Monday, 23 March 2015

A Letter to Will Gompertz

Dear Will,

Regarding your blog on Richard Attenborough's Memorial and the speech read by Sir David Attenborough:

I was also at Dickie Attenborough's Memorial last week and just wanted to say that I totally agree with your summation of David Attenborough's re-reading of his brother's maiden House of Lords speech - as 'spot on'. 

I'm an artist and have just painted what must be the last portrait of Dickie to be painted when he was alive [see below]. It's not a 'current portrait' - but one taken from a 1969 photograph by Godfrey Argent - kindly lent by the National Portrait Gallery. It was commissioned by the University of Sussex to hang in the new Attenborough Centre for Creative Arts to be opened on the Brighton campus in September of this year - and was approved by Dickie and in particular, his son, Michael.

As I sat in Westminster Abbey, self-consciously feeling like an under-achiever amongst the great and the good of British Culture - the words from Sir David's speech were so re-assuring to hear that I immediately felt warmed and content - not only in being there - but in my own continuing struggle to live by making art.

I was also re-assured to learn of a life of a fellow human that actually liked other fellow humans! - and who also was compelled to tell the stories of those who had fought for the benefit of humanity against hatred and oppression - namely Steve Biko and Gandhi.

Similarly I've painted portraits of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Aung San Suu Kyi. The latter a large typographic portrait made from her speech 'Freedom from Fear' - that I hung outside the studio in the street in central Brighton. It was an 'inclusive' gesture enabling everyone to not only see the portrait but to read - and hopefully benefit from - a fundamentally positive insight into humanity.   

Thinking of Richard Attenborough's life brings to mind Martin Luther King's famous quote - "Darkness cannot drive out darkness - only light can do that". Dickie's life seems to have been a beacon of light - not only in his positive contribution to human culture - but in the way he shone light onto the darker stories as mentioned above. Artists have always done this - from Dylan's many songs of the like of 'The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll' - to contemporary artists such as Ai Weiwei and Kara Walker.

Are the arts any more inclusive in the twenty years since Richard Attenborough's Lords speech was written? I would say visual arts are - not least the explosive proliferation of street art in the last ten years - enabling self-taught urban/street art artists such as Banksy, Ben Eine, Pure Evil to follow a path outside of the traditional art-school routes to higher art world recognition.

The BBC's current 'Get Creative' initiative is also providing a substantial platform for inclusivity in the arts. Mark Cass - of the Cass Foundation - is rapidly expanding the Cass Art Supplies shops across the UK with the manifesto "Let's fill this town with artists" - providing accessible art classes  for the general public to engage with making art.

Technology is also helping people connect with their creativity. I've played my own small part by developing interactive paint-by-number kits that link physical art materials to a free-to-use online  app. It enables anyone - regardless of 'artistic ability' - to create satisfying real paintings from their own photos. The first version was called D.I.Y. Art Paint by Pixel and sold over 4,000 products through Urban Outfitters. 

It's not an art-making machine - it does't turn the person into an instant artist - it's just a tool to provide the first engagement with the physicality of making a picture - a tool to reduce the intimidation of a blank canvas. The unique selling point is that the user's own photos can be used - i.e. images with a unique emotional attachment - and the outcome is a physical object to be displayed proudly.

The new version is called 'Painteractive' and is an iPad app that has just come out of development and is ready for investment to take to market. Painteractive is even more user-friendly and has more universal applications - in that pictures can be made using a variety of off-the-shelf materials - from Posca paint-pens to Dulux tester pots. 

In fact the Painteractive app could be an excellent addition to the BBC's Get Creative campaign - and if there is someone you think I should talk to before I start my Kickstarter campaign - I'd be happy to do so.

The importance of creating art - to individuals and society - is well-documented. Not just the pleasure and satisfaction of making something - but also the therapeutic factors - see this Telegraph article from a couple of weeks ago. 

So, in many ways the arts are becoming more inclusive - and many more people are benefiting from engaging in arts activities. 

But - art still needs to be radical and challenging and intelligent - and to counter just one line in Attenborough's speech - art does need to be the 'playground of the intelligentsia' - as this is how new ideas are formed and culture progresses. And like all disciplines - from science to maths to literature - the top end is not for everyone. 

So, in my view, while the arts will continue to be this 'playground of the intelligentsia' - and even more a playground of the rich - other than our own selves and our own prejudices - there is nothing stopping all of us, regardless of financial wealth, being enriched by art.

With best regards,

Mike Edwards

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