Friday, 22 September 2006

What’s the big idea?

To get your work noticed it helps if your artistic marketing package can offer the pithy one-liner that puts your name immediately in context. Jenny Saville, the painter who paints close-ups of fleshy, contorted female nudes, Georg Baselitz, who paints people upside down, Howard Hodgkin, the painter of colourful sweeps and dots that spill onto their frames. These descriptions hardly do justice to what they’re really doing, and simplify to a ridiculous degree, but it is the kind of tabloid description that they will be partly remembered by.

Where does that leave the rest of us? Have you had your big idea? For some the idea behind what they are trying to do appears to be more important than how well they carry it through. As long as it looks good on paper – by which I mean in writing rather than as a drawing – then success is assured. But what constitutes a good idea? This is the nitty gritty for conceptual artists. I recently heard of one such artist making sculptures out of carpet fluff and another whose work involves viewers taking off their own shoes and putting on others that he kindly provides. We’ll have to wait and see if the names of these artists become household. But at least they have ideas.

So what about the artists who go out and paint and draw what they see? James Hobbs, the artist who draws what he looks at. That’s hardly going to get me anywhere, is it? It’s hardly one for the epitaph. But that is how, at times, it feels as if I work. Inevitably I’m drawn to some subjects more than others, but I often find I do better if I draw what all my instincts tell me not to. What about this then? James Hobbs, the artist who draws what he really doesn’t want to. It’s hardly any better.

Perhaps finding the big idea involves a little analysis of exactly what you are doing with your art. For the lack of anything else to say about their work, some artists resort to the good old staple of describing it as “raising questions”. A sculptor makes work “raising questions concerning hollowness and solidity”. A painter “raises questions about cultural and artistic identity”. I read about an exhibition recently that “raises questions about what constitutes site-specificity” (which sounds like a mealy-mouthed apology for work not looking as good as it should in the place it has been put). Rachel Whiteread’s recent installation Embankment at Tate Modern, which featured thousands of casts of cardboard boxes, encouraged us, a gallery handout told us, “to think about the space they inhabit”.

Do these artists realise that they are continually posing these queries as they make their work, or is it just the PR people and critics that imagine it? Do you, for instance, consider what your work may be asking as you make it? Is there – and this is the point I’m really trying to make here – is there a chance that, unwittingly, my drawings are already raising questions about something or other?

So what’s so good about asking questions all the time? And how about some answers to go along with them? As anyone who has lived with small children will know, there’s nothing quite as tiring as a continual stream of why-thises and why-thats, lovely as it is to see an enquiring mind develop at the breakfast table. And do people want to buy work that asks questions?

So the hunt for the big idea goes on, for me at least. I’m pondering this in a cafe, and with a little time to spare I get out my sketchbook to draw the scene through the window. Flicking back through it I realise that I do an awful lot of drawings as I sit in cafes. Is this my big idea? It certainly raises questions about how much time I spend drinking coffee.

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