Michael Ayrton on art as celebration and exorcism

As part of our Creative Matters Spotlight series we’re rerunning a collection of articles that first appeared in Student Magazine. Next up, we hear from renowned British artist and writer Michael Ayrton.

Student Magazine, launched in 1968, was Richard Branson’s first business venture upon leaving school and adopted a creative approach to tackling tough issues. The magazine was an alternative to the stale publications of the day, covering everything from mental and sexual health to the Vietnam and Biafra wars. In the first edition of the magazine Richard and the Student team commissioned a series of articles by top British artists, in order to gain a greater understanding of the impact of their work on wider society. Here Michael Ayrton debates the primary function of art in society.

Michael Ayrton: 'Our museum is the substitute for the tomb'

One reason why I am not a particularly fashionable sculptor is that I deal in concepts and not purely form. The meaning implicit in the image is vitally important to me and tends to be the jumping off point. I turned from painting to sculptor because I found the work dictated it. I don’t think painting is obsolete, although you could make a case that painting in the traditional sense is obsolete - and I include in that paintings as recent Picasso, if Marshall McLuhan is right that film and television have completely usurped the image. Because photography is a mechanical function there is a tendency to regard it as the truth.

Read: David Hockney on art as a medium of communication

You know that photographs of you do not look like you. Portraiture, in the way Rembrandt or Velasquez practised it, is no longer necessary. In the last year or two visual arts have become performances and considered rather in terms of a film or a play or a happening, and, instead of being thought of as an object of some performance, which can be looked at over a period of generations and centuries, works of art now tend to be thought of as things which occur, which pass rather rapidly in exhibitions and are then left behind, like a performance on stage. I have totally failed to find this a significant aspect of either painting or sculptor.

I think that art has three primary functions: it serves as a process or celebration - which is a very important part of society’s recognition of the splendours of the world it inhabits. Contrary to this it also serves as process of exorcism, which is a way of bringing out the things which society fears and dislikes - Francis Bacon does this. Finally, it serves as a kind of prayer or request. These are probably the most basic reasons for the practice of the arts. And I think a great many artists have this kind of quasi-religious feeling. This is as true today as it was eight thousand years ago.

Read: Henry Moore on why humans need art

Western society cannot really think what to do with art at all. Most of the young painters are full of vitality and gaiety: they paint large pictures which would look extremely good if put in public places. But nobody ever puts them in tube stations, or post offices, or town halls, or any of the places where normal, reasonable society with intelligent recognition of the value of painting would put them. Art no longer serves any of the straightforward purposes which it used to serve - either as religious imagery or to provide the dead with something to be buried with. We, in fact, have replaced this with the museum, which is, in a sense, the grave, as the ultimate objective. This is one of the reasons why paintings tend to be so large nowadays - nobody will notice a small painting in a museum.

I think that, on the whole, we are so intensely conscious about History at this particular stage, that a great deal of painting is done by a great deal of people with the idea of establishing their own tiny niche in art history, no matter how small it is. If you are the only person, for instance, to paint entirely black pictures, then at least, you are the only person in the history of art to have painted entirely black pictures. This is very like the Emperor’s New Clothes in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy story, and there is a great deal of that in contemporary art. I would say that I like to take a larger risk than that and probably have a larger likelihood of failure on that account. I may be swept away as a perfectly unimportant and eclectic artist, taking sources from too many periods and being too intelligent!

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