2020 by Artists: Searching for meaning in the chaos
Artists don’t just document events, they seek out the meaning that lies behind those events. Jonny presents three more pieces from our 'in the rough' exhibition that looked to get under the skin of 2020.
Artists don’t just document events, they seek out the meaning that lies behind those events. As Pope John Paul II put it:
Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery.
(Letter to Artists, 1999)
In a sense, no true piece of art ever just documents, as I’m sure you can see in the pieces I’ve mentioned so far. However, some pieces that were submitted to the ‘in the rough’ exhibition were certainly more explicit in their commentary on the events of the year. It’s probably best for me to say at this point that the commentary that I see in these artworks may not have been intended by the artist in exactly the way I will suggest, but in the context of the events that surrounded them, I hope I’m not wildly misreading them.
‘The Great Worldwide Dugnad’ – Trygve Skogran
Norwegian artist Trygve Skogran’s ‘The Great Worldwide Dugnad’ is a playful editing of a masterpiece by painter Adolph Tidemand. Skogran explains the concept of the piece:
In my home country Norway, we have a much-beloved word: “dugnad”. It means: working voluntarily and without pay for the common good. In a small, and up to quite recently, very poor country, the idea that we all have to stand together and work together to survive has been so important through generations, that now it is cemented as one of the main things we believe define us as a people.
For Skogran, the sacrifices we are enduring through the pandemic are a dugnad, an act of service for the common good. The dugnad that he focuses on in this piece is Christians enduring restrictions to the way we worship. I don’t think he intended the piece as polemic against Christians who have refused to take up this dugnad, but it certainly exists as one now!
‘Banquet of Consequences’ – Duncan Stewart
Even if Skogran’s piece acts as a gentle indictment, its tone is gentle and playful. The same cannot be said for Duncan Stewart’s ‘Banquet of Consequences.’ Posted on to the artist’s facebook page on 7th July, it landed as the public mood, at least in the UK, had dramatically shifted. The early days of the pandemic were marked by an ‘all in this together’ sort of camaraderie, clapping for carers, praying for Boris Johnson, checking on our elderly neighbours, but by July, tensions had significantly heightened.
Politicians weren’t following their own rules, millionaire footballers were partying while the rest of us self isolated, and those who were appointed to protect and serve murdered a man in Minneapolis, seemingly because of the colour of his skin. Notice though that this painting doesn’t single out any specific wrongdoer or wrongdoing. It simply stands as a stark reminder: actions have consequences, the chickens do come home to roost, you reap what you sow. Or as Robert Louis Stevenson said in the quote that inspired the painting’s title ‘Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.’ As I look at the silhouettes of figures in the picture, I’m asking are we the vultures or are we the meat? Perhaps the artist is implying that we’re both.
It reminds me of Ezekiel 24, where God pictures his people as meat to be thrown into a pot and cooked, because of the blood that they themselves had shed. Is the pandemic itself divine judgement on us all? I think that any kneejerk answer to that question is a bad idea, however, it’s a question that we surely need to ask and wrestle with. Duncan helps us do that brilliantly with this visceral, ominous image.
untitled – Kate Crumpler
And wherever we land on that question, in the Bible there is always a fitting response to disaster. Repentance. In Luke 13, Jesus comments on two local tragedies and he raises a question very similar to the one above: did these things happen as direct punishment for the victims’ sin? He answers ‘no’, but applies it to his hearers as if he’d said ‘yes’: “unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13, 3 and 5). Kate Crumpler’s short video piece presents her as the performance artist/prophet in the mould of Ezekiel, Isaiah or Jeremiah. Like the bloody cross in Benjamin Harris’ ‘Friar’, her message is unheeded as the streets are empty, but repentance is always first and foremost a personal act. As she enacts her weary trudge through suburban streets, clad in actual sackcloth, she surely points us to the most fitting response any of us could have to this year’s events. Again it leaves us with more questions than answers. For example, who is she repenting for? Herself? The church? Her nation? More excellent questions to ponder. Thank you Kate.
Well, that’s a downer! Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas and all that. In my defence, it has been a pretty grim year! However, for all its grimness and for all the sin and death and vultures and sackcloth and consumable human flesh, as Christians, we are a people of hope. And as Christians who make art, the artistic instinct to reimagine the future, combined with the Christian hope of the restoration of all things is a potent combination. As I’ll share tomorrow, you can see (and hear) that for yourself.
Jazz musician Max Roach noted that "the artist is like a secretary... he keeps a record of his time." In our 'in the rough' exhibition, several artistic secretaries, from in and around our network, kept a record of 2020 for us.
This is a difficult moment for many, but there's also a tangible resistance to the idea of 'business as usual'. Can we dream up a better vision for the arts, for the sake of our society's spiritual common life?
The recent fire in the roof of Notre Dame, and the international reaction to the rebuilding project, raise questions about the social value of art. How much do our buildings matter – and how much should we prioritise their preservation?