21st Century Art at The Hayward Gallery

It’s always inspirational as a teacher of Method to offer up the opportunity to reclaim the creative potential of being alive in your own skin. Having just completed a two-day workshop at the Hayward Gallery, I found the experience not only reinforced the greater truth that the asset of real value lies within us, and not around us (in the things that we consume), but it also facilitated a reassessment of the role art plays in a modern post-industrial society.

Being on the South Bank and looking across the waters to the Savoy hotel, I was reminded of the historical arc of my grandfather, an Italian immigrant, who after having lost his father when he was 7, started working when he was 10, traveled the seas as a steward, fought in the First World War and nearly died in a prisoner of war camp. He then settled in London and capitalized on his stewarding skills to work at the Savoy for 50 years, before and after the Second World War. The dynamics of the world in which he lived, the economic and political events of those times, cast art in a very different role.

For instance, during the siege of Leningrad in the Second World War where over a million citizens died during 872 days of encirclement, the libraries remained open, and a famous concert was given of Shostakovich’s seventh Symphony by an orchestra riddled with malnutrition and depleted by death. The use and making of Art clearly fortified a besieged people and reinforced why resistance was vital. Art seems to have constantly reminded us of our potential as human beings – in the dark it has been a light when we have lost our way; it gives solace, inspiration, reflection, a sense of purpose and a celebration of the human experience.

During the 20th Century, most people seemed to use art to refresh themselves from the pressures of great demands from work and life, whether in peace time or a war. My own grandfather, who worked long hours, took pride in his work and even injected his own work with style and creativity – he would turn to philosophy, art, and as well as politics to reflect upon or ask the bigger questions. Thus he would take actions based upon the conclusions and answers such engagement offered up. I’m particularly struck by a story my grandfather told me about a strike his fellow workers took prior to the Second World War where union legislation was extremely thin on the ground and the only real glue that bound them together to the point of their success was a sense of common interest, which clearly is manifest in good political writing, but can only be truly felt in the collective and communal components of the human experience.

Britain of the 21st century has become one of the great hubs of modern interactive media. Making it or consuming it has made us all artist on some level. More and more people narrate their lives; it is more their “art”. This interaction is reflected in Public galleries which have transformed from the austere churches to much more user friendly and dynamic spaces. So the Hayward’s Open Wide School is an interesting step further into this new century where both kind of art intermingle. Established practitioners with a body of work interact and “educate” other practitioners of various creative mediums, as well as what we quaintly call the general public.

Art in the 20th century had a clearly defined role of artist and audience. The Hayward experience seems to have touched on an art that is not only potentially new, but also very old — that of the creative human both making and taking in art while being active in the everyday, just as cave paintings were the art of hunters and nurturers.

Art always has a central role to play in the growth of being human, and the Hayward experience this weekend is indicative of such a potential platform. Where growth is not something that is achieved by consumption, but by creatively engaging with the living experience pulsing within ourselves. This 21st-century art may not necessarily hang in a gallery, be reviewed, or even be collectable by someone with the means and time at their disposal. This art is in fact not new art, but the greatest art of all. It is the creative interaction of human beings that feeds into every action we take. It is an art experience through action and interaction, rather than observance and a more passive engagement.

There may be a danger that this kind of art could become lazy and a time-filler. But what it does offer up is an active engagement that if I resource the greater assets of my unconscious and relate, and maybe even celebrate, the true inheritance of millions of years of evolving actions, then the greatest sense of my purpose, potential contribution and engagement with life will not only reveal itself, but will inform every action I take.

Leave a Reply