Rationale for approach to this module (PERSONAL APPROACH TO DRAWING).
I am currently on a part-time art degree. I am on my final module of a second level course – the equivalent to the second half of the second year, were it full time. Occasionally I find myself questioning whether this BA is an activity I should spend so much time on, when the world is teetering on the verge of chaos. I begin to feel I should be spending more time as an activist. The renowned theoretical physician Professor Stephen Hawking, predicted in 2017 that our planet could support life for only another 100 years. He is not alone in this belief and some have suggested a far shorter time span. If we take Hawking’s prediction – we have now 96 years. Only yesterday (August 9th 2021) the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change published its latest (6th) report warning us that climate change is ‘widespread, rapid and intensifying’. https://www.ipcc.ch/2021/08/09/ar6-wg1-20210809-pr/
Today on the front page of the UK main stream press we see horrifying photographs of wildfires raging across Greece. As I write, fires also burn in Turkey, Italy, Russia, north and south America, south and central Africa. We also see other problems across the globe, some associated with climate change, some not – war in Ethiopia, food shortage, increased migration, refugee crises, extinction of many species. Even worse, in my view, is the murder by humans of 3 billion non-humans daily. In addition torture of non-humans is inflicted on an unimaginable scale – yesterday a truck load of beagle puppies, bred in captivity, were escorted by police to Harrogate, where they will be tortured to death in the name of human ‘science’. I agree with Isaac Bashevis Singer (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature) and survivor of the Nazi invasion of Poland, when he wrote that ‘In relation to them (other animals) all people are Nazis. For the animals it is an eternal Treblinka.’ (Singer, 2011 version, p. 271) and ‘The smugness with which man could do with other creatures as he pleased exemplified the most extreme racist theories, the principle that might is right .’ I also agree with him that ‘As long as people will shed the blood of innocent creatures there can be no peace, no liberty, no harmony between people. slaughter and justice cannot dwell together.’
I have taught about Eco justice as part of the MA programme that I lead. Eco justice is not only concerned with climate change but with damage to the world’s ecology generally and with the fundamental issue of how human beings have been taught to view ‘nature’, which includes non-human animals, human animals and themselves and I believe that human beings can only torture and murder others by becoming dissociated from themselves – so becoming incapable of love.
I am not primarily interested in an art practice that explores my childhood or my psychology, or is mainly ‘playful’ without linking these to my social context; or, particularly, an art practice concerned with the process of art to the detriment of its subject. I feel such a practice ignores our social situation and I sometimes wonder whether it goes further and colludes with individualism and neoliberalism. (Interestingly five months after writing this I have come across an argument against a focus on process alone, in the writing of Deniz Tekiner’s who critiques Formalist Art Criticism (2006):
By its support of the market apparatus and its invalidation of social concerns as they are expressed through art, formalism upheld conservative agendas. Limiting its attentions to form alone, it obscured the relationships of art to social contexts and the socially critical implications of art… Greenberg (along with Stephen Fry and Roger Bell) believed that the subjects of the respective arts should be their respective media. Paintings should be about paint, and sculpture about the materials of sculpture…It follows that politics and narrative, as extraneous to the art media, debase the purity of visual art. Formalists evaluate art according to physical qualities such as color, size, shape, line, texture, and so on, and treat the ideational content of works as irrelevant. They view themselves as being mainly protectors and upholders of high aesthetic standards.Tekiner, 2006: 31
And, in the same book, wring about Piet Mondrian, on page 39 I read:
His (mondrian’s) theory identifies ”individualism” as the root of all evil in society and ”universalism” as the good which humanity is destined to realize. Consistent with his objection to individualism, Mondrian rejected the Romantic and the expressionist notions that art should express personal feelings. He sought to overcome self-expression in a simple language of symbols, represented by horizontals, verticals, and primary colours.Tekiner, 2002, p:39
In The Function of Criticism, Terry Eagleton (1984) argues that contemporary literary theory, even when supposedly anti-authoritarian, supports established structures of power through its claim that there are no epistemic facts, its social insulation, its intellectual abstraction from everyday life, leading to its uselessness as any form of social criticism.
I am increasingly interested in the opposing idea, expressed by Kathe Kollwitz that ‘art should serve a purpose other than itself.’ I hope somehow to contribute to thinking about these issues through my work.
I will attempt to keep a research question in mind during the module. This question is: ‘What can I learn about art-research as a contribution to critical social engagement on this module? ‘ and particularly ‘what can I learn about Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) as a socially engaged drawing practice?’ (For discussion of Art as Research and specifically drawing as an approach to CDA see my blog ‘Drawing as a socially engaged research practice (DSER)’: https://susanaskewpad.wordpress.com/drawing-as-a-socially-engaged-research-practice/(opens in a new tab))
Michael Foucault’s words on critique are highly pertinent:
Critique … must be an instrument for those who fight, resist, and who no longer want what is. It must be used in processes of conflict, confrontation and resistance attempts… It is not a stage in a program. It is a challenge to the status quo.(Michel Foucault, ‘Roundtable, 20 May 1978’)
During this module, I would also like to think more about how my work is viewed. I do not think that the 6-10 ‘best’ and ‘finished’ works we send off for assessment does justice to an approach that is concerned either with social justice issues or with a research-based approach to making . Nor would hanging one or more of these ‘finished’ objects in a gallery be useful. I wonder whether showing the outcomes of art tends to encourage a superficial engagement with the surface of things – e.g. patterns and shapes, colours and compositions (a formalist approach – see critique of this by Tekiner (2006) above). These ways of looking at art objects do not support making visible the thinking involved in the research and development for any project. It seems to me that without the visibility of the work leading up to any drawings that could be considered ‘finished’, it is unlikely that discourses can be apparent. Or that any viewer can be invited to consider the social critique offered through the work. I’m wondering how the whole blog for a project can be shared as the ‘finished’ work or ‘outcome’ (rather than a specific drawing). There has of course been much criticism of the idea of the object and spectatorship. I will include some of this critique in my writing on the DSER blog.
Finally, for my critical review on the last module I wrote an ‘Art Manifesto’. This includes more detailed thinking about many of the things I have touched on above and in it I also write about Critical Discourse Analysis.
I clarified in my ‘art manifesto’ that critical discourse analysis is different from protest or activist art, and I wrote that I am not, currently, interested in doing protest or activist art (although, as I wrote in the first paragraph here, I think activism is important and increasingly spend time on it – I just do not want to be involved in activism as an art form). Even so, in the feedback to my last module I was encouraged to look again at protest and activist art and specifically at performance poetry, collaborative and participation art. As I have emphasised, Critical Discourse Analysis is not a methodology that lends itself to community, collaborative, or participatory work because it is not fundamentally concerned with ’empowering’ others through involvement (and whether or not anyone can ’empower others’ is a moot point). Most importantly, the goals of Art as Research and performance or activist art or participatory art are quite different and stem from different interests. Art as Research is concerned with increased knowledge and understanding. Performance or activist art is concerned with either ‘helping’ or ‘changing’ the participants. ‘Help’ and ‘change’ in my view raises many issues about power and control `(I need to think more about this – obviously I would like any drawing I do, that has a CDA element to change how people view something). However I will bear the feedback in mind during this module and see how I feel about it at the end, as well as coming back to it on the DSER blog.
I’d also like to come back to my ‘Art Manifesto’ at the end of this new module and see how my views have changed about ‘Cave Art’. In particular, it does not specifically focus on the difference between research in art and art as research and I think this could be added. I have given a link to this Art Manifesto, called ‘Cave Art’ below.
TO FINISH THIS SECTION HERE ARE SOME THEMES I AM INTERESTED IN EXPLORING ON THIS MODULE. In the top left circle (black writing) I am concerned with the shift we see across the world away from some vestiges of democracy toward totalitarianism and the means by which totalitarian governments achieve compliance. In the top right circle (blue writing) I am capturing ideas relating to how the populace internalise their compliance and ‘console’ themselves for their loss of freedom through damaging obsessions. In the bottom circle, the words in yellow relate to ideas about where the world totalitarian path appears to be leading – this relates to technological developments that distance humans further from other nature, are leading to development of the machine/human interface and human augmentation and the ethics relating to this. In the centre in red I write ‘The end of love’: to me all these developments damage the human capacity for empathy, relationship and love.
I hope to explore different facets of this ‘map’ in different parts of the module. For example exercise one, (part one) relates to the ‘blue’ side of the map. The assignment for part one relates to the ‘black’ side. The parallel project relates to the ‘yellow’ side.
17 January 2022
Five months after writing the above I am feeling dissatisfied with the direction I am heading – professed here and in my ‘art Manifesto’. A niggling voice is telling me that some of my earlier work is more satisfying than my stated intentions in the last couple of years . I am beginning to wonder if work that focuses on social critique alone lacks emotional resonance, both for me and, another viewer. Perhaps it is intellectual and ’cold’ and too rational (perhaps it falls into the very trap of rationalisation that the romantics were critiquing – see below.) I think this concern was triggered by reading Richard Powell’s novel ‘Overstory’, which is very much a novel of ideas, and his quote that I use in the strap line on my Home page. He suggests a false dualism between novels of politics and ideas, and novels of characters and feelings. Instead he argues, feelings about our experiences lead to ideas. I think the same must be true for visual art. I’d like to add another research question for the module: ’How can I synthesise social critique and emotional experience in my work?’
It has also been very helpful to read ‘Modern Art and the Romantic Vision’ by Deniz Tekiner (2000). Tekiner is interested in tracing romantic features in modern and contemporary art. He acknowledges romanticism is complex and difficult to define, especially since there are different types, but draws on Max Weber to identify an ‘ideal type’. He goes on to distinguish 8 defining features and summarises them as follows:
…these features constitute a critique of the disenchantment and the rationalisation of the modern world, of the alienation of nature, and the subordination of individuals to an emerging “collective mechanical life.” They also comprise a prescription for ameliorating those conditions by evoking a heightened sense of spiritual realities and of connectedness to nature.Tekiner, 2000:6)
Disenchantment of the world is described by Weber as a general reduction of human capacity to feel, along with degeneration of specific capacities to feel wonder and awe. This disenchantment arose concurrently with the emergence of ‘instrumental rationality’ following Englightenment. Instrumental rationality is our dominant meaning orientation that drives actions and it prioritises a means-end culture that is focused on how to achieve measurable utilitarian goals as ends, as opposed to ‘values instrumentality’, which seeks to realise abstract goals such as truth, or moral goodness as ends in themselves. Rationalisation is the outcome of instrumental rationality. It is a process in which all human activities are progressively subject to more and more calculation and control by social forces. As the world becomes more rationalised , the needs of individuals are subordinated to the collective imperatives of organisations, relations become more impersonal, and every aspect of life becomes more regimented, routine, monotonous and mechanical. Weber observed in ‘The Protestent Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ that the modern social world is becoming:
..an iron-cage of mechanised petrification, embellished in a sort of convulsive self importance, a world of specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilisation never before achieved.’Weber, 1905, p. 182
Crucially for the German Romanticists of the 18th century it was important to bring about social change through Bildung – the education or ‘character development’ of the individual, and art was seen as a major way to achieve this. German Romanticists, while working for Freedom, Equality and Fraternity, like their contemporaries in France, were horrified by the mass slaughter taking place in the name of these values during the French Revolution. This convinced them that revolutionary change, or political reform, without internal change toward moral transformation was not going to bring about the freedom and spiritual transformation necessary (this rings even more true for me today – 15 March 2022 – two months after writing it since we have a new war in Europe between Russia and the Ukraine that might well be verging on a wider conflagration involving NATO countries – and see around us on a daily basis a mass media focus on changing Russia, as if Russia changing would bring about the desired peace, without every single one of us undergoing the moral transformation that the Romantics thought necessary).
Tekiner’s study of romanticism and art is a sociological one – my first degree and PhD are both within the sociological tradition. I have, since I first read it, resonated with Weber’s critique and I do so now with Tekiner’s application of it to Art. I also see, clearly, that E.M. Forster was seeped in the Romantic tradition that came before him, and that when he wrote The Machine Stops (the focus for so much of my thinking and visual art in the last 4 years), he was perhaps familiar with the writing of Weber, since The Machine Stops, and other of his writing is fundamentally a critique of the mechanisation of human life. The control of human beings and their regimentation/end of Freedom is of course the theme of much other science fiction, including Orwell’s ‘1984’, and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’, and it is a theme that torments me as we become more in thrall to science and technology and progress down the route of human augmentation. Many, many films have also been made on this theme, for example Blade Runner. I am not sure if the mechanisation of life, and the end of freedom, has been to the fore for visual artists, but it is certainly an abiding theme for me, and I will research to find whether I am mistaken about its importance for other visual artists.
I feel after reading Tekiner, that at heart I am a Romanticist, in Tekiner’s sense of the concept, and it is helpful to understand this.
It is also important to understand how Romantic ideas can help us understand power imbalances generally, but particularly in relation to the environmental crisis I started by writing about. The German Romantics were also critical of the Enlightenment way of thinking that separated Man from other nature and teaches that people are superior and can therefore use and abuse other Nature for their own ends. Instead the German Romantics argued that Mankind were part of Nature but that Nature was a far bigger encompassing whole that Man could never fully understand:
…the ideas that the human self is detached from nature, able to stand outside and comprehensively survey and master nature—are a major strand of the modern, Enlightenment tradition of thought and are entangled with the mainstream of modern science. These ideas are also plausibly regarded as one source of the contemporary ecological crisis (as I indicated earlier). To that extent, if we are to address and respond to this crisis adequately then we need to re-orient ourselves intellectually, and to rethink and reimagine what it would be to be reconciled with the natural world, in the far-reaching way that the Romantics attempt.Stone, 2013.
Eagleton, Terry, (2005) The Function of Criticism. Verso.
Forster, E. M. (first published 1909). The Machine Stops. Penguin Classics.
Foucault, M. (1978). Roundtable.
Singer, Bashevis, I. (reprint 2011), The Letter Writer, in Collected Stories. London: Penguin Modern Classics.
Stone, A. 2013. Alienation from Nature and Early German Romanticism. in Ethical Theory and Moral Practice: an International Forum. July. Springer. ISSN 1386-2820
Tekiner, D. (2000) Modern Art and the Romantic vision. Maryland: University Press of America
Tekiner, D. (2006) Formalist Art Criticism and the Politics of Meaning. Social Justice, Vol. 33, No. 2 (104), Art, Power, and Social Change (2006), pp. 31-44
Wang, Q. et al. (2017) Arts-Based Methods in Socially Engaged Research Practice: a classification framework, in Art Research International: a transdisciplinary journal. Volume 2. Issue 2.
Weber, M. (first published 1905) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Schribneer.