The inclusion or exclusion of refugees in contemporary Europe has been a contentious topic of debate and is high on the international agenda. With faster extradition procedures and more limited border crossings, the attitude of Western governments to asylum applications has seemed increasingly restrictive.
Economic and educational inclusion are often given precedence over other areas, but a new project is focusing on social and cultural inclusion. Started in Berlin, ‘Multaka: Museums as Meeting Point’ aims to encourage the sharing of historical and national knowledge. The concept is to train Syrian and Iraqi refugees to become museum guides so that they can take tours in their mother tongues.
The course is currently offered to young adults and teenagers, but will be extended to older applicants as the programme develops. The tours play on the relationship between the host country and the guides’ home countries. Those involved in organising the project hope that it will help to improve native residents’ knowledge of other cultures and give refugees a sense of pride and involvement in their new community.
At this time there are four German museums that are involved in the Multaka, but more are soon to be added with the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford developing their own version of the scheme. There have also been talks with the Louvre and MoMA. Of the four museums currently taking part, two focus on Syrian and Iraqi artefacts and two on the connections between Islam, Judaism and Christianity.
Students aspiring to study Philosophy and Theology could prepare for their interviews by examining how different religions and religious artefacts are perceived from different cultural stand points. Art Historians might like to consider how museums can be regarded as a meeting point (multaka) for our common past. Those aiming to study HSPS could investigate the social and political impact of such a programme as this.
Technology in the art world is ever growing with methods of production and representation now including 3D printing, lasers, robots and polluted air. Advances in technology also have allowed us greater visibility on older works, including those by the Old Masters. High resolution online photography permits viewers to scroll and zoom over works too delicate to be on display and digital tours allow virtual visitors to ‘pace’ the floors of galleries all over the world. The film ‘Loving Vincent’ released last year, showed the life of van Gogh through an animated series of paintings, each representing a different frame.
Gone are the days of only being able to view reproductions of pieces in books and on posters, yet the debate continues as to whether there is merit in still seeing artwork in the flesh. We now have the ability to digitally see a piece from every angle and in the context of the wealth of other pieces on display, so what is the advantage of seeing something in person?
Until we have holograms in our homes, we still will struggle to gain a sense of scale, space and the interrelationship between objects in museums. Works that involve physical human participation, texture or sound are often best enjoyed in the context that they were designed for, but it is the artist Emyr Williams who makes the strongest point, ‘reproductions can be an aide-memoir… yet the electricity of the encounter is missing’. It can often be the very visceral experience of encountering an artwork personally, that conveys its true meaning.
However, we can ask ourselves, does one method of viewing an artwork necessarily detracted from another or prevent a user from appreciating another? Does having seen van Gogh’s sunflowers online or in a film lessen the magic of seeing it in real life? Applicants to study Fine Art might like to explore this question in more detail in preparation for their interviews. Art Historians could further investigate new ‘ways of seeing’ artworks.
A new exhibition at the British Museum, curated by Private Eye editor and TV personality Ian Hislop, will explore the history of dissent, resistance, and satire in different cultures and eras. The idea for the exhibition came from art historian and former museum director Neil MacGregor, who wanted to subvert the traditional museum narrative and present art from the perspective of the underdogs and the dissenters of history. Hislop’s aim in choosing pieces for the exhibition was not so much to display art of revolutionary protest but rather to find and celebrate objects that in some subtle or whimsical way thumb their nose at authority. “Dissent allows you to cover all the motivations”, says Hislop – “from really serious people who want to bring down the state to less serious people who want to have a good laugh at someone else’s expense”.
The objects displayed cover a wide range of time periods and settings, from ancient Babylon to Trump’s America. A brick from the sixth century BC features the name of King Nebuchadnezzar, over which a cheeky bricklayer has inscribed his own name, Zabina. A small act of rebellion from a bored and underpaid worker, or perhaps a dare between friends; whatever the motivation, Zabina’s name has lived on alongside the mighty king’s. Fast-forward to the sixteenth century and a rather more elaborate and expensive act of dissent; a salt-cellar made of fragments of old reliquaries and hidden religious symbolism that certainly looks more at home on the altar than the dinner table, owned at a time when Catholicism was illegal. Perhaps more recognisable to a contemporary audience, the exhibition also features one of the pink knitted hats worn by female protesters against Donald Trump.
Hislop is passionate about satire and is keen to distinguish it from revolution or overt political clash. He argues that by and large it is “ small-c conservative”, influencing the landscape of conversation by mocking or undermining rather than turning up outside parliament with placards. Ultimately, Hislop hopes that visitors will get a sense of the long history of satire and dissent. “We tend to patronise the past and imagine we’re much cleverer and braver than anyone has ever been”, Hislop comments; “I think [visitors] will be surprised at how long and in how many different cultures people have felt sufficiently bold to say ‘No’”.
Applicants for History of Art, Politics, or HSPS might be interested in learning more or attending the exhibition which opens on the 6th of September 2018. Students may wish to think about how art and artefacts play a part in political or social conversations and how art can be used in protest, whether overt or covert. Applicants could also consider the nature of satire; is is effective? Is Hislop right to say that it is by nature conservative?
How should art institutions, and society in general, respond to the art of figures whose creators or subjects are now seen as in some sense morally reprehensible? This was the question faced by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco when they unveiled their exhibition Casanova: The Seduction of Europe earlier this year. In an unpredicted coincidence, the exhibition opened its doors just four months after #MeToo first appeared online, and hence amidst a flurry of discussion about sexual assault and harassment.
Giacomo Casanova, the notorious figure behind the exhibition, was an adventurer, writer, and womanizer from 18th-century Venice. Although he has often been characterised as a dashing and charismatic romantic figure, some of his behaviour constituted sexual assault and rape. Hence, inadvertently, the exhibition provided an opportunity to discuss art and morality. How, if at all, should we present such exhibitions? Since Casanova himself is not the creator of the works of art displayed, is it misguided and unnecessary to make him the focus? Are we in danger of romanticising misogyny? Curator Melissa Buron comments, “Casanova is a complicated figure—there were things he did in his lifetime that were scandalous, certainly illegal in our current climate, but I don’t think it does anyone a service to whitewash or rewrite history, especially as a museum.”
The museum decided to try to incorporate these darker elements into the exhibition instead of shying away from them by inviting academics to give talks to provide historical context to the exhibition. Art critic Monica Westin, although suspicious that this approach might constitute museums “trying to have their cake and eat it too”, agrees that troubling historical events and figures such as Casanova cannot simply be ignored or excised from history; “they bookmark an entire set of histories and understandings about the world that we have inherited and must deal with.” On the other hand, such discussions about “rewriting history” raise questions about the nature of what we call “history”. To argue that de-centring certain figures or voices constitutes rewriting or whitewashing history assumes that history as we know it is a seamless and unified truth, rather than one particular narrative we have pieced together. The past, and indeed the present, can of course be seen from multiple perspectives. Julia Bryan-Wilson, for example, a professor of modern and contemporary art, argues that museums should be making an effort to present a variety of diverse voices.
Applicants for History of Art should think about the question of morality in art. Do we have a duty to de-centre art, music, or films by figures of the past or the present who we deem to be morally reprehensible? Can art ever be separate from society and transcendent of morality? Students wishing to study History should think particularly about the nature of history itself. Is history objective? What does it mean to “rewrite history”?
Can robots make art? The annual robotic art competition is now in its third year, with over 100 submissions this time round and a first place prize of $40,000. The founder of this competition Andrew Conru argues the idea of using robots in the artistic process is no different than any other advancement in artistic technique or genre. “Every generation tries to come up with a new genre, a new style, a new category of art. I don’t see robot art as any different than yet another way for people to express themselves.”
The term ‘robotic art’ covers a range of categories. Some of the submissions to the competition directly involved humans in the creation of the piece itself, for example where a robotic tool was wielded by a human controller, whereas others relied more fully on artificial intelligence. The 2018 winner Pindar Van Arman used what is known as ‘deep-learning’—a type of machine learning that differs from task-specific algorithms and aims to more closely mimic the brain’s neural networks—in order to create “increasingly autonomous generative art systems”. The third place winners focused on technique, training their robot to record and precisely mimic the exact motions and pressures used by a brush to paint a specific work of art.
Not only are robots becoming artists, they’re also giving art critics a run for their money. Berenson, a dapper-looking figure in a bowler hat and white scarf, uses his robotic facial expressions to react to art around him based on analysing the reactions of other museum-goers. On the other end of the critical spectrum, Novice Art Blogger is an automated blog that processes and attempts to analyse abstract art based on deep-learning algorithms. The blog’s descriptions of art are almost more abstract than the art itself, and it is often hard to see how it reaches its conclusions. For example, Stringed Figure by Henry Moore is described as “a close up of different pieces of a paper bag or rather a piece of wood cutting out of a box with a pair of scissors in front of it. It stirs up a memory of a cake in the shape of a suit case”. Perhaps we mere mortals are simply not on this critic’s level…
Van Arman wonders whether his AI system is “simply being generative, or whether the robots were in fact achieving creativity.” Applicants for Computer Science, Fine Art, or History of Art may wish to ponder this question—can AI ever be creative? In fact, are humans truly creative or do we, like robots, simply analyse, process, and generate based on our own neural networks?
Facebook has recently been the subject of criticism and derision for deciding to remove a series of adverts featuring art by the Flemish painter Rubens. The artist, famous for his depictions of particularly voluptuous nude women, is considered a master of the Baroque period; his works were being used as part of an advertisement for the region of Flanders. These were deemed not compliant with Facebook regulations about sexual content. In response, the Flemish tourist board has written to Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg with a tongue-in-cheek complaint, even releasing a video making fun of the “nude police”. The social media site is not the first to see a particular sensuality in Rubens’ work; even in a gallery full of nudes his art still has the power to raise an eyebrow, whether in disapproval or amusement, and the 19th-century American artist Thomas Eakins considered Rubens “the nastiest, most vulgar, noisy painter that ever lived”.
This is not the first example of Facebook cracking down on artistic nudity. Notably, a French teacher took the website to court for allegedly taking down his entire account in 2011 for posting a picture of L’Origine du Monde, an 1886 painting of a woman’s genitals. Perhaps the most laughable example occurred earlier this year, when a user was banned from posting a photo of the Venus of Willendorf, a 29,500-year-old prehistoric figurine of a rotund naked woman thought to be an early symbol of fertility. In response, the Natural History Museum of Vienna (home of the Venus) protested in a Facebook post, “let the Venus be naked!”
According to Facebook, the banning of the Venus was a simple error on their part. Nevertheless, questions about what Facebook deems appropriate and inappropriate are particularly relevant now given the highly controversial decisions to lend a platform to the alt-right and to not remove posts denying the Holocaust or a US congressman’s call for the slaughter of all “radicalised” Muslims; meanwhile, a post by activist Didi Delgado stating that “all white people are racist” was immediately taken down and her account temporarily deactivated.
Applicants for History of Art may wish to think about the history of nudity in art and how it has been received. Is Facebook’s censorship valid, or does it represent an over-sexualisation of a woman’s body? How do concepts such as the “male gaze” in art contribute to this conversation? Students wishing to study Politics or those interested in concepts such as freedom of speech should consider the question of censorship and freedom. Do private companies or government agencies have the right to censor opinion, and if so where is the line to be drawn?
A recent press conference in Rome saw the unveiling of a small painted tile of the Archangel Gabriel; the scholars who unearthed it, Ernesto Solari and Rosa Bonfantino, claim that it constitutes the earliest known work by Leonardo da Vinci.
The tile is made in the glazed earthenware style known as ‘majolica’, which is typical of renaissance Italy. The scholars claim that the tile was made by an 18-year-old Leonardo in 1471, and that it represents the artist’s own self-portrait as the angel; indeed, coded inscriptions on the tile read “I, Leonardo da Vinci, born in 1452, represented myself as the Archangel Gabriel in 1471.” Solari claims that detailed scientific tests have confirmed the 15th-century origin of the tile.
Other experts, however, are not convinced by the claims of Solari and Bonfantino. Indeed, it is very common for works of art to be discovered and claimed as being by da Vinci. One example is La Bella Principessa, presented to the art world as being by the great Renaissance master but later claimed by the forger Shaun Greenhalgh who insists that the drawing is in fact his portrait of Sally, a cashier at a Co-op in Bolton. It is still not known whether Greenhalgh’s claim is genuine or simply a playful attempt to confuse the art world. Leonardo expert Martin Kemp, emeritus professor of Art History at the University of Oxford, has dismissed claims regarding the majolica tile, saying that “the chance of its being by Leonardo is less than zero. The silly season for Leonardo never closes.” According to Kemp, the quality of the tile is not of a level that would be expected of a work produced only one year before Leonardo’s Annunciation, which is far more sophisticated.
Applicants for History of Art should familiarise themselves with the processes by which works of art are dated and attributed to a particular artist. They might also like to consider the concept of forgery. Can forgeries be considered skilful works of art in and of themselves?
Can art be so bad that it’s good? It would stand to reason that we would appreciate art that is well-thought-out and skilfully made and sneer at what is poorly made. And yet across different artistic media there are examples of art that becomes popular precisely because it is so bad. In fact, there’s a whole museum devoted to bad art – the MoBA in Massachusetts.
A notable example is the 2003 film The Room, written, produced, directed by, and starring Tommy Wiseau. If you haven’t seen The Room, words cannot convey quite how undeniably awful it is. The plot makes no sense, the acting is appalling, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg; and yet it has achieved cult status, with fans throwing plastic spoons during screenings (spoons mysteriously feature heavily in the film) and shouting out famous lines such as “you’re tearing me apart, Lisa!”
Crucially, good-bad art has to be sincere. Part of what’s so attractive about The Room is Tommy Wiseau himself; a shadowy figure with a fake name and unknown origins who, unlike everyone around him including his co-stars, seems totally unaware that his film is considered the worst film ever made. Deliberately and ironically making something terrible does not produce the good-bad art effect—it’s tainted by artistic self-consciousness, we don’t buy into it.
As John Dyck from the City University of New York explains, there are several possible explanations as to why we appreciate bad art. An obvious one is simply that it’s an example of Schadenfreude—we take a perverse delight in seeing others fail. Watching The Room would, according to this theory, be the cinematic equivalent of watching the lift doors close in someone’s face. However James Franco, creator of The Disaster Artist, a film about the making of The Room, argues that our enjoyment of Wiseau’s train wreck of a film is not a question of delighting in the failure of others. Rather through its failings the film manages to produce something captivating and beautiful that inspires genuine joy rather than smug mockery. Indeed, as Dyck points out, if the Schadenfreude theory were correct, one would assume that we could delight in any artistic failure. But this is not the case—some bad art is pretentious, embarrassing, or just plain boring.
Another well-loved example of good-bad art is the Ecce Homo portrait of Jesus from the Sanctuary of Mercy church in Borja, Spain, which became famous when an untrained amateur Cecilia Giménez tried in all good faith to restore the painting, resulting in what some now call Ecce Mono (Behold the Monkey) or simply ‘Potato Jesus’. Cecelia’s sincerity of intention combined with the tragic hilarity of what she produced made Potato Jesus an instant hit; the artistic group Wallpeople even made it into an exhibition in Barcelona, commenting that “Cecilia has created a pop icon”.
Applicants for Fine Art and History of Art might link to think about the concept of good-bad art. Do you believe that there is such a thing? What are the criteria that separate good-bad art from simply bad art? Can such works really be thought to have any artistic merit?
If you thought that medieval illustrators drew a line in their borderline insanity with little drawings of antagonistic snails being battered by knights, you were sadly mistaken. While the snails were getting beaten to a slightly shell-y pulp, rabbits were on the other end of the spectrum; they were having a world of fun brutalising humans in the most bizarre ways. We have rabbits beating men with their bare hands (paws?), we have a rabbit openly beheading a man and then in what has to be one of the most ridiculous historical pictures around, a rabbit mid leap, giant axe in hand, about to violently sever what looks like an old wizard king.
Why do we see this recurring theme? And why rabbits specifically? It is thought that these drolleries (the name given to these marginal illustrations), were an instance of irony; an opportunity to reverse the classical ideas about certain animals in a humorously violent way. Hares, according to the bestiaries of the time, were considered to be timid, and fast runners. Meek, and arguably at the bottom of the ladder when it came to the classic ‘who would win in a fight’ games that people would play, it made it all the funnier to show a pair of them slap a man around with a stick whilst simultaneously sawing his foot off. Illustrators were apparently amused by the notion of this innocent, passive creature enacting their revenge on unsuspecting humans. This particular image has persisted through the ages, making arguably its most famous cultural reimagining in Monty Python, in the famous Killer Bunny sketch.
Students interested in studying History of Art should look at how images persist through the ages, and the importance of visual iconography in centuries past. Students thinking about Theology should look at how the meanings applied to images set a precedent in our cultural understanding of aspects of human nature and God, while those thinking of studying HSPS should look at the anthropology of man’s fascination with drawing.
Religious icons may at first glance appear to be foreign to the modern artistic sensibility, objects of a bygone era to be glanced at in museums. Far from being fossilised, however, this Christian devotional tradition is being kept alive by many artists who use the medium not only to convey religious meaning but to comment on modern society in new and arresting ways.
Nikola Sarik is one such artist. His most well-known piece to date is The Holy Martyrs of Libya, a tribute to the 21 Christians executed by ISIS in February 2015. The contrast between ancient and modern is striking; Christ, depicted in a traditional manner, embraces the murdered men dressed in orange jumpsuits, while their masked captors stand behind them. The work has the visual effect of dragging the religious dimension into the world of our current events; in turn, ancient depictions of saints and martyrs are brought more clearly into their own contemporary context as we recognise them as living, breathing people. Sarik’s deliberately flat, almost childlike style is in part inspired by 20th-century artists such as Klimt and Matisse, but is also reminiscent of the cartoonish style of Romanesque art.
Other artists use iconography to make poignant statements about suffering and oppression much closer to home. In 2016, an icon by Mark Dukes was unveiled called Our Lady, Mother of Ferguson, a reference to those killed by law enforcement officers in the US. The icon seamlessly blends ancient religious symbolism with contemporary imagery. It depicts a black madonna and the dark silhouette of a smaller figure, whose cruciform halo is also the crosshairs of a gun. Both figures have their arms raised in the traditional orans (praying) position, but the modern context gives this gesture a different meaning: hands up, don’t shoot.
Perhaps more striking still is Maxwell Lawton’s work, Man of Sorrows—Christ with AIDS, painted in the midst of the AIDS crisis. The traditional Man of Sorrows theme depicts a dejected Christ, crowned with thorns and showing his wounds. Lawton’s piece has Christ hooked up to an IV drip and covered in cancer sores typical of many AIDS sufferers. In the background, Jesus’s words from Matthew 25:40 are quoted in three languages: “The King will reply, ‘truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ ” Lawton’s work emphasises the fundamental theological concept of Christ identifying with social outcasts and those who suffer, and confronts the audience with their duty to do the same in a social atmosphere of shame, fear-mongering, and ostracism.
Applicants for History of Art and Theology might wish to consider whether religious art has a place in contemporary life, and how artists can harness centuries-old symbolism to comment on contemporary issues in unique ways. They should think about how Christian art has traditionally used varied imagery to convey information or make an emotional impact, and may want to assess how the above examples fit into this tradition and whether they are successful.