The capital city of the United Kingdom is gilded with art. Ambitious curators will moan about funding cuts, patrician museum directors will carp on about past glories, and rubicund critics will descry the dumbing down of contemporary society, but I would wager that there has never been a time in the history of Britain when the channels allowing access to high culture have been so clear and wide (at least in London, but probably elsewhere too).
For me, it is a fabulous state of affairs – I set foot on the marble floors of bright art galleries, family-friendly museums and blockbuster exhibitions with frequency.
Such visits always produce a tumbling out of thoughts, reflections, ideas. Maybe not coherent ideas and quite possibly not very original ones. But they arrive and they give me a sense of engagement with the exhibition. They are particular, different to each exhibition, and nearly always turn up, even without asking. A very obvious sign of a poor exhibition is that inspires few ideas. (Alternatively it could reflect an absence of caffeine).
I enjoy such stimulation; it is an intrinsic part of the exhibition and its success. But such a rich, variegated blossoming of thought is of course, transitory. The human mind has plenty to think about in the twenty-first century and even more to distract it. An unusual thought about Caravaggio’s brushwork will be deleted by a work email the morning after.
So I want to write these ideas down; I want to document my enjoyment, and perhaps reassure my later self that I have enjoyed life and art.
I suppose there are broader purposes to this writing as well. Documenting an exhibition gives me a better sense of where this or that artist, or the topic under consideration, slots into the broader cultural framework. Where he sits in the canon. What make her successful. Or why he is dreadfully overrated.
My own little corpus of ideas slowly develops. They may not be of interest to others but are valuable to me because they are, well, mine. And as the essays grow, expand and all those thoughts and ideas coalesce and then break away and then re-coalesce. I guess I will ultimately have a magnificent body of evidence from which I can fire off all kinds of broader aesthetic judgments about the history of art. Delusions of grandeur, anyone?
I write from a particular viewpoint – half idealistic and half pragmatic. First, the idealistic part.
The contemporary art historian, haunted by charges of elitism and misunderstanding the implications of a relativistic world, is now petrified to undertake any kind of aesthetic engagement with art. They will tell you when a painting was painted, who did it, who it was sold to, how it reflected the economic conditions or a subtle misogyny in the society of the time etc etc. . But they won’t tell you if a painting is good, or how it can be enjoyed. Art historians are now historians who use pictures as illustrative evidence, rather people who uncover the joy of art. I am well aware I am generalising.
So these essays largely concentrate on the aesthetic. I don’t mean aesthetic appreciation in the narrow sense of, say, antiques collectors cooing over the craftsmanship of Louis Quatorze chairs, or Bernard Berenson drooling over the pious Fra Angelico (there’s an image). I think aesthetic appreciation can mean something much broader. It does of course include traditional concepts of beauty but it also about originality, patterns, textures, details, ideas, colour, subtle and grand emotions, foibles, idiosyncrasies; about joy, trauma and memory reconfigured and repeated; it’s about stealing from others and then giving something new; about a way of seeing the world that no-one else has encountered; about a common human bond stretching out to the present over a vast ocean of space and time (or maybe even just a few blocks away). This is the bright white light I attempt, however poorly, to refract through the prism of my essays.
However, such an approach is also a pragmatic response. I am not an art historian. I work elsewhere. I do not have time to do research, uncover archives, explore new leads. My response to an exhibition can only be a direct response to seeing it. To fit such an exhibition into a larger scholarly narrative takes many hours of precise, painstaking precision. But to make an aesthetic response you just need your eyes and a well-worn but still well-fitting thinking cap.
So why London? Because that’s where I live. If I travel to other parts of our globe, I will go and visit the city’s permanent art collection, or its gloomy churches, and not the temporary exhibition; I hope the reasons for this are obvious. Occasionally, I will compose some brief thoughts on another city’s artistic highlights. (The upper floors at the Louvre remain the highlight). I also particularly like thinking about particularly obtuse topics and indicating how even the unexpected can be an aesthetic crown studded with rich gems – the facade of a church at Cusco in Peru is another highlight.
My process of writing is straightforward. I will visit the exhibition, perhaps make some rapid scribbles in the flimsy booklet distributed by the jaded guard, and will then, over the course of the next few books, try and meld the rough fragments of ideas into a more compact spherical ball.
Sheerly for reasons of time I rarely consult other academic books, although I may occasionally let an eye peer over a newspaper review. If the museums has a website dedicated to the exhibition I will use that as reference (the Tate provides nearly everything one could need in this respect. The Hayward is okay and the National Gallery pretty awful).
In some senses, the complete refusal to communicate with others ideas is a methodological failure – a sophisticated approach to summing up an exhibition would incorporate dialogue with others. However, this makes the task far more time consuming, more intellectual demanding and, more selfishly, I want to speak about my ideas, not somebody else’s.
Which may also explain why few people will be interested in reading such a blog – it is neither a review service which can help the potential visitor (witness that most of the essays surreptitiously arrive on the Internet many weeks after the exhibition has closed), nor will it contribute much to the work of art historians, who these days carry out their work with such forensic specialisation that the notion of the generalist has all but evaporated.
However, my ego is well-proportioned and unbruised by such knowledge. I write predominantly for myself; if Google’s dice pointing a potential reader in my direction then so much the better.
Alastair Dunning, February 2008