Chris masters the art of a prizewinning essay

AN RGS student’s essay has been shortlisted from more than 5,000 entries in a highly competitive undergraduate competition run by the New College of the Humanities in London.

Chris Moxon is one of 150 students whose essays have been selected by the prestigious college, founded by one of Britain’s most prominent philosophers, AC Grayling.

Boarding student Chris, who lives in Sinnington in the North York Moors, is studying biology, history and music at A-level and hopes to study music at university next year.

He explained how an assembly about essay prizes by head of sixth form Mr Fell inspired him to enter. Having discovered the NCH essay competition was humanities based, he decided to tackle a subject which was new to him - art history.

“I started the essay just a few days before the deadline, so am glad I finished and proof-read it in time!”

Chris explained: “I thought the question, about 'de-contextualising' art, was intriguing as I have written history essays in the past but never regarding art, so I decided to try something new.

“I have visited galleries in Holland and Scandinavia so utilised what I've seen and experienced at these as the case material in the essay.

“The question raised the role of context in perceiving and studying a piece of art, so I decided to focus the essay around the lack of understanding for art without background knowledge against the hidden liberation found in art without context-based preconception.”

Prof Grayling, master of the college and professor of philosophy (pictured below), hosted the awards ceremony and announced the winners.

You can read Chris’s essay, below:

‘Discuss the potential consequences of de-contextualisation for the art-historical study of a work of art’ 

Art is defined by perception. How a single piece of art can affect its ‘receiver’, the range of emotions it has the ability to evoke and the range of responses it is capable of engendering are laid across a broad spectrum. The greatest influencer on how people feel about, perceive and study a piece is context, whether it be context regarding the artist’s intentions and methods, how a piece fits into its time frame historically, and society’s dominion over art. This is why decontextualising a piece of art can have such huge repercussions on its reception.

On a hot day in Spain a few years ago, my family and I visited the Salvador Dali Theatre and Museum in the artist’s hometown of Figueres. I distinctly remember the museum’s façade; great red walls topped with huge eggs, the whole affair like an architectural embodiment of Dali (“A single block, a labyrinth, a great surrealist object” is how Dali envisioned his museum). I also remember my younger brother claiming Dali’s massive eggs represented “life and continuation". This observation was remarkable for a ten-year-old, I thought. However, this was no observation - just a mere regurgitation of the Dali guidebook my mum had handed him earlier that day. The connotations my brother drew from the piece were completely based on the context he was spoon-fed earlier, and absolutely none of what he said was original thought of any personal material. Dali is exemplary artist for seeing the effect de-contextualising art has on its study. His striking avant-garde pieces, though their appearance is seemingly random, were thought-through and precise; many full of subtle symbols with deep meanings. Dali’s pieces were often process-based, meaning lack of context could consequent in lack of understanding. An example of this is his piece, ‘Suburbs of a Paranoiac Critical Town’, 1936. Without context, this painting is a surrealist microcosm, ranging from a meticulously detailed sky on the top left, to a drab street on the right, and an array of other bizarre elements in-between, which are random in colour, tone and placement. And although Dali’s technique is of a very high standard, without context, this piece could be difficult to understand for some viewers, and difficult to study due to its ‘rag-tag’ nature. ‘Suburbs of a Paranoiac Critical Town’ is called so due to Dali’s employment of the paranoiac-critical method, which he pioneered and developed himself. A huge part of the era of Surrealism was the previously inexplicable link between creativity and psychology, and the idea of subjectivity interested Dali. In the process of the paranoiac-critical method, Dali immersed himself in a state of paranoia. This, he strongly believed, allowed him to visualise links between things unrelated, hence the microcosm of random scenarios seen in the painting. The state of paranoia causes spontaneity, allowing the creation of pieces which are highly subjective and ambiguous. In this case knowing the method behind a piece unlocks understanding and effective comprehension of its contents to take place, and studying the piece is a lot simpler once placed into context regarding the artist’s method and intentions.

There are many cases of modern art that require context to establish firm footing in quantifying its purpose. In fact, the de-contextualisation of some pieces could even lead to the stripping down of its status as art. Andy Warhol’s ‘invisible sculpture’ is exemplary for demonstrating this. Without preliminary knowledge, this piece seems unfinished; an all-white plinth with spotlights is left completely empty. The piece could therefore be naively perceived as it genuinely needs concept to function. In actual fact, Warhol briefly stood on the plinth in a celebrity nightclub, which is where the point of this piece derives. The idea behind this modern piece could be to consider art as ‘happening’, Warhol (similarly to Dali mentioned before) relies on the process of his piece to carry its meaning, the main difference to Dali being he has no evidence to show for it afterwards. As well Warhol was a pop art icon, here he is likely to be challenging the idea of ‘celebrity’ - that the attraction of this piece relies on his pre-established fame. He famously stated “art is anything you can get away with”, which he seems to be pushing to the limits here, presenting literally nothing and calling it ‘invisible sculpture’. This piece is therefore so relative to its time (1985) where the idea of fame was mounting to create cultural icons, bellwethers such as Michael Jackson, Princess Diana and Warhol himself. From a studying perspective, the wit and thought behind this piece is what allows it to function, is what gives it any significant meaning. Here context is paramount to processing why is piece is the way it is. Another ‘blank’ piece is current American conceptual sculptor Tom Friedman’s ‘1000 hours of staring’. It is superficial to say this piece is just an empty canvas as Friedman claims to have stared at it for 1000 hours (the media is listed as ‘stare on paper’ which is brilliant). What is special about this piece is the pain-staking hours and intense concentration that have gone into this piece, not to no avail, but at least to no evidence. This raises questions about whether the art is the physical substance behind a piece, or rather a piece’s entity or aura. Furthermore the lack of evidence to say there really were 1000 hours doesn’t exist, meaning Friedman could actually be ‘pulling the legs’ of the art world. All these connotations can be extrapolated from a single blank canvas, only once the viewer is supplied with context. Both ‘invisible sculpture’ and ‘1000 hours of staring’ are effectively pointless once de-contextualised, and their study as pieces is dysfunctional until their specific context is given. As well as this, though the two pieces are highly similar in nature, the concept behind each is varying, succinctly represented by the timeframes of each piece – from as little as a few seconds, to ‘1000 hours’, which shows a negative effect of de-contextualising art; making pieces lose their ‘edge’.

Despite previous points perhaps indicating that all art is reliant on context, de-contextualisation of art can be fascinating and liberating. Tucked in a corner of the iconic Mauritshuis museum in The Hague can be found the epitome of this; Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, painted in 1665. This painting is naturally equivocal, as very little is known at all about its meaning, so the piece inherently lacks context. Vermeer’s oeuvre of paintings is scarce and sacred, leaving behind just 36, all of which are immaculately crafted particularly in regards to their use of form, depth and light. ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ is perhaps the best of these works; shrouded in mystery, Vermeer’s beautiful painting is what’s known as a ‘tronie’ rather than a portrait, meaning it has no muse and is instead of an imagined figure (perhaps based on a physical model at a minimum). This means it is highly subjective as a piece as there is no pre-defined context for studiers to think about, allowing focus to be on the art. Many find this piece outstanding; the girl’s soul-seeing eyes which are pointed directly at the viewer; subtle focal points such as the improbably large pearl, the light-catching lips and the oriental blue turban wrapped around the girl’s head, all contribute to an outstanding piece. Even the natural cracks in the canvas seem ‘suit’ the image, and the piece seems deepened by its dark background and gold frame which is wide and ornate. In terms of study, the piece can only be appreciated, since context is so limited - the poignant rawness and nakedness of this piece is derived from its de-contextualised nature.

This idea of art free-from-context can be generalised; there is something quite pure about looking at a piece of art without any prior knowledge or decision whether to like it or not before seeing it. As a viewer, it is perhaps a more valuable artistic experience to look walk round a museum ignoring the placards that say ‘viewers should feel like this’. It is far more personally liberating to make an original perception on a piece, as the real art lies in the emotions it evokes and the response it is able to create. In terms of studying art, though things like historical and social influence are of value, focussing on the content of piece - tone, media etc. - are far more useful in discovering these sweeping terms like ‘meaning’ and ‘purpose’. It is the subjectivity of art that makes it so interesting to study, and de-contextualising art leads to a real sense of clarity which makes studying it feel so personal, which conclusively overrides the reasons context is important to art-historical study.


Marx’s views on art linking into industrial change – in multiple texts, also here –

Figueres Museum Handbook – no author listed