Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Originality and value: What use is art?

As an artist I have often been brought into discussions about originality and value. There is a tricky question at the centre of this issue, "What value has the arts?" and this is very closely linked to that other question often asked me by my father, "What use is art?"
When I was trying to study philosophy I came across similar questions and found a part answer in Wittgenstein's idea of "The meaning is the use", and the associated concept of "use value".  
So what use is the artwork that I do? Perhaps in asking myself the question and making some sort of attempt to answer it, it might help others, as I know it's a question most artists at one time or another ask themselves.  So here goes nothing... Most of my work begins with me listening to people, so I think I had better start there. This is Mary's* story, told to me a few weeks ago.

Mary has been having nightmares, she can’t sleep and she wants to know what her dreams are about. She has asked her local priest and he has told her that these are only dreams and that she shouldn’t worry.  She finally tells her dream to the artist and his wife, she knows that these are people that will listen to dreams and take them seriously.
Mary has been dreaming of a bleak office type space, it is full of bustling about people and they are all white. She has turned up in this place to make a complaint directly to God. She wants to know why he has stolen her charisma and why he hasn’t given her any qualifications.
At first she cant find God, but she is directed to a huge desk, so big she cant see who is sitting behind it but she can feel his presence and she believes it is God behind the desk. “Why” she demands, “have you stolen my charisma?” “Because”, replies God, “if you had had charisma alongside all your other talents no boy would have been safe from you, you would have broken all the men’s hearts and I couldn’t allow that”.
Mary remembers the time when she was the fastest girl around, she ran everywhere and one day she was picked to run for her school in the local races. ‘Three speed grey pigeon’ she was called at the time, and she had a special boyfriend, one that loved to watch her run and who always expected her to win all her races, and she prided herself that she would always win for him. But on the day of the race, she wasn’t feeling well and as soon as the race started she fell over and cut her knee. It bled heavily and she never recovered, the race was lost and so was her boyfriend. She still remembers the shame of that day, letting everyone down and now she knows why. It was God taking away her charisma, and that was the day he did it.
She now wants to know why she has been given no qualifications for all the work she did in that school, but God is no longer replying, instead a very elegant white woman is standing there and she tells Mary that she must go now and that she hasn’t got permission to be there.
Mary then tells us that everywhere surrounding this dream is a ‘nothingness’, so she can’t go anywhere but into this nothingness and it’s then that she wakes up because she is frightened.
I ask Mary if she has been worried by the Windrush stories on the news and she tells us that she came over to England from St Kitts as one of the Windrush people. That’s why she has no paperwork. Her husband is very ill and her grandson has been finding it hard to get work. Her priest had been telling the congregation not to worry and that it would all be sorted out and that they should trust in the will of the Lord but she doesn’t really believe him.  Her son comes over to see us and after apologising for his mother’s dreams, tells us a long story of how difficult it has been over the years to get things done as a family because of the lack of certain proofs of identity.
Two days after Mary told us the story her son comes to tell us she has been taken into hospital, she has had a stroke.
Stories like Mary’s are common, especially in an area of the city where everyone comes from somewhere else. There is a shape to everything, and Mary’s is that of a wonderful ‘Three speed grey pigeon’, no matter that she is now an old white haired woman in her late 70s, she has a presence and a grace of movement that belies her age, her skin glows and she wears her carefully chosen clothes with grace and carries herself with pride. 
All communities are full of stories, but without someone to listen to them and to shape them into images the stories fade away with people’s lives.
If Mary’s story is to have any meaning beyond what it means to her, it needs to find a shape outside of the immediate community and if the collected stories of the community as a whole are to be preserved they need to find a shape as well. The feeling tone of Chapeltown, and this is where Mary has now lived for many years, is a layered history of immigration, Jews, Irish, Eastern Europeans, Caribbean, Indian etc. every community bringing stories of the past and stories of arrival and stories of life in a new place.

Mary's story is one of many stories that I have heard over the years and her story is now lodged in my head waiting for some sort of outlet, so that I can pass it on in a sort of Chinese whisper sort of way. Everything for me is a translation. Mary had to translate her dreams into a story, I have had to retranslate my memories of her story into a written text and at some point I will re-translate something from the feeling tone of her experience into an image.  For someone that draws, stories need a place to settle into, what I call a geography of the imagination, and that geography is found by making drawings as I walk the streets of Chapeltown. More stories are collected as I make further drawings and engage people in conversations as I do so. Each time I hear a story the map of the imagination expands, sometimes a story might be from Europe and at another time from South America. The traces and lines of all the different stories are important to the imaginative development of another world, some stories will have come from my reading of both fact and fiction, some from the media and others from talking to people or just observing what goes on, until within my head a series of potential drawings will be starting to be visualised, and then as they are put down onto paper they will be reshaped again as they emerge into a world of ink or pencil or paint. An imaginary town may grow within the suburb of a real city, finding itself located within an imaginary map that looks very like an actual map, the one dependent on the other, the harsh reality of the day to day gradually becoming a fairytale, but like all fairytales it may have a dark core that belongs to the reality out of which it emerges.

All the various elements in the drawing above have been developed in response to stories heard, things seen and events experienced, however they have now been poetically refashioned into a mythic landscape, one that is centred on an impossible tower, an image that was designed as an allegorical response to being told that after living in Chapeltown for a while all those hopes and desires that someone had before they arrived now seemed hollow promises of a bright future, the towers of the city were not full of riches, but were impossible mirages. 

So what use is it to make an image like this? I would argue that in the same way a fairy tale contains within it something of the subconscious, something about the way things are that we don't always want to confront, so images like this become entry points into conversations and meditations on what the world is like. Not as answers to questions, that is perhaps for politicians and not as some sort of sociological study, but as a poetic image, and if it is argued poetry has no use, then perhaps this type of work doesn't have a use either, but I would hope that by providing a window within which people can take a step backwards from reality, they may be able to somehow see it more clearly and in that step backwards a use value is born.

What this has to do with originality and value is that there is a need to find a shape for the information behind the drawings, a shape that you could call the drawing's 'subconscious' and in finding that shape a certain originality is needed, especially if there is no existing form that will fit. However originality in itself would not appear to be the most important thing, sometimes the forms developed by earlier artists are the right fit for what I want to say and if so I see no harm in using them. As to value, it would seem that there are various ways of looking at that. One is that some people will value the drawings I make because they help them to experience the world by providing them with a means to take that one step backwards from it, the drawings give them an entry point into thinking about the world in a different way. The second is that of monetary value and that is something only conferred by those that can make those sorts of decisions, art dealers, collectors and people involved with the art market. The art market rarely dips its toes into the local waters of a place like Leeds, so it is unlikely that the things I do will ever be given the validity of monetary value, but that doesn't mean that one shouldn't bother to make art. The job of trying to communicate something is one that you can always do better and every time you make something you can hope on the one hand that something of value is communicated and on the other that even if it isn't it may be that what you did do has helped you think about how to shape a new communication in just that bit better a fashion. Like all conversations sometimes they are boring, sometimes of no apparent value, but occasionally you will have a conversation that changes your life. 

It could be argued that I have no business making the art I do in an area like Chapeltown, an area where most of the people who live there see themselves as part of the African diaspora. I think of myself as someone who's own story rubs up alongside a series of stories from somewhere else, but even though these stories don't refer to my own background and ethnicity, they affect me and make me think. So I respond to stories and shape them according to my own predilections but I suspect that is what everybody does, we will all interpret the world through the colour of the lens that sits over our own eyes. We can never be objective, but we can emphasise with other people, other animals or things and attempt to feel what they feel, understand what they understand or simply be like they are and in that empathy lies perhaps the main reason for making images.
So what use is art? Perhaps it is to give a shape to feelings, emotions, observations and thoughts that can become entry points for others to develop their own awareness. These shapes in turn allow us to develop links between ourselves because they help us to create stories about things we were not aware of before. In the stories we tell we shape the world, in the shapes we make we refashion the way the world is seen and as we do we create new possibilities for how we will engage with whatever it is that is out there to be engaged with. Art in effect becomes an intermediary between one thing and another. In religious art it can work as an intermediary between the material world and the spiritual world, a connection between humans and gods, and in a more materialistic culture it can operate as a communication channel between speakers of different verbal languages or between those that inhabit different cultures. Art makes us more connected with things, but it doesn't tell people what to do with this awareness, something else will always step in to fill that gap, power abhors a vacuum.

*Names have been changed to protect people's identities. 

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