Thursday, 7 April 2016

On Art

A friend and I visited the Tate Modern on the weekend. The last time I was there, London was hosting the Olympic games. My visit then was brief, just a short walk around and a quick photo, like most first-time tourists in the city. This time we went specifically to see the Alexander Calder exhibit. The American sculptor worked mostly with wire, constructing familiar faces and figures and eventually more abstract forms. 


I don't often go to galleries and art exhibitions, which is peculiar given that one of the first things I do in a new city is see the museums and galleries. I suppose it's just something I do to tick things off of my list, to make sure I'm using my time well and not missing out on anything society deems it appropriate one experience in a new city i.e the typical tourist's attitude. 

I also think it's partly due to my minimalist approach to lifelong learning. I have a fixed set of interests, like learning, behaviour, psychology, data science, etc., and I tend to surround myself with stimuli that pique my interests in these areas. The fine arts, though beautiful, have never really inspired in me any thought or action whereby I improve in any of my interest areas and so to save time I minimise the time I spend on what isn't of obvious utility to me.

Perhaps this is a failing on my part. I suppose there are narratives in the arts that reflect on the sciences and philosophy that maybe enable us to interpret our interests from a newer richer more useful point of view. Maybe I just haven't discovered this yet. In all fairness, I do try to spend as much time as I can when I'm at a gallery actually trying to reflect on and interpret what I see in the context of my own interests. 

The problem is, and I have noticed this when I was at the National Portrait Gallery in both London and Edinburgh, is that there are no obvious stories being told or narratives being fed into by the pictures. Yes, there's a bunch of pretty pictures arranged chronologically or by artist on the walls, but after a while they all tend to blend together into a pastiche. I find that I'm not interested in something that holds no value for me because it doesn't seem to rearrange what I already know in a new way that inspires me to act or think differently. 

Perhaps art would make more sense if, like science, exhibitions focused on modelling the work of one or more artists in terms of specific narratives that make sense to the viewer, rather than treating the viewer to a boring history lesson. A case in point would be the recent Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House. I could tell the exhibit designers had a lot of valuable raw content to work with, and they chose to design exhibits in order to fit a number of narratives, though personally I found it a bit left-leaning. Nevertheless, it was interesting.


Which is why I was glad I visited the Alexander Calder exhibit. Unlike my previous underwhelming forays into the world of art, I was able to see not just art itself but expressions of love. Here was a man who truly let himself be inspired by assorted phenomena, many of which are of interest to me, and worked them into what was then a novel medium. This is way more interesting and relevant to me than the evolution of brushstrokes across canvas over the last 500 years in Europe. I'm fascinated by the thought process connoted by humans through physical expressions of things they are interested in, and three dimensional physical objects seem to appropriate this for me in a way that paint doesn't.

Among other things that struck me is how artists tend to come from families with other artists. I wonder if there's room here for an experimental study. If this is true, what moderates the phenomena of a artist emerging from a non-artistic family, apart from genes and interest in the arts? Is it familial support, money, independence, society, culture, stability?

Another thought I had was how frequently artists tend to be inspired by each other. Calder for example was inspired by Piet Mondrian. I'm sure there are other examples.

Calder seems like a guy who loved to play with objects, first wire to denote actual objects, and use them in performances, and later to denote static and then moving abstract images, some of them scientific in nature. I particularly liked this because I was able to draw parallels between Calder and Jan ┼ávankmajer, who worked with claymation and puppets to tell beautiful stories. 

The use of art to reflect scientific phenomena is a separate field in itself, there are so many examples of scientists, programmers, designers, artists and even landscape designers working on science-inspired projects, and these appeal to the geek in me.


We also saw the Performing for the Camera exhibit while we were there. Also very thought provoking, I can still remember that photo of Ai Weiwei breaking a two thousand year old vase, to protest government control. I get it. If your country is corrupt to you, then the objects it uses to symbolise it's apparent greatness mean nothing to you, and a great way to protest this is to destroy that object, similar to flag burning. 

I doubt that many people in a country like India would understand an act like that. Burning the Indian flag would be seen as tantamount to treason or sedition, on the basis that the ideals that the flag represents are indisputable, which is of course false. Nothing is beyond protest. And any attempt to push back and prevent any disagreement with the establishment will only concentrate the opposition. 

You see this happening consistently across history. The status quo is disrupted by an outside group, the two groups struggle until there's a new order which becomes the new establishment which is then challenged and so on. I think countries would benefit from taking the long view.of things, seeing as how everything that is happening now has happened before. A better understanding of power structures and leverage would actually serve to help reduce conflict times and speed up progress.