A Special Builder's Notes


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03 November 2017

It Came To Mind.

'Art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed'.

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Because I was standing in front of Odd Nerdrum’s, ‘The Murder of Andreas Baader’, at the moment when Banksy’s pearl of wisdom popped into my head, I couldn't at first get round the second clause. My initial thought was, 'why would anyone encourage this sort of thing?' - the act that is, not the art.

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Even a cursory glance at Banksy's work will confirm that’s not what he meant. Banksy has consistently used his art to get the attention of those he feels are responsible for the injustices of the world; that's the 'disturb the comfortable' bit. 'Comfort the disturbed'; art as a therapy is the more likely explanation and that was when things took a surprising turn.

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' Kite'. Courtesy of the Adamson Collection / Wellcome Library

We've most of us heard of the therapeutic value of art in the treatment of the difficult and the disturbed but, like me, I would guess that for many of us, that's as far as our awareness goes. Imagine then, coming across a body of work that wasn't created, promoted, bought, sold and exhibited by a select few, though was otherwise indistinguishable except in one crucial respect; the narratives of the works seemed perfectly lucid.

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'The Demonstration'. Courtesy of the Adamson Collection / Wellcome Library

Was this intelligibility inherent in the works a consequence of their creators focusing completely on the task of communicating through their art because the need to communicate was paramount? If I was even partially correct in saying that 'art is our way of informing ourselves of our view of the world', then in that task, this body of work was entirely successful. I know that the authors of the pieces I was looking at were mostly compelled to be incarcerated for their failings, so already there was a context, an understanding - I could make a reasonable assumption about what was going on based on my own capacity for conjuring up disturbing thoughts - we’re all of us perfectly equipped (in sound mind or not) to create all kinds of mayhem and we can certainly recognise it in others too.

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'Drowning'. Courtesy of the Adamson Collection / Wellcome Library

Why then do the narratives of the exhibits that I grumble about, those created by the – so to speak – undisturbed, who are at liberty to explore, experiment with, journey to and investigate the relationships between anything and everything - in the telling, so disastrously lose me? Context is my guess. Typically, 'various expressions of dissension and countercultural forces that result in ambiguous thematisations of the dilemmas of transgression’, does not provide context. Instead, it fabricates, abdicates and obfuscates, and in so doing relinquishes any claim to the piece being art, confirms the creator's status as clown and the gallery's role as the Big Top.

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I was interested to continue my researches and they led me firstly to Adrian Hill, then Edward Adamson. Hill instigated the employment of art as a therapeutic tool when he was in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis in the early 1940’s. Adamson, an artist, later working with Hill, then took the ideas to the Netherne Hospital, an asylum for the long-term mentally ill in Surrey - one of several such institutions in Britain. I won’t go any further because the Adamson Collection Trust tells it better than me.

The brief history of art therapy is compelling, inspiring and happily, comforting.

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