Thursday, 8 September 2011

What can be expected from art?

It sometimes seems that too much is expected of art. Especially now. The accepted truths that it will provide salvation or perhaps even revolution in troubled times are often repeated.

And it also seems that not enough is expected of art. Especially now. High expectations are shunned in favour of accepted truths: that art’s purpose is as Matisse said, to be an armchair for tired businessmen; that art is merely a high-end commodity and an interior design solution; or perhaps that art is a career opportunity for the makers, curators, writers and their entourages who are supported by its various revenues, support structures and reputational economies.

Both these expectations are underwritten by two different understanding of what art works are and what art practice can do. Having taught for several years in an art school, I find that the majority of students’ expectations for their practice, at least when they begin their studies, rests on two presuppositions which are in simultaneous yet contradictory tension with one another.

On the one hand it’s often claimed that the meaning of works of art lies in their expression of MY feelings, MY culture, and MY politics. In other words it’s thought that works of art give particular expression to an individual subject and their aesthetic, social and political aspirations. This is supported by an expressive theory of art. This means that individual desires for salvation or revolution could be expressed and given form in emancipatory or revolutionary works of art.

On the other hand it’s often claimed that the meaning of works of art is nothing to do with what the individual artist. YOU make of it whatever YOU want, whenever YOU want. Meaning lies instead in the myriad contexts in which art becomes embedded. This is supported by a contextual theory of art in which works of art are in a continual relationship with their contexts and their meanings are open and fluid.

Both of these negate the absolute strangeness and radical muteness of art.

I want to suggest something different. That we can expect a lot from art but not so much that we are disappointed when the world doesn’t change around it.

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