Today my wife and I visited the Southampton City Art Gallery and had a wonderful time; it’s a place, if you like art, I strongly recommend you visit: http://www.southampton.gov.uk/s-leisure/artsheritage/sotonartgallery/. The Burne-Jones Perseus collection is absolutely fabulous (and fabulous in the real sense of the word from fable) and reminds me of the essential characteristic of all real art. When I say ‘art’ I mean of course the full range, but especially including music and literature as well as pictorial art. And what is this essential characteristic?
What we want from and in art, I think, is beauty, because beauty is transformational and because beauty as Oscar Wilde said is: “… a form of genius – is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is of the great facts in the world like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in dark water of that sliver shell we call the moon”. Yes, it needs no explanation, it is self-evident, and in that magical way that it has it moves us, or more accurately perhaps, it transports us, it elevates us.
When you say that art needs to possess beauty some take the view that that is some unrealistic expectation, that the world in many aspects is not beautiful, and that on the contrary art portrays or should portray all that is ugly, void and meaningless in the world because the world demonstrates all these things. This is to take a deliberately limited view of what I mean when I say art must be
beautiful if it is to be art.
Take poetry, where my knowledge is greater: if we consider a poet like Wilfred Owen, writing about trench warfare, the gas attacks, the disabled, the insane, and frankly the sheer horror the like of which, and scale of which, not many other world events can compare with, then we see he writes about the ugliness, the void and the meaninglessness, but – and this is the big but – he transforms the experience into something of heart-rending beauty and power. The poetry is in the pity, he says, and this seething compassion emerges from the darkness and irradiates it; in fact, as long as the English language exists, people will go on reading his works to refresh their mind and souls. Poetry transfigures; art transfigures.
Burne-Jones understood this, and his wonderful works on Perseus alone are masterpieces that haunt the imagination with their beauty. He said himself that he believed an ‘instinct for beauty … is inborn in every complete man’ and therefore art was ‘a positive necessity of life’.
How awful was it, then, when we turned the corner to see the banalities of modern art posturing alongside these greats. For example, Chasing 1000, a video clip an hour long in which the artist Paul Maguire heads a basketball back and forth to a friend a thousand times. As you watch the ball bounce from head to head and see the number of times the ball has remained in the air ( we came in at 563 and left at 587) a cacophonous noise blares in the background.
Since we had just left Perseus, the great Greek hero, I was reminded of another Greek story: Sisyphus, rolling his stone up the hill for it to be forever tipping back and for him to have to start again. The thing was, Sisyphus was in hell and this was his punishment.
And there was the difference between real art and fake art, between beauty and the banal: real art would depict Sisyphus but would provide some beauty, some insight, some emotion, some depth to that condition. Here, fake art was simply repeating the myth of Sisyphus (although in this instance not necessarily aware of it) and thinking it was a good idea to just pointlessly re-iterate the meaninglessness. Apart from perhaps admiring the basketball skills – hey, we have the Olympics, do we need this here? – what was there of art in this? Where was the beauty?
The Programme for May-Sept blithely informs me that the curator of this piece has done a one hour ‘free’ talk on it! I guess it would have to be free because who in their right mind would want it even for nothing?
Art is part of the solution to the world’s problems – it is part of the healing that the artists and their appreciators can enjoy together. That is why we must speak out against this false and pernicious art which is no solution but an aggravating factor in the modern world: already suffering from a surfeit of
banality, this pseudo-art adds more. And takes up precious space.
Go to Southampton and see for yourself: the beauty of Burne-Jones and the banality of Chasing 1000.