Art Assignment 11 - Under the Influence.
I was very excited when I saw the latest episode of The Art Assignment, as it was just the excuse I needed to have a go at a piece in the style of one of my favourite artists (and indeed people) working today, who also happens to have written in great detail about imitating and recreating art works (which I’ll talk about a bit further down).
Jonathan Miller has described the art he makes as a ‘consolation for not doing the kind of work I am still capable of doing’, as thanks to his age (he turned 80 last week) his talents as a director are not as in demand as they once were, though from the successful revivals of his operas, in particular, they are in no way diminished and his productions are as popular as ever. Nor is he able to get the kind of scientific programming he would like onto television as the in-depth style of his previous shows is no longer considered something a mainstream TV audience would want to watch (although I imagine many of the people reading this would, like me, dispute that argument). He started off taking abstract photographs of landscapes and discarded objects, then began to make his own, using offcuts of wood, torn off pieces of old poster typography, folds of fabric and unwanted metal. You can see some examples of his work here, as well as footage from his 2011 exhibition, “One Thing and Another”, which was the first exhibition of his I saw, and when I completely fell in love with his style. If you fancy even more, there’s this rather lovely segment from the BBC Arena programme documenting his life that was broadcast in 2012. As with his work in the theatre, his focus when making art is on the idea of making the negligible considerable, and, something that was a revelation to me in my understanding of certain kinds of art, that by framing something, either literally or by photographing it or placing it in a gallery, you are saying that it is of interest and worth looking at.
Miller has written an entire book on the “afterlives” of works of art, which includes several passages on imitation and reproduction which sprang to mind while I was wandering around his (and my adopted) home patch in North London looking for bits to use to make this. The arguments are too complex to summarise accurately, but the broad conclusion is that, no matter how good a replica something may aim to be, it can never equal the original. He writes in great detail about the unavoidable role of interpretation in the reproduction of art, and goes on to say that:
"Even if you could theoretically avoid those artefacts of interpretation that are built into the process of copying and forging, the hypothetical and unachievable perfect copy would probably strike a contemporary reader/viewer as quaint rather than authentic, and even if struck by the work’s authenticity, this itself would distance him from the experience of a contemporary reader/viewer of the original, as the very idea of authenticity would have been irrelevant. The claim that something is authentic has already pre-empted the possibility of having an authentic experience."
It’s a fascinating discussion and I can highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of Subsequent Performances or On Further Reflection to read the essay in full, especially as quoting such a small section from it has probably raised more questions than it’s answered. Sorry about that.
Miller trained as a neuroscientist before taking part in Beyond The Fringe, the ground-breaking satirical revue in the early 1960s. From then on he was presented with plenty of what he refers to as “unsolicited invitations”, including editing and presenting Monitor, the BBC’s flagship arts and culture programme, producing two years of the BBC’s Shakespeare project and directing adaptations of Alice in Wonderland and M.R. James’ Whistle and I’ll Come To You. He became recognised as a populariser of science in the late 70s and early 80s thanks to writing and presenting a number of programmes on the human body and the workings of the brain, but is now most widely known as an opera director, for which he was knighted in 2002. Like most people my age, I first saw him presenting his brilliant series on atheism in 2004, which as a 13 year old in a Catholic school was about exciting as BBC4 could get.