Editorial – September 2017

Art And The Public – A Short History

In the beginning the powerful provided the unlettered with uplifting Biblical pictures in churches. We were impressed ­even though some scenes threatened us with eternal agony if we broke their rules. The scarcity of pictures outside of church meant we were naturally curious about anything drawn or coloured. Wandering pedlars would show up to impress us with secular material, crude woodcuts, illuminated song sheets, lampoons and the like. And, of course, when they needed us to fight, pictures of kings and generals were carted about the land – they looked well fed and warm.

In bigger towns there soon opened shops with pictures in the windows done by local painters and engravers who sold work to landowners and, later, to tradesmen and factory owners. The gentry had their portraits painted mainly so they could admire themselves. We could see pictures through the windows of their houses. Some had mountains and blue skies, dead animals and naked bodies. Pictures in civic buildings told stories we could recognise. There were even public shows of famous pictures society folk queued to see. Small prints of these grandstand works were for sale in shop windows.

Eventually, after we had migrated to work in dirty towns, there were opened imposing stone buildings, like temples, full of paintings and statues which working people could see for nothing. They said these rooms were for us, but they weren’t really. Some of our kinder employers even paid for us to travel on chartered trains to look at famous works of art in glass palaces. They said they were ‘improving’ us in the appreciation of higher things. And they were very impressive, but had nothing to do with working lives like ours. About this time photographers opened shops and in their windows showed portrait displays of everyone famous. We learned from these public galleries that looks had nothing to do with position. Princes were just as likely to be bald, squinting, inelegant and bandy-legged as we were. Some photographs were so cheap that for the first time we could have pictures taken of ourselves. Then newspapers and weeklies started using drawings and, later, reproduced photos. Suddenly pictures were everywhere, and clever coloured posters appeared in the streets trying to sell us stuff we didn’t need.

Art never registered for us. Moving pictures were more to our taste, especially when they talked and were in colour and told stories about people like ourselves. We couldn’t get enough of those, still can’t, and we were even prepared to pay for them, sometimes more than once a week.

Without warning paintings began to look less realistic than they had before. Many mocked this new ‘modern’ approach, and the point of it certainly escaped us. Then came a war followed by a hard time when even those who were supposed to love art didn’t buy it. There were far more people painting pictures than there were others wanting to buy them or even look at them. There was another war, and after that art became anything anybody said it was. Now that was weird. It was meant to appeal to us because it wasn’t, they said, done in the old aristocratic way. Some painters felt guilty about leaving us behind by producing work hardly anyone understood, but their sympathy was misplaced. Having developed our own pastimes we couldn’t have cared less. Even when we told them it was of no interest the Government still sponsored art, allegedly for our benefit, which we never went to see.

Those few who liked the new way, and who claimed they were making it for everyone, tried desperately to get us to like it by mentioning it every day in the papers and on the telly. Most of it looked as though anyone could have done it. We laughed at how feeble it looked and couldn’t fathom what the fuss was about. In the old days we were stupid enough to believe that if we didn’t behave like Jesus a devil would skewer us with red hot spikes. We don’t believe everything we’re told any more, especially about what they tell us is Good Art. And still they can’t begin to understand our indifference. Truth is we’re not interested and never have been. We prefer the astonishing genius of Hollywood, soaps and box sets because we can choose for ourselves and the quality is obvious even to us. We’re simpletons you see. We will always like transfixing stories beautifully told with breathtaking skill and ingenuity.

But they never listen. They are like the unstoppable monster in B films forever lumbering towards us. Trying so hard to convert us must make them feel saintly even though we all know they do it only for themselves.

Odd that no one has ever asked us what we might want from them.

And that’s about where we’re up to.

David Lee
The Jackdaw Sep/Oct 2017