This week is reading week, however I decided that I needed some time away from the studio environment and a bit of breathing room to try and work out the direction of my practice. Norwich can sometimes feel like a bubble – although its fantastic to be surrounded by people who are creative and interested in my work, I sometimes need a breath of air from the ‘outside world’ to gain a bit of perspective and context. I find that I very easily overthink things and tend to make my work more complicated because of the constant pressure of being a modern, practising artist. On Tuesday I signed onto a group trip to London, to see the Turner Prize and the Paul Nash exhibition at Tate Britain and explore the new extension of the Tate Modern and then remained in London.
Immediately, without even setting foot in the Tate Britain, I felt surrounded by an air of pretentiousness. This institution, housing both collections of modern art and traditional painting by the masters, was draped in rich history, and it was very ‘upper class’. I found it quite amusing to see the number of old couples, draped head to toe in expensive clothing and screen printed tote bags probably purchased for over £20 from the Tate’s own gift shop. I listened in on a few conversations – words like ‘exquisite’ and ‘gorgeous’ floating around. There is a sense of detachment – the art is almost a separate entity, secondary to the ego boost that comes from feeling cultured and intelligent enough to discuss art, old and new, in a historical venue with a heightened sense of importance. Here, art was very much untouchable, lines marking out that the viewer could not stand past a certain point and there was the ever ringing of alarms whenever some poor unsuspecting viewer dared to move too close to an art object. I think this general environment is quite toxic. It detaches the viewer from the work – the focus is on the gallery and not the art. Why now, when art itself does not need to follow set rules to gain attention or be seen as a ‘masterpiece’, does the viewer get forced to look at a piece from behind glass, walk a certain path around the object, and stay deathly silent, almost as if looking at some religious artifact?
Another thing I found really interesting was the attempt of the gallery to combat this system. We were told upon arrival by a well-spoken man in tweed (who’s job title escaped me but sounded made up and at the same time very well paid) that it was ‘pay what you like’ day for the Turner Prize exhibit. He said the purpose was to attract a more ‘diverse audience’ and then in the same sentence asked us how we’d feel paying a penny to enter; “Guilty? Cheap?”
On one level I found this quite funny that as a student of fine art I was classed as a ‘diverse audience’ because of my economic circumstance, and on another it angered me that I was being condescended in such a way. As if this privilege of paying however much I wanted to see art was something I should be grateful for. Why? Why is the full ticket price £12? What am I paying for? The Tate is not a charity. My contribution does not go directly into the pocket of the Artist who has slaved over a piece for months of their life. I am not paying for a ride at an amusement park, or a film, or a holiday. I’m literally paying to look at an object.
In the end I paid with the change in my wallet, which was £2.50, and endured the blank faced stare of the woman behind the counter, looking me up and down in my second hand clothes like I didn’t deserve to be under the same roof as all of these important, expensive things. I don’t understand why such a system was deemed to be a good idea – all it does is make the 60-something-year-old woman in her Grayson Perry silk scarf feel like she’s doing a good deed when she fronts the full £16 ticket price plus donation, and me, a maker who want to at some point enter this bizarre world, feel like a shoplifter. Why do I have to endure the embarrassment of this, when there could be a little donation box put outside the exhibit with ‘pay what you want’ on it? That way the wealthy, older viewer can donate a crisp £20 note to feel cultured and worthy, and I don’t have to feel like a cheap, uneducated student who is part of the ‘diverse’ category.
On the feedback slip, me and a friend wrote down our opinions rather than deciding who we thought should win the Turner Prize.
I spoke to my dad once I got home about my art and the way it is hung in the house. Although as a part of the general public, when he thinks of art he does think about institutions like the Tate, he also acknowledges that art is very subjective and has no predetermined outlook on art at all really. On a visit to the Tate Modern a few years ago, he took pictures of the art he really liked and pulled them up during conversation. He takes things for face value – isn’t bothered about the concepts and the language of the captions dotted about. He likes things that he finds impressive, and can see real craftsmanship in; things that he can’t quite figure out the making of. For example he really liked Giuseppe Penone’s Tree of 12 metres. He wasn’t all that fussed about any environmental or ‘art-process’ meaning, he was just really impressed with how the artist knew where the branches were, and how they’d exposed the knots so that it looked like a tree. He liked the finish, and the way the artist has a certain skill with the wood. Another piece he really liked was Claes Oldenburg’s Giant 3-way Plug – again, for the craftsmanship involved and because he couldn’t figure out how they had actually got the plug into the gallery space. I think aesthetically, he likes thing he can tell have taken time, and things that he feels he could not do himself. He finds beauty in the simple and elegant. It’s interesting, to hear someone outside of any sort of art context, talk about art they’ve enjoyed, just as someone with a pair of eyes and no real art education. He’s aware of the conceptual side of art practice, but he ignores this – he’s not interested in the artist, or in the institution, or what it means. He just genuinely likes certain objects.
I then asked him a bit more about my own art. I think at this point, he started to try to sound a bit more arty, but he said that there was just something about certain paintings that I’ve done that he can’t put his finger on. Something in the paint, a little detail here and there. He confessed that he doesn’t like certain paintings of mine – some that he’s hung up, even – but again, he couldn’t really put his finger on why. And to be honest, I don’t think he needs to, because he doesn’t care that he doesn’t know. As an artist, I make work with a purpose/meaning, but I don’t want my work to be something for old rich people to pick apart and scoff at. I sort of want some ordinary person like my dad to wander in by chance and go ‘yeah, I like that.’
Which brings me again to the idea of my art in a domestic environment. I think before, I was looking at this in a very negative sense – I didn’t like the way things were hung, I didn’t like the fact that something I’d thought about had become decorative. But having spoken to my Dad, I realise that that isn’t the point. My paintings aren’t filling walls, they’re being put up because they’re enjoyed. The meaning of the work is different for my parents, they are proud of certain things I’ve done and the paintings are I suppose like little bits of me dotted around the house when I’m not there. But this is still really important to me, and to be honest really humbling. Conceptual or not, they have a reaction to the paintings and that is ultimately what I want to create.
Images from the artist’s personal gallery, works dated c.2007 – 2016: