{ Personal interest } Art is USELESS

One evening last week, whilst editing a few pictures from a recent trip to Wales, I was watching a documentary in which Stephen Fry was travelling through The States, interviewing people, trying new foods, and discovering derelict towns in the deepest darkest and long forgotten parts of…. oops I forgot where exactly…  Anyhoo, in this documentary (Stephen Fry in America), he reaches Houston, Texas and in an attempt to find out what oils the wheels of Texan high society, Stephen attends a fundraiser for the Society of performing arts.
Now, as I’m sitting there on my bed, listening and watching bits and pieces of this documentary, it was the following statement that cought my full attention..

Oscar Wilde quite rightly said:

All art is useless’. And that may sound as if that means it’s something not worth supporting. But if you actually think about it,

the things that matter in life are useless.

Love is useless…

Wine is useless…

Art is the love and wine of life. It is the extra,

without which,

life is not worth living…”

With curiosity and intent I listened and watched Mr. Fry on my screen, my heartstrings latched on to each of his words like it was the last food my soul would ever receive again…

SENSE! He makes sense… but he made sense of art, so beautifully.

I then remembered another speech of his from a few years ago, and how it also made me stop in my tracks and listen with intent. Nothing has resonated with me so deeply, as the following words;

“In an increasingly infantilised world where so much seems to be split into good or bad, correct or incorrect, acceptable or unacceptable, where complex ideas are chopped up for public consumption like food chopped up for a child, where so much is hygienic, attainable, safe, sugared, assimilable, digestible, pasteurised, homogenised and sanitised, in such a world our appetite has never been greater for the complex, the ambiguous, the challenging, the untamed, the sharp, the peculiar, the surprising, the dangerous, the dirty, the difficult, the untameable, the elusive, the unsafe and the unknowable.” – Stephen Fry and his view on art, artists and viewing exhibitions.

As much as I tried to remember the speech with any kind of accuracy, I couldn’t.
Thankfully Google has much better memory than I, so below you will find some of the most interesting extracts from Stephen Fry’s wonderful speech at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in June 2010.

I hope it makes you think too…

“Your Royal Highness, Your Grace, My Lord Bishop, Your Excellencies, Honoured President, Academicians, Lords, Ladies, Gentlemen, artists, art lovers, friends, trustees, donors, distinguished guests and assorted media scum. I rise to my feet on this occasion with a due sense of the honour that has been accorded me and not a little fear and an – I hope – becoming sense of unworthiness. For I am not an artist. Those of you that are artists are the most important people in this room. I do not say that out of sycophancy, it is in this academy a constitutional fact. There are many societies and institutions in Britain where you as artists would come lower down the social order than estate agents, debt collectors or even television actors and bankers, but not here. In the press, in much of television, in bars, clubs and workplaces all over the country artists only usually feature in conversation when they have been committed some perceived outrage against public sensibility, gullibility or decency. Otherwise they are grudgingly tolerated, faintly patronised, clumsily misunderstood or cheerfully ignored. I cannot speak for artists in knowing whether this is a good thing or a bad, some of you may prefer it that way. And of course no one of you can speak for all artists, for if ever there were a diverse collection of recalcitrant, cussed and bloody-minded individualists it is artists: one artist alone is a political party, two artists together are a rebellion, three artists in the same room are a civil war…. But my point is that whatever the position of the artist in the wider world, your position here is paramount. The administrators, financiers, public figures, the great, the good, the donors, the supporters, the mighty, the famous and the fabulous here are all in this place your submissive underlings…”

“He (referring to Oscar Wilde) occupies so important a position in the painting because he was one of the first figures and certainly the most articulate, to raise art from a hobby, a taste, an enthusiasm or an extra in life, to the status of a moral philosophy: he privileged art as the primary and central mode of human expression, the shortest path to the truth and to happiness, the highest and most important pursuit, calling or achievement to which humanity could aspire. But of course the more important art is to us, the more self-conscious we are when confronting it. “

(Referring to one’s experience of visiting a gallery)
“Are we supposed to know facts about the artists and their works? Are we supposed to talk? Shall we be entirely silent and slowly stand and stare at works without comment and without revealing what we feel or shall we occasionally dare to say that we like this expression, or that shape, or those colours? Do we whisper to our companions, or do we imitate that awful show-off over there who is talking so knowledgeably and loudly about morbidezza, sfumato and golden sections? And isn’t it actually snobbish of us to disapprove of him, he is obviously enjoying himself and what is wrong with him imparting his enthusiasm and knowledge to his companion? Why should we assume he is showing off, doesn’t that assumption reveal nothing but our own self-conscious insecurity? Oh dear. It’s all so complicated. Aren’t we just striking a pose too, the pose of one who refuses to listen to any nonsense about art history, or pay any attention to the tradition or biographical background of the works before us. In fact we are going to ignore the so-called masterpiece in front of us and stylishly prefer the lesser known work next to it, just to show how original we are and how unswayed by reputations.

“We yearn to be open, to learn, to be provoked, to engage honestly, simply and truthfully with a work, but to do so we must leave our self-aware, social, verbal and public selves behind.”

“…the power to rise above self-consciousness is almost a defining quality of artists. Artists are superb at switching off awareness of self. As you can tell if you watch one eat. “

“A painter makes a painting out of paint – paint is its language. If you can define it, nail it, comprehend it in words then something is rather wrong. A work of art is precisely that which remains when you have run out of words to describe it. The works that move us most are those that have the most life and power in them when the talking stops. “

“Or perhaps they are looking cross because it is art and art is supposed, isn’t it, to be serious and important and therefore demands a serious and important face? “

The rest of the speech can be found HERE.

Wow… I can’t name one other person who can articulate his thoughts better than Stephen Fry. If I had one of those dinner parties where I could invite any 5 guests from anywhere in the world, living or not, my first ticket would go to him, and I would sit there, occasionally touching his hand, hoping, praying, that some of his intelligence would rub off on me…


all images in this post taken by Nadine Burzler


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