An evening lecture on The Sacred and the Secular in Contemporary Art with Charles Saumarez Smith (Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts), left a deep impression upon me.
Before I get ahead of myself, the lecture was billed as’An exploration of some of the relationships between the practice of contemporary art and religion: the search for transcendence; the idea of the sacred; and the use of symbolic meaning.. with examples drawn from the work of, amongst others, Alison Watt, Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor and Edmund de Waal.‘
Before you juggle with all of that, it boiled down to this: are people today finding something in galleries which they used to find in Church?
Mr Smith certainly felt they were, and statistical attendance of galleries does suggest that in terms of numbers and regular attendance, galleries may indeed be fulfilling a need in people to get away from the rhythms of everyday life and experience – if even for an hour or two – a life less ordinary, if you will.
All of this touches on why the experience of seeing great Art is so uplifting, and it was to this question to which I was drawn – or rather directed to, by Mr Smith’s excellent lecture.
Not all art is uplifting of course, much less spiritual. You must have experienced this; go to any number of local galleries and plough through wall after wall of those old standards; local landscapes, dog portraits, a sunset or two, maybe a snow scene and a harbour scene… quite.
You might be by turns, informed, impressed or so forth ; but moved? Spiritually in the moment? Not likely.
Now transport yourself in your minds eye to a great show, and place yourself in front of a powerful piece of Art – and it doesn’t matter which one -as long as it works for you. How do you feel? Can’t take your eyes off it? Lose yourself in the moment? Thrill at the use of colour? Of artistic vision? Of value? Of scale?
Great Art takes us somewhere other than where we are, and leaves us with a memory of something which is more than the sum of its parts. It’s experiential. Have enough great art in one space and the whole thing might fairly be described as creating a transcendental – almost religious experience.
And so to the most interesting part of an interesting evening. Mr Smith discussed in passing the general public’s cogent, coherent and articulate reaction when asked to jot down their thoughts on Rembrandt’s works, before noting (with not a little regret, I’m pleased to say) these ideas were not, felt by the gallery to be qualified, as compared to those of an art historian for instance .
In plain language; Art should be seen, approached and commented on through the lens of academia, if opinions on it are to be given weight, but is that a sustainable position for publicly funded institutions?
I’ve never had a problem with differentiating religion – as in organised worship, with faith, and understand that its quite possible to have one without partaking of the other, and indeed the two may become incompatible . This it seems to me lies at the heart of Mr Smith’s observation, in a time when people are increasingly being engaged with art , are our institutions increasingly engaging with people?
When I look around the contemporary art world, I wonder – I really do – if inclusivity is at the top of many curator’s measures of success. When institutions meet public demand they must bend to that flow or the stream of public enthusiasm will simply find a new course.
Fail to meet demand,ignore expectations, inform people they are wrong and the public will break with you. Schism – as the church would assure you – is a terrible thing.
So to keep with Smith’s religious metaphor, we have in one corner the established Church with all its rituals, dogma, and formality, in the other unqualified expressions of faith, honestly felt and directly expressed. As with the Catholic Church and early Protestantism, so with art historians and art lovers.
Replace the word’Church’ with ‘Gallery’ and we neatly have both Mr Smith’s opportunity and his dilemma.
The opportunity here, it seems to me is to open the Art world to these honestly and directly expressed opinions, and not disqualify people from holding a valid opinion on art merely on the grounds they are not ordained to do so by having passed through some course in Art History on how to think and feel about Art.
If, as Mr Smith asserts, the common man is finding something in our galleries and museums which he or she no longer finds in church, then it follows that these institutions should now consider if they are doing enough and if not then how the common man reacted to dogma in times past.
As Machiavelli noted ‘Prudent men are won’t to say – and this not rashly or without good ground – that he who would forsee what has to be should reflect on what has been.’
Mr Smith strikes me as a prudent, impressive and thoughtful figure, I eagerly await the time when he nails his equivalent of Luther’s 95 theses to the door of the contemporary art establishment.