I read an article recently by the art critic Waldemar Januszczak in which he said: “People don’t go to art to be turned into better citizens. They go to art to have their eyes pleasured and their hearts touched.”
His statement was in reference to the over emphasis on political and social issues prevalent within the artwork of the 2019 Turner Prize nominees.
Similarly last year, it seems all things ‘woke’ erupted throughout the art world. And for good reason, there are a lot of serious issues that need to be addressed across the world at this moment in history and what better medium to express, digest and call attention to such issues than within works of art.
But Januszczak’s quote brings up a false dichotomy. That a piece of art can either be experienced merely for pleasure or as a way of educating ourselves, but not both. Of course this isn’t true, many artist’s, including myself, strive to encapsulate both simultaneously.
There is another way in which art can affect us though, a way that isn't quite so explicit. It’s what mythologist Martin Shaw refers to as “the blue feather in the magpie’s tale” (yes, tale, not tail).
For the magpie is dressed in stark contrasting black and white feathers. The magpies blue feathers however speak of an entirely different paradigm. They speak to something outside of our normal black or white, this or that thinking.
I would say the blue feather in the tale of the art world is this: By allowing your eye to be pleasured and your heart touched, this is how you become a better citizen.
If you've watched the recent Netflix documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ you'll be well aware that seeking the dopamine hit of visual pleasure through social media is far from making us better citizens. But that isn’t the same quality of pleasure that we can choose to find within a piece of art.
You may have noticed how your experience of the world seems to slow down when you walk off the busy city streets and through the doors of an art gallery. The temple-like space of a pre-modern art museum or the minimal white rooms of the modern art gallery encourage us to quieten our busy minds and become more contemplative. To open up space within our awareness so we may become more sensitised to the imagery and details that are being presented to us. To find pleasure in an experience that is less reactive and more reflective. Those, in my mind, are the qualities of a 'better citizen'.
In this way the art of looking at art can teach us to become more nuanced and thoughtful in the way we experience, not only art itself, but the world around us.
I believe that state of mind is best achieved, not when ideas and concepts are overtly dictated to by an artist to the viewer, but when the subtle individual pleasures of our lived experience are highlighted and expressed so that a viewer can form a connection to their own understanding of the world in a fresh new way.
I've found it's hard for me to become curious about a new idea or way of seeing the world if it's not done so in a way that activates my senses in a positive way. In allowing myself to open up to the pleasures of a piece of art it naturally encourages me to want to know more, about the why, the what, the who, the when and the how of things. These seemingly insignificant curiosities or small shifts in our perception are what create the very origins of change in any grand social or political movement.
Through my work I’ve always tried to gratify the senses and in doing so bring into question the nature of our own individual perception. By treading the line between abstract and figurative art my intention is to allow the viewer to question their own perception of the work, and to enjoy that sense of not knowing and trying to know. Just like a Rorschach test, giving space for the viewer to interpret the work in their own unique way, so it becomes personal to them.
My new 'Prima Materia' series does just that, offering a window into a new way of looking and finding pleasure in a visual medium that may seem to some as antiquated and stale. By merging, transforming and reconstructing this imagery, I hope to reinvigorate the viewers appreciation for the details and forms present within these artworks, which can often be overlooked amongst their original narrative context.
'Prima Materia VI' now available here: https://jamesroperart.store/.../products/prima-materia-vi