Art History 101: The Power of Art

Ernst Gombrich opened The Story of Art with this: "There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists."

At school my history of art teacher would set everyone this as their first essay, and repeat it whenever she felt it was useful:
"There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists". Ernst Gombrich.
It's a bit of a bummer when you're young, but being able to answer it is the key to the History of Art, and to understanding art, so I regularly copy her and set it.

Sometimes the art market can seem like too much marketing, but the key is that most 'artists' have fallen by the wayside over the centuries, and natural selection means that only the good ones' works survive. Artists are constantly being rediscovered, and some were wrongly forgotten, but often they are newly promoted as the art market needs new material, and there is a dearth of works by better artists.

I love photography. I can take photographs, in the sense that when I go on holiday I always take flattering photographs of everyone else ... but their photographs of me tend to show me twenty pounds heavier, with two chins and no face. I am a competent photographer, and I might even have taken the odd good photo over the years, but I am not an artist.

For years I used to pick up photographs when they were cheap and under-appreciated, so in a sense I have a small collection of photography. Whilst I would argue that Plautilla Nelli was 'forgotten' due to lack of talent, photography and film tend to be overlooked as art forms because people think "I could do that ..."

This is where the importance of Gombrich's point comes in. We can all take snapshots and videos, some can do it with more skill, but only an artist can produce photographs and video that are art. The key is that great art may no be pretty but it has the power to move people.

In January 2013 I was in Istanbul, and aroused the suspicion of the guards at SALT. They kept popping their heads into the room, and called a supervisor as there was someone spending too much time in an exhibition. It was 1 + 8 by Cynthia Madansky: 1 8 | SALT

SALT put this playlist online, but it was much more moving in situ:

There are photographs of the way the videos were arranged on the artist's web site here: Cynthia Madansky | 1 8 Installation. In a rectangular room roughly the shape of Turkey, the videos of people either side of the border were shown roughly where they were geographically. It was one of the most fascinating exhibitions I have seen in recent years, and exhibitions like this are why SALT is so highly regarded.

Madansky's work is art not documentary because she is an artist. It moved, it was memorable and it made people think.

Robert Lyons is an artist. His photographs have the power to move people, and that is why I think his photographs of Syria need to be made accessible. His other work can be found here.

Next time - why it applies to performance art too; why although at the time people mocked the neighbours for letting Banksy run riot in their garage, I turned a non-artist-assisted shade of green with envy.

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