I went to the Tate Modern in London recently. Completely unplanned. My childhood was often full of art gallery visits – the perks of being the son of an artist/art teacher – so, naturally I’d gone a bit off them. To be honest, I’d gone off gallery-style art in general. But, over the past couple of years, I feel like I’ve regained some interest again, and no-where did it hit home than when I walked into Bruce Nauman’s installation, Raw Material With Continuous Shift MMMM.
Almost impulsively, I started spinning on the spot, to match the three spinning heads I could see. A couple came into the room and one of them, seeing what I was doing, immediately joined in. For a good four or five minutes did we spin, laughing and enjoying the strange humming noise that accompanied the images around us. We stopped, said a few parting remarks and I exited the room with my friend. It was probably one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. Because of something that was instilled in me by that installation, I made a connection. With the other person, with the very room, with the art itself. I’d been invited in, and communication, in some form was made. It might not have been what the artist was trying to communicate, but I felt I was laughing with him about the sheer monotony of life, and the circular motions we go through.
Art, noun - the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
I am always hesitant to use the word ‘art’ to describe anything I create, as I feel it comes with certain connotations of authenticity and professionalism. It feels like a word that I don’t deserve to use – a word I don’t fully understand yet. Even the definition that I found is too vague, too simple to completely make sense of it. What things would I call ‘art’ in the first place? In my opinion, music is art. Storytelling is art. Film-making is art. Poetry, painting, drawing, sculpture, writing, dancing, performing – all arts. But why? What makes me so eager to call these things ‘art’ – and yet when I create something of the same activity, why am I reluctant to deem my own work worthy of the title? These questions, coupled with my experience at the Tate Modern, have brought me to my own, completely subjective, definition of art.
Art, noun - a man-made creation that stimulates one or more of the viewers senses, allowing its creator to explore a message or engage in conversation with each person who experiences it.
Anyone else would probably read this definition and feel no resonance with it. But this re-worked definition answers my question about the broadness of what I call art – and why I struggle to judge my own creations as ‘art’. I’m the creator, I’m the person initiating the conversation. When I experience what I’ve produced, the message or the conversation is between myself, a person who already knows the message or the conversation. It’s a reflection, not an engagement. There is nothing to challenge me.
I like to think most people feel the same way about their own creations – without experiencing the art itself, how are you expected to know the value of it? Only with external validation is there a blossom of confidence to put this reflection of yourself out there. However, like the opening of Pandora’s box, once the message is out there, once the conversation is started, there’s no real going back. And once your art has acquired a large audience – how much responsibility do you take over your influence? When you have millions of people in conversation with you, receptive to your opinions, how much accountability do you have when your opinions, and to an extent theirs, are misinformed?
Of course this is more and more applicable in our modern, digital age, with the continual interconnection allowing the conversation to transcend the art itself – a tweet is all you need to respond to this writer’s latest story, or this musicians latest song. Leonardo Da Vinci wasn’t swamped with instant feedback or criticism whenever he created or invented something new. He was not allowed to let attention get the better of him. (I’ve noticed in my blog posts I tend to portray this interconnectivity as a detriment to society – on the whole I think it’s the opposite, but that’s another post’s worth of discussion that has no place here.) The artists of today, particularly the celebrity artists, are somewhat unaware of their influence over their avid followers.
I mentioned above that the engagement with a piece of art is to enter a conversation with the artist, to become more receptive to their viewpoints and opinions. This is the reason visual propaganda works so well, the art draws the viewer in, bringing them to a space where they can accommodate the artist’s worldview. Often these opinions are about or reflective of society as the artist experiences it, with the people who experience the art placing under the umbrella of the taboo ‘p’ word: political. There seems to be a lot of people that have issues with artists – well all celebrities in general – getting involved in politics, or even having a political opinion. To a small extent, I agree, but only because of something that’s been circling the internet recently.
I’m sure you’re aware of Kanye West’s recent tweets, a collection of vague motivational quotes, photos of minimalist interiors and compliments to any other people in the public eye. However, the tweets that have incited the most discussion are his approvals of the current POTUS: Donald Trump. Personally, I think it’s dangerous.
@kanyewest – You don’t have to agree with trump but the mob can’t make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother. I love everyone. I don’t agree with everything anyone does. That’s what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought.
It seems as if West is completely ignorant of the effect of his tweets. He’s not agreeing with Trump explicitly, but to his fans, to the people who he has engaged with as an artist, he is placing Trump as an equal in their eyes. He is validating Trump’s opinions as those of a ‘free thinker’, when Trump’s opinions and personal prejudices have social, national and global repercussions. It’s irresponsible and is reflective of how out of touch West is – the ‘mob’, as he puts it, have reasonable and concerning criticisms of Trump’s character that he is dismissing as part of the ‘thought police’ (another West tweet). By choosing the side of not choosing the side, he is partially accountable for allowing opinions and prejudices to run unchecked.
I’m well aware that this unpredictable, semi-crazy persona is all part of West’s brand, and that my anger at his ignorance is partially informed by my own political opinions. I know other celebrities have been and still are equally guilty of this, including one of my idols, Taylor Swift. (Sorry, my love.) In 2015, when Nicki Minaj tweeted about the injustice behind the VMA video nominations, she responded in a way that was ignorant to many of the intersectional issues that surround women of colour in the music industry, leading to many of her fans backing her up, when they really shouldn’t have. Ashamedly, this included me. It wasn’t really before Swift apologised for it that I realised the error in her, and my own judgement. How receptive I was to the wrong side of the argument scares me. Which is why Kanye West’s preaching of ‘free thinkers’ scares me too.
It’s important to be responsible when you create a piece of art. The message that you’re trying to convey, the conversation that you’re trying to initiate, will have an effect on whoever experiences it, even if they miss the intended meaning entirely. It’s especially important when these opinions reflect and can influence large portions of people or society. I may have completely misinterpreted Nauman’s piece, but my misinterpretation was harmless, some misinterpretations of other works are not. Just as validation from people can give you confidence in your art, validation from art or an artist can give confidence to some nasty thoughts in people. Our feelings and opinions cannot simply exist in isolation from those of others, because even on smaller scales, there is potential for influence. As John Donne eloquently put it: No man is an island.
P.S. West has recently done an interview that gives you some kind of exploration into his psyche at the moment and his explanation as to why he does the things he does, I haven’t watched the full thing but, dangerously ignorant or not, West is an interesting character to ponder over.