Indirectly we go abroad every day…

Sometimes they come out of the blue – thoughts that clarify things quite other than that they were intended to explain. So it was with this elegant explanation about the importance of our international trade by Sir Rupert Pennant-Rea ‘indirectly all Britons go abroad every day‘.

And so we do, even the most xenophobic UKIP supporter, little Englander and ‘draw up the drawbridge’ Brexiteer is affected like it or not by what we import and on which terms.

As with economics, so with Culture.

Art infuses and informs the everyday, from the way we package our groceries, to the colour of our cars, the design of our homes or the clothes we wear.  We might equally say ‘indirectly all Britons go to the gallery every day.’

In the early 20th century artists became keenly aware that easel painting if not exactly dead, needed to do a bit more to avoid appearing comatose. The answer of course was to stop pretending paintings should look ‘real’ and find a real use for them.


Its a an absolutely accurate drawing of an absolutely accurate sculpture, let’s not pretend it’s anything more than craft. Matisse understood that Art was more than this…


Matisse, Picasso, Vuillard, Monet understood that Art had to be applied not just to canvases but to life. Decorative, beautiful and Applied were in, illusions of depth, clever tricks of reality and impeccable sight size measuring all seemed very 19th century.


Breathtaking technique allied to a breathtaking lack of relevance. Sargent simultaneously at his best and most pointless.

This is the real reason Sargent, Zorn, Sorolla – and all of the ateliers who aped their backward looking illusory style  – were so confidently labelled ‘irrelevant ‘ by new artists and thinkers.  Sargent can impress with his technical virtuosity, be of interest for revealing his time – just as Holbein does – but does his work resonate beyond the studio and lofty world of ebauche painters with a penchant for loose realism? I think not.

The deepest roots and strongest branches of Art are universal. Colour, Value, Design, Aesthetic. Artists teach us not just to look but how to see. They select, they simplify, they elevate and – above all – they democratise.


In 1920, Monet began studies for the decoration of a room on its own in a pavilion that was to be built in the garden of Hôtel Biron, owned by the Duc de Trévise. The planned decoration consisted of friezes with wisteria motifs placed above a panel decoration with the water-lily theme. Painting moved away from the easel back to Applied Art and popular culture – when did we stop getting this?

Build something, design a poster, develop a range of fabric, choose a range of colours for new products and Art creeps in. Monet taught us how to reimagine colour, Matisse that design was Art, Picasso that primitivism and simplicity were direct pathways to understanding.

The true challenge facing today’s artists is to build upon these cultural achievements. The general public know deep in their collective memory that Art was a driving force in how life looked and that contemporary Art has consistently failed to meet this test.

When we like an unlikely combination of colours, the juxtaposition of definite and vague, a bold use of pattern, a neatly asymmetrical design or an inherently pleasing proportion  we ‘indirectly go to the gallery’.

When we feel Art is ‘about nothing’, ‘inexplicable’ ‘baffling’ or ‘pointless’ it’s because it doesn’t meet the high bar set by artists  whose deep cultural significance flows like an underground stream through our everyday life. In the words of a Guardian critic on the recent British Art show , ‘I have seen every British Art Show since its inception in 1979. Except as barometers of the artistic and curatorial weather at the time, most have been forgettable’. 

The trick to not being forgettable, it seems to me, is to evoke and stimulate memory – build on the past, not consign it to history. People know what they like, and while its true that people can only know what’s familiar, Art has proven time and again that popular taste is a good barometer for evolutionary change, and critical taste is conservative and elitist.

Art should challenge, it should inform, but above all it must communicate by adding to what came before in a language we understand and that moves us.


‘I could do that’, ‘ its not Art’, ‘What’s it all about?’ We have to start taking the wisdom of the masses seriously and stop meeting incomprehension with derision and scorn. If our visual communication isn’t communicating, who’s at fault? Whipp wants ex-employees of the Longbridge car plant to restore this so he can drive it to the last BAS8 venue in Southampton – now that’s a test of public engagement .

Call it the wisdom of the masses, call it what you will; the problem is nobody is listening: Down with the revolution.




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