Lucy Cox: What is art, and what is not?
Robert Priseman: Art is the creation of a metaphor. It happens when a person asserts one thing to be something it clearly is not, which helps create a third perception that shifts how we see the world. Duchamp’s Fountain is a perfect example of art as a metaphor. This is different from forming a simile. For instance, if we think of it practised in writing, we could compare an advertising copywriter to a poet. Both use the same skills, syntax and grammar, but they employ their abilities to different ends. The former intends to make something appear attractive to encourage people to buy a product whilst the latter aims to alter the way we see our world and enrich our global outlook.
For a painter, this is the difference between illustration and fine art. An illustrator illuminates something in an artistic or appealing manner, whereas a fine artist creates new perspectives. The English language itself is full of metaphors that offer these perceptual shifts, such as saying ‘the mouth of a river’ or ‘the leg of a table’. We eventually stop noticing them because they become so familiar to us and their original resonance fades. I think this is why many of our most successful novelists often write in their second language because old metaphors are still alive and rich with meaning for them. Creativity reawakens our perceptions, so opportunities will always exist for artists.
LC: Which paintings do you consider culturally significant, and what can artists discover from them now?
RP: For me, a stand out work is Francis Bacon’s 1944 painting Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. Bacon himself said the figures represented the ancient Greek goddesses the Erinyes (furies)[i]. Yet I believe they constitute something much more significant. Bacon takes the Crucifixion of Christ, the central motif of Western art from the previous 500 years, and shifts our focus away from the dead and dying figure of Jesus and places it squarely on the people who witnessed his execution. Therefore, human suffering, rather than Christ, becomes the central theme of the Crucifixion.
Bacon created Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion towards the end of the Second World War. This period foresaw a social change in Europe that moved away from a belief in the Church and Christian traditions towards a new secularism. Following the war, many European countries effectively became ‘post-Christian’ societies because their citizens saw how major institutions had led people towards destruction and the horrors of the Holocaust. Through this change, western societies gradually moved away from the idea of humanity structured around a series of moral absolutes to adopting moral relativism. In Bacon’s painting, Christ represents the former; the figures at the base of the Crucifixion represent the latter––a social shift towards the idea of morality depending upon our individual suffering and personal perceptions of what is right and wrong.
Another culturally significant painting for me is Edvard Munch’s 1893 painting The Scream. Munch made five versions of this work––two in paint, two in pastel and one in lithograph. In the foreground, a central figure stands on a boardwalk by the side of a large expanse of water. This ghost-like figure, neither male nor female, resembles a skull with their mouth open, screaming; apparently alive but representing death; a swirling blood-red sunset hangs above them. In the background, two figures appear to be standing or walking away, indifferent to or unaware of the screaming figure’s plight.
These elements demonstrate The Scream as a direct and iconic work of art. It is primal and calls to an inner voice of anguish and being alive. At the time of its creation, Sigmund Freud developed his therapeutic theory of psychoanalysis, enabling society to better understand the inner workings of the mind and evolve ways to comprehend life and people’s actions. Just as Freud brought our internal worlds towards an external appreciation with his writing, Munch achieved something similar with art.
Significant works of art such as Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion and The Scream tend to encapsulate an age of considerable cultural change. They can be transformative and read in different ways. In this light, I find myself asking ‘Is Marina Abramović’s 2010 performance piece The Artist is Present a culturally significant work of art?’ Whilst I am unsure if it is metaphorical or transformative, it certainly appears to symbolise a turning point in how Western civilisation views itself, reflecting the rise of the cult of celebrity, and perhaps of the self, at the advent of the digital revolution.
The significance of works of art emerges over time. When artists are no longer with us, it allows for an objective and holistic opinion to be formed about them and their art. Some historical artists––Johannes Vermeer, Vincent van Gogh, Artemisia Gentileschi, Grant Wood––almost lived in obscurity during their lifetimes.
When Wood was alive, he entered his 1930 painting American Gothic into an Art Institute of Chicago competition where it came third-place, winning a bronze medal. Today, it is considered one of the most important works of American 20th century art, and no one remembers the two paintings that ranked above it in the competition.[ii]
LC: Is everyone creative?
RP: Joseph Beuys thought so,[iii] and I agree. Since becoming a parent and more recently starting carpentry and gardening, I’ve realised that creativity comes in many forms. I’ve met many people who possess creative gifts that manifest in all kinds of ways, including the English film director and gay rights activist Derek Jarman. Like many others, I admired his films, so much so that in 1993 I hoped to paint his portrait. I had almost secured our first sitting before, sadly, he became ill and died the following year. To this day, I regret not making artwork about him. What has emerged as the most enduring legacy of Derek Jarman’s life, is not his films or gay rights activism but the subtle sculpture garden he designed and cultivated at Prospect Cottage, a former fisherman’s chalet, in Dungeness, on the coast of Kent, England.
In 1986, following his AIDs diagnosis, he moved out of London to spend his final years living more reflectively. Once settled at Prospect Cottage, Jarman began to nurture the garden surrounding his new home. The project, which the artist believed was a kind of ‘pharmacopoeia’,[v] became cathartic and healing for him. He planted medicinal plants and sea kale designed to endure the harsh coastal environment and created sculptures made from flotsam and driftwood washed up on Dungeness Beach. Free of Arts Council funding or institutional involvement, he reformed these natural objects into novel arrangements and conceived something new. Unbounded, his creativity flourished. Jarman died in 1994; in 2020 the cottage was acquired for the nation and has attracted thousands of visitors.
Stories like this reveal how the ability to nurture our surroundings and imagining something in our mind’s eye then realising it in the world, is at the core of a creative life; we must cultivate our creativity. Creativity is essentially an expression of our ability to love.
LC: Why do objects acquire value for us?
RP: Art creates value for both the maker and the viewer because it manufactures something tangible from the imagination. This ‘something’ mediates our emotions by gradually helping us make sense of things that cause confusion and beguilement. Perhaps it is a song we heard whilst meeting our first love or coping with the death of a close friend or family member. By playing that music repeatedly, we wallow in and are soothed by our feelings.
When Aristotle wrote his Poetics in 335 BC, he analysed this phenomenon in relation to tragic drama and concluded that ‘good’, ‘appropriate’, ‘realistic’ and ‘consistent’ plays enable catharsis.[vi] In other words, to some degree, the arts help us navigate our emotions.
After the Second World War, English paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott expanded on this idea in his studies on children’s emotional and intellectual development.[vi] Winnicott noticed that during prenatal development, babies do not distinguish their mother’s concept from themselves. Mother and baby are intertwined in a period Winnicott called ‘subjective omnipotence’. Infants eventually realise there is a ‘me’ and a ‘not me’, which simultaneously causes a sense of loss and a realisation that they are, in fact, dependent on others. This can create a difficult period of frustration and anxiety because the mother, who brought comfort and reassurance, cannot always be there when desired. However, during early and middle childhood, people learn to counter this problem by creating fantasies, enabling self-soothing. We project fantasies onto physical objects: teddy bears, security blankets, and songs. Winnicott believed that these ‘transitional objects’ are fundamental to our development. They act as an emotional bridge between the imagination and the external world––a defence against anxiety while we drift to sleep––and ultimately allow us to gain total independence within the world.
The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, closely associated with the surrealist movement of 1930s Paris, worked during the same time as Winnicott. For a period, Lacan was Pablo Picasso’s personal therapist and moved in the same social circles as André Breton, Georges Bataille and Salvador Dalí. Like Winnicott, he became fascinated with the early stages of childhood development, particularly the period when we come to realise that the world exists outside of ourselves. Lacan described this developmental moment as ‘the mirror recognition stage.’[vii] In 1936, he first defined his concept at the Fourteenth International Psychoanalytical Congress at Marienbad where he proposed that from age six to eighteen months, the mirror stage is an essential part of an infant’s development.
Lacan expanded this theory to understand that our ability to recognise ourselves in a mirror represents the moment we become able to transform ourselves into objects. The mirror acts as an essential building block for self-identity and subjectivity. In short, the mirror stage is a period of transformation that gives rise to the birth of the imagination and the recognition of others.
Winnicott and Lacan show us that, transitional objects, including songs, dramas and paintings, act as vessels for feelings of love. They offer us a means to project our internalised emotions externally and help us understand and navigate our complicated feelings about human existence. We learn how to connect with the people, concepts and objects around us.
Transitional objects also act as containers for our negative feelings, where the scapegoat concept fits in. But the scapegoat needs to be destroyed; destruction is the opposite of creativity.
LC: The mirror recognition stage reminds me of Echo and Narcissus’s story in Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses.
RP: Yes, that’s really interesting. Narcissus, a beautiful teenager, fell in love with himself and continuously stares at his reflection. The story illustrates how the mirror stage is a developmental phase we must experience to gain a well-rounded sense of ourselves, simultaneously separate and connected to the broader world.
Ovid describes the sixteen-year-old Narcissus as so beautiful that he believed himself too good for others and therefore never loved anyone in return.[viii] One day, he separated from his friends whilst hunting deer and became lost. The nymph Echo noticed Narcissus and, like many others before her, fell in love with him. Echo had been condemned by the goddess Juno and could only repeat the last few words she heard others speak. Narcissus called out to his friends “Is anyone here?” and she replied “here!” Narcissus looked around and saw no one, so summoned whom he thought were his friends, “come to me!” which Echo repeated. Narcissus cried out, “Here, let us meet together!” She responded “together!” Echo ran to him and threw her arms around his neck. Narcissus recoiled, shouting out “May I die before what’s mine is yours.” She replied, “What’s mine is yours.”
Shamed by Narcissus’ rejection, Echo fled to the woods where she hid in caves and slowly disappeared, leaving only her voice. Upon hearing of Echo’s demise, Nemesis, the goddess of retribution, punished Narcissus. She waited until he became thirsty and as he lent to drink from a pool of water, caused him to fall in love with his reflection. When Narcissus reached out to kiss and hold the person reflected back at himself, he exclaimed in vain, “I am enchanted! And I see, but I cannot reach what I see and what enchants me!” Slowly Narcissus realised that he gazed lovingly at his reflection and, just like Echo, began to fade away. Once gone, a flower with white petals surrounding a yellow heart replaced him.
When Narcissus died, he left behind a flower. When Derek Jarman died, he left behind a garden.
[i] Tate, ‘Francis Bacon: Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944′, July 2020.
[ii] Sarah Kelly Oehler, ‘American Gothic: A Curator Answers the Top Five FAQs’, Art Institute of Chicago, 7 November 2019.
[iii] Joseph Beuys’ statement ‘Everyone is an artist’ essentially means that every person is a creative being.
[iv] Mary Katharine Tramontana, ‘Planted in Sickness, Derek Jarman’s Garden Still Gives Joy’, New York Times, 12 May 2020.
[v] Aristotle, Longinus, Demetrius, Aristotle: Poetics. Longinus: On the Sublime. Demetrius: On Style. Translated by Stephen Halliwell, W. Hamilton Fyfe, Doreen C. Innes, W. Rhys Roberts. Revised by Donald A. Russell. Loeb Classical Library 199 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: 1995).
[vi] Donald Winnicott, ‘Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena: A Study of the First “not-me” Possession’ (1953) International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 34:89-97.
[vii] Richard Webster, The Cult of Lacan: Freud, Lacan and The Mirror Stage (2002).
[viii] Ovid. Metamorphoses, Volume I: Books 1-8. Translated by Frank Justus Miller. Revised by G. P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library 42 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press: 1916).
Robert Priseman, founder of Contemporary British Painting and co-founder the Priseman Seabrook art collection, is a British artist, collector, writer, curator and publisher who lives and works in Essex. Over 200 works by Priseman are held in art museum collections worldwide, including the V&A, Museum der Moderne Salzburg, Honolulu Museum of Art and the National Galleries of Scotland.