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Thursday, 18 January 2007

It's how he sees it!

For me, it has been one of those weeks when whichever way I might turn, the same train of thought would present itself: in the newspaper, magazines, on the radio, everyone seemed to be on the same track, a track that for me led to a little nostalgia, and to a question echoing from centuries back, from days spent arguing with fellow art students about how we might legitimately judge a work of art to be successful. Along with that question went one concerned with who is best placed to judge whether a work is successful. There were those who argued that only the artist can know, for the only valid criterion of success is whether or not the finished product corresponds to his/her initial vision (has s/he, in fact, accomplished what s/he set out to do?), and only the artist can know that. If it met that one test, it would be deemed successful; if not, then it was written off - which should have meant the waste bin: ergo, everything not junked by the artist is successful! (I use the word "vision" as shorthand for "the artist's personal - i.e. unique - experience and the significance that s/he gives to it.")

So from that standpoint we have to take it on trust from the artist that the work is faithful to the vision to which we cannot be privy. We are saying, in effect, not just "It's art because I (as artist) say it is" (Marcel Duchamp), but even that it is great art because I say it is! But wait: does a close correspondence between the finished artefact and the vision, automatically make it great (or successful) art? And conversely, does a lack of such correspondence mean that it fails, end of? If millions of people all over the world are moved, thrilled, excited, chastened, shamed or whatever by the work, yet what they are getting from it is not what the creator thought s/he was putting in, does that inescapably disqualify it from being great art?

The word "truth" comes to mind at this point, and with it "communication". They go hand in hand. For me a work of art, to be a valid work of art, must communicate something, and at least part of that something has to do with truth. But truth to what? More echoes from the art school: we talked much in those days about truth to materials.( Important if you are carving stone, not to try to make it look like wood.) Also, truth to yourself, and to your vision. But if we can't know what that was, what then? First of all, when looking at, listening to or reading the work in question, I want at the very least to be able to catch some of the emotion, the passion that led to it and went into it. Being true to yourself is an aspect of your character, and the work will display whatever character its creator showed when creating it. Frieda Hughes remarked in Monday's Times 2 that while sports commentators may speak of sportsmen and teams showing character in the way they perform, we don't think that way of artists, musicians, writers. To my mind, great art results from an inner exploration of some sort. The persistence with which that is pursued and the concentration with which it is pursued decide the intensity of the experience, from which derives the work's character. Does that help to decide who is best able to make a judgement on it? I think it may, for when we follow that path to its final destination, we find that a great work of art has the ooomph to make you turn aside from being yourself in the-world-as-it-appears-to you, and, at least for a while, to be another consciousness in some quite different-looking world.
Whether that happens exactly in the way the artist envisioned it happening, seems to me quite incidental. One of my favourite quotes is that by Alfred Brendel:"A work of art is like a person: it has more than one soul in its breast." Just as valid from this perspective is the man in the street's (still) instinctive defense of "modern" art: "Well, that's the way the artist sees it!" Let's hope he's right!

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