Reality of Art

The text below was drafted from notes used as part of a symposium on the theme The Reality of Art held at the Courtyard Theatre, Shoreditch, as part of Luxury Goods VI on May 2, 2012. The panel consisted of Tom Estes (artist), William Howard (director of Projection Gallery), Kenneth Nwagbogu (arts entrepreneur), Irene Kukota (independent researcher) and Laureana Toledo (artist, participating by Skype from Mexico City). This presentation followed on from Toledo’s, in which she had made a powerful case for activism, for artists taking responsibility for the effect of their works in the real world and not merely providing ‘luxury goods’ for a wealthy elite. The comments that follow here – starting from Toledo’s points – were, in context, a way of continuing that discussion. On the underlying questions, we were very much in agreement.

Notes Towards an Informal Statement on The Reality of Art

“No worthwhile art merely describes the world; it creates new realities, fresh possibilities, from the context that produces it. Art that meekly shows us ourselves is a mirror hung on a prison wall; a painting of bricks that reveals, but does not change, the real bricks behind its virtuosic surface…”

[Fifty word statement submitted to the Festival, April 2012]

I’d like to respond to Laureana Toledo’s comments on the situation in Mexico City and her observations on the decision artists might take as to whether they accept or oppose the current systems of the art markets and economy. I suppose I think of Mexico in a slightly different time to that Laureana describes, when it became something of a haven for those Surrealist artists leaving occupied France during the Second World War, figures like Benjamin Peret, Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington, when Andre Breton visited the country for a discussion with Leon Trotsky, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. A time of creative opposition to both the old and emerging economic and political models of the time, but an opposition that, in Breton’s case, refused to make the error of defining its terms only in relation to the system in existence at the time.

I’ve always admired this about Surrealism as a model, that it recognised both opposition to the way things were and acceptance of them as worldviews equally positioned in relation to the existing order: to oppose or accept, both imply the immovable, inevitable nature of things. If we oppose at all, we begin on terms set by the ideas we oppose. The Surrealist alternative – a different starting point, a ‘revolution of the mind’ that might render the idea of being for or against what is irrelevant – has always seemed to me to have a lot of merit. Whether you’d agree or disagree with the details of its programme, or even consider the idea itself ‘Surrealist’, the principle of re-ordering the world from a starting point that is not defined by the way it is already opens up possibilities for action that simply taking a position can never do. The reality of art can be equal to the reality of the world and is capable of transforming it.

An example of the reverse, the unreality of the ‘real’ world, is finance. Self-appointed ‘realists’ tell us that we must live within our financial means, that markets decide value and allocate wealth on natural principles, that money has a basis in reality we cannot question. Yet these are ‘realists’ who, when their beliefs are analysed, believe in the magical properties of electronically generated numbers on a trader’s screen and live in fear of the power invested in metal and paper to buy and sell human lives, forests, artworks and oceans with an indiscriminate disregard for logic. That a businessman can claim to possess a vast swathe of land or water in a place thousands of miles from the drawer containing his deed of ownership is magical thinking of an almost admirably primitive kind: the realist of the free market is as irrational as the mystic of a medieval religious sect or the Lascaux painter whose hallucinated visions of the hunt were thought to influence the animals beyond his cave.

Money is metaphor and so itself a kind of conceptual art: perhaps the connection might be seen in Damien Hirst’s diamond-encrusted platinum skull, For The Love Of Godan object that, whatever you might think of Hirst generally, has the same presence as something that might have been made for a High Baroque cathedral in Mexico City in the seventeenth century, an embodiment of faith in abstract value, a death’s head, a jewelled monstrance containing a Saint’s relics. This work embodies the corruption of the markets, by accident or design, making it a totemic object for the deregulated, globalised capital that drove the art markets enabling its construction. Yet For The Love Of God is also a bluntly realist work, a mirror held up to us, intentionally or otherwise. Given this context, it embodies the way things are but does nothing to change them or suggest other systems that might replace those it reflects.

This is why I think the Surrealist model, in which the liberation of the imagination, often by means of paradox, is significant and remains a crucial model in our own time. Desire may now be prefabricated by cod-surreal advertising, purpose-built to tap into our unconscious drives by armies of psychologists paid to press the buttons that will activate our insecurities, but the real unconscious is less predictably malleable: its desires include other ways of living, political futures that lie unrealised in the history we are given to think has been inevitable. I happened to see a good example of an artwork that explores fictional history as a method of re-drawing our psychic maps just this afternoon, in Patrick Keiller’s The Robinson Institute at Tate Britain, where a non-existent thinker forges connections between oil pipelines, failed uprisings, artworks and ideas that all suggest potential histories still dormant inside the one that happened to unfold: these seeds, Keiller seems to imply, might germinate still.

My own work, for those who were here to see Disturbances earlier this evening, has similar ambitions. In that piece – a short fiction accompanied by random photographic images and an electronic score (by the composer Jon Brooks, who himself explores fictional imaginative landscapes in his recordings for Ghost Box, Café Kaput and Clay Pipe Music) – the idea is to construct an almost persuasive new history from the remnants of that we remember having lived through. Perhaps researching past histories opens windows on the moments where random chance intervened, where one outcome won over another for no better reason than sheer dumb luck: the dice came up with a four instead of a six; the card turned over to show a three of diamonds instead of an ace of clubs. Choosing sides – for or against the way things are – may ultimately be a question of being for or against these chance outcomes.

Art’s great strength, then, is its ability to move from the upturned face of one random card to a reshuffling of the whole deck: another throw of the dice that might this time yield a very different result. Reality – as determined by chance factors in history, the weather and, yes, in the machinations of complex bureaucratic and political systems that are never monolithic, always full of cracks and weak points where dissidence can take refuge and work its way through, like water in a cracked wall – is merely the context we work with and the best question any work of art can ask is ‘why do we see reality in this way and not another?’. Just as someone (a man named John Law) once asked why wealth should be so literally embodied in precious metals and land, making value the fluid political and so-often destructive metaphor we know today, so art can create new – sometimes better – metaphors and ways of seeing the world that may yet counter the assumptions of this one and begin to change our thinking in ways we can’t yet anticipate.

(Statement revised from notes delivered at the Luxury Goods VI: Reality of Art Symposium, Courtyard Theatre, Hoxton, on May 2, 2012)

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