Who even listens to this?
Sorry, never got round to it. Muddle. Just start writing. Stream of consciousness, maybe more of a stubborn drizzle of consciousness, fogging up the windscreen of the everyday. Keeps getting wiped away, no time to pull over and turn the engine off and just let the rain fall.
Conversationalism. That’s “-ism” as in “Socialism”. A Proper Thing. A way of looking at the world. Everything is conversation, I think. Particularly with art. You’re constantly trying to get someone to see things the way you see them, and if they don’t, it’s either frustrating or fascinating, or both. You have to translate, and compromise, and come to agreements. It’s maddening, as a human being, for no one to understand you. We need to be understood just like we need to sleep. It soothes us, and it keeps us going.
Putting two artworks on a wall next to each other, that’s conversation. A dusty pair of men’s slippers next to a portrait of a sad old woman. But where does that conversation happen? Not in the slippers, unless dust mites are far more intelligent than we give them credit for. It’s in your subconscious, isn’t it? Two inanimate objects are talking to each other inside your head, and you’re listening in. You glance from one to the other, and hear the little whisper: “ooh, it was ‘er ‘usband”. Because they can’t just be slippers, can they? They have to have belonged to someone. There has to be a human connection there. They can’t just be objects, they have to be things. There has to be a little bit of someone’s soul bound up in them. Otherwise they’re not important. They don’t matter. They’re just matter.
But what if you can’t listen in? What if you don’t understand the language? What if you don’t care? Many, many people are quite happy to accept the fact that they aren’t “arty” people. They look at a Rauschenberg and wonder “what’s it all about?” Or more to the point, they don’t wonder. They scoff, call it a load of arty farty bollocks, and go about their day. They don’t hear the quiet little conversations in their heads, and it has no impact on their lives. Actually, none of that happens, because they didn’t pay the 16 bloody quid for the ticket in the first place.
So who does contemporary art talk to? The artist themselves, sure. It’s self-expression, it’s identity, it’s a deeply personal conversation with the world. It nourishes the self. Who else does it talk to? Those “arty” people. People who have made it their business to speak the language of contemporary art, and have a fascination with the way that artists choose to share parts of themselves with those who will look and listen. It’s empathy, it’s the human condition to want to understand other humans. If you choose to creatively express yourself through artistic means, then you’re probably going to be more invested in what other people have to say through similar means. Amy Adams said it in Arrival. The language you speak affects who you are as a person. It changes your nature. Speak someone else’s language, and you’ll start to see the world the way they see the world.
But who else does it talk to? How many taxi drivers have you had to try and justify or explain your artistic career to? How many of your friends nod vaguely when you tell them what your project is about? How many pieces of contemporary art have changed the world? I mean really, properly changed the course of history? Kurt Schwitters reckoned artists held up a mirror to the times, but what good is a mirror if no one stops to peer into it?
I think that a different conversation needs to happen. If contemporary art is trying to talk to the world, then the world needs to talk back. A language needs to be invented, if it doesn’t exist already. What if, at school, instead of (or as well as) singing hymns every morning, kids got out their paintbrushes and painted how they were feeling that day? And then showed their feelings to the other kids? And then talked about it? It would become natural, wouldn’t it? To see meaning and emotion in the scribbles of a child, which is what some abstract art is so dismissively brandished as? After a few years of that, I’m willing to bet you could show said child a series of Rothko paintings and they’d be able to tell you which best matches their mood that day, or the mood of their mother or father. How would that change the way that people learn to visually express themselves, and recognise such expressions in other people? Maybe then you’d get taxi drivers and estate agents flocking to the latest exhibitions in a search for empathetical reassurance about a broken marriage, or feelings of intangible despondency in a world without meaning, rather than just those “arty” people. Art wouldn’t just be the mirror, it would be the world. It would be necessary.
That is, if they could afford the Tate card.