To the uninitiated (and even to initiates), the process of turning nothing into something, as artists do, is mystical and magical. How does the raw material mutate into a work of art? What is the mysterious power of imagination to turn ordinary, mundane art materials into emotionally affective works, which excite and ignite the senses?
The range of possible art materials to use is overwhelming, including words, sounds, media, paint, paper, canvas, clay, precious metals, and even foodstuffs and so on, but the resultant artworks exhibit greater variety and diversity still. The possibilities are seemingly infinite, even when the starting point is far more constrained. How does a mere mortal conjure infinity out of finite resources?
Artists are often seen, in the popular imagination, as a species of magician or alchemist. The work they do is transformational, transformative and pure transmutation. They unleash things, bring them forth into being, call them into existence, summon them from who knows where, seemingly through the use of black magic or dark arts (in the sense that their skills and techniques are somewhat poorly understood, by the observer).
We’ve all had the experience of beholding a work of art and wondering how the artist made it, or more commonly, what caused them to think about making that particular work of art and what motivated them to start and then to see the creation through to completion. We marvel. It seems inexplicable. The origins of outstanding artistic ideas are often obscure, or even esoteric.
There is nothing necessarily intentionally tricky or dishonest about it. Artists exercise their powers of creation instinctively all the time. It’s one of their superpowers, as artists. Creation comes as easily as any other survival reflex. In many ways, it is their creativity that sustains their minds, bodies and souls. It is an expression of their very essence, as sentient beings, in an indifferent universe. Life may be abundant, in the universe, but the life on this small planet is currently the only life we know. There’s something special about a creature that can bring forth something new and vital, from something old and lifeless.
The act of creation, of course, has unpredictable consequences. Not even the creator of a work of art can predict its effect and impact on other people. By conjuring up some new piece of art, the artist can unlock something in other people’s minds, or release something into the world that, as a work of art, can take on a life all of its own. The arc of its story and existence cannot be controlled by the artist and need not correspond in any way to the arc of the artist’s personal story.
Sometimes, the smallest steps you take in the right direction, as a creator, can end up being the biggest step of your life. You can’t always tell which steps are going to be the decisive ones and where your steps will lead you, as an artist. Some steps, disappointingly, take you no further forward, while others can change you and your relationships forever. Although your act of creation might seem small, it might be the one thing that ultimately changes your entire life, or somebody else’s.
Often, the thing that seems like magic, which the artist employs in creating their art, can turn out to be little more than holding up a metaphorical mirror to their society. People may be amazed, shocked or horrified to see themselves as they really are, through art. Art has the capacity to reveal truth to those that do not wish to acknowledge it. It that a conjuring trick? I don’t think so. I think it has more in common with divine revelation.
Coming out as a conjurer, by making people aware of your artistry, can change how you are perceived by others, quite profoundly. You are sometimes seen as awesome, incomprehensible, vaguely frightening or threatening, mysterious, or from some other world. It makes you a little bit dangerous, in their eyes. You are above intimidation and control. Your insights brazenly expose the ruses and wheezes so frequently used by the powerful to keep the powerless oppressed. You are a hazard to entrenched dogma.
The dark side of an artist’s seemingly magical powers of conjuring creations out of thin air is that they also possess the ability to turn blatant lies into widely accepted fact, by the application of unjustifiable hyperbole and fear. Not all artists use their conjury for good. It is regrettable indeed that some of the finest artistic conjurers are, in truth, dark magicians. Wisdom is not always congruent with powers of creation.
Can we unravel what lies at the root of these conjuring powers? According to noted art collector, Mera Rubell, “Art is a language which opens your heart to the Other”. Language implies a commonly understood means of communication, shared between people. “Other”, expressed as a proper noun, has deeper implications: alternatives, different viewpoints, other worlds, something not of our mundane, every day experience, that which is outside of “us”. It encourages us to go beyond ourselves.
Art historian, Claire Bishop, says, “Art is a form of experimental activity overlapping with the world”. That tells us that art is experimentation and that the experiments overlap with our generally perceived reality, but the implication is that the overlap need not be total. Experimentation is generally a route to understanding or discovery. It is empirical, quantitative and qualitative, following a method of enquiry. Artists need to try things that have not been tried, investigated the never investigated and push the boundaries of artistic perception.
Leo Ferrari, the philosophy professor, claims that, “Art is not beauty or novelty; art is effectiveness and disruption.” According to this analysis, art is active, affective, it causes effects, and it disrupts and changes things. It’s not simply something pleasant to look at and behold, nor is it something we’ve never seen before, which we regard as novel. Art is a force for the advancement of human understanding. Art must do something to the world in which it exists.
When contemporary artist, Amalia Pica, explains what art is for, she says, “It’s a way of resisting the lack of meaning in things, a desperate attempt to make sense of how random and absurd the world is – and it’s also a way of celebrating exactly that.” I’m not sure things have no meaning, though we may very well perceive them to be meaningless, without art to help us make sense of what seems to be random and absurd. In my view, some of the greatest absurdities in the world are drearily predictable and produced methodically, rather than truly random. In any case, art is seen as a tool for understanding and rationalising that which appears to be senseless. It is also a way to celebrate the truly random aspects of life – those occurrences that are wonderful, but defy rational explanation. The making of art itself can be viewed as one of these, I think.
It is clear that if you are conjuring art into existence, it ought to be about something outside of yourself, which causes an audience to think and feel differently than they did, before being exposed to the art in question. It has to experiment with the world, make sense of the seemingly insensible and actively change the world.
One of the most confrontational subjects for an artist to take on, today, is income inequality, because it will prod and disrupt those who are the very patrons of their art (they being the main beneficiaries of inequality). Artists can have some real fun with this. The inequality is wholly illegitimate, based on arbitrary and entrenched privilege and this is a rich vein of inspiration, to be mined at length and depth. When we think of France of the Belle Epoch, the art we view today as most redolent and representative of those times speaks to the social conditions and consequences of widely upheld ideas that were most evident, at the time.
In one hundred and fifty years’ time, people will want to see the Art of Inequality, representing the folly of our dysfunctional economic distributions and its attendant injustices, because that is what will characterise our era most vividly. We might not acknowledge it today, but the upper tiers of the art world are utterly dependent on the richest people, who have benefited most from income inequalities, buoying up the prices of their works. Isn’t that a delicious irony, which paints an indelible and iridescent picture of our current times for future art aficionados to remark upon?
No less a flamboyant and high profile art collector as Charles Saatchi, “finds this new, super-rich art-buying crowd vulgar and depressingly shallow. Do any of these people actually enjoy looking at art? Or do they simply enjoy having easily recognised, big-brand name pictures, bought ostentatiously in auction rooms at eye-catching prices, to decorate their several homes, floating and otherwise, in an instant demonstration of drop-dead coolth and wealth. Their pleasure is to be found in having their lovely friends measuring the weight of their baubles and being awestruck”.
Artists, you need to be making art about this: big brand, herd mentality, shallowness, superficiality, and fragile egos, dependent on the adulation of others who evaluate the size of their balls. Depict people who are wholly disengaged with the actual art, whose life consists of meaningless accumulation of properties they rarely live in, as a vehicle for making a statement about their own unearned, illegitimate privilege, which they somehow think they can legitimise by sufficiently grand and flagrantly ostentatious purchases. They’re worth it, right? They don’t love art, they just love to be seen as art lovers; two very different things. Everything is bought for the impression it will make.
If you cannot make art about this rich subject matter, you aren’t really trying, as an artist. I assure you that people of future generations will find our habits, in relation to art, an absolute hoot, or else a precursor to their own more advanced degeneracy. It might even be held up as a shining example of best practice from a bygone Golden Age. All that can be certain, in a world of uncertainties, is that this aspect of our culture – our enthusiastic and insouciant embrace of extremes of wealth inequality – will stand out as marking it, for centuries to come.
Of course, continuing to make banal, chocolate box art, as an artist, is, in a sense, exactly describing the same phenomenon, but from the artist’s perspective, rather than that of the art consumer. This reduces art to being a trophy, rather than as a conveyor of meaning.
If you don’t want to tackle that unpleasant subject matter (wealth inequality and unearned privilege), you could always try depicting the fragility of human life and the delicate balance of our natural environment, which is rapidly being destroyed in order to play a human-invented game of finance, called “Profit”. If that doesn’t inspire you to conjure up works of relevance and significance to future generations, then consider the growing, creeping, global totalitarianism that is currently enveloping us all, suffocating every last independent thought and idea, by stealth.
If those subjects don’t inspire you to conjure, then perhaps you could make art that references living in a time in history when a handful of delusional, self-appointed, cynical, sociopathic, megalomaniacs could spread insane deceptions and have the entire population join in, blindly, obediently and overzealously, to amplify the falsehoods and the consequent harm. Rarely has there been more of this sort of thing happening, in human affairs.
I submit that these are the ideas that will be the future monuments to our time, just as Fascism, Communism and rampant Capitalism came to characterise the twentieth century, mostly through industrial scale death and destruction, waged via an almost completely unbroken sequence of successive wars. The twenty-first century trends I have described above are how future people will understand our era. Artists who make art that speaks to this subject matter, lucidly and honestly, are going to be the most immortal of us all. Their art, making concrete and powerful statements about these popular delusions and trends, will stand the test of time.
Art is potent magic and artists are more powerful conjurers than they usually realise. What we depict and represent provides the means of understanding who we are and what we thought. It clarifies our contemporary ideas, if we care to notice, but also snap-shots our zeitgeist for future generations to marvel at and perhaps condemn.
Of course, that said, you could always conjure up a better world, with better outcomes for all, through your art. The power is in your hands.