ZM: What led to your career as an art writer?
JL: I studied art and I’ve always enjoyed the stories behind a work of art - what motivated an artist to paint what they painted, the social and the political circumstances of the times. Take the Impressionists – all those interior scenes, there is a reason for that, 1870 was the Paris Siege and they couldn’t go outside. I like making those connections. It’s an obvious statement, but artists reflect society, it is another way of telling you what it was like to live in that time and place. You can’t get everything from a history book, artists give you a very personal psychological experience.
ZM: What do you find most challenging/rewarding when writing about art?
JL: There are loads of challenges. When you interview an artist, they often find it hard to articulate verbally what they’re doing, which is understandable because they’re doing it visually! Have you ever read anything by Mondrian? Trust me, it’s totally incomprehensible. This makes it difficult for a writer to articulate an artist’s idea in words. You often end up with these slightly half baked explanations which are not very coherent or helpful. As journalists we are working to a word count too. At the Guardian Guide I was limited to 150 words. Good training, but what artist, who has been agonising for over a year on a concept wants their work distilled into a couple of sentences? It is important to find the pertinent points quickly and succinctly without oversimplifying the message. Not easy.
ZM: On reading your work ‘Why are we Artists’, what first led to the project and inspired you to collate 100 world art manifestos?
JL: I just felt the way we discussed art needed to change. I’d been working as an arts writer for the Guardian for several years and had become increasingly frustrated by the lack of diversity I was seeing. I chose the artist manifestos as a vehicle to articulate those frustrations and because there’s a tacit agreement in the art world that the Futurist manifesto of 1909 was the first artist manifesto. I grew up in Bangladesh and was aware of Ananda Coomaraswamy’s Art and Swadeshi manifesto which had also been published in 1909, I just wanted to show there were other vibrant art movements out there across the world doing politically radical things at the same time as the Futurists. I had also read a lot of Stuart Hall who argued in favour of multiple centres of interconnectivity rather than the traditional centre-periphery relationship. Now, of course, there are lots of books promoting the history of art from a feminist perspective or a black perspective and that’s great. For years the only book publishers were interested in was the one that explained modern art in an easy digestible way. There were shelves of them. So, although writers were proposing all these other books the appetite just wasn’t there from the publishers. Thankfully that has changed. I was fortunate Penguin were prepared to take a risk with me.
ZM: Who did you expect your readership to be?
JL: I hoped it would be a useful reference book for people eager to discover art movements they’d perhaps never heard of before. My earliest readers were curators, then I was delighted to discover the book on reading lists for degrees in Politics. The first manifesto that I was properly aware of, aside from the Communist Manifesto, was the Labour Party manifesto of 1945 written by Michael Young. I studied at Dartington College of Arts, which was a radical social and artistic experiment set up in the 1920s. It took its inspiration from Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan School with its focus on the arts and ecology. It so happened that Michael Young was a pupil at Dartington school where he was exposed to these ideas which subsequently influenced the Labour Party manifesto, which he wrote at Dartington. That manifesto transformed Britain, bringing in the welfare state, so there was a very clear indication to me that art had the power to change society and influence policy.
Jessica's most recent books are Global Art, published by Thames & Hudson, and Why Are We 'Artists'? 100 World Art Manifestos, published by Penguin Modern Classics
ZM: You have also written a scripts for films on art and on performance art, produced by Tate. What is performance art and does it aim to break down barriers between different art forms?
JL: I actually think performance art is quite a problematic term. In the 1960s it became something of a catch all for any kind of physical movement or expression, it became so formless that people were pointing at cricket matches and declaring them performance art. I think it is better to say art with performative qualities. An artist will have an idea and decide on the medium that best expresses that idea. It could be through painting or sculpture or it could be through the body– through song, movement, speech etc.. then we say it is performative. It is simply another medium with which to create art. What is exciting presently is the way artists and communities are recognising how empowering this kind of art can be when used collectively as a vehicle for change. Take Nan Goldin’s P.A.I.N or Pussy Riot.
ZM: How would you describe the art scene in the UK at the moment?
JL: I think we won’t see the impact of covid for a couple of years, but we’re already seeing funding cuts and changes in exhibition schedules, reduced opening hours and a reduction in support for education activities. There is no question that the situation is dire. The arts in this country have been cut to a thin gruel, and the new policy of taking money out of the arts in London and distributing it to other regional areas only compounds the issue. The arts across the country should be properly funded, we shouldn’t be robbing Peter to pay Paul.
I do think the way we fund the arts in this country does need to be rethought though. For too long there has been a focus on big destination venues for the arts. Politicians adore these places because they are obsessed with monetising culture and tourism. Many of these places are great ambassadors for the arts. However just think how many small-scale art centres we could have opened across Britain with the money spent on one of these venues.
I am a trustee of Grizedale Arts, a tiny arts organisation in Cumbria. With a staff of 5 they have had a decisive impact on art in this country over the past 20 years. Their overriding ambition is on how the arts can be useful to society and the environment. They have had a direct influence on the way we think about art in this country thanks to their residency programs and workshops. Artists are good at taking risks, trying out different ideas and recognising that failure is part of the process. It is something that people cannot do in other sectors, usually for economic reasons. Artists are pioneers and innovators, they are really good at working with communities and experimenting with new ideas and quite often their failures are just as insightful as their successes.
ZM: What are you working on at the moment?
JL: I’m just finishing a book on protest art. It is taking up all of my spare time. There are a few things in the pipeline after that, but I haven’t dared think too much about them as I don’t want to distract myself from the end of this marathon! The research has been quite lengthy, simply because the political landscape is so volatile at the moment. It seems to change every day. Just when I think I’m done, something else comes up, it’s exciting.
Copyright © 2023 The Pomegranate London - All Rights Reserved.