Why Turner may be turning in his grave


Ancient Sounds – Paul Klee 1925 – It’s visual and it’s art so nothing to do with the Turner Prize.

Whilst the Turner Prize is ostensibly for British excellence in the visual arts you wonder at times at the definition of ‘visual’, let alone ‘art’.

Thinking about the visual, I know through my own personal response to things that I see that there are certain configurations of shapes, colours and qualities that strongly engage me, captivate me and very occasionally  bring about a life changing neurological event.

I know that some of these visual experiences are pure and simple, the statement of a single colour for example or the exquisite painting by Klee above, which moves me in a deep and curious way. Other visual experiences are more complex and may include description, illusion, narrative or even language. We may find that the tendons of the visual piece extend out into politics and beyond.

That said, surely with the visual arts the key sense with which we play is vision. When the emphasis is put upon something other than the visual experience, for example a political narrative of social engagement, are we missing the point?

I can remember being taught to listen to poetry not by hanging on the meaning of the words and trying to analyse them but by listening to the texture and timbre of the sounds of the words first. Meaning comes but not always as easily communicable ‘ideas’.

Similarly, the language of sight needs no translation or explanation if we are just quietly open to the experience of seeing. We know when our art receptors start to tingle.

The fact that images can communicate in a way that words cannot is a problem for anyone whose primary means of communication is words. What is a journalist to say when confronted with transcendent rightness or simple visual beauty? Being left speechless is a bad look, far easier to talk about artworks that engage primarily with ideas and narratives.

We know that the act of looking and then trying to arrange shapes and colours on a surface in a way that explores and celebrates visual experience has value for us personally as artists, otherwise why would so many of us be doing it? There are far easier ways of spending an afternoon. We also know that sometimes the product of that exercise has such value for others they are keen to buy it and keep it in their homes to enrich their lives in a mysterious way that is hard to talk about.

When the visual arts are rooted in the joy and act of looking they seem to have an integrity which is so often overlooked by the cerebral types who are the spokespeople for contemporary art. They miss that most profound and intense relationship we can have with our world when we truly *see* it.

Turner was extravagantly interested in how things looked, there may well have been other things going on in his paintings but mostly they were preoccupied with the visual.

However, big respect to the Black Obsidian Sound System, who seem to share my love of unfeasibly large loudspeakers!