Jean Anouilh said “The object of art is to give life a shape.”
I want to talk to you today about how pictures can feel like a kind of refuge from the world, because they distill bits of it, or tame it.
I will also explain why for me, parody can feel more true than meaningfulness. All art is parody these days, all art is faintly absurd, and these pictures are no exception, but I don’t think it matters that much – they still function as pictures, as art.
And finally I will be brave and talk a little bit about about beauty in art.
A picture can be a form of refuge from the thing it depicts. It sounds crazy, but for example, it seems easier to appreciate the beauty of a painted landscape, than to appreciate the beauty of the real one The real landscape is so fleeting, so huge. That’s why we stand in front of the world holding up our cell phones and cameras, to make a small claim, to capture and posses what we can’t really hold in our mind’s eye in its raw state. The painted landscape has a form and a structure. It is a place one can enter that is the opposite of the outside world, in which all is familiar and nothing ever changes. A picture is a home within four edges. It is furnished with familiar things. It has been distilled and mediated, it presents a certain order, it gives a shape to the world. A picture is formulated, and looking at it eases the stress of constantly having to formulate thought. Half the work is already done.
The landscapes in this exhibition are not real places, and if you’ve seen any of my work before you will not be surprised. They are made-up, constructed
The amazing thing about pictures is that it doesn’t matter how formulaic they are, or how self-conscious. It doesn’t matter if they don’t take themselves seriously, because they still function as pictures. I saw a great youtube clip of Slavoj Zizek being interviewed. He first talked about Kung Fu Panda, the movie. He says he loves it because “it mobilises oriental mystique, but at the same time it’s totally ironic about its own ideology. The movie makes fun of its own ideology all the time, but at the same time, the ideology survives. This is how cynicism functions”. He describes how Nils Bohr, the nuclear scientist, had a horse shoe hanging outside his front door and when asked why on earth, as a scientist, he would hang up such a superstitious object, he said “Of course I don’t believe in it, but I was told that it works even if you don’t believe in it”.
As Zizek explains, it doesn’t matter whether you believe or don’t believe in something. It will function whether you believe in it or not. Pictures also function, even if they parody the intention of functioning. The pictures in this exhibition are all form. They are echoes of other paintings, of the history of european painting in particular . One could go into the quotations and traditions they embody. But they are also fakes of these things – they seem to be serious but aren’t really, or not in the way they seem to be. They seem to contain stories and meanings but each thing in them is placed there to seem that way. And it doesn’t matter, they remain entertaining. In fact, this pretense at seriousness makes them absurd.
Jonathan Franzen said that images are compelling not because they are so powerful, but because the real world is so weak. We see them in the same way that we see reality, through our mind’s eye. They seize the same parts of the brain. And that is why this form of parody feels more ‘true’ to me than an intended meaningfulness. Because the emptiness of a picture like this reflects the emptiness behind everything we see. We think we know what we are seeing out there in the world, but what we see is exactly the same as what we think we see, or what we can recognise. That means that we can’t really ‘see’ at all. We are utterly bound by our perception, and bound by the familiar. Perception is everything – and nothing. We cannot see beyond ourselves.
Of course this is a paradox. In spite of being unable to take pictures seriously, I can’t help taking them seriously. It is human nature to believe in things, to make sense out of the world. I still hope for beauty, but I don’t know how to go about uncovering it, or creating it, except on the foundations of cynicism. I still hope for substance and connection, but I don’t know how to achieve that, except by emphasising that substance and connection are impossible to achieve. Yes, these paintings are all form, but they are not form just for the sake of form. Because I still hope that the form, when pursued to its end with an inner logic, dictated by the painting itself, will transcend itself, overcome its own foolishness, and convey beauty. The philosopher Roger Scruton says “Through the pursuit of beauty we shape the world as a home, and in doing so we both amplify our joys and find consolation in our sorrows”. And Theophile Gautier, a poet and art critic from the 19th century, said that “the arts teach and moralise by their beauty alone, not by translating a philosophical or social formula. …painting has itself as its purpose, which is quite enough”.
I feel like we all live in our small universes, and there is so much space between them that we can’t comprehend it at all. If I try to communicate with you directly, as I am doing now with words, there is a gap between us, made larger by my fumbling for words and your attempts to understand. But if I create a vehicle, a picture, I invite you into a space without the confusion and exhaustion of words, no matter what the subject matter.
I am no philosopher, and I cannot define beauty. It is not following prescribed rules, of course not – there are so many rules about beauty and most of them contradict each other. But there is something about the distillation of life, the shaping of it, that opens our hearts, that jogs memories, arouses emotions and longings. If I see something that makes me feel longing, and I change it into a picture that feels embracing, as if it could fulfil that longing, and you look at it and something in you answers to it, that is what I want. Perceived beauty (and there is no other kind) is a hothouse flower, it can flourish within the safety of the structure, the protection of the glass walls.
I would like to quote Nicolas Poussin, who said “The purpose of art is delectation”. A picture can offer such delight to the eye, and why shouldn’t it? It can entrance and absorb us. I wonder what Gautier meant when he the arts teach and moralise by their beauty alone. Teaching and moralising are very difficult words in relation to art. And striving for beauty can be seen as fascist, as if there’s some ideal out there that excludes everything that doesn’t look like itself. In the text for this show, I said that nowadays, the myth we believe is that all beliefs are myth. Like a religion, it has a circular logic that baffles all objections.
But we are human, and so even if we know in our minds that what we believe is a myth and only exists relative to us, we believe it anyway. Maybe this is how the word ‘moral’ can be used, maybe this is what helps us to behave better to others. Because if we take ourselves too seriously, we are full of scorn, and if we don’t take ourselves seriously enough, then we founder in despair. The paradox of believing and not-believing keeps our egos in check, keeps us humble, and also enables us to have a healthy scepticism.
I can’t define beauty, because everyone experiences it differently. But I am not thinking about prettiness, or attractiveness. Beauty can be frightening and terrible. If a picture resonates with something inside you, whether it is a good or a bad thing, it can be beautiful. A beautiful image, for me, is one that evokes what is inside you, that mirrors you, and in so doing, takes you out of yourself for a moment. But then it brings you back – you move back and forth between your sense of self, and forgetfulness of self. That is such a good feeling. If it can be a little bit funny and absurd at the same time, that’s the best of all.
I am not saying these paintings are beautiful. Paintings always fall so short of what I wish for them. But I hope, after hearing me speak about them a little bit, that you can see that they are not strightfroward representations, that they don’t take themselves too seriously. I hope they can remind us that all art is really just entertainment, that it is not the real thing.