Andrew Carnegie Lecture Series : Sonia Boyce Monday, 23 November 2020 17:30 to 19:00 (GMT)

An annual public lecture organised by Edinburgh College of Art.

There was an introduction which thanked the financial sponsors and then listed Sonias’s achievements. This was interesting in itself and (my father was a vicar and I sat through many religious ceremonies as a child/teenager) reminded me of ritual with an almost religious feel… it’s as if it was ‘blessing and sanctifying’ this space with a special kind of incantation. It also acted as an ideological plinth or stage from where Sonia could (metaphorically) stand and deliver her lecture.

The lecture was fascinating and very apposite as I am reading: Bishop, C. (2006) Participation. (s.l.): Whitechapel. And also considered unconscious bias in my Critical Review for Studio Practice.

Boyce spoke for nearly an hour about her project in Manchester Art Gallery in 2018. She empowered museum staff (she uses other people to create and perform her art, documents it and then creates art from this raw material) and created a six pieced artistic piece involving performance in the museum space and the temporary removal of Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896 by William Waterhouse. She went through the process, the performance and the reaction.

I was briefly part of the extended performance as I visited the gallery while the painting was removed, read the notice in its place and entered into a discussion about female nudity in public spaces.

The presenters asked questioned and then ‘curated’ questions from the Q and A box at the bottom of the video screen.

This raised lots of issues, each of which could be a lecture in its own right.

It’s now a couple of weeks later as I have been re-writing my Critical review for Studio Practice following my tutor’s notes, and preparing everything for assessment (now on two memory sticks and my Mac). All I have to do in March is check everything through and load it up onto the G Drive… which should be a couple of hours work. My reasons are that I don’t know if I’ll have enough time in March (and I have time now) and everything is fresh having just finished the course.

So… my thoughts around Sonia Boyce are now filtered by time rather than being fresh – but what I lose in detail might be compensated for by having had time to settle and enter my broader thinking.

The lecture sparked in me, and with a friend, a heated discussion about what is art. Sonia obviously considers herself (because she said so) an artist in the same way as the traditional masters such as Titian who produce art objects, but I think she is fundamentally different.

This is difficult to unpick and comes to the root of what is contemporary art in contemporary society.

When something is made by an individual, whether that is an idea, object, or experience we always start with a creator. Sonia Boyce is the creator of her work… David Hockney of his. In this sense she is no different from Duchamp who was trying to destroy the notion of bourgeois art (but he still put his signature to his idea) or to any contemporary artist engaged in the art market who signs their work. As different from Sacral medieval art where craftsmen (who would today be artists) who were serving/part the community rather than artists in an art market.

I drew a flow diagram to help me understand what I was thinking:

At the end of the process we have a consumer who interacts with a finite version of ‘art’. This could be a painting, a performance of a play or musical piece, a written piece on an observed event. There may be many versions of a painting that could have been painted (the finite one is the one on the canvas in front of us), a Shakespeare play is different in every version… but the one we see is the finite version.

I believe the consumer interacts with the finite art (and is in a very real sense the primary creator) to produce meaning, be that conscious or unconscious thought, or a physical or emotional reaction, or a combination of interactions/reactions.

Between the artist creator and finite art we have the production process, and this, for me, is where we differentiate between art and non art.

Football is a set of rules that results in a finite production, a unique football match (and audiences can talk about all life being in football so it has elements of art). But it is merely a set of rules. As such, when a creator makes rule based art, they have done nothing more than make a set of rules which prevent chaos and result in a production like a football match.

To create art I believe the artist either has to make the art themselves (and as such needs skill) or leave detailed instructions as to how the art should be created. As in De Kooning instructing the manufacturer, a beethoven symphony or a shakespeare play.

However, as the raw materials for art can be anything from wind in a tree, to paint or to dreams, it is quite possible for Sonia to take an event in Manchester Art Gallery and turn it into art. Into a finite version that an active consumer can receive.

We then turn to the tricky point which is that not every finite version is art. A chair, a political report, a pattern… many things are not considered art. In fact, the definition of an art object (using object to be anything from a physical object to an idea) is extremely fluid and many finite versions are part art object part something else.

So, is Sonia’s finite version of the event in the Manchester Art Gallery art, or is something else? I don’t see it as art in the same way as Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896 by William Waterhouse that she referred to in the discussion… she seemed surprised/wearied/offended that people didn’t consider her a ‘proper’ artist like him.

I think in the end it all comes down to what you consider art. And I suspect we all have a different answer to that.

For me, though what she does is valuable and worthy (even vital) it isn’t art. In simplistic terms she doesn’t have a product she can sell like William Waterhouse. Her skills are intellectual rather than practical and for me art is a marriage of craft and intellect that produces a finite version you can sell.

She is fulfilling a social and cultural service so is an artist in a Marxist sense of being part of the praxis of contemporary society (rather like the Sacral medieval painters) but for me she is not a contemporary bourgeois artist, she is an intellectual.

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