Artists often talk about what their work can do for them. It can be fun, relaxing, or cathartic. It can provide an income, or be therapeutic. It can be used to explain other disciplines, like science or geography, through clever and aesthetic diagrams.
The public often asks what art does for them, especially art that is subsidised through government-funded grants. This is a broader question, and the many answers I’ve seen to it mostly boil down to an opening of the collective and individual mind and heart of Joe Public. Even if you passionately hate a piece of public art, such as a sculpture in public or a frozen sawn-through cow embedded in perspex and displayed in a Melbourne gallery, you are still engaged by that piece even as you argue against it: your mind and heart are stimulated, you examine why you find it offensive, which is far better than living an unexamined life.
Post-modern art is superb for that kind of community and individual stimulus, aiding the waking-up process of mankind and helping people individually rediscover the power of thought. It’s good to see some serious thinking going on – I like it!
What other unexpected uses could be found for art?
To me, it is ethically crucial that I’m not coasting through life, not freeloading. If I’m going to use up resources by living, I need to give something back to the world. For forty years, writing has been a small way I could give something back to the human segment of the world. Now painting is occasionally adding to that (both are different forms of art). I also try to plant as many trees as possible, and tend to choose food-plants that are native to whatever area I’m living in, as a gift to the greater-than-human part of the world.
So … art is a way of giving back, a way of contributing, a way to justify my continuing to breathe.
And now, from art-personal to art-general:
I don’t remember what it’s called, but I do remember seeing a reproduction of a Rembrandt where the main feature of the painting is a hung carcass of an ox in an abbatoir, with a girl’s face peering around the corner. At first glance it looks like a typical Rembrandt of the Man-in-a-Golden-Helmet variety: all warm yellows, brown shadow and lovely curves.
You look a bit closer, and even in reproduction, it starts looking very like the later German expressionists: the ribs and muscles of the poor beast are horizontal bands of quite unrealistic yellow and blue just slashed onto the canvas with a broad brush, the structure of the carcass and even the setting around it bears no relationship to reality (not a single straight beam or edge in the walls, for example).
The Man in the Golden Helmet, a much better known Rembrandt, uses a similar though more limited colour range, and looks like glowing, vibrant, warm flesh seen through everyday eyes. The slaughtered ox looks like a slaughtered ox seen through wild expressionistic, post-modern eyes.
Just to night, I was typing up my daughter’s art assignment for her, and one of the many artworks she referred to was the Venus of Willendorf, that little Austrian mother-figure that lay quietly in the ground patiently awaiting discovery for tens of thousands of years. She talked about it as an early example of post-modern thinking, and as a fetishistic object, both of which are perfectly valid.
But I started thinking a while ago, about her. I have two reproductions of her in my home: a slightly-smaller-than-original-size dark-brown resin reproduction with the bubbles and pitting in her surface have been smoothed out, and a larger-than-original-size white reproduction that feels like stone but is too light for its size, and is mounted upright on a stand.
Now, if I were Prehistoric Man, and I had a mother, wife, sister or even daughter that I loved, and if the blokes from my community were going out on a mammoth-hunt that could take days, I wouldn’t have a wallet in my back-pocket that I could stick a photo of my beloved into, or even a camera to take a photo. I would, however, have a quiver with some arrows, and/or a pouch with a fire-lighting flint, maybe a stone knife, and a few spare arrow-heads in it – that only makes sense in terms of survival. If I then wanted to have something with me to remember my woman, why wouldn’t I make a small clay or stone model of her, shaping it in my spare moments until it resembles her personal and individual body-shape, fire it, and, having made it comfortably small, be able to slip it into my pouch of essential tools to carry with me?
Yup, I think they are stone-age photographs of loved ones. The fact that, when you look at these miniature statues of women, they come in all body-shapes from the very heavy to the pudgy to the muscular to the lean to the very skinny, indicates that they are individual portraits.
In other societies and times, where statuettes are very highly stylised with exaggerated features and perfectly perpendicular conical breasts, and so forth, then yes, we are talking fetishism and magicality. But the more natural and womanly-looking ones, the warm ones, even the very unfit or unwell-looking warm ones, could they not be stone-age photographs?
We treasure them as irreplaceable works of art. We reproduce them, and put them on shelves in our homes, even on our household Altars if our household has them. And to choose to so so elevates them from a private and intensely personal memento of a family or sexual relationship into art. In fact, just the process of surviving century after century does that. They do become art through time. But does that mean that they couldn’t have started their existence as something much more intimate and personal?