Personal Statement

As my C.V. makes clear, my twin lives in the media business and as a writer on art have spiralled around each other throughout most of my working lifetime, till some half-a-dozen years ago, when I was at last free to concentrate fully on the issue which had fascinated me for so long: Why had Modern Art happened? Why in the space of 100-odd years had the professional artists of the West, men and women of powerful self-motivation and a courageously intelligent attitude to cultural risk, collectively abandoned art’s traditional lush comfort zone of figural painting and sculpture, for the bare uplands of the austerely non-figural and minimal? To this, in subsequent years, an additional question needed to be added: why were visual artists now apparently in train of migrating their perceptual interests from the attracting object to the attracting event or process – as in the installation and contextual art of very recent decades? What was the `hidden hand’ – what was the evolutionary causation – behind these changes in the visual world brought us by so many artists of great talent and individually independent mind?  – changes furthermore in the main unsolicited and often violently contested by the general public.  And if we could understand these things better, what fresh creative potentials might be revealed for art itself – not just for art, either, but perhaps for culture in its widest sense?

The more deeply I became entangled in these questions, the more deeply art itself seemed entangled in ever widening nets of human motivation, engaged with, acting upon and being acted upon by, memetic, cultural, economic, ecological and evolutionary matter going to the very heart of our species’ position within the planetary biosphere and ultimately touching on the survival – or possible extinction – of the human species itself.

I am no longer biologically the young man I still mentally feel myself to be, and am aware of being engaged in a race against time to bring this work to some kind of satisfactory conclusion if such a thing is possible – in short to re-tell the story of art from a global rather than a Western-centric perspective – a global perspective from which it is actually very unusual for the arts as a whole to be so marginalised, so confined to providing individual recreation, so unconnected with the human economy as they are today, which is what the great monuments of cave and temple, and even our own mediaeval cathedrals, vividly still remind the unprejudiced observer.

The `modernisation’ of Western art confirmed the ultimate disengagement of visual art from the great adaptive issues of the Industrial age – an art drained of the cultural baggage of the past was also it appeared an art drained of powers of worldly engagement to any great degree. Attempts to re-engage art in the global conflicts of the 20th century have left the artist outside the conflicts looking in – the position of agonised helplessness so poignantly dramatised by Picasso’s Guernica.  Where visual art has been used as a vehicle for addressing the political preoccupations  of the second half of 20th century – gender, race, inequality – it is by no means clear that art has always been the winner.

Perhaps modernisation was a necessary cleansing process, the dumping of the associations of an outgoing old ecology of hand-made things, before art could be made ready to engage with an incoming new ecology of intelligent machines – the return to the formal semantics of chaos which is the necessary precursor to the emergence of new kinds of semantic order.  That at any rate is the potential which my artist colleagues and I at APG and O&I felt ourselves to be addressing in seeking to place professional artists within government institutions, as `incidental persons’ acting  on an open brief- that is to say injecting  a degree of chaotic spontaneity into the administrative process, from which new creative initiatives might (and did) arise.

Today APG itself is part of art-history and its  investment of artistic capital in time-based forms of what would now be called Contextual art, pioneering in its day and initially opposed by all the usual art-world suspects, is now part of everyday artistic procedure. But as usual the art has run ahead of the conceptual framework through which art is delivered to and understood by its public and funded by their political representatives. The presentations and papers already present on this website and those presently to be added to it represent an early-day attempt to set elements of that framework in place, and in the process perhaps clear the way for a better understanding of the extraordinary connectedness of the visual arts with matters of human being and becoming, even when they are apparently at their most disconnected.

Nicholas Tresilian