Contrary to the UK’s culture secretary Maria Miller’s “economic impact” presentation, the arts are not all about economy, finance or money. The arts if forced into any sort of mainstream frame or requirement will simply defy any impositions and reinvent it self. The arts have a history of defying conventional powers, establishment and the mainstream. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is one such example of defiance that pops up when we look down the annals of art.
As a youngish photography student almost a decade and a half ago, I found inspiration in the paintings of Caravaggio, and not in the greats of photography like Henri Cartier Bresson. I perceived photography, as being all about light, and Caravaggio for me was the master at depicting light. Fast-forward 13 years later, as a not-so-young History of Art student, I realised I was lucky to have the art of Caravaggio to inspire me back when I was studying photography. From the annals of art history I found out that those with the means and power during his time were determined to keep Caravaggio’s art from view and obliterate his name from the art history books.
However, try as they may, and luckily for me, the powers could not keep Caravaggio down. Stories reveal Caravaggio to be a bit of a headstrong son-of-the-proverbial. Likewise, his art has proved insuppressibly. In one of his mad moments Caravaggio the temperamental artist, the story goes, threatened to give fellow papal painter Guido Reni a damn good hiding. The reason for this threat was that Reni was supposedly imitating or, according to Caravaggio, stealing his (Caravaggio’s) style of painting. Caravaggio’s unique way of enforcing, what we today call copyright is not lost on us here. Caravaggio need not have bothered threatening Reni, according to the art historian Francis Haskell, the papal powers of the time were not particularly keen on Caravaggio’s style anyway and were prepared to rescind their backing of the hotheaded painter.
The presence and reverence of Caravaggio’s art today is an example of how the arts can innovate, morph and flourish in the face of adversity. Caravaggio’s paintings were part of the collection to grace the first of what we today call art galleries, thanks to Vincenzo Giustiniani (13 September 1564 – 27 December 1637). Out of the rejects of the Counter Reformation papal church, which included Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew and the Angel (1602) Giustiniani created what was to be the first of new and secular cathedrals to art. Caravaggio’s Saint Matthew and the Angel was unfortunately destroyed in the World War II. With regards to Caravaggio’s art what was the papacy’s trash turned out to be Giustiniani’s treasure, becoming one of the most revered art collections in art history. A good fraction of Giustiniani’s collection of paintings, which remained intact for over 200 years, today forms part of the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.
It is thanks to the concept of “art galleries” kicked off by the likes of Giustiniani that visitors to the City of London walk across the Millennium Bridge from St Paul’s Cathedral to that other cathedral, Tate Modern to worship at the foot of art. Giustiniani’s offering constituted an alternative for talented artists such as Caravaggio, which the Counter Reformation papacy sought to censor; granted being hotheaded probably did not help the nutter that was Caravaggio. This shows one thing, that establishment is not all-powerful and can be sidelined. The likes of the Tate Modern, the British Museum; where Ms Miller gave her speech, and the V&A; which she sites in her speech are today’s establishment and have the means and infrastructure to make the case of their “economic impact” on the UK macros economy. But what about the entities lower down the art sector’s food chain, the artist-led galleries and studios for example. For these lowly players even if a Giustiniani, who was well connected and establishment by the way, does not come along they will still do their thing. The human need for expression does not hang around for perceived right conditions.
In the face of a lack of finance the arts will stage defiance. Buenos Aires provides an example of art scene doing its own thing and creating its own opportunities and conditions. On a recent trip to Buenos Aires, excursions to the city’s established galleries were positively uninspiring. I am assuming that years of oppressive governments and the censorship and elitism that comes with the territory contributed in no small way to the sanitised artistic output I came across in the city’s established galleries. My perception of the art on display was not unique to me but was shared with my fellow traveller who had a distinctly different approach to art and tastes to me. We need not have bothered with the likes of MALBA rather we should have just walked the streets of the city. The city of Buenos Aires is an open-air cathedral to street art so much so that there are bus tours dedicated to this genre of the city’s art. The establishment galleries have effectively been sidelined.
If stories of Caravaggio and Giustiniani prove too distant in the past, and Buenos Aires too geographically distant or too insulting to some (cue the recent death of Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War) then how about our homeboy Banksy. Being incognito and subversive has not stopped Banksy leapfrogging from street art scene to auction house. I defy any advertising or trend prediction tool to have forecasted that phenomenon. The lesson here is this, those with the urge to, will express themselves with or without the means and support that this government chooses to provide. Whatever this government is prescribing has not and cannot be bottled and dispensed. Prescriptions would only result in a sanitised art scene, which would quickly be sidelined. Whether or not this government becomes a footnote in the annals of art chronicling the British art scene’s fall from grace and eventual reinvention depends on if the government revisits its ‘economy of the arts stance’ or not. Come what may, there will be art defiance with or without finance.
By Depo Olukotun