In the Balance

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Why is it we feel a little cheated by art made of everyday objects? Is it because we value the materials as well as the labour?

Talking to a Sri Lankan clothing entrepreneur this week, I discovered that in modern garments a surprisingly large part of their price is in the materials – 65% or more. This may tell us that labour is undervalued. But it might also tell us that materials still matter.

Historically pigments were immensely expensive. Some say the reason medieval art had large patches of colour – undisturbed by shading or relief – was to ‘show off’ the expense and opulence of the rare pigments; usually topped off with plenty of gold leaf.

By contrast, Damien Hirst’s dot paintings are always sneered at for ‘only’ using household emulsion. But then again his diamond encrusted sculls divide opinion too.

I’m strangely reassured to know my clothes are made of stuff of intrinsic value. Perhaps, like the ‘rag trade’, it takes the right balance of labour and materials to make a great work of Art too.

Art and Artists

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I’ve started E.H. Gombrich’s ‘The Story of Art’ which was recommended by one friend and came up in conversation with another today. Gombrich says there is really no ‘Art’, only artists and what they create.

A lot of what what ‘Art’ is actually about, is nothing to do with experts, critics, audiences or patrons – it’s about the artist and their personal effort to produce something of intrinsic value. The painting above from ‘The Story of Art’ simply and powerfully captures not only the passion of Christ, but also the passion of the unknown 12th Century artist.

I pointed out today that this connects with one of my dictums for social media – if you like what you’ve done that’s good enough, don’t worry about anyone else. I think social media is largely about forgetting the ‘audience’ and simply writing or posting something you personally care about, are interested in or want to say. It then finds an audience through chance and serendipity.

At this point in our conversation today I was forced to bring in Aristotle – and we had a laugh about it. Aristotle is knockout reference once you buy into him. There’s often nothing more to say once you’ve heard what Aristotle said on a subject.

So, drawing on Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’, my definition of the job of the artist – and bloggers too, I reckon – is to forget about ‘Art’ or ‘audience’ and simply:

Say, write, paint or sculpt something transcendent and universal about the human condition in no more and no less words, notes, chisel blows or brush-strokes than are needed.

If it’s good it will find appreciation – if only from the person who matters most, the artist.

Immersion

Concentrating on boiling a ham on the hob yesterday, I was reminded of a key aspect of ‘flow’ – immersion. ‘Flow’ is ceasing to be self-conscious or unduly conscious of others and becoming thoroughly immersed in the task or activity.

When you look at it this way, a number of things we usually consider important in enjoyable achievement turn out not to be – notably the immediate judgement and appreciation of others. Also, a variety of things we consider dull can suddenly become a joy.

Take hoovering the house. Usually a chore, and one I resent. I enter into it – if at all – with little a priori enthusiasm. I have, however, discovered it passes more easily with an iPod, headphones and music.

Surprising then to discover last weekend during a particularly energetic and virtuoso vacuum – as I removed the ‘T head’ to more precisely target the skirting boards in the kitchen – I was in full ‘flow’. It was an absorbing task, in which my goal was evident, feedback clear (disappearing crumbs and detritus) and my mental energy was fully absorbed (in music and coordinated physical effort). Stone me, it’s that simple I realised.

I was talking to another parent yesterday about how this applies to kids, sports and music. The art is perhaps in helping a child to become completely immersed in the ‘process’ of playing football or the piano to the point they cease to be self-conscious or unduly conscious of you and your anxiety/impatience/projection of your own hopes and fears (delete as applicable).

A lot of what we do with children and activities is the opposite. We make them concentrate on us, keep pushing them on – before they’ve had time to master or enjoy developing skills – and most of all we distract them with incentives and threats. The art of ‘flow’ is to let them lose themselves in what they are doing and forget we’re there – not focus them on extrinsic rewards or punishments.

More immersion perhaps means less coercion. And letting go a bit and getting lost in what they’re doing makes parenting ‘flow’ more easily too.