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Aspects of the contemporary – a context for thinking about art

In another piece of writing, it was suggested that elements of thinking about art would need to be viewed within some understandings of the contemporary context. What is it about society today that shapes how art is produced, exchanged and consumed? What is unique today about the conditions within which artists work and audiences approach the art made? What follows

Art Theorising: a process of open exploration

Art theory, like art history, is often presented in terms of sequences, schools of thought, or key individual thinkers– looking both for unique perspectives and for linkages between these. Art theory has also tended to be Art Theory ie a bundle of expert knowledge, to be taught and written about; usually treated as a summary. It is less seen as

Art and identity

For the purposes of this piece of writing, art will be restricted very largely to painting and performance art of Europe and the US. Some references will be made to art from elsewhere, particularly when considering the broadened art world of contemporary art practices. Identity will follow the lines of modern sociology (in which identity is taken as being created

Art and war

This exploration of Art and War will take an overview of the various connections between war and art; then look at the work of some artists who were, officially or incidentally, portrayers of war activity between 1914 and the present day. It is not intended as a comprehensive list of artists who have made works relating to war. Nor is

Aspects of the contemporary – a context for thinking about art

In another piece of writing, it was suggested that elements of thinking about art would need to be viewed within some understandings of the contemporary context. What is it about society today that shapes how art is produced, exchanged and consumed? What is unique today about the conditions within which artists work and audiences approach the art made?

What follows are some facets of the contemporary that have been proposed as defining our age (eg the period from the past few decades up to the present). Some of these might also have been put forward as descriptors of earlier periods (eg 1900-1940, or 1960-1980), but what is different now is the scale and pace associated with those elements. Other things are clearly new to the contemporary, with its electronically-driven processes.

These observations have been grouped into three broad groupings that have a high degree of interaction across each other.

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Art Theorising: a process of open exploration

Art theory, like art history, is often presented in terms of sequences, schools of thought, or key individual thinkers– looking both for unique perspectives and for linkages between these.

Art theory has also tended to be Art Theory ie a bundle of expert knowledge, to be taught and written about; usually treated as a summary. It is less seen as art theorising ie a process, open to many, with ‘maybe’ and ‘good enough for now’ tentative aspects to it. From this second perspective art theory is less a canon of ideas to be applied to art; and more of an emerging, loose, adaptable framework within which art can be considered and within which things might be thought through.

What is suggested here is that art theorising is a process of reinvestigation, of reconstruction, of regeneration – using elements of previous ways of theorising. The kind of thinking imagined is along the lines of hinging fragmentary understandings together in ways that make personal sense – a kind of ‘build our own theorisation’ process.

Setting these thinkings within considerations of the nature of contemporary society, may allow people to follow their own theorisations about art in the current context: what art is; why it is; where it is shifting; and what this means for society in general.

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Art and identity

For the purposes of this piece of writing, art will be restricted very largely to painting and performance art of Europe and the US. Some references will be made to art from elsewhere, particularly when considering the broadened art world of contemporary art practices. Identity will follow the lines of modern sociology (in which identity is taken as being created at the meeting place of subjective processes inscribed within the way people live, and the social narratives that position us towards particular ways of being). Within this line of thought, the individual is shaped by genetics, environment, upbringing and life-choices but in conditions that are largely socially prescribed at the time.

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Art and war

This exploration of Art and War will take an overview of the various connections between war and art; then look at the work of some artists who were, officially or incidentally, portrayers of war activity between 1914 and the present day. It is not intended as a comprehensive list of artists who have made works relating to war. Nor is it a history of war art. One theme will be how and why war-related art has been made, and who the audiences may have been.

In and around times of war, art can be made for a number of purposes. The artistic urge to record or comment may be driven by motivations around celebration, memorialisation, propaganda, information, and moral stances that can be pro- or anti-war. The work of the artist throughout various wars has been to describe events. This has, at times, been extended to call into question the purpose of war, the nature of society and to reflect on the human condition.

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Art and abstraction

Abstraction as an approach has had a major impact in developments within art. An exploration into abstraction in art is faced with an almost irresistible urge to collapse back into lists of artists who have used abstraction; schools of abstract art; and well-recognised works of abstract art ie an art history approach to abstraction. Instead, this exploration will attempt to get at some understanding of the nature of abstraction; the thinking behind any approach that can support the use of abstraction, in varying ways; the use that has been made of it by artists over the last two hundred years; and the role or function that abstraction may have in art today, and what future, if any, abstract art may have.

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Art and the city

This short exploration of art and cities will begin with an overview of some thinking on cities as social entities; then look at how certain cities have been key sites for the production and consumption of art; and finally look at how artists have variously responded to the changing natures of cities, finishing with an overview of an exhibition ‘Metropolis’ as an example of how a wide range of international contemporary artists have approached the subject.

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Art, fragments and wholes

Making any artwork involves issues of relationships of various parts to the final object. The finished whole is determined by issues of composition, colour, emphasis, flow, light and shadow, perspective, and so on. These are artist decisions and skills brought variously into play as the work progresses. A number of art works will be considered, via this perspective of fragments and wholes.

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Art, stability and change

Art can be viewed through the lens of change or through a lens of stability, in relation to a number of things:

  • The purpose of art in society: its ability to reflect change or to support stability.
  • The consistencies and variations within the work of a particular artist or a group of artists.
  • The adoption of new techniques, styles and technologies, or the adherence to fixed canons.
  • The extent to which art saw its purpose as celebrating progress and development, or regretting the passing of the established ways.
  • The interplays between art and any wider social changes.
  • The overt use of change and transformation as tools for the making of art works.

In current culture, a key role for art is being able to reflect on change, or to challenge change, or to push changes further, faster and deeper. Without this relationship to change there can, from this perspective, be no art of any consequence. Art simply becomes neutral landscapes, still lives and portraits or, worse, becomes a source of resistance to change, a carrier of nostalgia, an ideological proponent for stability in all things.

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An adaptable framework for self-directed art learning

Moving from traditional to contemporary; and from improving to established

This exploration was partly driven by an interest in art and partly by an interest in learning. The art-interest was a desire to move from doing quite ‘traditional’ art – landscapes, still life, some simple portrait work – at a level that was beyond Beginners Group and still ‘Improving’ … and to get somewhere closer to being able to do more contemporary work at a level that I might consider ‘established/confident in my own activities’. The learning-interest was part of my exploration of ‘pulled-in’ learning ie not taking a structured course, with fixed timetables, over a defined timescale – but moving in whatever ways seem appropriate, along flexible pathways, pulling in resources/learning as and when needed, and speeding up/slowing down as the situations allow. What follows is some attempt to put this down as a set of intentions (rather than a fixed curriculum) that tie in with my existing interests. It starts with some ‘entry point ‘ descriptions of where I am now; and sketches out some possible lines I might follow … just for interest/fun and from a desire to learn rather than a need for a qualification.

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A brief view of some of Birmingham’s dalliances with varieties of localisations

The city as a local entity

It is a long time since Birmingham was recognised, by Charter, as an administrative structure in its own right. Various surrounding towns and villages were incorporated into the city, making it the largest local authority in Europe.

There have been recurring issues lasting until the present:

  • What freedoms and flexibilities does the city have, or is it there mostly as a locality for the delivery of central government diktats?
  • The city has always looked for Birmingham solutions to Birmingham problems (from early sewerage systems; civic developments; slum clearances and Manzoni planning; ….) but with the dangers that its size makes Birmingham ‘over-important’ or that its history as the City of a Thousand Trades encourages it to dismiss ideas not Made in Birmingham.

Birmingham has had various attempts at getting a local dimension to city planning and governance, to service delivery, and to the engagement of residents in neighbourhoods in key actions in their locality. Some key features, and tensions, of these are set out below. This is not an in-detail account of all aspects of localisation in cities, but a brief overview of some developments within one city.

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