By Chloe Darnaud
There you are hazily staring at a fully black canvas at Tate Modern wondering about the purpose of art. People behind you are carefully examining each corner of the painting, nodding approvingly and making comments about Pierre Soulages’ genius. You can hear them murmuring on how light is coming out of his painting even though it’s pitch black. They’re also whispering something about “outrenoir”, whatever that means. Art is often considered a useless luxury and people assume the world wouldn’t drastically change if it no longer existed. But what if it could?
Art has the power to convey political messages. Since the beginning of the century, the medium is becoming more revolutionary. Take the Guerrilla Girls’ political activism regarding the under-representation of women in museums, Takashi Murakami’s satirical paintings or simply Banksy’s street art. It’s everywhere now. Artists are becoming more politically engaged and protest art is growing stronger.
The American Dream: Pop to The Present exhibition at the British Museum, opens on the 9th of this month and examines the works of politically engaged pop artists such as Andy Warhol, Kara Walker and Ed Ruscha. Andy Warhol’s satiric portraits of Richard Nixon and Jackie Kennedy illustrate the power of art. By painting Nixon’s face green Warhol diabolises the president and implicitly critiques American democracy.
Paintings can highlight issues of their time but so can any type of visual arts, from social literature like Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables to politically engaged lyrics by the Beastie Boys. Even cinema can incite social revolution like in Roman Polanski’s film Pirates and criticise governmental institutions like in I, Daniel Blake where Ken Loach attacks Britain’s state welfare.
Wars, terrorism, financial crises lead to a much greater awareness of society, a feeling increased by globalisation. Chaotic times particularly encourage social and political involvement. Ai Weiwei, whose art was censored by the Chinese government, is the ultimate symbol of political resistance in the 21st century. He covered Berlin’s Konzerthaus with 14,000 used lifejackets to deplore the alarming number of migrants dead at sea. His installation had a direct, simple message to convey. It did not stop the slaughter of hundreds of migrants at sea each week, but it drew more attention to it.
Art is powerful, it can be openly subjective, biased and political. But art’s primary aim is not to educate. “Art does not reproduce the visible but makes visible,” said Paul Klee. The beauty of art reveals the beauty of the world. Its main purpose is to delight. The work of the artist changes your perceptions. It can also teach you to love things you hate. It can make the ugly beautiful. Think of Quentin Massys’ The Ugly Duchess for instance. Art beautifies everything and anything from frightening storms to abandoned buildings.
But it has more than just an aesthetic purpose. It has the power to transfer emotions. The “catharsis” is when you identify yourself in a work of art and thus exorcise your own torments. Art, in other words, allows individuals to become conscious of their own psychological concerns. The final scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for instance, is a relatable passage. Losing a loved one is a feeling most people can share, whether through death or mere separation. Maybe art isn’t a life necessity but at least it makes you feel emotions. By looking at an artwork, what your eye sees connects directly to your soul. There is no universal definition of beauty, it’s about what you relate to, what it reminds you of.
Even the simplest work of art reveals the truth. In John Ruskin’s first volume of Modern Painters, he defended William Turner’s landscape paintings, using his skills in geology, botany, and meteorology, to demonstrate the truth of nature Turner’s work presented. He described Turner’s early work as particularly accurate. Writing about the artist’s Slave Ship painting, Ruskin wrote “its colour is absolutely perfect, not one false or morbid hue in any part or line”. Even the works of art that don’t seem to be engaged, that believe in “art for art’s sake” indirectly deliver opinions by using the beauty of things to escape daily frustrations. Henri Matisse, for example, was diagnosed with duodenal cancer in 1941 and his wife and daughter were deported the following year but he always painted in bright joyful colours. The fact that the artist’s palette never became any darker delivers a message in itself, a form of resistance to inner pain.
No, the human being would not perish without art. But our history would. Think of the prehistoric cave paintings, like the Lascaux Caves, in the southwest of France, also known as “the prehistoric Sistine Chapel”. Think of why Islamic State’s destruction of the Baal Shamin temple in Palmyra was dubbed a “crime against humanity” by the UN. Art is a fundamental tool for historians. It’s part of humanity’s heritage.
Art has an impact on its public whether it is intellectual, psychological or emotional. It makes us appreciate the beauty of the world. It allows us to reflect upon ourselves and our relationships to others. Without it there would be no history and society would be buried in obscurity. Thanks to art there is hope for humanity, light within the darkness and suddenly Pierre Soulages’ work makes complete sense.