Category Archives: The art world

Does it matter what it means?

I visited the Whitechapel at the beginning of my course and did an experiment. I went into an exhibit and didn’t read up on what the artist concerned was trying to ‘say’ with her work. I made my own interpretation which, perhaps inevitably, was wrong. A question that has stuck with me is whether that detracts in anyway from my own enjoyment (it didn’t in that case) of the work and what the artist is trying to achieve (I’d say it does). In the commercial sense, as long as it is a positive reaction then does it matter?

I repeated a variation on this experiment on Facebook last week. I asked any friends who were willing to comment on what they saw and thought my Trip Tych three pastel drawings.

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As an example, this drawing to me was about parenthood and the risk it can go so wrong when a parent with an undeveloped sense of self sees a child as an extension of themselves on which they project all their hopes and fears, through which they live vicariously – the extreme of which is actually a disorder called narcissistic personality disorder. The comments I received from friends included:

  • Two strangers meeting for the first time
  • Reminds me of a flower in the rain on a summers day
  • Seedlings just starting to grow
  • Helpless
  • A woman’s belly and legs
  • Initially sunsets then the more I looked I saw flowers and fire, they’re very relaxing

Although some of the comments are kind of related to what I was thinking about when I drew this, none are spot on. Does it matter? I had some lovely compliments. It’s a bit like my reflections about there not being any new ideas. Does it matter? If I put them on Etsy or some other platform and they started selling like prints, or even if I drew for pleasure and didn’t attempt any commercial success, if what I had in mind is completely different to what people see then as long as either (a) they’re buying and/or (b) I’m enjoying myself and they’re enjoying looking at them then who cares? Their reaction is in no way less valid because they (to borrow from social constructivist theory) bring their own lens to what they see which is unique to them.

Perhaps this is the difference between artists who want to exhibit and say something about the world and hobbyists or those who just want to sell a few bits on craft websites. I don’t know. Would I enjoy it more if people did see what I was trying to say? Again I don’t know. When I think about the surrealist artists I love, they deliberately engaged in producing art the elite would not understand, with all the Freudian symbolism and focus on the sub conscious. It builds on the old question “but is it art?” to say “well if it is, why can there not be multiple possibilities of what xyz piece is about that are all valid”.

Filia – supporting feminist art

I’m currently reading Art Since 1960, one of the suggesting books for this course. I’ve just hit the section on feminism and wondered what I might find in London today on this topic. I’m delighted to find Filia, formerly Feminism in London. The organisation has three aims which are to promote human rights, to promote equality and diversity and excitingly:

“To promote art for the benefit of the public, in particular to promote the art of women, especially socially excluded women, by the provision of an art exhibition at the annual conference, and through other events and collaborations.”

I’ve asked to join their mailing list and will be interested to see what their exhibitions and conferences are all about.

Gallery visit – Guerilla Girls at Whitechapel Gallery

On 7 January I visited the Whitechapel Gallery to see the Guerilla Girls’ Is it even worse in Europe? exhibit. This was a small exhibit in terms of physical space but one that packed a lot of punch in what it was highlighting. It shared results of a 2016 survey they sent to 383 European museum directors regarding diversity, specifically the coverage of artists in their exhibitions who are women, gender non-conforming or from non-US and European countries.

The headlines were quite shocking, one of which – that only a quarter responded – is on a banner outside the gallery. The exhibit contained copies of all the completed questionnaires and you were invited to ‘walk over’ a list on the floor of those who didn’t respond. The yellow, red and grey colours used on the posters to share the results was jarring which I am guessing was their intention.

In the supporting press release the Guerrilla Girls said:

With this project, we wanted to pose the question ‘Are museums today presenting a diverse history of contemporary art or the history of money and power?’ We focus on the understory, the subtext, the overlooked and the downright unfair. Art can’t be reduced to the small number of artists who have won a popularity contest among bigtime dealers, curators and collectors. Unless museums and Kunsthallen show art as diverse as the cultures they claim to represent, they’re not showing the history of art, they’re just preserving the history of wealth and power.”

As someone who has worked in organisational development and change for many years, I know from first-hand experience how powerful it can be to simply ask questions as a mechanism for drawing attention to an issue. For example it has taken European legislation on gender reporting to force organisations under the microscope with regard to their practices and even now there is evidence of firms only acting to deal with what they are judged on externally, which I find incredibly sad.

I wonder whether more could be done to share the Guerilla Girls’ survey results and work outside the gallery environment. How might we get it into places where young female and non-gender specific minds may be considering a career in art? Would it inspire more young people to art if they could get passionate about using it to help achieve positive cultural and political change? This unpacks a whole package of thorny issues such as how you can influence the curriculum and the role education plays. 2016 was a sad year for art in this regard, with A-level art history being axed by the Tories, with a paltry 18,533 signatures to date on the survey to ‘Save art history being cut from the A level curriculum‘. I learnt a huge amount about history and different countries’ political, cultural and social contexts when I recently started studying the history of art. It’s incredibly short-sighted of the Tories to do this.

I can’t say I “enjoyed” the Guerilla Girls exhibition as the responses provided by some of the galleries made my blood boil but I am glad they are out their fighting for change. I’d like to know what they want us, as the “customers” of the galleries to do to help drive change through too.