Art: the A & Ω

thoughts on two art shows and an inevitable political coda

ice age art.jpg
light show.jpg

On Wednesday, Culture Secretary Maria Miller used her first speech on the arts (in seven months, by the way) to insist that the arts community needs to make an economic case for continuing subsidy. By coincidence, I'd booked a couple of weeks ago to see the British Museum's Ice Age Art exhibition the following and had also planned to get to Light Show at the Hayward. Coincidentally because they represent, in a sense, the most epic imaginable rebuke to Maria Miller's Gradgrindian priorities.

Light Show is a collection of post-war (1960s onwards) artworks that use light as a key medium. The forms of light includes bulbs, strobes, LEDs, lasers, neon, torches, fluourescent tubes, theatre lights, and data projector. It's a richly coloured exhibition and the light is to be seen, walked through, experienced on the body and in the mind; it's light as illumination, drama, illusion, evocation, beauty and revelation. There are tricks like Bill Culbert's Bulb Box Reflection (1975), in which a simple bulb is mounted beside a mirror - but in the mirror the bulb is on. Fischli and Weiss's Son et Lumière (Le rayon vert) (1990) is a bathetically lo-fi tribute to - or parody of - Moholy-Nagy's Light Prop for an Electric Stage (1930). The most experiential pieces include Carlos Cruz-Diez's Chromosaturation (1965-2013), which I saw a couple of years ago at the Pinta Latin American art show in 2010, where it was in amongst a number of light pieces and seemed less exotic: you enter three 'colour chambers', each of which is entirely monochrome; after a minute or two, your eyes adjust and you almost entirely stop seeing the colour. It becomes 'white', with strange effects when you walk out of the room. In Conrad Shawcross's Slow Arc inside a Cube IV (2009), a powerful light on a robotic arm tilts around inside a mesh box and projects a continually morphing series of geometrical shapes on the wall, which seems to generate an impossible but vertigenous plasticity to the shape of the room. In Iván Navarro's Reality Show (Silver)(2010), you step into an internally-mirrored phone box and you seem to be situated at the crushing centre of infinity though you're aware that everyone outside can observe you. The guide saw this as an analogue for Navarro's native Chile in the 1970s. Doug Wheeler's Untitled (1969) is a soft white room in which a large square of colour appears to float. (At least, that's what it was supposed to be: the effect didn't work for me at all.) Mostly, though, these experience are startling, enlivening.

Often the light pieces serve to enrich your sense of the world. Olafur Eliasson's Model for a Timeless Garden (2011) is beautifully simple: a series of water fountains are illuminated by strobe lights which seem to freeze these chaotic shapes in mid air as continually substituted glassy sculptures. It feels like you've suddenly acquired a seventh sense. An analogous effect is created by Jim Campbell's Exploded View (Commuters)(2011) a series of suspended LED bulbs that form a kind of cube hanging in the gallery through which, by being pulsed, images seem to appear. A kind of three-dimensional pointillist cinema. It's hypnotic and fascinating. One of the simplest but most elegant pieces was Katie Paterson's Light Bulb to Simulate Moonlight (2008) which is exactly what it claims to be; a single light bulb hangs in a small room and you feel you're in a garden at night.

The piece that had to most impact on me was James Turrell's Wedgework V (1974). 


You approach the installation down a very dark corridor, turn a corner and then sit at a bench gazing at what looks initially like a series of screens. The blue framed screen at the front of the installation (yellow in the picture); then there is an almost invisible screen halfway down and then a diagonally-angled red screen at the back with a bleed of blue on the left. Slowly you start to realise that there are no screens, just a series of blades of light; the image is open. But almost at the same moment, my sense of three dimensionality began to swim and the piece seemed, as it appears to you in the image above, flat. At that point, it begins to look like an abstract expressionist painting, and I do mean painting: it looks painted, the light having a grain to it, a thickness; I almost fancied I could see brushstrokes. The single white line down the left hand wall looked like a thin line of paint. You begin to notice the wide variations in the red, sometimes warm, sometimes cool; I found myself looking at the patterns of colour as if it was creating the sense of space rather than the space creating the patterns of colour. The sense of space and volume, colour and mood, shifted and blurred over the 20 minutes I sat taking it in. Despite the kids running around and a rather intrusive attendant with a torch, it was an exquisitely solitary experience.

To bike over the Thames to the British Museum, then, was an entirely different experience. Ice Age Art is a collection of artefacts from that moment 30-40,000 years ago when the human brain got the art thing. The point when the pre-frontal cortex had developed sufficiently to become conscious of dimension, shape, space, relationship and was then able to think how these things might be remembered, imagined, combined, transformed, reproduced in new ways, that was the moment that made art possible. I'm usually pretty sceptical about neurobabble, but this exhibition didn't make too strong a case for it. Instead, it just noted that 40,000 years ago, homo sapiens start making things in a way we can now recognise as similar to the way we make them and this allows us to mark a history of the brain's evolution. Of course a lot of historical difference is erased in that - and the exhibition is very frank about the things that are lost, the purposes, the customs, the significance of certain images - but it is hard to deny that these ancestral makers were taking things they'd seen and finding ways of representing them that is not unlike ways we represent them now. Indeed, the very task of representing - and re-imagining - the world is the unbroken thread linking us to the sculptor of the Lion Man (38,000BCE, see top of the page).

The exhibition is beautifully curated. What is, basically, a series of often small, sometimes indistinguishable objects could have been a rather drab affair, but we are led through a remarkable journey into a distinctive adventure of the human mind. What is so startling about the Lion Man is that this human body with a lion head is something that could not have been seen in nature; for the first time, we are seeing human beings seeing the world and imagining it to be different. The most direct act of representation has to turn a three-dimensional object into a two-dimension image, or it has to turn something moving into something still yet with a sense of movement, or it takes an image of a woman and chooses what to emphasise. It adds a carving to a slingshot. Why? For good luck? Just to identify it as mine? To please gods? To make it look nicer? All of the above? It makes me think again about realism and naturalism. We always represent for reasons and in doing so we always transform.

Between the two exhibitions, I couldn't help think there was a certain continuity. A concern with volume and weight, the dimensions of the human figure in space, a desire to enchant the world, a question about the experience of others and how knowable that is, an investigation into how we look and see and feel.

The inevitable political coda

I kept thinking that Maria Miller should see this. Nowhere did the artworks seem concerned with economic value. All of these artworks enriched their communities, our communities, in a hundred different ways. The Ice Age Art  as much as the Light Show pieces served to capture the strangeness of things at their edges. While they participate in economies - the weighted spear throwers of the Ice Age would have brought down animals that could no doubt be exchanged as meat, fur, skin - they are not exhausted by them. The spear throwers would have worked just as well if they were plain.

This is why the value of art just cannot be expressed only in economic terms. Art does not respond very effectively to the market. For example, I paid £11 for Light Show, £10 for Ice Age Art. Were they the right amounts? It's what I was prepared to pay but what does it say about the value of the exhibitions? How much should you pay to see King Lear? Should it be free? Should it cost a million pounds? Immanuel Kant, in Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals says:

What refers to general human inclinations and needs has a market price; what, even without presupposing a need, conforms with a certain taste, i.e. a delight in the mere purposeless play of the powers of the mind, has a fancy price; but what constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself does not merely have a relative worth, i.e. a price, but an inner worth, i.e. dignity. 

(Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, eds. Mary Gregor and Jens Timmermann. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, p. 46 [4:435]

What does he mean by this? Imagine the following scenario:

During a war, a bombing raid is launched over a major city. One of the bombs misses its target and it hits a warehouse in which are stored 20,000 cans of beans. This would be considered unfortunate and, given an appropriate post-war settlement, possibly compensation could be offered and it seems clear that one could come up with a figure that completely and to everyone's satisfaction make restitution for this accident. (Let's assume this isn't the only food available to the population or anything like that.) This is what Kant means by a market price: a figure for which the the items can be fully exchanged.

Now imagine the same scenario but what has been hit by the stray bomb is a hospital, killing 200 patients and hospital staff. This would be much more than 'unfortunate'; it would be a disaster, a tragedy, a catastrophe. And after the war, while it might be appropriate to offer compensation for the act, no one would ever say that the figure arrived at could completely and to anyone's satisfaction make restitution. Human beings cannot be expressed in a price but only in a 'dignity', which he later describes as 'an unconditional, incomparable value' (p. 47 [4:436]. In other words, the value of human beings cannot be exchanged or traded away in any meaningful sense.  (There are the Ogden Tables that insurance companies use to calculate the compensation owed for injury and death, but even there the calculation is only related to loss of potential earnings, not in any sense replacing the value of the person.) Although Kant is unclear about the strict relation between market price and dignity, I think he means not that human beings have incalculably enormous financial value, but that their value simply cannot be expressed in price terms at all.

Now let's imagine a third scenario. The wayward payload is dropped from the plane and this time it hits an art gallery. 200 paintings and sculptures are destroyed. How would we respond to that? Is it a misfortune or a tragedy? Can restitution be satisfactorily be made? Where does the destruction of artworks come on the scale between cans of beans and human beings? I'd say it's much closer to the destruction of human beings. If a can of beans is destroyed, we can satisfactorily replace it with another can of beans or monetary compensation. If a great painting is destroyed, it can't be replaced by a reproduction or another great painting of equal quality (however that might be calculated), just as the death of a person can't be compensated by the existence of any other person. And while we can calculate the value required to compensate the owner of the baked-bean warehouse, how could we possibly calculate the value of the art? What was Courbet's The Stonebreakers (1849-50) worth when an Allied bomb destroyed it towards the end of the Second World War? 

Part of the difficulty of answering that question is the question of ownership. Who owns a painting? Well, you might say, whoever has legal possession of it. But that's not fully satisfactory. Parents talk about 'my kids' which is the language of possession and in some respects they have legal ownership, in the sense that no one else, in ordinary circumstances, can claim ownership of your child. But they can't do what they want to that child: they mustn't beat the child, abuse the child, neglect or torture the child. You might possibly say the same about a landowner and the land: their role is to look after it, make money from it, sure, but ultimately nurture it on behalf of the nation (or, even, the world). I don't know who owns the Gower Peninsula, for example, but if they proposed to concrete it over, they would be abusing their privilege and the land should be taken from them.

I think the same is true of owning an artwork. In 1990, Van Gogh's painting, Portrait of Dr Paul Gachet (1890) was sold at auction for $82.5m to the Japanese businessman Ryoai Saito. Saito then declared that when he dies he wanted this painting buried with him. This caused an uproar and some perplexity because his declaration fell between the gap between being an owner and a custodian. Because did that $82.5m give him complete ownership, such that he could dispose of the painting as he wished? Or merely custodianship. If the latter, there's a sense in which he has privileged access to it  but is merely looking after it on behalf of the world. An artwork has something closer to the moral status of a person. It isn't quite the same, of course, in part because we think it is possible to buy and sell art works, to set monetary values on them, in a way that we don't any longer with human beings. But for this reason, there is a discontinuity between the price and the value and Kant calls the price set on art by the world a fancy price. It is a price set contingently on things that allows us to organise access to them but it does not express the object's value in a way that setting the price on a tin of beans does.

There's a rather brilliant Howard Barker playlet about this. The Investor's Chronicle is one of the short plays that make up 13 Objects (2003). A billionaire has bought a Holbein portrait of an Englishwoman dated from 1553 for £4.5m and he decides to destroy it. The shock of this notion is teased out through the piece as the man explains that he he is burning it to remove it as a fetish object for the art market, something whose value is only given by its market price:

Oh these figures get me down what do they know about art it's arithmetic to them the more noughts on the end the more appreciate they are 
(He takes out a cigarette lighter)

(Howard Barker. Plays Two.  London: Oberon, 2006, p. 297).
He sprinkles the artwork with whisky and contemplates setting fire to it:
I am burning
A Painting
I am burning all the human filth who make this painting no longer a painting at all

(p. 298)

He then decides against burning it and instead stamps on it, kicking it to pieces, finally leaving it for the rain to degrade the bits. He calls this, intriguingly, 'AN ACT OF SUCH DIGNITY' (p. 300). In some ways, Barker's anti-hero is a Nietzschean figure, launching a direct attack at worldly values, blowing conventional morality apart. But he may also be trapped in the world's logic; the economistic view of art has, in a sense, destroyed the artwork, or allowed its aesthetic status to recede beyond visibility. In reprisal, he destroys the artwork too, though even he has doubts ('Already the regrets come flocking in like starlings', p. 301). In the final moments, ambiguously, he picks up a fragment of the destroyed painting and places it protectively in a handkerchief before leaving. Has he capitulated to the cultural fetishism of the multi-million pound painting? Or is he preserving the artwork, now stripped of its carapace of money?

But this is why Maria Miller's call for the arts community to express the value of art in exclusively economic terms must fail. Art can't be expressed through the notion of the market price. It has only a fancy price. It may even have something approaching a dignity. Maria Miller wants to strip art of its dignity, but she's got 30,000 years of art against her.