By Cherry Irvine: Arts Columnist
Secrets are paradoxical. For something to be a secret it must be known by someone. To be concealed it must be revealed if the secret is to have an audience. Art can only exist if it has an audience. So, can art ever be secret?
Last week two separate artworks were put up in secret, one in London and one in Bristol. Paradoxically the Bristolian artist Banksy decided to graffiti a London Underground train, whilst the London based artist Marc Quinn erected a sculpture in Bristol to replace Edward Colston. Since being revealed, the artworks have been removed, yet they continue to spark debate like secrets spreading through a playground. As temporary, not to mention illegal, artworks they are the opposite of how art is traditionally exhibited in museums and galleries.
Graffiti art is inherently covert, because of its subversive nature. Secrets have a dangerous side to them, that is why they are so alluring. Banksy’s images of sneezing rats decorating the inside of a tube train were seen by millions through a comical and insightful video posted on his Instagram. His followers are let in on the secret as we watch Banksy disguise himself as a cleaner to paint a near-deserted train. Likewise, Marc Quinn’s statue ‘A Surge of Power’ was installed overnight without permission from the council and found the next morning by passers-by. It represents the Black Lives Matter protestor Jen Reid and replaces the rejected monument to the seventeenth-century slave trader, Edward Colston.
The removal of Colston was anything but secret. The unexpected arrival of Quinn’s statue was a different form of publicity for the BLM campaign, which also sought to be an act of defiance. Whether or not Quinn was right to erect his own artwork on this highly symbolic plinth has yet to be decided.
The nature of secrecy determines that the secret must be revealed to have social existence, which these artworks were to audiences via news and social media. It was exciting, whilst their secrecy created a feeling of intimacy between artwork and viewer. The philosopher Sissela Bok wrote in her 1982 book Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation that secrecy is “rooted in the most basic experience of what it is to live as one human being among others, needing both to hide and to share, both to explore and to beware of the unknown”. Like art, secrecy is part of our intrinsic culture.
When we look for secrets, we can always find them, and this is true throughout history. In the Middle Ages, secrecy was an important part of religious practice. Medieval churches would purposefully block out the laity from viewing Mass with use of a wooden or stone partition, known as a Rood Screen. They would not be able to see the mystical transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ performed by the clergy. Instead they would only see the art that adorned the screen. The secretive, unknown nature of Mass made it all the more believable for the common people.
In the present time where nothing is hidden and everything is visible for the world to see, secrets feel like a novelty. Typing ‘Post Secret’ into Google will bring up the website for an ongoing community art project where people mail anonymous messages on postcards. These secrets consist only of a few lines and are broadcast to the world through Instagram. Some secrets are dark, others terribly sad, but many are beautiful. As our secrets are revealed, so is the breadth of the human spirit.
So, if art can be secret, why is it so potent? Because, as humans, we long for a sense of connection. We can all say that we are ‘in on it’.