Images are extraordinarily powerful. Those able to see, see before we learn to read, and orient our world by sight. One of the articles after art critic John Berger’s death in January applied his ‘language of images’ to Trump, polar bears and Kim Kardashian.
Berger was optimistic about the age of the mass-circulating reproduced image: “For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free. They surround us in the same way as a language surrounds us … If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our own experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate.”
He was a moral man who wanted a better world, and his art criticism is ultimately an eloquent argument for social justice and ethical behaviour. But the article goes on to note that “vacuous, deceitful, falsely seductive, grossly manipulative images have never bombarded our semi-conscious minds so shamelessly. … We have more images than compassion… In a world shaped, as ours is, by what Berger called ‘the language of images’, people don’t think too clearly.”
Should we be hopeful or despairing? Here is a triptych of further art-related articles presenting both sides.
“The drop in museum visitors reveals a nation without aspiration or hope”
“There is nothing more aspirational than visiting a museum or art gallery. It is an expression of hope and self-esteem.” writes Jonathan Jones. “Just as lying in bed all day binge-watching TV [let’s call this ‘Berger-negative’] and eating crisps is probably a mark of melancholy. Going out to an exhibition [ie ‘Berger-positive’] or taking your kids to the Natural History Museum is surely a symbol of belief in your family and the future.”
Jones diagnoses the causes of falling visitors numbers as not the shrinking of minds or the internet making young people turn away from art and knowledge. Rather, the causes are “the same economic pressures that have uprooted politics around the world”, which mean fewer school trips, and fewer adults making time to go to museums and galleries and take children with them on visits.
His prognosis is gloomy: “Britain is failing its young people, and losing the passion for self-improvement that our free public museums used to nurture. A nation that loses interest in museums has not just lost its head. It has lost hope.”
My prescription? Watch Camilla Hampshire’s talk “Home to a Million Thoughts” from TEDxExeter 2013, and go visit RAMM. And get stuck into some of the many goings on during Art Week Exeter over 13-21 May.
Art to inspire
Various famous people appeared in a Guardian piece at the dawn of 2017, reflecting on works of art that fill them with energy, optimism, hope and zest.
From the introduction, again by Jonathan Jones:
Aristotle, the first person to think seriously about art’s purpose, claimed that watching a tragedy was a “cleansing”, a catharsis that purified your soul. So seeing the stage covered in bodies at the end of Hamlet is the best emotional detox you can have.
This is what makes art so much more valuable than some inspirational video or self-help book. It does not feed us fake remedies for life’s ills. Instead, it speaks to our innermost selves in a way we recognise as true. What it tells us is that other people feel like we do, that we are not alone. “He was despised and rejected of men,” goes the line in Handel’s Messiah, “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” It is one of the most inspiring of all musical uplifts – and it works by accepting and transcending pain, rather than denying it. All kinds of art can provide the inspiration we need, and it is a sustenance like no other.
Here is philosopher Alain de Botton on Chardin’s “Woman Taking Tea”:
Art can teach us to be more just towards ourselves as we endeavour to make the best of our circumstances: a job we do not always love, the imperfections of age, frustrated ambitions and our attempts to stay loyal to irritable but loved families. Art can do the opposite of glamourise the unattainable: it can show us anew the genuine merit of life as we’re forced to lead it. It is advertising for the things we really need.
And here is curator Hans Ulrich Obrist on artist Etel Adnan:
She is a great inspiration to many. Although she is now in her early 90s, her art still has energy, optimism and intensity, and remains among the best work being created in the world today. It gives me courage. It reminds me of what Gerhard Richter once said: “Art is the highest form of hope.” When I asked her to write a Post-It for my Instagram project, Adnan wrote: “The world needs togetherness, not separation. Love, not suspicion. A common future, not isolation.” These words seem particularly urgent for 2017.
Drawing a way out of depression
Nick Willing, the son of artist Paula Rego, says “an artist is like an explorer who goes to worlds where no one has ever been and brings back a picture. And although we’ve never seen it before, we all recognise it.”
Rego has often suffered depression. In a particularly deep trough in 2007 it nearly killed her, according to Willing, before she “drew her way out of it”.
She created 12 large pastels of a woman – isolated, fearful, paralysed, constricted – then locked them away in a drawer. “She had put the depression into them,” says Willing, “and was afraid it could come out again.” …
Today, Rego can view the images more comfortably: “Now they’re pictures, it’s all right”. This is a theme that runs through her life and work: traumas are turned into art; difficult emotions are worked through in images…
Willing was surprised at how he reacted to the unveiling of the depression pastels. He was expecting to be shocked, to feel sorry for his mother. “But I didn’t. I didn’t see her at all. I saw depression, as I or anyone else suffers it. The art was already working.”
Clare Bryden, TEDxExeter Storyteller