Art. An ever changing canvas of human expression. Is it reaching its twilight years or merely undergoing change?

By Alex Stubbs: arts Columnist

Walk into any national gallery and you’re likely to find a collection of artworks that are considered to be of national – sometimes international – importance.

As we marvel at the William Hogarth’s and Edgar Degas’ hanging on the walls of the Tate Britain, we’re transported to their worlds. John Constable’s landscapes and Peter de Wint’s pastoral reflections transport us to the fields of rural England; works by William Blake and John Martin paint a picture of fury, destruction, and the sublime – we are drawn to them because of their grandeur – their scale – but also because we have internalised their assumed superiority. 

It is something more than just the paint on the canvas that we admire and lust after. The unquestioned greatness bestowed upon artists (some more than others) is central in how we protect the foundations upon which our culture is built. The paintings that hang in galleries and the artists we admire represent more than just art history; they are, ostensibly, symbols that represent our identities. They are the images that define who we think we are.

By placing such importance upon historical figures, we have allowed them to become untouchable.  When an artist we love succumbs to their own fault past, we immediately fear that we are losing our culture – our identity. We’re under attack, we think when an artist is “cancelled,” unaware that we are just as guilty of allowing them to reign unopposed and unchallenged. So, when we are offered an exhibition that includes names we have been told to respect, we blindly follow along, forgetting to question why it is that particular artist deserves a place on the gallery wall.

Take JMW Turner for example. Turner is often considered one of Britain’s greatest artists (we have John Ruskin to thank for that). His expressive brushstrokes and use of lighting and colour have inspired generations of artists. Artworks like “The Shipwreck” and Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps are beautiful and powerful historical works that draw on the human condition and the immensity of nature. Undoubtedly these are great artworks. Yet, despite Turner’s art historical importance, there is a sense that his grandeur is being confused with his relevance.

Like many of the most famous artists, name often precedes relevance. Tate Britain’s “Turner’s Modern World” is the latest example of how galleries often struggle to let go of the prestige and status attached to artists like Turner. The claims are bold. Framed as a “landmark exhibition,” one that will “present an exciting new perspective on his work and life,” the Tate forgets that it was only as recent as 2010 that they gave Turner an exhibition of national importance. His name, it seems, is all it takes to justify space on gallery walls. By allowing curators to hold the keys to the gates of art history, it is inevitable that we will get the same reimagined – read: rehashed – exhibitions. It is why, 170 years after his death, we are convinced Turner is worthy of our adulation.

Art is…unnecessary?

This isn’t to say that we can’t find something new amongst the ruins of art’s long and storied past. Back in 2013, the Tate Britain held its first exhibition dedicated to the works of a beloved Manchester artist. Lowry’s works had been stored in the Tate’s collection for years up until that point, but had never been regarded in the same breath as other British artists of his generation; Paul Nash and others have long been held as the pinnacle of British modernism in the early-20th century.

MACKAYAN: when is it time. a case for the death of art.

350 years on, do we still need to preserve Baroque portraits? Can we just move past those beautiful Renaissance works of Durer and Michaelangelo?

Though Lowry gained the public’s admiration and love during his lifetime, and even secured a groundbreaking posthumous show at the RA in 1976, his status amongst scholars and critics is muddied.

Abstract art Gallery. Photo: Logan Weaver.

Lowry is just one example of an artist getting their time in the spotlight a moment too late (not to mention the stream of non-Western artists that are yet to receive their solo show at a major European gallery). The controversy surrounding his life and his work should force us to fundamentally rethink how we value art, a battle that undoubtedly begins and ends in the galleries and museums of our towns and cities.

Art galleries have already strayed further towards the accumulation of art for collection purposes, away from their initial purpose as places of education. Galleries have, unfortunately, slowly become beautiful storage boxes. Instead of protecting art for the means of displaying on a gallery wall, our focus should be on a radical rethinking of art of the past. Galleries and museums are at the forefront of this.

350 years on, do we still need to preserve Baroque portraits? Can we just move past those beautiful Renaissance works of Durer and Michaelangelo? Moreover, do we need entire gallery halls dedicated to their display? Rather than engage in pointless worship at the behest of “cultural preservation,” we desperately need to recontextualise art for a modern audience. After all, we are the ones consuming it. Recontextualising artists and artwork for a modern audience is necessary not just for our own sake, but for future generations, too. There may come a time when Botticelli’s “Adoration of the Magi” loses its place on the podium of the Uffizi; scarier still, generations to come may not consider Botticelli to be a master after all.

Moving towards the future

What must come next is a generation of artists who don’t feel the need to pay homage to ancient works. It’s not like the art world hasn’t seen this before. Modernism rejected realism in its entirety; postmodernism’s subversion of modernism is the contemporary battle. Further still, what we consider to be low- and high-brow cultures are constantly at war with each other, signaling deeper class conflicts that require a more sophisticated discourse than can be provided here.

We don’t need to cancel artists in order to move past them. Simply, if art is no longer useful in our modern social and cultural context, we mourn it respectfully and bid it a fond farewell. After all, art can and should be left to die. Perhaps then, and only then, we can appreciate better the works being created now.

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