15 Jan 2017

Great Ideas - Part 3: 'Art Fashion and Literature'

From Great Ideas, 9:00 am on 15 January 2017
The Death of Marat (La Mort de Marat or Marat Assassiné) by Jacques-Louis David

Detail from The Death of Marat (La Mort de Marat or Marat Assassiné) by Jacques-Louis David Photo: Public Domain

Does the best creative work emerge in times of strife?

In part three of Great Ideas, Megan Whelan looks at how revolutions shape – and are shaped by – fashion, literature and the visual arts.

Participants: Dr David Maskill, Dr Margaret Medlyn and Dr James Meffan

What is the artist’s responsibility in a time of change?

“We all need to be shown what it is to be human,” Dr Margaret Medlyn says.

“Equally, for a stand-alone piece of art to break down accepted barriers and conformations of style, is an artist’s duty.

“That’s why an artist is an artist – to confront society and society’s expectations.”

Medlyn cites Igor Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ - which caused a riot at its first performance - and Richard Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde’, which she describes as hypnotic, charming and timeless, but also unsettling and as portraying intense human emotion.

Dr David Maskill struggles to think of any other artist who has been as embedded with a revolutionary cause as Jacques-Louis David.

Maskill points to Jacques-Louis David’s portrait of the assassination of French revolutionary politician Jean-Paul Marat.

“I think what David was trying to depict was the fundamental shift from a God-centred universe to a human one.

“That this political deputy could actually now be treated as a Christian martyr. And of course, at this precise moment, Christianity was outlawed. They changed the calendar so the birth of Christ was no longer the beginning of the calendar.”

“It was an attempt to wipe the slate of history clean.”

Revolutions happen in both content and form, Dr James Meffan says.

JM Coetzee

South African writer JM Coetzee Photo: Public Domain

He mentions the Nobel and Booker Prize-winning author JM Coetzee, who was criticised for not being “accessible”.

“Coetzee was going to have none of this. He saw the artist’s responsibility to the art per se.”

“Someone described – in possibly the most backhanded attack on Coetzee’s novel – that what he was offering was a coterie of modernist thinkers in South Africa some kind of masturbatory release.”

“While Rome was burning, there were these artists off gazing at their navels,” Meffan says.

“That kind of tension endures in many situations, and I think the works of art that endure, pretty reliably, seem to be the ones that have been provocative in their manner of representation as much of what they represent.”

“Most works of genius are born of difficulty and hardships and confrontations. And provocations,” says Margaret Medlyn.

“So what?”, she asks.

“So what if you’ve made a pretty picture? So what? What are you trying to convey? You’ve written an entertaining novel? So what? What’s it going to do? What are you doing this for?”

“I absolutely agree that the question that hangs over art is exactly ‘So what?’” says Meffan. “But I see it as a provocation.

“The point can be the opening up of questions. [It] can be actually initiating, thinking that the artist doesn’t sit at the back of class with the answer already.”

Great Ideas is a series, recorded in collaboration with Victoria University, about the ideas that have shaped the world we live in. It looks at what it takes to change our perspective and considers why these ideas still matter.