikely art icon, contemptuous of the art world, many works remain unfinished and he spent as much time in experimentation with chess and physics as art.
Duchamp is a kind of grand guignol of 20th century art. His influence is as negative as it is positive. Because of Duchamp we have been stuck with decade after decade of art making by imperious aesthetes who believe themselves to be above craftsmanship or even creativity and that their uber intellectual concepts should not have to be explained to anyone least of all the public, those unwashed philistines who enter galleries to feel something. My friend Brian had nothing good to say about him or his prodigy Joseph Beuys – he felt both were miscreants. While I hate their influence for the most part I like them both and their work because what they did remains unanswerable. And I don’t blame them for the continued misinterpretation of what they were doing. I believe art is actually an idea we strive toward, not necessarily a career or a form of communication or beauty. It can become objects that manifest tremendous energy like Turner’s Hannibal Crossing the Alps or Michaelangelo’s David or Rothko’s Chapel but it is never its own thing therefore we can never come to terms with what it actually is. We do know however when something is a force or has greatness or is bullshit because of its content.
Duchamp’s urinal was an object without content, without grace, greatness or even intelligence. It was shocking that’s all. Duchamp’s complicated feelings toward it and art are what had made it and him an icon. Can we move on from Fountain? That is a better question.