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Cara Battle attended a lecture at the Ashmolean on the origins of modern art (so that you won’t have to)

Over the past few months the Ashmolean has been running a series of Director’s Lectures on various topics by speakers such as Dr Christopher Brown CBE and Richard Cork. The final lecture of 2012 was on the 15th December given by Susie Hodge, an author and celebrated Art Historian, addressing the contentious topic of modern art.

As a confessed sceptic of contemporary artwork, I was particularly intrigued to see whether Hodge could convince me that a child could not produce the same pieces of work as modern artists. It didn’t bode well for her success when, whilst waiting for the talk, we were presented with the two covers of Hodge’s book: Lucio Fontana’s Slash representing the Brits and an abstract piece from Jackson Pollock for the Americans, neither of which I found particularly intriguing.

Dr Christopher Brown introduced the talk by analysing the use of ‘Slash’ as the choice for the front cover. The explanation of an underlying sense of space and infinity didn’t seem to wash with either myself or Dr Brown and the pressure on the persuasiveness of Hodge’s argument was beginning to mount. I wondered particularly how Dr Brown would suggest that modern art in all its demonstrated extremities, could be complementary to such a museum largely dedicated to traditional forms of artwork and sculpture. As it turns out, the Ashmolean is on the verge of exhibiting its first major collection of contemporary artwork by the artist Xu Bing entitled ‘Landscape Landscript’ from February to May next year.

Hodge  has a pedigree background in the art world, originally working as a copywriter at Saatchi & Saatchi before becoming the notable author of How To Survive Modern Art and 50 Art Ideas You Really Need To Know amongst many others.  In true historian style Hodge took us from the 1500s right through to the present day, explaining the shift artwork took from the traditional style of Raphael to the abstract pieces by Marcel Duchamp and Tracey Emin.

Art changed; from being about craft and skill, it centred on ideas, shifting from the rigid schooling of 16th century academies to a much freer expression of personality where often no formal training is required. The first academy for art was set up in Florence, in 1563, by a Medici differentiating fine art from the work of artisans for the first time. Art became a career; boys as young as four were taken in to be schooled first in drawing before moving on to painting and the exact art of perfect imitation. This studious structure lasted right up until the 18th century when artists were still trying to imitate Raphael.

The invention of photography in 1839 in France caused some artists to realise that there was no point in painting like real life when you could just take a picture. Turner, Monet and their contemporaries were beginning to alter the path of artwork as they began to focus  on capturing atmosphere, blurring focus and heightening mood. This new generation of artists chose not to go to the official academies, rebelling against authority and the prescriptive rules for how an artist should and shouldn’t draw and paint.

Van Gogh exemplified this continuing trend.  In his 1889 work, ‘Starry Night’, where he painted his emotions, allowing them to govern his use of colours, leaving distinct brush marks, he squeezed the paint from the tube before moving it around the canvas with a wide brush, a technique which at the time was considered extremely vulgar. In ‘Starry Night’, Hodge explained how the stars were meant to represent angels, the moon God, the village society as a whole, and  the solitary tree symbolising how Van Gogh saw himself: isolated and living on the outside. Artists were then for the first time considered as outsiders both by society and by themselves as their work became steadily more symbolic and representative in a way never seen before.

Artists such as Cézanne continued the rebellion against the flat photograph by painting objects from different angles to create a more honest image of reality. In 1917 Marcel Duchamp created what is, according to Hodge, the most influential art object of the 20th century. Duchamp moved from France to America during the First World War and joined the Society of Independent Artists who exhibited any artwork produced by its members. It’s unclear whether Duchamp got the urinal himself or whether he was sent it but after inscribing ‘R. Mutt 1917’ on the side, he sent it to the Society to be exhibited. The director refused to exhibit the piece so Duchamp went to another gallery who accepted the piece. Whether or not the object itself is art, the fact that Duchamp chose to exhibit it as such essentially made it art, raising the issue of ‘display versus creation’ as artists questioned whether they actually needed to create a piece of work or whether they merely needed to present items as art to make it so.

As we moved into the sixties the performance art phenomenon started with artists like Allan Kaprow and his yard full of tyres, which the viewers were expected to jump on and experience. Gallery goers were no longer passive viewers; they were participants, and their experience when confronted with a piece of art became, for some, more important than the simple fact of the artist’s production of it.  Andy Warhol developed this experience as he sought to combine two elements of a fragmented society through his artwork, encouraging pop culture to meet high culture, furthering pop art in the process. He didn’t understand why the art world was so snobbish and wouldn’t accept the popular culture of the time. In 1962 he made a series of prints of the humble Campbell’s tomato soup can (supposedly because he always had a tin for lunch every day) and exhibited them in galleries on shelves to look like a shop. He changed the way people viewed art by bringing these two cultures together; because he was the artist, and he said it was art, it became art.

Hodge jumped ahead to the 21st century and Gavin Turk’s wonderful bronze sculpture of a rubbish bag entitled ‘Trash’, skipping over seminal works such as John Latham’s ‘Still and Chew: Art and Culture in the late 1960s’, Carl Andre’s ‘Uncarved Blocks’ in 1975 and Feliz Gonzalez-Torres’ ‘Untitled (USA Today)’ in 1990 which, each in their own way, furthered the abstractness and interactivity of modern art. She reached the generation that brought us Grayson Perry, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.  The more abstract the art has become the more artists appear to be adhering to Hirst’s philosophy that it is no longer the artist’s hand which is important but rather their ideas.

In concluding her talk, Hodge explained that whilst your five year old may be able to imitate pieces of art like Fontana’s ‘Slash’ or Hirst’s spin paintings, no toddler can produce or exhibit the pieces with the same consciousness and awareness of their actions and with the same ideas of meaning and symbolism. Hodge’s point is yes, you can do it, we can all do it, but we didn’t, therefore we are not artists, whose artwork is not nearly as easily achievable as we think. It took an hour of much persuasion and physical evidence, but Hodge successfully managed to convince me  of the merit of modern art, opening up a whole new world of interpretation and analysis.