The Emperor’s New Clothes

I’m distressed to discover that the notes ask me to consider whether a couple of artworks they have discussed, which have developed from accidental events, are a case of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’.

I find the phrase unhelpful at best. In my experience it is normally used as a form of inverted intellectual snobbery by those who don’t wish to consider anything outside of their own narrow frame of reference. It attempts to set the user into an intellectually superior position, where they can clearly see the truth that the deluded other has missed, and so avoids any requirement on the users part to actually engage with the artwork/artist in question. With a few limited exceptions (including that in the original fable) it should be consigned to the same intellectually bankrupt dustbin as ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”

The notes ask us to consider  examples of critics with polarised views…but this seems to me a different issue. My experience of critics is that irrespective of their view they have tried to engage with the artwork. That is, after all, their job. Having done that, they are perfectly entitled to consider a work vapid and explain why they think that  – writing it off as the Emperor’s New Clothes without justification strikes me as poor criticism.

So…with that off my chest…we are asked to consider artists who have used  technical mistakes to further their work.

To mind mind there are three possibilities here:

  1. accidents that look interesting – the internet abounds with examples of these but I don’t plan to consider them further. They aren’t art – they’re simply pretty accidents. A more serious example would be Capa’s Normandy Beach photos that were damaged in processing. While the damage actually increased their impact, no attempt was made to replicate it or explore the idea further.
  2. accidents that inspire a line of artistic thought – Graham’s American nights series fits into this category. Graham overexposed an image accidentally, and this triggered a series of ideas that became an artistic concept. This has a long artistic history as a process – Da Vinci is reputed to have said: ‘If you look upon an old wall covered with dirt, or the odd appearance of some streaked stones, you may discover several things like landscapes, battles, clouds, uncommon attitudes, humorous faces, draperies, etc. Out of this confused mass of objects, the mind will be furnished with an abundance of designs and subjects perfectly new.’ (cited in Turner, 2011) and more recently Bacon has expressed a similar idea: “All painting is an accident.  But it’s also not an accident, because one must select what part of the accident one chooses to preserve.” (cited in Askey-Adams, 2015) 
  3. accidents that are manufactured for their artistic impact – it is arguable that these are genuine accidents, but it is certainly the case that the outcomes are unpredictable. A photographic example of this would be Moriyama’s Farewell Photography (The Guardian, 2015) and I feel much abstract expressionism would also fit into this category.

In the latter two cases the accidents are integral to the concept…without the accident there would be no artwork. In this sense it is little different from a sculptor using the accident of the grain in the wood to enhance or develop a sculpture – and I doubt anyone would suggest that was cheating.

To quote a paraphrase of Schopenauer: “Discovery is seeing what everyone else sees but thinking what no one else has thought.”  (cited in Quote Investigator, 2015) The creative process, and therefore the genesis of the artwork, is in the thoughts of the artist.

References

Askey-Adams, S., 2015. The Gift of Happy Accidents in Painting | Sharing my Painted Journey. Available at: https://sandyaskeyadams.com/blog/91475/the-gift-of-happy-accidents-in-painting [Accessed March 18, 2017].

The Guardian, 2015. Snatched from the fire: the photos Daido Moriyama rescued from ruin – in pictures | Art and design | The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2015/nov/12/daido-moriyama-fire-flames-farewell-photography-paris-photo-2015 [Accessed March 18, 2017].

Quote Investigator, 2015. Research Is to See What Everybody Else Has Seen and Think What Nobody Has Thought | Quote Investigator. Available at: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/07/04/seen/ [Accessed March 18, 2017].

Turner, C., 2011. The deliberate accident in art | Tate. Tate Etc: 21. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/deliberate-accident-art [Accessed March 18, 2017].

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