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Being a writer, I like to think I am an artist, of sorts. My craft relies on me communicating something to other people in the hope that they get something out of it. If what I’ve produced needs to be explained to someone, or if they even fail to recognise that it is trying to communicate something in the first place, then I’ve failed.
Admittedly, as a writer I have something of a head-start because what I produce comes in the form of a book, which everyone recognises. To a certain extent, as soon as they see the eternal form they know to expect a written work of fiction or non-fiction.
Long-term readers of this blog will know that I’ve already taken a pop at modern poetry, which in my experience all too often simply isn’t poetic. By that I mean that if much of it weren’t set out in a creative way with lines indented in all sorts of fancy ways, few people would realise it was meant to be poetry. At best it would be indistinguishable from brief prose, and at worst I’m reminded of the kind of notes and jottings I make for future reference on scraps of paper when I get an idea for a story.
I think I’ve also talked about modern art, especially installation art and performance art, in the same vein. But whether I have or haven’t, I’m going to do so today! I have just been reading that the British artist Rachel Whiteread has very commendably criticised what she calls public ‘plop art’, that is sculptures in town squares and the like that ‘doesn’t bear any relationship to anything else’ and which ‘people don’t even notice’. We could probably all cite examples.
The problem is, Ms Whiteread’s main claim to artistic fame comes from making a concrete cast of a house. Her other triumphs include a plain box featuring twenty-four switches (which was ‘untitled’, making it even more profound, naturally) and 14,000 white polythene boxes. I’m not sure what any of this means, which of course makes me a bit of a philistine.
Or does it? My definition of art, which I think is a reasonable one and one that many artists of many different kinds would agree with, is that it should at the very least communicate something to others without the benefit of an explanation as to what it means, and especially without the need in the first place for the beholder to be informed that it actually is is art.
For me this is the very minimum requirement for something that could realistically be defined as ‘art’, but I would also add that for art to be great, there needs to be a high degree of skill, of craftsmanship – to an extent that most of us could admire but couldn’t hope to attain ourselves.
Casts of houses, unmade beds (Tracey Emin) and cows cut in half (Damien Hirst) fail on all counts. They are based on ideas that on an intellectual or emotional level anyone over the age of 6 could come up with, and which anyone of around 10 or more could execute. But, and this is the key poiont, if they were viewed out of context – not in a gallery or as art prize entries – then few if anyone would ever even twig they were looking at a work of art.
I’m not a fan of Picasso and I’m only slightly keener on the sculptor Henry Moore – but if I saw something by them I would know it was art and I could also recognise the talent behind it even if it wasn’t to my taste. It wouldn’t matter if I came across it in the middle of field, in a rubbish skip, or lying by the side of the road. I would know I was looking at art, I could appreciate the technical ability of the person who produced it, and I would also probably be able to read into it at least some of what the artist intended me to discern.
How can you call yourself an artist if you or others need to explain not only what your work means, but that it even is art?
Today I bring you the cautionary tale of Edmund Dolling. Genealogy is one of my interests, and I recently discovered a website called BillionGraves.com, where you send in photographs of gravestones to add to their growing database.
I’ve already added numerous pictures from my local churchyard, but I’m currently celebrating my birthday with family and friends in Wiltshire and I couldn’t resist taking some in the lovely churchyard of St Michael the Archangel, Mere. The very first gravestone I came to was, like many of the others, too weathered to read – but luckily there was plaque beneath it with a transcription, taken when the stone was in better condition.
It commemorated the aforesaid Edmund Dolling, who was just 21 when he died from smallpox. But what intrigued me was a reference to him having ‘designedly’ taken the disease. He died in 1737 and I knew that Edward Jenner didn’t introduce inoculation till the end of that century, so I wondered what the story behind Edmund’s demise could be.
A bit of research revealed that although Jenner successfully demonstrated that giving cowpox to people could ward off smallpox, the general concept of ‘like curing/preventing like’ had been around for some time before that and had come from China and the Middle East. It was known as variolation, and the idea was to take some pus or a scab from a person who had survived smallpox and introduce it into the system of an unaffected person via a scratch or small cut. It actually could work, and attracted great interest because smallpox was a much-feared disease. But, not surprisingly, results were very hit and miss and, as poor Edmund discovered, experimentation could backfire with fatal results.
Although I’m grateful that the epitaph tells us Edmund’s story, I can’t help thinking it’s a shame that he has such a stern, censorious memorial. Who knows what drove Edmund to attempt such a drastic step? Perhaps he had seen people close to him die or be badly disfigured by the disease and so felt driven to take such a risky preventative measure. I prefer to think of him as a pioneer.
One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries
I’ll second that (with the proviso that one is also constantly finding that things vanish, never to be seen again, which one knows should still be there somewhere.)
One thing I’ve noticed with enlightening Amazon reviews is that when you get a good one, it pays to delve into that contributor’s reviewing history. I did so with my favourite of yesterday, the person at the top of the list, and came up with the following:
Bought as a present (4 stars) Book about Freemasonry
I have not completed it yet (4 stars) Another book about Freemasonry. Are you sure you’re serious about this Freemason business? They don’t take just anyone.
Have not read it yet (1 star) A book on Mormonism. Those ones you don’t read are always so disappointing. But can you be a Freemason and a Mormon? Don’t rush into anything, my friend.
Next on my ‘to read list’ (4 stars) Don’t worry – we can wait.
So far so good ( 5 stars) Laptop battery. Well, they all start out good, sir…
Have not used it yet but it will be fine (4 stars) An artist’s palette. Very trusting. I’m about to sell my old car – get in touch.
Have not used them yet but sure they will be fine (4 stars) Artist’s paintbrushes. What with the freemasonry, Mormonism and painting you’re not going to have much free time…
Have only glanced at it at the moment (4 stars) Must have been a pretty impressive glance.
This was a present, I did not read it myself (4 stars) Just think what you might have given it if you had read it!
Only just getting into it (3 stars) Okaaaay…
Haven’t got round to reading it yet (3 stars). You know, there really isn’t a rush to submit a review.
And penultimately, my favourite, rather enigmatic, ‘review’: No, not until you have replied to my query about missing book (3 stars). Presumably if they find his missing book the review of this one will go up a bit.
It’s only fair to give my star reviewer the last, rather exasperated word, since I suspect his contributions have raised the hackles of one or two impatient and unimaginative readers:
I don’t know what to write here. It seems to be most comprehensively written and covers all aspects of growing Christmas Trees. If you can’t accept what I’ve written above, tough. (4 stars)
I had something else lined up for today’s blog posting, but I’ve been quietly amassing more helpful Amazon reviews and one I came across today prompted me to take the controversial step of making a last minute change. It’s my favourite of the latest bunch:
Sorry haven’t read it yet (1 star). I was going to add a witty yet highly sarcastic comment (most unlike me…) but then I read What an absolutely inspiring and thorough book review, I take my hat off to you sir! and I knew I’d been beaten to the punch by the better man.
I am unable to give this five stars as I have not yet finished. However, from what I have read… (4 Stars).
I’m pretty good at the opening chapters of stories, so from now on I’m going to recommend that readers put in their reviews at the end of Chapter 3. (And sign a legally binding clause which means they can’t change it once they get to the end end and throw the book at the wall in disgust.)
Prompt delivery, but I have not Reagan it yet. 5 stars (Predictive txt strikes again, or a Freudian slip? (It’s about Britain’s 1812 war with America.)
Not read yet but what I have discerned, just by leafing through, looks excellent. I am looking forward to reading this book. (5 stars). A book about psychic powers. (Not really.)