My tutor, in her report on my final assignment, has asked me to reflect on the ways that artistic expression represent cultural values and this was in response to the Mexican muralists and their celebration of their mixed-race heritage (mestizaje) and how muralism as an art form was promoted regarding social and political engagement – at the time of writing this is incredibly relevant as I am writing this just 2 days after the inauguration of a new American president.
Reflecting firstly on how artistic expression represents cultural values is I feel, based on my reading and research, that art is a reflection on our individual cultures and our cultures directly influence the art. For the Mexican muralists their heritage was vitally important to them and murals emerged as a form of art reflecting the way they wished to be defined in much the same way as any culture the world over uses their art to display their cultural identity and this has happened since before language was even developed.
My tutor then asked the following questions:
- What is the goal of art? Art has no one single goal – in different eras and centuries it meant different things including promoting the stories of the bible to the illiterate poor in past centuries and moving forward as a way of getting the message across regarding a certain political or social movement or just simply to record every day life as an artist witnessed. Throughout this course I have come to the conclusion, based on my reading, that the goal of art was to somehow inform the viewer about something whether it was a portrait, particularly before the invention of photography, a landscape, a biblical scene or a mythological scene with a moral message or a still life with all the hidden iconography. However some art is just purely done for aesthetic purposes and here I think of the floral works of art although even they convey a message about the time in which they were painted.
- To what extent is art supposed to be autonomous and separated from everyday life? I don’t think it is separate from every day life, or at least it isn’t in our modern era – art is a part of life everywhere you look with digital art of all forms and artists of all genres and also with the proliferation of more traditional forms of art such as paintings and sculpture which can be seen everywhere from your local town centre to the park and the museums, homes and shops or places of worship. In historical terms art was more separated due to artists holding different levels of status throughout the centuries and this includes the craftsman and the architects as well as the sculptors and painters. However in terms of autonomy I do feel increasingly that art does govern itself and acts independently although historically this was not the case – art and artists have increasingly sought the freedom to be independent of galleries and commissions due in part in this modern era of high commission fees from galleries and increasingly high expenses for exhibitions and art fairs. Artists are having to be independent and find ways of marketing their work which is financially affordable particularly to the proverbial struggling artist. If I consider the word ‘supposed’ in the question art is supposed to be very self governing but the lure of the galleries and exhibitions, despite the expenses or commissions involved, is still irresistible as they are still a way of the general public getting to know your work, as well as securing further commissions, despite the independence that is so desperately craved and it is the galleries and exhibitions that take away the independence of the artist and art. Art is however autonomous, but not separate from everyday life in that it is continually evolving and changing style in tune with the social, political and economic times – as I review the words I have just written I must come to the conclusion that art is not autonomous at all due to the fact it cannot be if it is influenced so much by the world that exists in which it is part of.
- Does art that has a function cross the line from art to propaganda or is there a hazier area between the two? Yes I think art that has a function can cross that line – art has been used as propaganda throughout history if you define ‘propaganda’ to get across a point of view whether political or religious and I immediately think of the art of the Catholic Counter Reformation right up to the work of the Mexican muralists or propaganda posters of the two World Wars. Art that has a function does not necessarily cross that line but yes there can be that hazy border – this piece by Debbie Thornhill, who has given me very kind permission to reproduce her urban sketch, of the Woman’s March in Los Angeles that have took place this weekend in response to President Trump’s election and the feared erosion of women’s rights. I do not feel it is propaganda because it was done as a visual record of that march sketched by an eye witness although it could be conceived as being in that hazy border because it records a political event – I have not asked Debbie if she was a participant or merely an observer because maybe that is where the art crosses the line i.e. if the artist is a direct participant in the event unfolding or the political movement then does the art become propaganda? or if the artist is merely an observer is the art function merely as a visual record? On the other hand David Lowther, who has again given me kind permission to use his ink and collage sketch, has produced a piece of art that has a function in the sense that it records the Manchester Bridgewater Hall as he has seen it – it is a sketched equivalent of a documentary photograph but it does not cross any line into propaganda and is purely a visual record and that is its sole function.
- Also considering the value of public art in society – what does public art accomplish? Public art can be purely decorative for aesthetic purposes and it can even cause controversy if the public feels the money should be spent elsewhere particularly in the austerity of the modern day. Public art can accomplish speaking of a message or honouring a valued member of the community or in the case of murals it can simply brighten and lift the visual appearance of an area which in turn can be morally uplifting. Public art takes all forms and is seen in every different size that is possible from light installations to small sculptures – it can literally be anything that has been planned and executed with the intention of being seen by the general public and can evoke a range of emotions and responses. As I write I reflect on the National Memorial Arboretum of Staffordshire and the huge variety of memories in different forms – the NMA is a place of peace, reflection and beauty as well has having areas that are sombre but the whole area is one of reflection and somewhere you see a wide variety of groups of people or individuals with a range of emotions exhibited from sorrow through to joy. Public art evokes emotion and it makes people think and look and can convey a message either through subtle means or blatant propaganda.
- If muralism is monumental and public, how are its conditions different from small, private works of art that are made for consumption by the art market and institutions like museums? Muralism is completely different due to the fact it is large and it is public and therefore seen by so many but private works of art may be only seen by very few people depending where they are to be displayed. Works of art purchased by museums may be on display permanently or may be on temporary display in others if loaned out to them and this again must have its own set of conditions. Many smaller works of art may be done without a specific patron and done for the open art market but many are specially commissioned and this is where I note the similarity to the public works of art as the majority will be specifically commissioned due to the size and expense involved – at this point I question whether similar financial amounts could potentially exchange hands despite the difference in scale. The difference in the two differing art genres is when the works of art are done for the aforesaid open market as the artist is working independently and is free to choose the subject and style but if a piece of art is commissioned then the artist may only have the freedom of the initial idea but may be bound by certain rules restricting the freedom to let the work of art evolve during its creation.
As I read through my answers I come to realise how subjective art is and how we view a piece of art can be down to the context we see it in – the urban sketch by Debbie Thornhill of the Women’s March could be deemed to be propaganda if it was seen amongst many others, particularly those who are very supportive of their political cause or it could be seen to be just that visual record if seen with other non-related pieces.
This painting by Lisa Bellfield, a fellow member in a Facebook group and who has also given kind permission to share, was painted the night President Trump got elected and like Debbie’s work could be seen in two entirely different contexts. It is a visual record of the emotions of the artist and this is for me personally the goal of art and it encompasses art into everyday life. The more I become involved in the art world and the more passionate I become about art the more I begin to realise that art should be autonomous but it should not be separate from everyday life because it records every day life. Art can be propaganda in its entirety or it can show the fear of an artist who is worried for the future as a new era in her country’s political future begins – Lisa’s piece would no doubt have been done by someone which ever candidate had been elected. Art can also simply be there to serve the function of recording a visual scene such as the one of by David Lowther, done to raise funds for a new church or community building roof or simply for the fact that a rose is too beautiful not to paint.
As a footnote propaganda art can be seen as a motivational tool or promoting solidarity and in the World War II it encouraged American to buy war bonds which were crucial to their war effort and in the UK the propaganda posters and art encouraged rationing or encouraged people to be discreet in what they said or vigilant in their movements due to safety concerns and it was highly necessary. The word ‘propaganda’ has started to have negative connotations and seen in a very narrow viewpoint and this includes the art but it can be used very much for the good because art is a visual tool that does not need words and at this point I refer back to the stained glass windows and art of the Catholic Counter Reformation or the stained glass windows of even St Mary’s Catholic Church by Pugin here in Derby, which was built much later in the 19th century, which were done to inspire devotion particularly combined with the gargoyles on the outside which told the congregation of the sins outside of the building – effectively those carvings were to scare the people into the church whereby they were confronted by the religious images and in effect all were propaganda!