Looking at Art looking at Life: Understanding our world through Images

One way of understanding the culture that we inhabit is to consider how it is sustained in visual terms. This means looking at the visual shape of things as they are expressed through the images, signs and symbols of the world of hopes that make up contemporary consumer culture. The first observation in this analysis is the most obvious, for we now live in a world mediated, sustained, and monitored through the medium of images. With hand-held devices and the flick of a button, we are now required to negotiate the overwhelming mass of signposts that make up this very postmodern world. It is not possible to close one’s eyes to the all-pervasive effect this has on the formation of individuals and communities. Images are simply everywhere and they sustain and shape our sense of self as well as our understanding of faith.

Images are also part of the way people express their faith and belief, whether it be through formal religious structures or through more idiosyncratic forms of spirituality that weave together the strands of meaning that make up a life. To consider these images is to provide a cognitive and imaginative means to understand the values, philosophy and behaviours that are part of human faith expression.

One of the most important places to keep an eye on the images that express human belief and faith in Australia is the Blake Prize. One of Australia’s oldest art prizes, it has, since 1951, created a place where artists have intentionally explored issues of spirituality and religious meaning, and in turn, provide audiences with a means to see the range of expressions found within a multicultural and diverse society.

The 59th Blake Prize was awarded to Queensland artist Leonard Brown for an abstract painting ‘If you put your ear close, you will hear it breathing’. His work is a painting of great grace and physical delicacy but leaves some people scratching their head. Leonard Brown is a deeply spiritual man, having spent some time as an orthodox priest before giving himself full time to painting. His work raises questions about the capacity of abstract art to sustain religious feeling, and the relationship between a person’s personal belief and the form of their work.

I realise that, for some, the Blake Prize is a source of irritation, but for me it is an inspiring institution that values the social role of the artist in our culture. It gives fresh expression to how things come together, and how at times they fall apart. Through both tradition and innovation we face the future, and seek to express a trust in the process of being human, which this kind of art celebrates.

For more information see: Pointers, Volume 21, No. 1, Pages 8-10

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