Musings on New Year’s Day

To accompany this piece I have chosen three phone photos which I took while on a visit to the exhibition “Géométries Sud du Mexique à la Terre de Feu” at the Fondation Cartier in Paris. The catalogue states that the show—which I loved—evokes the multiplicity of influences specific to Latin American art. It is exhibited in Jean Nouvel’s building until 24 February 2019.

When it comes to contemporary culture in the West, so much of what I see fills me with an appalling sorrow because it feels nothing short of shortsighted.

It is a rather unfortunate reality that one is so often forced against one’s will to come into contact with today’s mainstream culture. This feeling of unwelcome exposure has been a growing sensation (preoccupation) since the turn of the century. It is not a matter of my opinion.

It has always been important for me to ensure that YES & NO does not impart an overarching opinion. The title of the magazine embodies this attitude. If by any chance an opinion does come across it is perceived only without intention, not by design. But what is an opinion?

Samuel Johnson’s 1746 Dictionary entry for the word ‘opinion’ has three main definitions—1. Persuasion of the mind, without proof; 2. Sentiments, judgment, notion; 3. Favourable judgement.

A contemporary dictionary definition entry is a little more complex as it encompasses not only ambiguous variations of Johnson’s definitions, but adds ‘advice on expert and professional matters including the Law’.

Could it be true to say that opinions are a way of thinking about the nature (or reality) of the world that in fact restricts the imagination? Ironically, artists, so the history books tell us, have had opinions about a whole variety of stuff—about politics, about gender, about the nature of the human condition and existence, about art itself. And yet the feeling in the air is one of bewilderment—no one seems to know what’s going on.

I believe there’s something of the artist (and by definition the capacity to exercise imagination) in every individual. Every person (from a precocious child to a grouchy adult) is compelled to have an opinion about something or other; and they don’t have to feel strongly about something, either. Though an opinion expressed usually comes across as a belief held as a fact.

What is it that differentiates a person and defines them as an artist? This niggling question has been at the back of my mind since I was forced to confront it while a student at Saint Martin’s (aka Central Saint Martins) School of Art—or CSM.

Up until the time I enrolled on the Fine Art painting course at CSM, I’d been an admirer of celebrated artists such as Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, André Breton and the Surrealists, Vladimir Mayakovsky, among others… In my youth I looked to these artists for inspiration. What I knew of their biographies and their activities chimed with where I thought I was; or at least where I thought I wanted to be. These thinking individuals embodied the ideal I aspired to. What that ideal was, I now have no idea.

By the time I threw myself into writing my BA dissertation, I was also looking at the works of Plato, Michelangelo, and Federico Fellini not so much as role models, rather as examples of persons that stood out in history as notable individuals; persons who, in their day, epitomised human artistic endeavour and creativity. For me they embodied a set of abstract ideas about what or who one should be, or, rather more to the point, what one could become. Of course, this contradicts the central idea underpinning the concept of Individuality!

So, by degrees, my idea of what I thought an artist was transformed into an idea of what it meant to be an ‘individual’. Before setting out to write my dissertation, I asked myself, How is it possible to be an individual in a world that drives us (from birth to death) to conform to a prevailing standard—a standard dictated and defined by society, the status quo, public opinion, and several other received norms and invisible social apparatuses writ large?

Is it not true that the artist’s temperament has come to be viewed as that of an individual, the unique genius in our midst? At least that is what I think of when confronted with the thought (and the question), What is an artist? Does being an artist mean you are also a genius? If so, are all individuals geniuses? Not all geniuses are artists (Einstein was a scientist), but all artists are individuals, right? 

In my mind the idea of ‘Artist/Individual’ came to prominence during the Italian Renaissance—that period that historically broke away from the Old and ushered in the foundations of the New World—the world of today. Can the wheels of the contemporary world have been set in motion that far back? Indeed they can, because in a very basic way the world today is utterly framed within the context of the complex relationship between the idea of the Individual and the idea of the State.

The notion of ‘the individual’ is a relatively new concept. The number of names that have come down to us through historical texts and artefacts are fewer than a micro drop in the ocean of time compared to the number of people who have populated planet Earth since the dawn of Homo Sapiens (that is, modern man). It is estimated by the Population Reference Bureau that 108 billion members of our species have ever been born.

Before the Renaissance there was no real conscious sense of the mass of people being made up of individuals. The people of the Middle Ages who we now call artists (the people who painted the religious pictures, or who wrote the illuminated manuscripts, or who composed the sacred music and so on, the fabricators of the dominant religious culture of the day) were numbered as workers—much like stone masons or blacksmiths or wine makers. It was God and the people, and God was manifested in the body of the ruling king or queen. This doesn’t take into account the marauding tribes that lived outside of society and didn’t get much of a look in; and, anyway, the were soon dispensed with; slaughtered or subjugated and enslaved by ‘the armies of the unalterable law’ who employed the ever-inventive technologies of the dominant class that were created to protect the monarch and maintain the status quo.

It was a time when people’s individuality was sublimated to the whole and clearly defined by what they did; a time when men mostly did the heavy work outdoors and women mostly did the heavy work indoors. If you were a blacksmith, your name might have been Mr Black or Mr Smith. If you worked in a coal mine your name might have been Mr Collier. If you worked on the gardens of an estate, your name might have been Mr Gardener. If you worked in glass, your name might have been Mr Glazer.

There are many family names that signified the role you played—or relationship to the practical parts of the whole (like Johnson, i.e. ‘son of John’)—many names that were once a living trade or profession or a status that became increasingly crucial with the advent of the census. I guess an equivalent today would be something like, Mr Analyst, or Ms Yoga-Teacher, Mr Mechanic, Ms Anaesthetist. But the old names live on in a continuum as vestiges and reminders of a time past.

Go back further still to the ancient Egyptians whose artists were also totally anonymous and not representative of the individuals within society at all. Their work survives but their names are nowhere recorded for posterity.

So what does it mean to be an individual in the 21st century? The question is as burning for me now as it was when I was a CSM student in the 20th century, and perhaps there is no satisfactory answer to it. For the question itself presupposes the possibility for one to think as an individual while asking what an individual is in the first place. It’s tantamount to a paradox.

Little wonder there are so many who are so astonishingly confused by the rigours of contemporary life, and their relationship to it; people who are at a loss as to what to think about the world today, its overreaching social and cultural attitudes, and where it’s heading.

But, I guess, in the broader scheme of things, the bigger question is, Why individualism? What’s so special about being an individual anyway?

Above; Carmen Herrera (b. 1915, Cuba) 3 Red Triangles, 2016

Above; Carmen Herrera (b. 1915, Cuba) 3 Red Triangles, 2016

Above; Beatriz Milhazes (b.1960, Brazil) São Cosme e Damião, 2014

Above; Beatriz Milhazes (b.1960, Brazil) São Cosme e Damião, 2014

Above; Chiriguano-Guaraní, Anonymous, Aguero-guero, c. 2000, c. 1990, c. 1990

Above; Chiriguano-Guaraní, Anonymous, Aguero-guero, c. 2000, c. 1990, c. 1990