Much has been written on the way art embraces or represents freedom. I’m not going down those roads particularly or into the work of individual artists’ (save one) as there just isn’t the space. What I want to do is ask, in the context of our approach to the previous two subjects, should art and artists be governed by any kind of rules? Throughout history there have been many “schools” or groups in art who have sought to “push the boundaries” of taste, decency & style. Here are just some with an example of one who painted in that style: Impressionism (Monet), Fauvism (Matisse), Cubism (Picasso), Surrealism (Magritte), Abstract Expressionism (Jackson Pollock), Pop Art (Warhol) and finally the anarchists of early 20th C Dadaism who challenged the established ways of painting or presenting art. Artists claim they want to have the freedom to paint or draw whatever they want. Should they?
How many of you would, for instance, want a young child to see pictures like those displayed in the 2004 Biennial International Exhibition in Liverpool by Yoko Ono? In the town centre, in the main shopping area, pictures of women’s breasts and crotches were displayed on large posters hanging from lamp posts – one picture, from the local press at the time, shows 10 down the side of just part of one street. Despite many complaints from parents concerned about these images being displayed where the very young could see them the exhibition went ahead. Is this the type of freedom you want? A repressive political regime restricts those under it but, in this case, a town council forced its people to look at images which many did not want to see. (There have been many other examples across the UK.) So what happened? Locals complained; visitors to the city complained; objections were overruled; objectors were vilified as “stick-in-the-muds”, frumps or puritans. Is that freedom or repression? Can you see the problem? Once again we have a situation where people who want one form of freedom override others who want a different sort of freedom.
If we talk about TV, books or exhibitions then the answer is clear – if you’re offended, turn it off or don’t look at or buy them, or don’t go to them. You are not forced to see these things just so you can complain. However, in the Liverpool example, in public streets with so many pictures, it’s difficult to avoid seeing what you’d rather not see!
If we introduce rules to keep “offending” material out of public areas then, providing it is legal, it will be shown at galleries or maybe in private exhibitions. That’s all well and good but are we then creating a kind of underground class of avant-garde arty types? – Do they become the ones who want to accept what the wider society rejects? Of course that division already exists and probably has done for hundreds of years. You can choose to be part of it. You can choose to reject it. At least you have the choice – the freedom to choose! In a public place you don’t.
The website Blurb.com has an interesting book from 2008, entitled Freedom & Art. The look inside preview is excellent and well worth a visit. (I’d be interested in any comments you may have on the individual quotes.) It is “dedicated to Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and is a fundraiser for Amnesty international. 74 international artists from 27 countries have donated art and written about the synergy of freedom.” (The Burmese pro-democracy leader had been under house arrest for 15 of the 21 years between 1989 & her release in Nov 2010.) It contains quotes from each of the artists who work is featured in the book. I can’t remember any which particularly acknowledge any responsibility being attached to the perspective on freedom which they espouse. Once again much of it seems to be mostly about the “me-me” view and not about whether my freedom has any effect on yours. It’s dangerous territory! It means that I, as an artist, am entitled to force my work into the public domain and you can’t stop me because then you will be limiting my freedom. Are you ok with being forced to see stuff you don’t really want to see? Is that the price of having a “free” society?
I hope you’ve spotted a key element in each of these lines of thought – offence. Without going too deeply into it – perhaps a topic for further investigation – it’s another difficult area isn’t it? I’m offended by something which you’re not; you’re offended by something which I’m not. Is either of us right? In a democratic society is it the majority that is right? Or do they just get their way because there are more of them? So 51% = right, 49% = wrong?
Just as with freedom in music so we face a similar problem with freedom in art. I suspect you can now see that freedom as a concept is becoming slightly more difficult to define – amorphous even. If freedom were a tree it would have many branches: political, religious, societal, musical, artistic etc. The trouble is these branches do not grow independently outwards and upwards. They are intertwined and, at times, may appear almost symbiotic. Trees, in the natural world, grow by a process called photosynthesis. An outside agent (in that case, the sun) provides the means by which they, and other plant life, grow. Where are we going to find the photosynthetic agent, if there is one, for our freedom tree? How does it or can it grow in the future? And who says whether my freedom tree is better (or more worthy) than yours?
Perhaps we’ve set out on an impossible journey. Perhaps the key is finding out how personal freedom is possible without infringing someone else’s but living within the laws of a society where the rights of the individuals in it are acknowledged and respected. Can those free-thinking inhabitants of “Art-Land” show us the way? Realistically, how can art help us in our quest especially when its practitioners seem to reject the very idea of rules governing what it & they can do?
Here’s a thought from A.P. Herbert (1890-1971):
“As my poor father used to say,
Once people start on all this Art,
And what my father used to say,
Is good enough for me.”