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In Defence of Painting

I have written the following regarding the value of painting as an art form.

The only basis of my being authoritative in the subject of painting is the authority, or otherwise, that can be ascribed because I make the paintings that I make.

I do not necessarily share the views of the art establishment and feel that what I think is rarely, if ever, presented.

I am neither writer nor philosopher but hope that what I have written goes some way to explaining my thoughts, and that my thoughts are not too wide of the mark.

R N Clarke (painter)

In Defence of Painting was published in Contemporary Review, Spring 2008.

In Defence of Painting

Not so long ago I attended a lecture given by one of this country's leading art commentators. Essentially the purpose of the lecture was to defend from various forms of popular criticism and ridicule the current practice of contemporary visual artists who you could say fall under the protective umbrella of the art establishment.

Cost, manner and speed of execution, degree of public praise, tabloid press reaction, an artist's emotional reaction to criticism, and the like were all skewed one way or another and presented as if evidence of artistic merit. In fact such things are neither here nor there when it comes to determining artistic merit.

The relation between beauty of subject and beauty of art object was raised. That is to say that the subject of an art object need not be attractive for there to be beauty in the art object. Yes, but it doesn't therefore follow that an ugly subject necessarily indicates artistic merit.

It was suggested that understanding an artist's intentions is not always helpful when determining artistic merit, as if merit happens accidentally. Surely such an approach to the artist's intentions is a little insulting to the artist's intelligence. Perhaps an artist who hasn't understood or realised his or her intentions isn't much of an artist. Or perhaps the fault lies with the art commentator's limited understanding of what an artist has made and has said.

Because the contemporary has some incidental characteristic in common with the established and acclaimed it should not be reckoned on the grounds of this shared incidental characteristic that the contemporary is or will ever become established and acclaimed. The only value of citing such characteristics is to demonstrate that as criteria they are not valid in determining artistic merit. What is really needed is to identify valid criteria.

When considering an item's worth as a work of art it is much more helpful to view the item as a spiritual rather than a moral statement, where the word 'good' has a spiritual rather than a moral meaning; other than correctness. Consider whether the item is inherently good. If it's good it will have value as a work of art. This is why a painting by the Cornish primitive Alfred Wallis could happily sit alongside a painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Both paintings are inherently good.

A further point presented was that the artist who conceives a work need not be the person who physically makes the work of art. This is an interesting point of relevance to painting, which when applied to painting tends not to be true.

In considering this it is useful to examine how we use the word 'art' and what in particular is distinctive about painting as one of the arts. The term 'the arts' is used as an inclusive title encompassing a variety of human activities, and differentiates 'arts' activities from say the 'sciences' or 'sports'. Drama, music, opera, dance, painting, sculpture, architecture, prose, poetry, various crafts are the kind of activities that collectively form our traditional view of the arts. It might also be claimed that the impact of some recently developed technologies has given rise to new art forms.

Interestingly another of this country's leading art commentators once asserted, 'anything can be art'. If this is so, is all this differentiation necessary? Given the context in which the statement 'anything can be art' was made I guess that what was meant was 'anything can be visual art'.

So if anything can be visual art can a symphony or a play be visual art, for instance? Surely what Mozart expressed in sound cannot be expressed in paint, and what Rembrandt expressed in paint cannot be expressed in words, and what Shakespeare expressed in words cannot be expressed in sound and so on and so on. Even where there is common ground occupied by two or more art forms there still remains ground which can only be occupied by each distinct art form. Ideas and phenomena unique to a particular art form, by definition, cannot be expressed in any other art form. And it's because certain ideas and phenomena are unique to a particular art form that we differentiate this particular art form from other art forms.

It follows then that criteria used in making value judgements in relation to one art form are not necessarily appropriately applied when making value judgements about other and different art forms. For example, it seems reasonable to argue that the architect need not be the builder of the building, but to assert that the painter does not have to be the maker of the painting for the painting to have significance as a work of art is a difficult argument to sustain. Firstly, for a painting to give full expression to a painter's significant concept it is necessary that the painter undertake the actual painting, because the exactitude and subtleties of the concept are ineffable and so not communicable to another human being other than through the finished painting itself. Secondly, because a painting was made by the painter who conceived the painting, almost as a physical extension of themselves, where thought and action integrated, the painting somehow becomes a physical manifestation of what it is to be human, to be conscious, to be civilized. Others then looking at the painting are able to identify with the painting, identifying with the physicality of the object, an object that embodies the complexity and subtlety of the thinking of the so very human painter.

It is the object, not just its image, which is so significant. Consider making a photographic or digital image of Vermeer's 'The Lace-Maker' and reproducing this image an infinite number of times. Then given the choice of owning either the original or the infinite number of images, the owning of the original is without question to be preferred. The artistic merit of the infinite number of images is nothing. The artistic merit of the original painting is everything. The object, made by Vermeer's mind and hand, is what's significant. It is probable that in conceiving a painting a painter achieves a synthesis of held values and beliefs, visual information received from observation and knowledge of the medium, the painting. The thought process is additive, including only what is significant.

'Do me a favour, painting's only been around for 400 years!' exclaimed yet another of this country's leading art commentators. In fact there are cave paintings at Chauvet, for example, that are something like 30,000 years old. The history of art suggests that individuals are born who desire to paint, individuals who possess formidable visual intelligence who choose to paint, individuals who in their formative years are influenced by their experiences of a reality they encounter as they grow to maturity as painters. What sort of a civilization is it that neglects to foster and cherish its most creative and intelligent painters? If it is true that the visual thinking necessary to create significant paintings is unique to painting then other kinds of thinking, however intelligent or otherwise, cannot substitute for this visual thinking.

If we consider the artistic achievement of 15th century Florence, with its population of very roughly one hundred thousand, we find a remarkable number of creative individuals. If we now compare this with the artistic achievement of 20th century Staffordshire, the county in which I live, with its population during the 20th century of very roughly one million, there seems in Staffordshire a remarkable scarcity of similarly creative individuals. Despite the possibility of benefit from a potential body of knowledge and understanding accumulated in the interceding years the culture of 20th century Staffordshire did not support creativity in the way that the culture of 15th century Florence did. The deadening hand of the art establishment is pervasive. At the end of the 21st century how many such creative individuals will it be easy to identify from amongst Staffordshire's or any other county's people? How many will be painters?

The art establishment notion 'anything can be art' sits as the latest chapter of the art establishment's view of art history. Central to this view is the chronological linear development of the visual language of art. This line runs roughly through icon to representation to abstract to alternative media to conceptual to anything. Alongside this development runs the development, in recent centuries, of the art establishment itself, where we are told by the art establishment that art needs a context and this context, of course, is given by the art establishment. Art, the art establishment maintains, can only be understood in terms of its relationship to this linear development of visual language, where all judgements are made with reference to the art establishment and its view of art history. This art establishment is notorious for getting it wrong.

An alternative view of art history is that art objects are manifestations of the spirit of their age. Visual art objects are best understood when considered as objects functioning in their own right with respect to the integrity of their formal elements and the values and beliefs they embody. Their place within a linear chronological scheme of the development of visual language is secondary or incidental, except perhaps where a culture is preoccupied with visual language and its development and the art object therefore reflects this preoccupation with visual language.

Different cultures hold different views of the same world in which we all live. For instance perspectives on time vary. People of different faiths might see different specific events in history as pivotal. Therefore the linear development of visual language so valued by one culture might seem entirely beside the point to another culture. That there has been some kind of evolutionary development of visual language in western art is hard to deny, but that an emphasis on the development of visual language should, either constantly or periodically, be pre-eminent in the art of any or every culture is highly contestable.

In our 21st century multicultural democracy it is important that the art establishment reflects and embraces the richness of cultural diversity. The postmodernist 'anything can be art' view belongs to the tail end of western 20th century art establishment thought. Diverse vibrant creative multicultural societies need to develop and mature in 21st century democracies. Painting needs to be valued for its capacity to give expression to and affirmation of cultural identity, helping each individual culture to assert its identity alongside other cultures.

The statement itself 'anything can be art' is worthy of analysis and sheds light on to the implementation of postmodernist thinking. I have already stated my view of the uniqueness of the essence of individual art forms and the difficulty of giving meaning to a statement like 'music can be visual art'.

If 'anything' literally does mean 'anything' then it becomes possible to substitute whatever comes to mind for the word 'anything' in the statement 'anything can be art'. Try it. In our approach to everyday living and to making sense of this world we tend to identify different and distinct phenomena and give to each a particular name. The 'anything can be art' maxim erodes our normal understanding of each different noun's meaning. Consequently, it is claimed, whatever was normally understood as being distinct and different from art can now be art. So then taking what normally would be considered extreme examples, to see if the exceptional will prove the rule, can illegal and depraved acts or crimes against humanity be art?

The 'anything can be art' doctrine gives an illusion of freedom and seems to validate the abandoning of all constraints. If 'depravity' can be the 'anything' then depravity itself can be the art. As if freedom, so cherished a child of human rights, need no longer be practised with responsibility. Because Goya rightly showed us in his war etchings how depraved we can be it does not follow that depravity itself somehow can now be the art. In the course of the practical application of the puzzle of the 'anything can be art' argument, the argument finds its limits and its error in reality, and like a boomerang comes hurtling back as a problem of essentiality and distinctiveness.

Of course 'anything' could be anything: object, subject, concept, emotion, relationship, part of a whole, an aspect of something and so on, or any combination or permutation of things. It would be a strange claim indeed that art is the destination for all things, as if it's just a matter of time before an 'artist' comes along and turns every last thing into art, perhaps claiming that art is the fundamental stuff of all things.

However the 'can be' bit of the statement 'anything can be art' implies conditions. A thing has the potential to become art after being subject to a process. Before processing, this thing is not art, and after processing this thing has become art. Criteria have to be applied and a judgement made as to when the thing becomes art. Or can an unprocessed thing be art? On the one hand the statement asserts that an unprocessed thing can be art because an 'unprocessed thing' counts as an 'anything' and so can be substituted in to give an 'unprocessed thing can be art', and on the other hand the unprocessed thing cannot be art because it is in an unprocessed state and as such has not achieved its 'can be' potential as art. The statement 'anything can be art' is absurd.

Postmodernist culture is not the only culture established in 21st century Britain. It's one of a number of ways of looking at our world. Whilst it is true that society today is complex, it's not true that every culture shares the view that there is no bigger picture and that everything is fragmented or fragmenting. Aren't we multicultural, where the term 'multicultural' embodies a positive concept of inclusion within a whole?

Attempts at the disintegration of the essence of phenomena and consequent blurring of definitions frustrate the possibility of holding meaningful conversation and accurate debate. The art establishment's philosophy leaves it unable to discern essential differences. It's as if the 'anything can be art' school of thought fabricates its illusion that it is free from the force of essential meaning, but when outside its own peculiar world is overwhelmed by this force of essential meaning, and so it retreats into its fabricated world, claims superiority and denies any validity to the views of others.

If, in the face of essential reality, the art establishment insists on championing its dogma that 'anything can be art', even the art establishment must concede that 'painting' is an 'anything' and that 'painting can be art'. Mustn't it?

R N Clarke (painter) March 2007
A Few More Thoughts

A Few More Thoughts

The Prize Giving

To the excluded, looking in, it seems the world of contemporary art customarily conducts itself with effervescent grandiosity. I imagine celebrities without substance, sycophants locked on to false heroes, adolescent adults and imitation artists all clamouring for limelight, intensely uttering mock pronouncements and congratulating one another with concealed calculation.

With fairground novelties, obtuse contrivances, ephemeral trumpeting trifles, life's basic drives and functions, aesthetic moments without ethics and belief, all presented as work for pretentious consideration; simpler than simplicity, half-baked, half-witted; with bespoke and relative values to choose from, the world of contemporary art makes its artificial use of uselessness; I imagine.

Is this what it is to be human? A person's humanness is determined not so much by his or her capacity to choose as by his or her capacity to love. Ecce Homo, behold the man, and then work out what's of value.

In the past some have asked essentialist questions and come up with wrong answers. Wrong answers don't mean essentialist questions can't still be posed.

A Late Rembrandt Self Portrait

Formalism does not entirely account for the profundity of a late Rembrandt self portrait. To appreciate a late Rembrandt self portrait more is required than to understand how colour, tone, lines and edges, intervals and shapes, scale, the physicality of paint and so on all work together, though this is impossible enough. We need to bring to a late Rembrandt self portrait a willingness or desire to understand what it is to be a person, to seek an understanding of human justice, to want to consider human isolation, to bring an understanding of how ethics and belief can permeate a painting; where the ethos, character and integrity of the person that made the painting are given expression as the painting, and are consistent with wider universal ethical values. Formalism alone doesn't necessarily liberate but can limit what might be.

A Totalitarian Art World
Their big idea is 'anything can be art'.
Their History is art language and now the artist is liberated.
Their ethic (false) is the art establishment is always right.
Their ethic (false) is the art establishment is the only right.
If a person is to become a painter, at some point this person must follow a pathway that runs in a different direction to the highway of the aesthetics of this contemporary art world.

Cezanne and Someone Who Came After

Cezanne humbled himself before creation, sometimes taking half an hour to make a mark. Someone that followed rattled off four studio paintings a night.

Cezanne developed his visual language in order to represent the 'there-ness' of the world. Someone that followed contrived or cobbled a language in order to do 'art'.

Cezanne wanted to 'do Poussin over again from nature', to represent how nature presented itself. Someone that followed showed no respect and did with creation whatever took his fancy, pretending and pretending.

Cezanne worked in the Christian tradition with respect to creation. Someone that followed was an atheist and thought he had arrived or was arriving.

Where's the substantial link from Cezanne to someone that followed? Only a superficial 'art' interpretation, it seems to me. In truth there's not much following done at all.

Skipping the Centuries

Turner looked to Claude, Constable looked to Ruisdael, Cezanne looked to Poussin, Rodin looked to Michelangelo, Ingres looked to Raphael, Delacroix looked to Rubens, Renaissance painters and sculptors and Neo-classicists looked to classical antiquity. Who told them they could skip across the centuries like that? The contemporary art establishment dogma of the chronological linear development of art language obviously didn't exist then, or if it did they took no notice.

Secrets of Art

Secrets of Art

A Very Short Nonsense Story


What follows is a story. It is a fiction. It is written from the perspective of someone holding the view that 'anything can be art'.
Therefore I assert that I am an artist and that this story is a work of visual art, and I wish to donate this story to the national art collection, free of any charge.
I sent this story or work of visual art to the Director of one of a country's leading contemporary art institutions.

Chapter 1 The 'Anything Can Be Art' Artist

The 'anything can be art' artist had, when a student, progressed through the art school network, had gone on to show work with others and had shown work alone, and now had work in numerous collections around the globe, and had become very wealthy.
The 'anything can be art' artist had pushed the boundaries of art language, presenting unexpected things in unexpected contexts, had claimed that events or happenings that ordinary folk would regard as acts of depravity and extreme violence were beautiful works of art, and had made us all examine who and what we are.
The 'anything can be art' artist was busy on new work, constantly pushing boundaries and challenging assumptions.

Chapter 2 Mrs Sidebottom and The Lost van Eyck

Mrs Sidebottom had recently been widowed. Together with her daughter she was going through some of her late husband's effects. They came across a small painting, which was a little grubby and dusty, together with some papers relating to the painting. Neither Mrs Sidebottom nor her daughter knew much about art. After some discussion they took the painting to a leading art auctioneer. Following cleaning and examination the auctioneer declared that the painting was by Jan van Eyck with a watertight provenance evidenced in the papers that were with the painting.
The painting was extremely beautiful, in very good condition and a revelation to all who set eyes on it. Not only was it beautiful to look on but it was edifying and enriched the lives of all. It gave value and meaning to life.
Mrs Sidebottom decided to sell the painting and it was put up for auction with a reserve of £50 million. The painting sold for a figure in excess of £50 million to an anonymous buyer.

Chapter 3 The Anonymous Buyer

The 'anything can be art' artist had anonymously bought Mrs Sidebottom's van Eyck. As a work of visual art and as a statement about context and the nature of visual art today the 'anything can be art' artist secretly burnt the van Eyck, so that there was nothing left. This was an act of creativity, art for art's sake, a moment of sublime artistic meaning, pointless, except as a point about visual art. The burning was done secretly and no one but the 'anything can be art' artist knew anything about it. The 'anything can be art' artist never told a soul about the burning of the van Eyck, for to have done so would have destroyed the sublime artistic meaning held within the context of the moment of the secret burning.

Chapter 4 To the Director from the Writer

I write as one imagining that I hold the view that 'anything can be art', and therefore in my imagining I assert that I am an artist and that this story is a work of visual art. This work of visual art is about secrecy. It is about a secret about a secret. To realise this I set this work of visual art in the context of the status and position held by you, the Director of one of a country's leading contemporary art institutions. Your job is to promote and preserve contemporary works of visual art. This work of visual art is about secrecy. I have sent this only to you, Director. The only people who have knowledge of this story are you, the Director, and me, the artist. This is a work of visual art about the aesthetic of secrecy, which can only exist in this form as long as the secret is kept. If you divulge the contents of this work of visual art to anyone else then this story's value as a work of visual art is destroyed, and your task of preservation is not achieved. If you do not divulge the contents of this story and keep the secret then you do not fulfil your task of promoting visual art to others. Your post of Director is the context for this work of visual art.
Can this secrecy be visual art?
This is the end of this story, which is a work of visual art, and I freely donate this work of visual art to the nation.


The End


Written in October 2008 in response to the Tate Gallery website posting 'What is the Turner Prize for?'

Oh Mr Turner
What shall we do?
We wanted to see fine artistry
Instead we got something not true

So Mr Turner
What do you think?
They put all their simple ideas
On the same footing as Titian and Memlinc

Help! Mr Turner
How can it be?
The establishment's bagged all authority
And puts down dissenters like me

In the end Mr Turner
There's not a lot we can do
We're expected to applaud all this nonsense
To concur they're exactly as you

The problem with aesthetic moments that are not grounded in ethics and belief is that in order for them to have any life at all they need an occasion. Such occasions are, by their nature, ephemeral. The momentary aesthetic is contrived, superficial and short lived, often very self indulgent, and depends for its significance on the inflated grandiose occasion. Is the Turner Prize such an occasion? For further reading please see Søren Kierkegaard's 'Either/Or'.

On the Political Position of Our Public Sector Contemporary Art Establishment in Our Free, Democratic and Multicultural Society. Written in December 2008 and modified in November 2009

Our One Culture TATE

Imagine that the government has set up an institution to promote team sports in Britain. Imagine that the private sector is weak and that team sports needs an effective government institution in order for team sports to exist. Then imagine that those in authority in this institution are all appointed from a background of one particular team sport; other team sports are not represented. Those in authority in this institution allocate all resources to support their one preferred team sport.

Further to this, team sport colleges are set up across the country to nurture students with a keen interest in and aptitude for any one of a number of team sports. However the curriculum followed by every college teaches only the team sport favoured by the national institution. All staff teach just the favoured team sport and all staff career development depends entirely on expressed preference for the team sport promoted by the national institution. Any would-be student who shows great potential in a team sport other than the one favoured by the national institution can forget it.

Further still satellite institutions similar to the national institution are also established across the country. These too favour the same team sport as the national institution. All aspiring staff working at such institutions must only promote the favoured team sport of the national institution

The national institution, the team sport colleges and the satellite institutions all receive funding from the public purse and the public purse, of course, is funded from the pockets of all including those who wish to see every legitimate team sport promoted.

Now imagine that where reference above is made to 'team sports' this actually refers to contemporary visual art. How close is this to describing the situation today with respect to the Tate, our art schools and many provincial galleries?

With the advent of an increased awareness of the need to embrace multicultural thinking I had hoped that the contemporary art establishment would broaden its view and adjust its practice accordingly. I recently looked on the Tate website and, to my dismay, came across two postings to which responses can be made. These postings are 'What is the Turner Prize For?' and 'Altermodern ?a new kind of modern'. Both raise issues and reflect an attitude that I find very hard to reconcile with my expectation of the role of a public sector institution in a free, democratic and multicultural society.

The Altermodern video and Manifesto builds a case based on 'profound history', 'propitious' timing and the chronological linear development of art, leading to the elevation of an unaccountable group of Altermodern artists chosen from the one culture promoted by the Tate, artists who will speak for us all, dictating to each individual that their particular culture is being 'overtaken' due to the impact of contemporary communications and travel. 'Starting from scratch' referred to in the video serves to dismiss all other cultural tradition and significance. And to nullify any dissent and claim the intellectual high ground there's the belittling and demonising of members of our democracy who take a different view. 'Weapons against', unthinking 'uniformity' and 'traditionalist far right' are unjustifiable terms. 'Green ink brigade', 'spleen to vent', disgusted Tunbridge Wells', 'decreasing attention span', 'just 'so yesterday'' all from the 'What is the Turner Prize For?' posting, further denigrate those members of our democracy daring to think differently. Incidentally, successful Turner Prize nominations invariably come from within Tate networks, as do Tate's artist trustees.

The declared mission of the Tate is to 'increase public knowledge, understanding and appreciation of British art from the sixteenth century to the present day and of international modern and contemporary art'. So what is present day British art? As an analytical exercise take the view that we are multicultural and that different cultures could be identified along the lines of atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Christian, Moslem, Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist and others, and also recognising that there exist legitimate cultural aspirations other than wanting to be at Tate's view of the cutting edge. The question then arises as to how the Tate is increasing public knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the visual creativity associated with say, more than one of these cultures. You could be forgiven for thinking that a certain sort of middle class secularism is pretty much the only culture promoted by the Tate, with Tate Modern a cathedral to this sort of secularism, accepting that there might be the odd token reference to other cultures.

And if you happen to be a young person from one of these other cultures, wanting to learn how to make contemporary artefacts that embody your cultural identity and belief, to which art school should you apply? Will any art school be able to facilitate your learning? The freedom to manifest one's religion is a human right and it follows that this manifestation of religion might well find expression in the making of artefacts, where in order to fully express this manifestation of religion the visual language promoted by the contemporary art establishment is inadequate.

Interestingly JMW Turner spent up to half his career trying to emulate Claude Lorraine, a painter who lived some two hundred years before Turner's time. Turner seems not to have believed that tradition was of no value and not to have believed that he was only to be concerned with work of his contemporaries or immediate predecessors. The Tate's view is that art is about the chronological linear development of art language, whereas I think it's far more to do with integrity of formal elements and values and belief embodied in the art object. The Tate's view is that art is about art, I think it's about life.

What we need is a Tate and art schools that act with respect to the free, democratic and multicultural society that we should all strive for, where support is given to creative activity from all legitimate cultures. The Tate needs to be servant of our cultures and not dictator of culture, recognising that it is perfectly legitimate and desirable for individuals to achieve creative fulfilment from outside a Tate driven agenda. Cultural discrimination will not do. 'Spread the table and contention will cease'. Let the Tate and other public sector galleries, and our art schools continue to support the certain sort of middle class secularism that they now support, but also support visual creativity from all other legitimate cultures in our free, democratic and multicultural country. Public sector institutions have a role to play in facilitating the development and maturing of a national culture that is inclusive and accepting.


To say that photography has replaced representational painting is to confuse artistic value with historical value. A good painting embodies timeless qualities and exists in its own right. Photography may have replaced poor documentary painting. Images as historical records should not be confused with the unique timeless qualities of good representational painting.

A photograph is physically removed from the thinking of the photographer. The action of pressing the shutter release button is always the same when taking any and every photograph, and this action triggers further mechanical, physical and, depending on the type of photography, chemical actions within the camera that are independent of the thoughts of the photographer. In contrast the making of marks or manipulation of paint by the painter is physically linked to the brain of the painter so that the painter's actions are at one with his or her thoughts, and so paint has the potential to make manifest what it is for the human painter to be at the moment of making.

The photograph gives a likeness of a particular whereas a good painting expresses what is universally significant. A photograph comes nearest to expressing a universal when the subject of the photograph is an artefact that expresses a universal.

Use the language of painting when making a representational painting. Where paint imitates the language of the photograph slime is the result.


There are two words that lead to all manner of pretence, error and failure. These words are 'art' and 'artist'.

The Christian Church and the Contemporary Art Establishment - a personal view. (June 2009)

The Christian Church needs to be careful when taking advice or influence from the secular contemporary art world. The contemporary art establishment holds a secular view of art history and champions an approach to visual language that facilitates the expression of a certain sort of middle class secularism. (By visual or art language I mean the way visual elements are arranged in relation to one another in order to make a visual statement. In a painting, for instance, this would mean how colour, tone, line etc are arranged in relation to one another so as to create the finished painting).

Cezanne, a French late19th century painter, was a practising Roman Catholic, particularly in the second half of his life. His approach to the world he experienced was consistent with a Christian view of the world; of creation and a Creator. The 'there-ness' of objects and forms that Cezanne sort to express in his painting, as can be experienced by an individual, is consistent with a Christian outlook. Cezanne did not distort the way reality presented itself, but rather he constantly strove to be true to his sensations as he considered the 'there-ness' of an object or objects that were before him. He gave expression to something of what Poussin, a 17th century painter, expressed in his work, and which can be experienced directly from nature. In contrast Picasso, a 20th century painter whose work is said to follow on from Cezanne's, was a communist and his work is consistent with the belief that God is dead, man has come or is coming of age, is his own master and master of his own destiny. He did not have to respect creation, but could distort it or use it for his own purpose in order to create what the secular world calls 'art'. The visual language used by Picasso enabled him to give expression to an atheistic approach to the world. There is only a superficial stylistic link from Cezanne to Picasso which is based on the secular view that art history is principally concerned with the chronological linear development of art language, and it is this view of art history that dominates and informs present art establishment support for what it sees as art.

Recently I wanted to research the 14th century Italian painter Simone Martini. I happened to be in a bookshop and picked up a book on the history of art. In this book there were a couple of paragraphs devoted to Simone. The first gave a few basic facts about the painter and the second was entirely given to explaining what Giotto, a contemporary of Simone's, had done in terms of the development of visual art language that Simone had not. Years ago I was in conversation with someone who had given a lecture on art history and who explained that the principal point of his lecture was that Renaissance artists had used religion as a means for making art. This is a very common view these days and is applied generally to all art of every period, and is consistent with the chronological linear development of art language being of paramount concern. This view needs challenging. Certainly ignoring or playing down what is significant, the beauty and spirituality in Simone's work, so as to justify a chronological linear art language theory of art history is a distortion.

Visual language used in the making of art objects is used to give expression to concepts that arise from values and belief. Visual language follows from values and belief and not the other way around. There is an inextricable link from belief to culture and creativity. In the best art objects there is an integrity in which the visual language used is at one with the values and belief system. Where one belief system is tagged on to the visual language developed to express ideas consistent with another belief system it is likely that weak and compromised art objects result. So it is today that all too often Christian references are mixed with secular visual art language in a vain and superficial attempt to appear contemporary, resulting in inferior visual art objects. This compromising of the relationship between belief and visual language as might be expressed in art objects results in there being no strong alternatives to what is called contemporary art and allows the contemporary art establishment to champion the expressions of an undiluted certain sort of secularism.

For me, politically speaking, a free, democratic and multicultural society means that it is acceptable for an individual to hold values and belief that are different from another's, so long as these values and belief do not infringe anyone else's rights. Genuine debate and the expression of legitimate alternative points of view are necessary characteristics of a healthy democracy. Multiculturalism gives an opportunity for Christianity to rediscover its own distinctive visual culture.

A free society is one in which an individual can achieve artistic fulfilment from outside an art establishment controlled art agenda.

A democratic society is one in which an individual can express legitimate alternative points of view, where an individual with an alternative point of view has a stake in the public sector's support for the visual arts and has a right to present valid arguments and so to influence public sector practice.

A multicultural society is one in which an individual's right to belong to a particular culture is respected and valued, and where the work of public sector art galleries and art schools reflects the creativity of each particular culture, including Christianity.

Speaking personally and as someone who makes paintings, I wish to assert my right to hold Christian values and belief, my right to see the world in relation to Christian values and belief and my right to endeavour to make the paintings that I make in a way that is consistent with Christian values and belief. I have absolutely no desire to make use of secular visual art language on which to hang Christian references or to make some superficial gesture that conforms to some simplistic notion of being contemporary. Being contemporary is to do with being. That is recognising, properly valuing and responding appropriately to the reality of life's genuine and significant experiences irrespective of the art history theories of the contemporary art establishment. The contemporary art establishment's hijack of words like 'contemporary' and 'modern' wrongly implies that any response to experience other than a certain sort of secular response is not contemporary or modern. The word 'we' is used as if speaking for all cultures, where statements like 'when we used to believe in a benign God' are made as if inclusive and representative of Christianity.

The Christian Church needs to be very careful when associating with and accepting advice or influence from a contemporary art establishment that pretty much only promotes a certain sort of secularism as being contemporary, both in our art galleries and in our art schools. In addition there have been recent media reports suggesting the unethical influencing of bidding in auction rooms to maintain or increase artificially the value and standing of this certain sort of secular art. Perhaps there are those in the contemporary art establishment who might be said to have a vested interest in promoting the dominance of this certain sort of secularism. Where does the Christian Church's understanding of visual creativity lie in relation to freedom, democracy and Christianity, where Christianity is a legitimate and distinctive culture in this multicultural world? Does Christianity have its own distinctive Christian visual culture?


Propensity to Meaning?

It is interesting when contemporary artist (so called) talk of layers of meaning or metaphors when describing works of contemporary art (so called). It reminds me of the first verse of William Blake's Auguries of Innocence:

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

I wondered whether these ideas might become 'contemporary' if expressed a little differently:

Auguries of Vapidity
To see a world in a dollop of red,
And an existence in a waxy stodge,
Hold what's obtuse unrelieved in your head,
And eternity in a dull moment.

Or perhaps a Christian perspective might be:

Auguries of Agape
To see the world in the birth of Christ,
And heaven in Christ's teaching,
Hold infinity in Christ's death on a cross,
And eternity in the resurrection.

With regard to Christian contemporary visual art, is the Christian Church replacing agape with vapidity?
If it's true that there is a relationship between belief, culture and creativity, and that it's possible to determine a culture's beliefs by looking at its artefacts, how then will history judge our country's beliefs of the last fifty years if judgement is based on the artefacts promoted by our contemporary art establishment?

R N Clarke (October 2009)


The Context of that Contemporary Work

Once upon a time there was a man who became the director of a country's leading contemporary art gallery. He was very successful and as a result of championing contemporary art he earned a good deal of money.

He forcefully stressed the need for a context in which to display contemporary art. He argued that for work to be art it was essential for work to be presented in the right context. Work that was not in the right context would not be seen as art. Indeed it would not be art if not in the right context. The man argued passionately that his contemporary art gallery was the very context in which to display work so that when work was on display it became art by virtue of being presented in the context of his contemporary art gallery.

The man invested his own money in some of the work displayed in his gallery. For the sum of £5,000,000 he bought one particular work which, because his contextual argument was dominant and influenced the art market, soon doubled in value and became worth £10,000,000.

He was so successful that he was asked by a leading contemporary art gallery in another country to loan his pride and joy, the particular work, to the contemporary art gallery in another country to be the centrepiece of a contemporary art exhibition at the contemporary art gallery in another country. The man gladly agreed, but only after the particular work was insured for the art market value of £10,000,000 for the whole of the time that the particular work was away.

After being flown to the other country the particular work was transported to the contemporary art gallery in the other country by road in a security van. Whilst making this journey the security van was involved in an accident resulting in the particular work being totally destroyed.

The man submitted his insurance claim for £10,000,000.

The insurance company argued that since the particular work could only be considered as a work of art when in the context of a contemporary art gallery, referencing the man's arguments on context as being authoritative and definitive, that at the time of the accident that destroyed the particular work, the work was in fact not art, since it was not in the context in which it could be considered art but in a security van travelling along a road.

The insurance company offered £25 to the man to cover the cost of the materials from which the particular work was made. The particular work was worthless as a work of art outside of the context of a contemporary art gallery.

I believe that if a person made a painting of quality then, based on the qualities of that painting, the painting is a work of art no matter where it is. If the person that made the painting placed the painting in his or her loft immediately after finishing the painting, and then died, and no other human being knew anything of or knows anything of the painting or has ever seen the painting, the painting is still a work of art. If a work needs a particular time and place in order to have significance its significance cannot be said to be timeless nor can its significance be said to be universally true. Context, in relation to how works of visual art are seen, is primarily a matter of art appreciation.

THE TATE: How Shall I Vote in the General Election?

Dear reader I would like you to examine the practice of the Tate Gallery in relation to the wider principles associated with a free, democratic and multicultural country, principles that should inform the practice of a public sector institution such as the Tate.

I feel that the Tate's defining and endorsement of what it sees as contemporary art is far too narrow. In addition to the contemporary work that the Tate presently endorses I would like the Tate to also endorse contemporary visual art of quality that fulfils different intentions or purposes to the intentions or purposes of the work that the Tate presently endorses. By this I mean I would like to see the Tate play a substantial and constructive role in helping to form a national culture that respects individual creative freedom, values diversity of work and opinion and is genuinely multicultural, to the benefit of all.

I feel that at the moment the role played by the Tate raises significant cultural, employment, educational and political issues. Cultural, because our country is multicultural and not mono-cultural. (The term multicultural embraces a wide range of cultures, relating to religions, atheism and agnosticism, class, geographical location, outlook and so on. British culture is multifaceted, and you could argue has always been so. I'm white/British but wouldn't say that the contemporary culture promoted by the Tate is representative of a culture that I personally identify with, for instance). Employment, because what the Tate endorses profoundly affects the employment prospects and financial well-being of individuals, to the advantage of some and disadvantage of others. Educational, because what the Tate endorses profoundly affects the curriculum followed in our schools, our art schools and other educational establishments. Political, because I believe that the current practice of the Tate does not sit easily with a right understanding of the role of a public sector institution operating within the context of a free, democratic and multicultural state.

I would like you to consider whether and in what circumstances cultural discrimination is possible and not acceptable, and if so how might cultural discrimination manifest itself in the world of public sector support for contemporary art. Can cultural discrimination become institutionalised?

If a value judgement like 'You can't paint like that anymore' forms part of the philosophy of the public sector contemporary art establishment, such a judgement does a number of things. Firstly it restricts personal freedom of thought and consequently the potential breadth of visual creativity. It limits the possibility of alternative, diverse opinion and activity so vital to a healthy democracy. And it denies cultural diversity where a culture is somehow not permitted to use the kind of visual language that might be necessary for the expression of cultural identity. Once such a statement is perceived as authoritative and definitive other institutions such as our art schools and other public sector galleries make it essential criteria against which to measure visual creativity, which consequently limits the breadth of exploration open to art students and limits the breadth of contemporary art exhibited in our public sector galleries. Such apparently simple statements, when allowed to affect our public sector support for contemporary visual culture, work against the principles of our free, democratic and multicultural state.

Statements like 'When we used to believe in a God' do not represent the views of all and so cannot be regarded as including all and should have no place in influencing the philosophy and practice of our public sector support for visual creativity. The word 'we' is misused in such a context so that its use works against a person's right to freedom and manifestation of belief, against the need for democratic debate where those who do believe in God can make respected contributions and also works against cultures where belief in God is central to a culture's existence. Words like 'we', 'contemporary' and 'modern' are misused if applied by one culture holding a position of authority within the public sector, as if speaking for all, as if other expressions of cultural identity are not valid and can't be contemporary or modern. 'Conceptual' is another word, when used as a label in the context of contemporary art, that suggests that concepts in other expressions of visual ideas are not important. Concepts that relate to belief can be profound and cannot necessarily be realised through what the Tate promotes as 'contemporary' visual language. One culture's relativist philosophies and way of interpreting the history of art should not be imposed on other cultures. The public sector should not be a place where just one culture finds a home.

Imagine an island state A, somewhere in the world, where the whole population has the same culture. Then imagine a second island state B, somewhere else in the world, where the whole population has a culture that is different to the culture of island state A. Now for some reason the two islands become uninhabitable and, out of necessity, the populations of island state A and of island state B have to live together as a single state on a third island. What principles should be adopted that will enable both populations with their respective cultures to be culturally fulfilled? Imagine too another island state where the whole population has one culture. Then, overnight half the population converts to a different belief system that has its own culture and that requires a different way of making visual objects in order to express cultural identity, so resulting in there being more than one way of expressing cultural identity. Which way of expressing cultural identity is contemporary or modern? Surely both.

There is a need to assess how public sector institutions supporting the arts can best serve the cultural aspirations of all sections of our free, democratic and multicultural state, so that institutions such as the Tate can positively and effectively contribute to the building of a coherent, inclusive national culture. The Tate needs to occupy an overarching, yet supportive position, where visual art objects of quality from different cultures are endorsed on merit. Tate's 2015 Vision refers to diversity with the intention of 'being more reflective of the diversity of Britain and the world', which I very much welcome. There is here the sort of openness and honesty, necessary to make real progress, in the admission that 'more' is required.

At the time of a General Election issues relating to culture and creativity don't seem to get a mention. Yet the issues outlined above are of great importance. For me, as someone who makes paintings, and also for others, personal fulfilment, livelihood and education of sons or daughters have been and are directly affected by what is endorsed by the Tate. All my adult life I have wanted to know where our main political parties stand in relation to the role of the Tate. A little over a year ago I had reason to write to Andy Burnham the then Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport asking where his party stood in relation to the role of the Tate. I sent the same letter to the Shadow Secretaries, Jeremy Hunt and Don Foster of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties respectively asking where their parties stood. After sending a second letter to Mr Burnham, chasing a response, I received a letter from a member of the Museums Team. This letter didn't tell me what the Labour party's view of the Tate is, but did say that the department didn't intervene in the Tate's everyday matters. I also sent a chasing letter to Mr Hunt but have never received any reply. Mr Foster did reply and I have some understanding of where the Liberal Democrats stand, although I would like to explore points made in greater depth. I'm not much the wiser for my letters and lack the information I feel would inform my choice when voting in our forthcoming General Election.

R N Clarke
January 2010

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