Disruption and a ‘master idea’


As part of our MA in Fine Art we had to complete a short project entitled ‘Disruption’. The brief was very clear: we were first to locate one piece of art that we had made and which, for whatever reason, we felt was unsatisfactory. We then had to ‘ruin’ the work in one way of another. Second, we had to retrieve some sort of ‘found’ object and ‘ruin’ it too – but in a different way to the first act of ruination. Third we had to put the two separate pieces together and make some sort of re-configured – and hopefully successful – work of art.

I liked the brief. I immediately thought of the words ‘slash and burn.’ I decided to take a watercolour study I had done (of a face) that was only minimally successful and, after heating a candle and allowing the wax to spill over its surface, I then set fire to the painting.

Next, I dismantled an already-broken child’s watch that I had found abandoned on the pavement outside my house. I added bits of the watch to the half-burnt semi-destroyed watercolour. Initially I thought the ensemble looked good, but then I thought it looked ugly and finally I decided that it looked horrible. I did not like seeing it. (It is, I discovered, actually difficult for me to make things that are really rather ugly.)

But the ‘Disruption’ project led me to retrieve different unused bits and pieces that I had collected over the years and then create mini-assemblages or mini-structures mainly themed in relation to terrific books that I had read.

Amongst these old unused items was something related to Susan Sontag’s brilliant text, ‘On photography’: some years ago I had taken a single photograph of a page of her book. The photograph had been developed before the advent of digital photography; it looked bright and shiny, graced as it was with a glossy sheen.

As I played around making the assemblage (connected with ongoing problems I feel about the seductions of photography) I could still read the text of the page that I had photographed; I realised just how prescient she was. In the 1970s she had written:

China offers the model of one kind of dictatorship whose master idea is “the good” in which the most unsparing limits are placed on all forms of expression including images. The future may offer another kind of dictatorship whose master idea is “the interesting” in which images of all sorts, stereotyped and eccentric, proliferate …

She continued: And there seems to be no way of limiting the proliferation of photographic images. The only question is whether the function of the image world as created by cameras could be other than it is. The present function is clear enough if one considers in what contexts photographic images are seen, what dependencies they create, what antagonisms they pacify – that is, what institutions they buttress, whose needs they really serve.

A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anaesthetise the injuries of class, race and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, make war, give jobs to businesses …

As I re-read these words from the photograph about the photograph I could not help but think that for a number of years we have been living in an ‘image-world’ given over to the master idea of ‘the interesting’. It coincides with and re-inforces that other master idea that we must ‘be someone’. But, quite frankly, I feel that I have overdosed on images. I also have the sense that many people now have a compulsion to repeat the act of taking and publishing their photographs. Sigmund Freud has a lot to say about this! But, what is more, I am in danger of being drawn into this obsessive ‘look at me’ culture. It is as if we are all, collectively, lured into secondary narcissism.

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