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Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Spotlight: Celebrating the heroic

This month Spotlight is, by accident, about the spotlight. The light aimed on the theatre stage that picks out the main heroine, the hero, the main character on the stage.
How does art celebrate heroic people? More specifically, how does art celebrate individuals?

Edmund Hilary, climber of Everest.  Portrait painted by Jurgen H. Staudtner
  This blog’s inspiration is a Guardian article from 12th September 2017, titled “Move over Nelson”, about who should be celebrated in sculpture. The article’s proposition is that publicly commissioned sculpture could better represent heroes such as Victoria Wood and David Attenborough - the heroes who entertain “We, the people”. It is not obvious, however, that replacing military and government figures with individuals from other institutions such as the media is the answer.  There are many heroes who are not already famous...
A possibly heroic person
   Part of this consideration of how to illustrate heroism is the artistic balance between meaning and aesthetics: what is visually engaging?  Not suggesting that Victoria and Sir David are unappealing… Simply that there may be other stories of achievement that could be more visually dramatic than familiar faces of tv personalities. Doesn't art need more creativity and challenge than replicating television?  More surprise or humour?
Sir David Attenborough by Rene Campbell
  David Attenborough would probably appreciate being celebrated through public depictions of wildlife's drama rather than his own face.
3D-effect street art by Alex Maksiov
  A visual snapshot homage to Victoria Wood, rather than of her smile, could be of a wonky Mrs Overall.  An image from Victoria Wood, rather than of Victoria Wood, is probably what she and we would enjoy more.
  Who is put in the spotlight, when art is to be seen by many? Who gets portraits painted of them, sculptures commissioned, and memorials?
  Statues are coming down, slowly.  Many public figures of distant and recent past are being discredited, for reasons such as associations with slavery or corruption, or simply anything which is no longer as acceptable as it used to be.  Women are getting better represented, gradually, as are minorities.  It's slow.  It can make one wonder how such public artistic choices are made in the first place.
Aung San Suu Kyi portrait taken down in an Oxford College
  Since 2014 Nigeria’s Pan-Atlantic University has had an arts programme to illustrate Nigerian culture and achievement and challenges in an international context. It tells the world what Nigeria is about. Among other things it includes celebrating the Bachama wrestler festival, and Emotan (who instigated a creche system), and Queen Idia.  This range of subjects seems representative of power dynamics in most western monumental art.  
Bachama wrestler
  The Bachama wrestler is a generic figure with no name attached. The wrestler is there as a class of people, rather than an actual person.  Nigeria's historic Queen is named as an individual. Emotan, also celebrated as a named individual, is honoured not so much because she started childcare day centres as because she helped prevent a coup and was then made governor of markets and security.
  George Orwell, real name Eric Arthur Blair, writer of 'Animal Farm' and '1984', has been celebrated recently with a statue at BBC headquarters.
  It is the only statue there.  He worked for the BBC, but felt that it was like being an inmate in an asylum, and resigned after a couple of years.  Some of '1984', such as 'Room 101' is rumoured to have been based on his BBC experiences. Eric's adopted son, and the sculptor, feel that Eric would be uncomfortable with being celebrated on a plinth, particularly at that location.
  However there is a more fitting monument being made to the creator of '1984's notion of "Big Brother is watching you".  Up the road at Piccadilly Circus, facial recognition cameras are being installed in the giant advertising screen.  Those walking past will be identified and recorded.
  In art commissions everywhere, as with a lot of things, the people who control the spotlight are the same as those who control the stage.  
Amy Winehouse statue, with Amy's parents at the unveiling
Public voting for public art is rarely practised.  If you want to have a say in who and what gets artistically celebrated, you can take control of a spotlight. Alternatively you can control the stage - that is what street art does. 
Amy Winehouse portrait, Mr Cenz
  How are heroes identified in the UK?  Many are recognised through the Queen’s Honours, which is the awarding of titles and designations such as OBE, MBE, Dame, and Sir, bestowed for acts of kindness and bravery, dedication, education or sporting achievements. 
Winners in ‘the Honours’ are not necessarily those with a visually compelling story. The Honours are word-based, like this blog: nominations to the Honours list are made with words. To nominate someone you fill in a written form, with no need to attach photos or a musical recording or video of the nominee. Visual impact is not a criterion. In choosing art subjects it might be better to look among the list of people nominated for honours but rejected: nominated heroes whose tale still merits recognition.  From among them, perhaps select those whose tale has drama which lends itself to the visual arts of painting and sculpture.
  Who would you celebrate in art?

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