Art as participation in other things.

Terry Duffy spoke at King’s College Chapel last night about his painting ‘Victim, No resurrection‘, which is being shown as part of an exhibition called ‘Stations of the Cross‘ at 14 locations around London.


Duffy explained the symbolism of his painting, painted in 1982. The blurb handed out last night says it: “challenges people’s greater awareness of the plight of victims… not an easy painting to behold… it is a window into the world of victims, man woman and child…It focusses attention upon global issues of human rights, terrorism, refugees, homelessness, poverty, racial and sexual abuse and discrimination, transcending religious and cultural boundaries.”

Quite a shopping list. It’s difficult to seem to disparage anything which mentions such causes, but I could wish it had been more focussed.


Hard times


For example, I find Fildes’s Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward , or Herkomer’s Hard Times, far more moving. The more specific the situation, the more that you can identify with it and feel appropriate emotion.

I think this is more than just a change in artistic taste, from realism to semi-abstraction. Baudrillard argued that “our current society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that human experience is of a simulation of reality. Moreover, these simulacra are not merely mediations of reality, nor even deceptive mediations of reality; they are not based in a reality nor do they hide a reality, they simply hide that anything like reality is relevant to our current understanding of our lives”. This is how I feel about Victim, no Resurrection: by being so universal, it is getting dangerously far from grounding itself in real events. By going for a general howl of anguish, it ignores the good things in the world and panders to a one-sided polemical taste. (Or rather, to many such tastes.)


The Doctor

Of course, the emotion or meaning in a picture does not have to be directly based on a real incident. Another picture by Fildes, ‘The Doctor’, is apparently based on his memories of his own son’s death from tuberculosis in 1877, but painted in 1891 with an imaginary scene in a poor rural cottage. In one sense this is a simulacrum, presumably not based on any reality, but in another, the emotion and meaning is clear and you feel that it is genuine. It addresses specific problems of illness, death and separation. Whereas Duffy’s anguish seems moreĀ  ‘off the peg’.

Duffy himself said during his talk: “only courageous people who want to change things want to touch it [the painting]”, so I suppose that puts me in my place. I’m not courageous, and there are quite a few things I’m happy to leave as they are.

Duffy’s talk was interesting for a second reason: he covered his adventures taking the painting around the world to exhibit it. It has been to Cape Town, New York, and other places. He has met a number of interesting people in the process. (Mostly Bishops, but some of the more noteworthy Bishops – Desmond Tutu, David Sheppard, and Justin Welby, for example. ) He now seems to seek out opportunities to take the picture around: he has Jerusalem in mind, and also somewhere in South America, next.

Venues that want Duffy and his picture seem to have different reasons: often they want the painting as part of some wider manifestation – for the London ‘Stations of the Cross’ for example. Dresden wanted it as part of a drive against neo-Nazis. Chichester Cathedral wanted it as part of a commemoration of Bishop George Bell, though presumably this was before 2013 when the church apologised over child abuse allegations made against him. In Cape Town, a group of former Robben Island prisoners discussed their experiences while sitting underneath it.

Hunt_Light_of_the_WorldIn this sense, the picture could be compared with Holman Hunt’s Light of the World, which was painted in 1851-3 and then taken on exhibition tours, drawing large crowds, reportedly two million people.

The reasons, and the crowd sizes, are different of course. Hunt’s picture (and some of Frith’s, for instance) were toured around the Empire at a time before good reproductions were widely variable, and before broadcasting. It was expensive to travel, and it took a long time. People in the colonies felt cut off from ‘home’, and from metropolitan currents of taste and thought. So these pictures received rock star receptions wherever they went.

Large crowds also came to see the Fildes and Herkomer pictures in the UK, though I can’t find any suggestion that they were toured overseas.

Duffy’s picture may however have become a sort of ‘happening’, transcending its own existence as an art work on canvas. Rather than a polemic like Hard Times, or an attempt to inspire like The Light of the World, it is art as participation. It can be brought out to reinforce other statements or to flesh out events. It stimulates conversations and raises consciousness, and is valued for its ability to do this. I’m not sure if the picture validates the event, or the event the picture: perhaps both.


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