Art Is Theft? Or Art Is Progress?

WAYS AN ARTIST CAN TELL A STORY by Charles Alexander Davison

How does an artist tell a story? Quite easily, to be honest, but how do they retain your sense of wonder at the same time? More often than not, when a piece’s context is learnt, it ruins the fun of experiencing the piece naively. In this essay I will argue how artists have achieved this without detracting from the audience’s experience. 

To explore story and wonder, I first have to define them within the context of this essay. With ‘story’, I’m referring to the narrative you receive upon experiencing a piece. ‘Wonder’ is your curiosity, your desire to explore a subject, inspired by simply not knowing what’s going on. 

John Martin offered stories by simply painting them. His stories were often inspired by epic poetry, most notably that of Ovid’s ‘Metamorphosis’. One painting, Alpheus and Arethusa 1832, depicts the mortal huntress, Arethusa, swimming in the water god, Alpheus. He falls for her, takes human form, and tries to take her for his own. An expert on dramatic poetry would find it difficult to realise this just by looking at the painting. The scene described takes place in such a small portion of a dominating landscape. Martin places these characters to be discovered, and in a way trivialises the dramatic prose by not allowing them the centre stage.

Mostly, though, it interests that sense of wonder, a desire to know why Martin would paint these depictions so elusively. There is an iceberg effect as result - the tip is clear, yet there’s much more underneath. Once I read the description, I only felt more curious. Who is Alpheus, Ovid, the Metamorphosis? So many questions that lead to an epic poem worth reading, a poem inspired by the mythos of ancient gods... I could go on, as I’m describing is the iceberg’s depth. Too often do the origins of art works fall flat at the base description, the intrigue disappearing once you know. Martin’s paintings are different, like a reference to many more stories, less a story on their own. They invite investigation without demanding it, maintaining curiosity whether we know about the painting or not.

In 2011, the Tate Britain exhibited Martin’s paintings once more, with three in particular on display in a special way. The Last Judgement 1853, The Great Day of His Wrath 1851-3, and The Plains of Heaven 1851-3 were hung as the Apocalypse series. Light and sound installations assisted the paintings, full of readings, the roar of nature and animals, and twisting colours of light, all with the intent of creating a scene as dramatic as their original unveiling. The paintings were toured with immense popularity in the 1850s, despite the art scene’s scornful outlook on his works for being lesser to JMW Turner. “Does this phantasmagoria belong to the lawful resources of art?” a curious Joseph Jean Pichot asked upon seeing Belshazzar’s Feast 1820 - a different painting from an earlier time of course, but it’s a question that loomed over Martin’s career. Despite this, the times kept Martin popular. On the eve of the industrial revolution, artists brought the world of mythos and nature to the public, attempting to show that humanity was not slave to the industrial machine, that beauty was still within us. With a revolution trailblazing “large-scale pollution of coal-burning... water pollution and incredibly poor air quality for many major cities”, Romanticism was the excessive counter-offence, with Martin leaving trails to follow for the curious - rabbit holes that lead to greater stories.

The Bard 1817 serves as a great final example. A blue-skied, vast alpine inspired Snowdonia scene, armies marching aside a river from a castle just above, while a bard atop the looming cliff face stands proud in protest. What’s it all about? Thomas Gray’s 1755 poem about King Edward’s conquest of 13th century Wales, of course. Poem? A segment of history? Down the rabbit hole we go. 

“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see.” Rene Magritte’s quote is applicable to John Martin just as much as himself and the surrealists. This brings us to another revolution of storytelling in art. Magritte was a Belgium born painter who, after taking much inspiration from Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico’s Love Song 1914, used the mundane to shatter our expectations of the world. Whether it’s a couple kissing with their heads wrapped in cloth in The Lovers 1928, a canvas obscuring the view from a windowsill with an exact replica of the landscape behind it in La Condition Humaine 1933, or the Souvenir de Voyage, an apple with a mask, Magritte plays with recognisable objects, helping us realise their true strangeness. 

What’s this to do with story or wonder? Magritte puts it so, “I want to create a mystery, not to solve it.” This mystery of course, is how the story unfolds, and our sense of wonder draws us to an answer that’s not there. There’s no answer as to why the apple wears a mask, yet, at the Christie’s annual Art of the Surreal evening in London 2015, an auction bid of £2.6 million for the painting shows that people are still interested enough! Surrealism draws from that unanswerable thing about all existence, as Elsa Adamowicz puts it in regards to Magritte, “His images suggest narratives or meaning, but that meaning is suspended, as in our dreams.” This is no statement on the meaninglessness of all things, however - it’s a celebration instead. Magritte especially celebrates the normal in bizarre arrangements. “His style is neutral in a way,” says Olivier Camu, “He wanted to make surreal propositions without distracting the viewer with style or painterly surfaces.”It’s art for all. A form that invites interpretation, like Martin, yet simultaneously dismisses explanation - maintaining grip on our sense of wonder. 

French surrealist André Breton shed light on the human condition studying neuroscience under doctor Raoul-Achille Leroy. Having studied the hysteria of mentally damaged veterans from WWI, alongside an interest in the arts, Breton wrote the First Manifesto of Surrealism 1924, declaring that, “Our brains are dulled by the incurable mania of wanting to make the unknown known, classifiable.” World War I, somewhat a culmination of the industrial revolution, influenced a Freudian belief in Surrealists of a hidden evil in humanity’s subconscious. Breton saw the ills of confusion and hallucination in subjects as a shared unknown, beyond explanation. So terrible is war, that there’s no way to explain it - but if it could happen in life, isn’t life itself equally unexplainable? 

The Surrealists were sympathetic to the human condition. They catered to this with elusive, often funny works, as examples of life avoiding definition, and our unquenchable desire to define it. Magritte’s work is a suggested story that parallels our daily experience, we simply don’t know all the answers. 

This essay’s final case study will only bring a larger question to play. I’ll speak subjectively first, on the topic of artist Anthea Hamilton’s The Squash. The expanse that is the Duveen Galleries is coated with over 7,000 white tiles, with mischievous plinths emerging from the flats, exhibiting 20th century sculptures hand picked by Hamilton. Within this vast space, a dancer, dressed as a butternut squash, expresses itself, often interacting with it’s spectators. A naive response to these works supports my third kind of storytelling in art - the experience offered to you, as an audience, to share. I was infatuated with the dancer, in love with the choreography and disguise. They were on display, their identities shielded, yet asserted complete control. These are the stories I tell people when I recollect my experience, and that’s the essence of this kind of narrative. Performance has that amazing power to transcend ideation over a piece and instead offer you something living - you describe it like you describe a friend, or a night out. It’s a part of life, not a speculation of it. 

The context of Hamilton’s piece, however, made my explanation of the Squash, and the proposition of three kinds of storytelling pointless. Hamilton’s inspiration for the piece emerged from a photograph she couldn’t recollect the origins of, "The starting point of the work is a found image I’ve had for many years. It shows a person dressed in a costume like a squash... I don’t know what the purpose of that image was, so the only way to get to know more about it was to try and make my own version of it.” Amazingly, this worked. Once the exhibition unfolded, the image emerged as the 8 Clear Pieces production by contemporary dance choreographer Erick Hawkins in 1960. Hawkins conducted a metaphorical celebration of nature, not an interpretation - similar to that of a Surrealist’s fascination with life! - that motivated Hamilton on a level unbeknownst to her. She celebrated what the image made her feel, much like my analysis of her piece from a naive standpoint. 

Another example of Hamilton’s inspiration turned celebration would be the giant buttocks she exhibited as part of the 2016 Turner prize exhibition. The clasped buttocks was originally the idea of Italian designer Gaetano Pesce, who conceived an entryway comprised of the spread legs of a male looming above the entrance in 1972. “Look at this picture. It’s a bum, but it’s a doorway – that’s great.” was Hamilton’s reasoning, fair enough. Writer Adrian Searle, though not as fond of the works as most, shed light on further mysterious origins to Hamilton’s piece, explaining that the catalogue essay on her works began with describing the Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “untimely death”16. A possible motivator for Hamilton’s recreation of the buttocks? If I had to make another observation on the mystery, the presentation of the buttocks in the Turner prize exhibition had the edition of blue skies and puffy clouds to the left and right of the centrepiece - it’s as if Magritte was commissioned to compose a sculpture! 

So what’s going on? What am I trying to say? By splitting story into three categories and attempting to define them with three different artists, I’ve inadvertently ascribed to each artist all three. Anthea Hamilton’s work is shameless in it’s near copies of other works, celebrating the abundance of information available in the modern day. Rene Magritte, along with the Surrealists, were motivated by neuroscience and the poetic realism of madness induced by WWI. John Martin composed images that conflicted and protested the current society model of industrial progress. Each artist catered to the emotions of it’s audience. Despite different presentative methods, they’re all telling stories, learnt from the same old stories they too were fascinated by. Lead by wonder, they entered the rabbit hole, and conjured up works in the process. It’s all one big story spanning the history of art. If that’s the case, what is the story being told? 

“Art is theft” can be coined by Picasso, but it has a sour taste. As it implies that works belong to their creator. Martin, Magritte, and Hamilton are all examples of how untrue that is - the ideas exist outside of us, reactions to the story unfolding in front of us. How about, “art is progress”, instead. Progress through the endless rabbit hole of a story as big as life, driven by what André Breton coined as our crippling desire to make the unknown known. The story may be expressed a million ways, but it all comes from our desire to add chapters to a book with no end in sight - an attempt to push our sense of wonder further through the unknown.