Defending the arts

The novelist and stand-up AL Kennedy wrote this terrific defence of arts spending in yesterday’s Guardian. What’s important about her argument, and about Philip Pullman’s magnificent speech about libraries last week, is that they are defending the arts on their own ground and for their own sake, rather than accepting the terms of the opposing argument, namely that they’re not financially self-sufficient. If those of us who care about reading and writing and paintings and plays can’t defend them on their merits we have failed: this is not about defending their value in the market, it’s about defending their value in our lives. As Kennedy says, “The arts communicate the humanity of others to us and our own humanity to them”.

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London’s summer of loveliness

A strange thing has happened in London this summer. While politicians have indulged themselves in ever more empty macho posturing, each one boasting to have made more savage cuts than the last, the capital’s art venues have been filled with a spirit of playfulness and kindness, and a series of shows and experiences that have left even hard-hearted critics with a giddy smile on their face.

At the Hayward Gallery Ernesto Neto, has filled the concrete corridors with colourful gossamer tunnels, each of them scented with herbs. There’s a magical tea house to sit in, a playhouse turret to climb and even, installed on the gallery roof, a swimming pool, which we swam in at the Hayward party, feeling slightly like a performing seal and hoping that no-one would throw fish. I also loved Rosalie Schweiker’s charming, interactive installation at her Camberwell MA show, part of her Emely project.

At the V&A there’s the Architects Build Small Spaces show: seven perfect small buildings that play with our ideas of inside, outside, sanctuary and space. They are also truly interactive as visitors clamber past each other, exchanging looks, comments and smiles. My favourite is from Studio Mumbai Architects: modelled on dwellings crammed into a narrow urban corridor behind the Studio Mumbai offices, it presents an architectural ‘cast’ of a sliver of space that is home to a family of eight.

At BAC there was the thrilling one-on-one festival, in which we interacted almost as much with other audience members as performers, swapping stories, recommendations and warnings. Not all the shows were for the faint-hearted — Internal returned for another soul-crunching run, while you might also be kidnapped or locked in a coffin — but the overall effect was one of remarkable warmth, trust and shared experience, none more intense than being bathed, cradled and fed by the remarkable Adrian Howells. Other favourites for me were Lundahl and Seitl‘s spooky, unsettling Rotating In A Room Of Images, Through The Wardrobe by Breathe and the little treasure hunt from Coney, one of the most exciting companies working in London right now.

At the National Theatre there’s Watch This Space, which continues through September, with many more delights to come. I particularly enjoyed metro-boulot-dodo’s FIB, in which 14 audience members spend 3 minutes in each of 14 boxes over the course of an hour, each one a mini experience about truth and lies. It still feels like a work in progress, and needs to challenge the audience more, but it has the germ of something that could really leave its mark.

And of course there was the latest iteration of the delirious, exhilarating You Me Bum Bum Train, which is the closest you will ever come in real life to this:

There’s plenty more to look forward to, including September’s Thames Festival, which includes a brand new project from the House of Fairytales, Joanna MacGregor’s Ignite at ROH and the welcome return of The Paper Birds to CPT. In the meantime I’m heading to Edinburgh to see if the spirit of loveliness has made its way up north.

The Sacred Made Real

The National Gallery’s current exhibition, The Sacred Made Real, is one of the most original and thought-provoking of the past year (it finishes on January 24th). It brings together some of the greatest Spanish paintings of the 17th century, including works by Velasquez and Zubaran, alongside a number of painted wooden statues of the period, most of which have never left Spain before.

These statues, which have tended to be dismissed as little more than kitsch by Northern European critics, are a revelation: exquisitely made, beautifully painted and full of emotion. There are monks, there are saints and sinners — Pedro de Mena’s Mary Magdalene Meditating on the Crucifixion is particularly striking, and you won’t forget Juan de Mesa’s gruesome severed Head Of John The Baptist — but above all there are Christs, pleading, dead or dying, suspended from the cross.

If you want to understand a religion, look at its art. This is unmistakably Spanish Christianity: where Northern European is restrained and closed, and Italian celebratory and lush, this is raw and unashamedly emotive, almost literally wearing its heart on its sleeve. This is the religion that pours out of Spain’s Moorish heritage, a savage Inquisition and the scorching, unforgiving sun, and these are not the stern, dignified Christs that you’d seen in a German cathedral but stripped and bleeding, butchered to death. And they are brutally realistic, not just in their modeling and colour, but often in materials too: real cloth folds around their loins, some have teeth of carved ivory, and glass eyes give them a spooky, liquid stare. This is a faith that sees Christ’s suffering not as a story from the past but as a day-to-day reminder of just what his sacrifice entailed.

There’s something rather ghoulish, almost car-crash about these statues: they feel less like something you’d see in a cathedral than a clip you’d see on YouTube, then wish you hadn’t looked. They’re painfully explicit, a pornography of pain, and you can’t help wondering if it became a bit competitive: who could render the most realistic, most authentically upsetting model of a man in agony?

And that’s what’s strange and powerful about them. Most art, even still art, is in essence animation: bringing what has never lived to life. And most paintings are pure character: there’s realism, yes, but it’s all in the service of the story. The setting, the other characters, the frame, all serve, however “real” the portrayal, to illustrate a narrative we’ve all known all our lives: what we’re seeing on the cross is Jesus, in his various pictorial forms. These statues, on the other hand, aspire to documentary: they are (mostly) life-size replicas of appalling human suffering. And the effect actually shocks you from the story into real human pity, in a way that paintings rarely ask.

It’s a strange and slightly uncomfortable experience, this show, and the atmosphere in the Sainsbury Wing basement is hushed and respectful, half gallery, half crypt. Whatever the power of painting — and there’s some magnificent art here too — these statues deliver a shiver that very few images alone can match. They may be overwrought and glossy, but they are, nonetheless, a potent demonstration both of a raw faith in religion, and a real fear of human pain.

“Elephant dung is so last season, darling”

Picture 2My Name Is Charles Saatchi And I Am An Artoholic is a new book published by Phaidon to co-incide with the BBC’s forthcoming search for a new British art star, co-created with Charles Saatchi. Saatchi is famously shy — he doesn’t even attend his own exhibition openings: “I don’t go to other people’s openings, so I extend the same courtesy to my own” — and generally shuns interviews, so it’s a rare chance to hear his opinions on art, life and his own talents.

The book is a series of answers to questions submitted by critics, journalists and members of the public. It’s funny, forthright and thought-provoking, but its real appeal is not its revelations — don’t ever expect Saatchi to let down his guard — but Saatchi’s own, dry, very distinctive voice. So here are a few highlights from the collection:

Perhaps your greatest legacy will be that you, more than any other, have been responsible for pitching modern and contemporary art into the UK’s cultural mainstream. Contemporary art is now discussed in taxis and government think tanks. Did you set out to achieve this from the start?

Yes.

Looking ahead; in 100 years time, how do you think British art of the early 21st century will be regarded? Who are the great artists who will pass the test of time?

General art books dated 2105 will be as brutal about editing the late 20th century as they are about almost all other centuries. Every artist other than Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd and Damien Hirst will be a footnote.

Why has Damien Hirst lost his inspiration?

He is a deeply gifted artist, a genius among us, but he’s had a bad run of shows over the past few years. All great artists have an off patch, and he’s having his. Usually when that happens, artists try too hard and the results look effortful and overblown. But I’m sure his next show will be a winner.

Does refurbishing Damien Hirst’s rotting shark rob it of its meaning as art?

Completely.

You’ve been successful at discovering new artistic talent. But are there not always great artists who go undiscovered?

By and large talent is in such short supply, mediocrity can be taken for genius rather more than genius can go undiscovered.

You famously created the slogan ‘Labour Isn’t Working’. Were you a Tory? Are you a Tory?

I once also threw myself into the Health Department’s Anti-Smoking campaign, visited emphysema wards, studied pictures of cancerous lungs and came up with the grisliest copy I could — puffing away happily as I wrote. How sweet of you to think that advertising copy is written from the heart.

With your former adman’s hat on for a moment, would you say that David Cameron has the X factor?

I’d rather have Simon Cowell.

Can you tell me anything about yourself that might make me like you?

But why would I care whether you like me?

City and Guilds degree show

This was another exciting selection of student work, from delicate drawings to full-scale installations. I loved Anne Marie Taberdo‘s utterly immersive installation: an ice chamber built from polystyrene that was enchanting and unnerving all at once:

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But my favourite was Jemma Appleby‘s enormous drawings, setting real modernist buildings into deep, dark fairytale forests. Glowing from the shadows, they could be peaceful retreats from city life, or something far more sinister: what’s going on inside them that has to be so hidden from the world? Beautiful, impassive, they give away no secrets, every one a mystery that lingers in your mind. I was reminded of Peter Doig; Appleby also cites Andrew Wyeth and James Turrell, whose latest extraordinary project was recently unveiled in Cadiz.

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