Good art, bad art contrasted, add propaganda
11 September 2008 5 Comments
Art as propaganda is usually frowned upon. However, Alain De Botton rethinks the negative reaction this combination so frequently elicits in our modern culture in the following quote from The Architecture of Happiness. The blurb also harkens back to the idea of art embalming our personal and cultural virtues.
Yet the term “propaganda” refers to the promotion of any doctrine or set of beliefs and in and of itsel should carry no negative connotations. That the majority of such promotion has been in the service of odious political and commercial agendas is more an accident of history than any fault of the word. A work of art becomes a piece of propaganda whenever it uses its resources to direct us towards something, insofar as it attempts to enhance our sensitivity and our readiness to respond favourably to any end or idea.
Under this definition, few works of art could fail to be counted as propaganda: not only pictures of Soviet farmers proclaiming their five-year plans, but also paintings of peas and lustre bowls; chairs; and steel and glass houses on the edge of the California desert. Taking the apparently perverse step of giving each of these the same label merely serves to stress the directive aspect of all consciously created objects — objects which invite viewers to imitate and participate in the qualities encoded within them.
From this perspective, we would be wise not to pursue the impossible goal of extirpating propaganda altogether, but should instead endeavor to surround ourselves with its more honourable examples. There is nothing to lament in the idea that art can direct our actions, provided that the directions it points us in are valuable ones. The theorists of the idealisating tradition were refreshingly frank in their insistence that art should try to make good things happen — and, more importantly, that it should try to make us good.
Let’s contrast that with the wit of Jeremy Clarkson, courtesy of the Art Market Blog. In the article cited by Art Market, Clarkson talks about how there’s a glut of British galleries. A few choice words from the spot:
Even Saatchi struggles. Obviously unable to secure a nice painting of some bluebells by a local artist, he has filled his new gallery with all sorts of stuff that to the untrained eye is food, bedding, waste and pornography . . .
Inside, guests could feast their eyes on a pickled shark, a room half-filled with sump oil and a severed cow’s head full of maggots and flies.
The high-profile nature of all this provides some hope for the owners of provincial galleries — they need only trawl their local butchers and fishmongers to fill half the space — but it’s not so good for you and me . . .
The trouble is that thanks to Saatchi — and to a certain extent, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen — there’s a sense that you can put anything on your walls at home and it will do. But it won’t.
I, for instance, have a very nice little picture in my sitting room. It’s of some cows on a misty morning by a river. I know this because it was painted by someone whose deftness with a brush meant he could represent cows and mist and a river.
Unfortunately, it gives off a sense that I’m not moving with the times. So really I should take it down and nail one of my dogs to the wall instead . . .
Real art, like real jeans, never goes out of fashion. You’ll never hear anyone say: “That Mona Lisa. She’s so last week.”
Clarkson is a journalist and broadcaster in England, but his artistic observations here are keen — and humorous. Is what he suggests true? Will works like Hirst’s shark be looked at in the future as “so last week.” Or will it even be looked at? When I look at the photograph of the fish in the box I figure it’s in a natural history museum, not an art gallery. It’s a technical work, not so much an imaginative one. Anyone with a workshop or resources such as those apparently available to this superstar of a an artist can put together a white box with a big fish in it if they want to, right?