Further thoughts on the role of the past on the present.
Last night I was watching Simon Schama talking about art on the last episode of Civilisation. He was talking about Duchamp, Mondrian etc wanting to cast off the past because it is like a dead weight stopping fresh thinking. Of course it is always the artist who has the ideas, courage and drive to take us beyond the present in some way, that forges a new path. Those are the people we remember. The shock of the new.
But you can’t cut off the past it’s there in you even if you are reacting against it. Our present is just the tip of our past. Of course if it prevents moving forward then it could be stultifying.
There are only ever going to be a handful of artists who break boundaries in a significant way at any one time. It’s right that in art schools you are encouraged to be adventurous, to avoid hackneyed responses to go beyond your comfort zone. However it is a very sensitive thing where to draw the line. I have seen students broken, their own personal inner voice destroyed because it didn’t fit the orthodoxy of the day or the direction of the tutors in the art school at that particular time. May be ten years before or ten years after their work might have fitted the bill. A painter when painting was out, a minimalist when expressionism was in. Peoples confidence in ever making art again can be destroyed for ever.
These are the kinds of questions that I used with my students, What is your idea?…..What do you want to do? What do you want to say? Can I help? Is it taking the next step or is it standing still? Have a million people done it before? If they have do you have a different slant on it? Is it capable of development? Are you stuck for ideas? …..These are the sort of questions you might ask students but also yourself at all different stages of your artistic life. Mind you it can be a bit soul destroying, try not to go along the line of e.g Is it any good? But you’ll probably survive. I’m going to try it on one of my pieces, not one of my best but one that follows on from yesterday’s medieval jaunt. I will try to be honest with myself. It is life sized and is hanging on a wall
The idea. In this case it came from the material itself. I went into Busy Bees, a hardware and general store that has all kinds end of factory things. I saw 8 reels of horsehair. This is a pretty unusual thing to find… too good an opportunity to miss so I bought them all. The counter assistant asked what I wanted them for and I said ‘I’m going to knit a hair shirt!’. She looked a bit bemused! I had used thick horsehair thread in woven tapestry before, I liked using it- it was tough and had a good texture- and I had tried to get some more from the hand weavers centre in Hackney. They said they were no longer selling it because their source in eastern Europe had closed.
When it’s in your mind you immediately associate ‘horse hair’ with another word ‘shirt’. First I though of just knitting a shirt but then I was thinking who would wear such a shirt? A monk? So why not knit the monk as well, life size! This is where the past comes in, my imagination is already alive to medieval imagery. Is that a bad thing? I don’t know I did live in what was then, the twentieth century but you can’t curb your imagination. I can remember adults saying ‘The trouble with you is that you’ve got too much imagination’ not just to me but generally as though that was something to be condemned. I started this whole blog because I was thinking about empathy. How did you acquire empathy? I had decided it was being able to use your imagination.
I ask myself the questions.
What is you idea? I’ve already dealt with that one. What do you want to say? Now in this case it is a bit more problematic if I’m honest. Rather weak here….Except that I am trying to show that humble domestic crafts can be subverted, but that’s not really good enough. The hair shirt is about punishing and purging oneself in order to become more worthy, I haven’t dealt with that side at all so a missed opportunity maybe. But that certainly didn’t occur to me when I was in Busy Bees! Is it taking the next step? Yes because I have been working in unusual ways with straight forward techniques like knitting and crochet. Have a million people done it before? No (not at that stage I’m talking about 25 years ago, they have since) Do you have a different slant?… Yes at that stage I think I did. Ideas?… one thing I am never short of is ideas. I have too many. Does it work? The shape is not as soft as it should have been. I coated the side parts with PVA several times. It makes the sides stick out a bit like wings, it would have been better less rigid. The feet were a bit of a mistake, it makes it look too cartoon like. I wanted the face to look rather haunted and I think that works well. Where will you go from here? That’s another thing I would look for is it capable of development or is it a one off. I prefer it when something suggests a further step even if it not taken. In the end the actual shape of it on the wall led me in another direction.
These are the sort of questions that people in, say, an amateur art society would probably not ask because their aim is usually different and I understand that.