Monday, January 11, 2010

Art in late 20th /21st century-by John Fowles

Image: Blue Interior, 2002. Oil on Ply

It's high summer here, and sweltering in the studio is not an option on some 30 degree + days. So I've been reading and, as often happens (chance? The Universe...) I came across these musings on art in The Ebony Tower by John Fowles, author of The "French Lieutenant's Woman" and "Daniel Martin"(two of my all-time favourite novels) - a book on a friend's shelf where i was staying for a few days.

Food for thought and a sign post to the pitfalls of art practice in 21st century...
Note: Best get a cuppa and a comfy chair... (The italics are mine).

Scene: David is a successful contemporary abstract, geometry-based artist and critic and is in Coet, France visiting Henry, a painter and contemporary of the mature Picasso, and a collector of Miro, Sersuier etc, to interview him for a Biography he is writing on Henry. After spending time with Henry and certain events, David reflects on what has just happened and the state of art in late 20th Century.
"Coet had been a mirror, and the existence he was returning to sat mercilessly reflected and dissected in its surface...and how shabby it looked, how insipid and anodyne, how safe. Riskless, that was the essence of it...One killed all risk. One refused all challenge, and so became an artificial man. The old Man's (Henry's) secret, was not to let anything stand between self and expression: which wasn't a question of outward artistic aims, mere styles and techniques and themes. But how you did it: how wholly, how bravely you faced up to the constant recasting of yourself.
...He had a dreadful vision of being in a dead end, born into a period of art history future generations would dismiss as a desert...Art had always gone in waves. Who knew if the late 20th Century might not be one of its most cavernous troughs? He knew the old man's answer: it was. Or it was unless you fought bloody tooth and nail against some of its cherished values and supposed victories.
Perhaps abstraction, the very word, gave the game away. You did not want how you lived to be reflected in your painting: or because it was so compromised, so settled-for-the-safe, you could only try to camouflage its hollow reality under craftsmanship and good taste. Geometry. Safety hid nothingness.
What the old man still had was an umbilical cord to the past: a step back, he stood by Pisanella's side. I n spirit, anyway. While David was encapsulated in book-knowledge, art as social institution, science, subject, matter for grants and discussion. ...David and his generation, and all those to come, could only look back, through bars, like caged animals, born in captivity, at the old green freedom.....One was mislead by the excess in vogue, the officially blessed indiscipline, the surface liberties of contemporary art: which all sprang from profound frustration, a buried but not yet quite extinguished awareness of non-freedom. It ran through the whole recent history of art education in Britain....One could not live by one's art, therefore one taught a travesty of its basic principles: pretending that genius, making it, is arrived at by overnight experiment, histrionics, instead of endless years of solitary obstinacy: that the production of the odd instant success, like a white rabbit out of a hat, excuses the viscious misleading of thousands of innocents; that the maw of the teaching cess-pit, the endless compounding of the whole charade, does not underpin the entire system.
Perhaps it was happening in the other arts - in writing, music. David did not know. All he felt was a distress, a nausea at his own. Castration. The triumph of the Eunuch....turning way from nature and reality had atriociuosly distorted the relationship between painter and audience: now one painted for intellects and theories. Not people; and worst of all, not for oneself. Of course it paid dividends, in economic and vogue terms, but what really had been set up by this jettisoning of the human body and its natural physical perceptions was a vicious spiral, a vortex, a drain to nothingness; to a painter and a critic agreed on only one thing: that only they exist and have value. A good gravestone; for all the scum who couldn't care a damn (about art).
...Underlying all this there stood the knowledge that he would not change; he would go on painting as before, he would forget this day, he would find reasons to interpret everything differently, as a transient losing his head, a self indulgent folly....He was crippled by common sense, he had no ultimate belief in chance and its exploitation, the missed opportunity would become the finally sensible decision, the decent thing...just one more unpursued idea kept among sketchbooks at the back of the studio cupboard".

Does this sound familiar? Do you agree? Does it change anything about how you will act in the studio?? I think it's scary that this book was published in 1974 and has as much, if not more, relevance to Art and artists today.


  1. Hey Virgiliio - Looks like you've just started blogging - hope it all goes well, and it turns out to be a Happy New year to us All!



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