But lights in tunnels needn't be trains. During a visit to South Australia we (that 'we' isn't royal, it's two, almost three, of us) we saw a Patricia Piccinini retrospective. All it's naked fleshy vulnerability reminded me that the challenge of art was the reason I loved it. I've written about Piccinini before (and much of the work in Adelaide was tyne same) so won't go into detail here but what makes her extraordinary is this restless going over of flesh and otherness. The strangeness of her mutant creations is belied by their familiar pink vulnerability, there is a corporeality that make sit impossible to dismiss them as monsters. Piccinini explores what it is to be human and is significant because she does' t present reductive answer, it is as if she can't answer but the act of trying is an answer in itself. That's confusing perhaps but it rings true to my life now. Art and life are about uncertainty, it’s why corporate power architecture or Tea Party fundamentalism are so scary, that level of certainty, of impervious finite certainty is unnatural. From Picasso I get a sense of someone looking and tellingly restlessly re-looking, painting to try to understand. This might be why Michelangelo leaves me cold, those crystalline forms and icy contraposto seem to be too programmatic and ideological. I'm not sure I need that much more certainty in the world.
I felt robbed when I heard Cy Twombly had died. Twombly’s work was like an obsessive scratching through the accreted surfaces of Western culture. I've not seen enough of Twombly's work in the flesh, I love the references but it's the paint that sings. There's something graceful in his work a balance between the density of the marks he made and the white fields they exist in, but that balance is hard won and restless, that's what makes the abstract feel so human. Mark making is evidence of life and as such it carries a human stain. The aura of the producer is not the same as the status bestowed on saints relics. The marks we make are the signs of us trying to break through the walls of otherness between us, the curtains of individual consciousness being pulled back.
Lucian Freud might make people feel uncomfortable. A profound lack of irony, an exposed candor in the paint. There's a care there, something that states it's intention, makes it's presence clear. Freud might fail on occasion but you know he's attempting using paint to find the person through their flesh. It's not a sentimental art but it does seek affect, it seems to strive for an empathy that doesn't come automatically. There's a tension in Freud's work between the cold clinical light of the autopsy and the warmth of blood beneath skin. It's not a sentimental art but it does seek affect, it seems to strive for an empathy that doesn't come automatically. When it comes to Freud's I'm more Lucian than Sigmund can't help feel that art that claims a therapeutic value is pretty limited if not dishonest. That said art that tries to show us what it might be like to be inside another individuals head or skin seems to me to have a major claim on our attention, no matter hope successful that wrestling is. If we think art is satisfying if it can raise an eyebrow or provoke a snigger then we don't have very high expectations of it at all. One doesn't have to ascribe art with any transcendent or spiritual quality if one is to believe that it should move us.
Since then I've been into the AGNSW at times to look at the Bonnard and Rubens self-portraits. The rheumy film in Ruben's eye is one of the most beautiful things I know in art. This knight diplomat, at the peak of his artistic powers, defining an age and shaping the image of kings and queens, is an ageing human being. Something similar happens with Bonnard, he's not a young man and the gradual entropy of molecules of colour of remind you of that. The striking domesticity of the scene in front of that mirror, the smallness of a man in a blaze of yellow light are immensely moving. Art needn't be a mirror, and in a narcissistic age we don't need any more of those, but self contemplation is different than vanity. Scorates' notion that 'the unexamined life is not worth living' might be an invitation to navel gazing but great art reveals itself in the honesty of that examination. Great art is us wrestling with what is is to be ourselves.
I'm not a catastrophist and whilst there's much that worries me in the world, the cynical grip of finance on politics, the vicious dogma of religious and ideological fundamentalism and the ease with which civil society discards the concerns of the poor and frail, there's too much in this world that's hyper ideological whilst hiding behind a fallacious veneer of rationalism. Humanity and the humane demand more than glib punchlines and theories, theory isn't going to love you when you're cold and hungry.
Now I feel differently. I do believe in something more profound than art as an hermetic critique of other art or an ironic counterpoint to mass media. I believe in love and flesh and death and care and beauty. Frustration without a response doesn't seem like a healthy or positive place for prospective and opinionated parents. I look to Auden's observation that 'we must love one another or else we die' and think life does matter and art that's committed to that idea is worth fighting for.