Ruth Spencer Jolly, second year Fine Artist at the Ruskin talks about what it means to make contemporary art in Oxford. Have you been to an art exhibition in Oxford staged by the Ruskin students? If so I hope you found it interesting and enjoyable (with any luck for reasons other than just the free alcohol) but you wouldn’t be alone if you found it a slightly disorientating and baffling experience. The complaint I hear most often when I take friends and family to see shows is ‘I don’t get it’ and noncomprehension seems to lie at the root of disengagement. It’s a tricky complaint: sometimes I don’t ‘get it’ either (although I might not feel the need to) however often I realise that art school has equipped me with a set of tools which aid my ‘reading’ of an artwork and without that training I would possibly find it completely impenetrable too and my appreciation would be inhibited.
So is it a valid approach to make the sort of art only accessible to the artistically literate or is it the responsibility of artists to produce work widely accessible to the public? I feel that while many expect or at least hope for the latter, I’d like to moot the suggestion that particularly in an educational context we ought to tolerate and support the former mentality: Universities are primarily about traversing to the very cutting edge of knowledge in niche fields, comprehensible to only those well versed in the subject. Groundbreaking innovations might be so abstract it is not clear for years perhaps what their practical applications are, however the hope tends to be that with time and teamwork the breakthrough filters down into accessible formats and common consumption. If one looks at Fine Art as an academic discipline then perhaps we ought not expect to ‘understand’ it all just as we would not expect to understand a new abstract mathematical formula or find a DPhil’s thesis particularly penetrable.
This suggestion now triggers another quandary: if we excuse the esoteric nature of some art, particularly that produced within an academic institution and accept that it is too “avant-garde” for those outside of the art world to fully access, then the question is this: why do we artists seek an audience for our work (in a way that most other subjects do not actively seek to exhibit their research to people outside of their discipline) and why do you turn out to visit art exhibitions (excluding the strong motivational factor of free booze always available at art shows)?
Firstly, why do we seek an audience? Each artist has a different attitude towards their audience and the importance they play in ‘activating’ their artwork so I can only offer personal justification: I make artwork about the time and environment in which I live and I like to take my art back into the world it is inspired by; I enthusiastically seek an audience who can associate with my work. And in answer to the latter question, why do you come to see our art? Well I’m not sure I’m qualified to hazard a suggestion, I just hope you do keep on coming. Ruskin Degree Show 2015: End of 8th Week, Trinity Term. ruthspencerjolly.com