Where’s all the art about Bumblebees?

In a recent talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the author Howard Jacobson worried that the modern novel was in serious danger. He said that the “language of sympathy and identity” together with the attitude of readers is making it difficult for authors to write difficult books about difficult material. An article in The Guardian about his talk summarised his concerns:

“[I] feel a sense of heartbreak when readers say: ‘I don’t like this book because I don’t sympathise with the main character.’ […] In that little sentence is a misunderstanding so profound about the nature of art, education and why we are reading that it makes you despair. Who ever told anyone that they need to read a book in order to find themselves?”

Jacobson raises an interesting point about art in general – particularly art in difficult times.

Jonathan Jones, in his artblog, has recently challenged art to ask questions and challenge assumptions about difference in the wake of the London Paralympics. He is championing the idea that art can be a prime factor in changing widely-held perceptions of disability and difference particularly, as he reminds us: “at a time when government policy has made life harder for people with disabilites“.

I talked with Inside Out artist Chrissie Smith recently about nature and wildlife art. She had expressed some concern about the most recent NEWA – National Exhibition of Wildlife Artists – show. Once again, she felt, the exhibition showcased a fairly narrow range of techniques and styles, heavily weighted towards traditional subjects and traditional media. “We need to try and get some fresh blood into wildlife art,” she told me. “People who are interested in doing new things with it.”

She’s right. There’s a lot about the natural world – particularly here in Britain – that is not being addressed in British wildlife art. Inside Out artist and designer Al Johnson and I have recently been exploring ways to use art to highlight the serious issues surrounding endangered species – not the Himalayan Tiger or the Mongolian Panda, but species in Britain – common, garden species like sparrows and hedgehogs that are not just in serious decline, but “more endangered than tigers“, as highlighted by a recent report by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

We should all be rising to the challenge of using our art to say something. We could be using our art to address issues that are important to our little corner of Shropshire and North Wales. Where is the art looking at the economic decline of small towns, the fragmentation of communities, rural mental health issues, or landscape depredation? Global issues such as climate change, and geopolitical events such as wars or economic turmoil are having huge impact on our communities. Surely we should be using our art to further local discussion of these issues?

There is no doubt that these are difficult times for many of us; perhaps our response should be to champion a cause in our work – and make some art that asks some difficult questions.

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