Press |  1970s | 

‘Painting today: a questionnaire’

1. Would you agree there is a crisis of function for painters, and if so how do you think it might be resolved? 2. Do you consider there is any one way of painting – i.e. figurative, abstract, constructist [sic] etc. – likely to be of more social relevance than another? 3. Do such activities as community and performance art seem to you helpful in involving more people in the art of their time? Alternatively, do none of these questions seem to you to have anything to do with the business of the artist?


The processes of change that continue to take place in art are slower and more hidden, necessarily, than the critic would wish them to be. Changes are gradually revealed to the artist, they are not programmed and usually take unexpected turns. A lot has been heard about ‘Socially relevant’ art both pre and post war and it is apparent that in every decade attempts are made to revive the corpse. If one makes a list of the best artists of this century, it does not include artists particularly noted for their social relevance, for example, Matisse, Picasso, Miro, Rothko, Morris Louis, Hans Hofmann, Caro, David Smith or Moore. All art eventually becomes socially relevant, it springs from the individual’s near, unconscious, awareness of the human condition within collective life.

Education and the media could persuade larger numbers of people to become more aware of the visual arts and in so doing perhaps more people might wish to become artists. This would not guarantee great art, of course, and if it did the so-called ‘people’ would have a new role, that of being ‘artists’. Surely no one would be against this situation but the critic cannot be sure that the ‘working man’ would want to make ‘socially relevant’ art. In my experience young people today are not particularly interested in left- or right-wing theories, reminders of the ‘twenties and ‘thirties; they are more open to new experiences and live freer lives having been exposed to more. I look forward keenly to the work of the younger generation and also to the contributions from the ‘Third World countries’ and the influence they will inevitably have on Western European culture.

The question still remains, should art try to compete with other forms of recreation for mass participation. People have to feel the need for it; if and when they do, fine. I still wonder whether the mass commercialisation of music, for instance, lowered awareness to a crass level?

Some critics have suggested that art is at present in an impasse but art always appears to be at an impasse until artists change the situation.

Andy Warhol said that his ambition was to have a ‘Boss’, and I can see that this is an attractive notion. The problems in Art as in Life, to quote Richard Hoggart, are those of ‘the burden of choice’, to be told what to do and where, and be paid to do it; and therefore evade the responsibility. It sounds OK. In America recently extreme religious cults have been attracting large numbers of young people. The pressures on young artists provided by the anti-painting and -sculpture lobby and the general lack of encouragement economically has forced a lot of them to feel that they are in a hopeless  situation. Ironically the critics who represent these views are the same ones who a couple of years ago were advocating the red herring of conceptual art in its various forms, attempting to bring object-making into disrepute, in favour of manifestoes of intent. Their role is now completely reversed. They are now offering another option to the artist who has lost his way, the chance to paint in a way that will be immediately attractive to the public, and serve a political purpose. Something to believe in, which brings us back to Andy Warhol’s ‘Boss’ fantasy.

No doubt public funds and support from the trade unions could follow (not necessarily from the members). The content of art could be safely left to the critics or politicians (Guttuso is now a Communist Senator in Rome).

The lessons to be learned from socially relevant art, as we have seen in Russia and Iron Curtain countries, have taught us nothing, and one might bleakly predict that the great art of the last fifty years might once again go unheeded, but it’s not going to happen. One thing is certain, that great art in the final analysis must be great as art; whatever the subject happens to be.

Having re-read my answers to your questions, I would not wish it to sound as though I go around with these ideas at the forefront of my mind 24 hours a day. In fact they only arise when these questions are asked. I would say that the questions themselves are hypothetical and have come about out of an artificially created situation.

Painters and students that I know don’t discuss them, nor do people not involved in the arts. I mean, do people really want enormous, badly-conceived and ill-executed murals on the sides of their homes? If they do, include me out.

Editorial notes: the questionnaire also included answers from, among others: Victor Pasmore, Ben Nicholson, Howard Hodgkin and Patrick Caulfield.]

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