Very interesting and provoking, with a slightly embattled feel, and quite a narrow focus on the relationship between the artist and his/her work. ‘We’re not here to teach you how to be commercially successful as an artist, and we’re not here to tell you whether your work is good or bad – in fact we’re not really here to teach you at all; the process is one of enablement. Only you can decide what kind of art you want to produce, and whether what you produce is actually art or not, and whether it’s actually any good or not. If we were to tell you to do it this way or that way we’d just be limiting you. And what do we know? We’re essentially in the same boat as you are. It’s a journey of exploration for all of us, and it’s not about technical know-how, it’s about… well, we don’t really know what it’s about. You tell us. As for making a living out of your art, we’ll leave that question to one side. Courses which try to teach people how to make money out of their art just end up encouraging them to produce marketable crap.’

When I was at university we were encouraged to read a book by M H Abrams called The Mirror and the Lamp. I don’t think it was actually on the syllabus, but we all read it anyway. He was an American, and I just learnt by looking him up on Wikipedia that he only died in April this year, at the age of 102. Anyway, it’s a great book, and in brief it’s argument is that up until the Romantics all theoretical discussion about art started from the idea that it’s first function is mimesis – to hold up a mirror to the world in which we find ourselves. So art was always discussed in terms of its mimetic qualities, and if you wanted to say that a work of art was good you had to argue along those lines. Some of the arguments got pretty far-fetched – it’s actually very difficult to argue that Homer’s value lies in his accurate representation of the objective world, for example; and it’s even more problematic to talk about the mimetic qualities of music – but nevertheless that was the accepted norm of artistic theory.

Then along came the Romantics, and proposed a different idea entirely: that art represented the world as illuminated by the lamp-like genius or imagination of the artist. What lay behind this, of course, was a
breakdown of faith in the external world as the embodiment of a fixed reality, which would be perceived the same by everyone who wasn’t mad. The Romantics were fascinated by madness, drug-taking, heightened awareness, visionary disorders of the senses and so forth, because all of these things were closely linked to artistic inspiration and the power of the imagination to transform the mundane into the transcendent. They saw the external world not as a fixed reality that was agreed upon by all civilised and reasonable people, but as something more disputed: in fact they tended to regard the ‘conventional’ view of external reality as a monstrous illusion which hid the truth from view, but which could be punctured by artists and other visionaries by virtue of their imaginative powers.

Abrams draws a diagram with the work of art at the centre, and the Universe, the Audience and the Artist arranged round it in a triangle. He argues that different artistic theories place the emphasis on different corners of this triangle, and point up the relationship between art and one of the ‘outer’ elements at the expense of the other two. Mimetic Theories are interested in the relationship between the Work and the Universe; Pragmatic Theories are interested in the relationship between the Work and the Audience; and Expressive Theories are interested in the relationship between the Work and the Artist. He actually adds a fourth category, Objective Theories, which are just interested in close reading of the Work. To me, the triangle looks short of at least one ‘outer’ element – the Medium – which would help us to account for Modernism and Structuralism; but it’s a useful piece of analysis all the same, because it gives us a chance to get some perspective on different artistic theories, what they’re emphasising and what they might be missing.

Now, to apply all this to your 22 Theses, it seems to me that their emphasis is very much on the relationship between the artist and the work of art, with a kind of back-door acknowledgement that the external world might be important, via the statement that ‘a keen interest in the world’ is ‘helpful more often than not’; but a firm slamming of the door on the relationship between artist and audience, in the shape of Thesis 18 –

‘Self-imposed, and/or market-imposed narrowness or homogeneity of output is, generally, not finding a voice but voluntarily relinquishing one.’

(I’m not sure I agree with Thesis 18, by the way. For one thing it seems to contradict Thesis 12 –

‘Work made under constraints of time, materials, theme, constitutes the artist’s five finger exercises.’

Surely working within the constraints of a particular genre, or with a particular audience in mind – let’s say the under-5s – might be a productive constraint too? I can also think of examples that contradict the thesis – lots of examples in the shape of children’s picture-books, stop-frame animations, Shakespeare’s Macbeth (which was written because James I had just come to the throne, and he was interested in witches and his own genealogy), sitcoms, Charlie Chaplin movies, or, let’s say, Herriman’s Krazy Kat cartoon-strip.)

In some way the most interesting Thesis in the collection is No 3 –

‘When we’re presented with a piece of work that seems banal, clichéd, badly executed, overly sentimental, gratuitously unpleasant, that makes our hackles rise, that seems like an affront to everything we value,it’s at that moment we should most entertain the possibility that we might be mistaken. This will be an occasion to identify some common first principles and to work slowly and carefully forwards from them.’ 

which could be paraphrased as ‘Don’t go round criticising other people’s work, because the chances are your criticism says more about your own narrowness of outlook than it does about the piece under discussion’.

Well, maybe. For one thing, what would your reaction be if you were presented with a piece of work that was openly anti-Semitic, or that represented wife-beating or female genital mutilation in a favourable
light? Would your first reaction be to ‘entertain the possibility that you might be mistaken’? I can think of various works of art that have obnoxious attitudes or values in them, but which nevertheless remain valuable as works of art – Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, for example, which is regarded by some critics as racist; Eliot’s Gerontion, which has a couple of anti-Semitic lines; or Nabokov’s Lolita, which can be regarded as paedophile. The relationship between a work of art and the moral, social or political values it embodies is often a complex one, and there are no simple answers, but as a teacher, if one of your students presents you with an extremely well-executed and artistically powerful poster or video which incites the audience to murder all unbelievers, I’m not sure that your first duty would be to entertain the possibility that you might be mistaken in your moral repugnance.

But for another thing, I don’t think that negative criticism is necessarily a bad thing. It’s a commonplace, when discussing this point, to make a distinction between ‘constructive criticism’ and mere
‘trashing’ or ‘rubbishing’. Constructive criticism is okay – ‘I like this bit but I think you could have used a more emphatic shade of green over here’ – whereas just slagging off someone else’s work is unacceptable – ‘This is so awful that it makes me want to vomit just thinking about it’. I do agree with this in principle, but from my own personal experience, as someone whose work has been roundly slagged off in various forums over the years, I have to say that a good slagging-off can be quite bracing now and again. It makes you think to yourself ‘Am I really just producing a load of rubbish, or is there some value in what I’m doing?’ – and if you come through that process convinced that what you’re doing is genuinely worthwhile, you actually feel better than you did before. In some ways the most unhelpful feedback is the really positive stuff – ‘This is brilliant! I love it!’ – because it confuses your own internal critic, your awareness that there are actually flaws in the piece that other people are lavishing with praise; and it also makes you feel reluctant to produce something radically different, in case the people who liked your earlier work feel disappointed.

Thirdly, criticism of other people’s work is an important aspect of your development as an artist. You often define your direction of travel as an artist by identifying flaws in the work of other artists and deciding that you want to avoid them in your own. The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, for example, came out as a mock-documentary partly because John Lennon and Richard Lester were determined not to reproduce the boy-meets-girl and let’s-do-the-show-right-here cliches of the Elvis and Cliff Richard films. Imagist poetry was partly defined by its reaction against the vagueness of imagery in Symbolism. Wordworth’s desire to use ‘the language of common men’ in his poetry was explicitly contrasted with the artificial diction employed by Augustans such as Pope and Dryden. Et cetera and so forth.

Which isn’t to say that art classes ought to be a free-for-all, with everybody having a go at everybody else’s work. But going back to my University days, one of the most interesting exercises we did as
students was to bring what we regarded as bad poems to a class and try to explain what we thought was bad about them. We spent most of our time talking about ‘great’ literature and what was supposed to be great about it – doing the opposite was unexpectedly challenging, and unexpectedly good for us.

Anyway, very interesting theses; but those, for what they’re worth, are my thoughts.

Edward Picot, writer, artist, argumentator and swot