The Art of Rebellion!

Why you should take inspiration from these artists and their attitudes.

First published in the University of Warwick’s Cobalt magazine, Issue 17 – Rise Up. 21/09/2020 

Countless artists have grown their reputation from rising up against the established norm in the art world. Whether it’s because they stuffed half a cow in a glass case (Damien Hirst) or canned their own shit and labelled it ‘Artist’s shit’ (I forgot who did this, ironically), their rebellion is what the artists become remembered for. This hypothesis isn’t restricted to contemporary artists such as Hirst, who is currently at the forefront of Britain’s art scene. The evidence of artistic rebellion has been written all over gallery walls for centuries.

Take Vincent Van Gogh, for instance. His work was disliked during his lifetime. After all, he had no formal artistic training, and he was no Titian… Van Gogh painted with intense brush strokes and exaggerated unrealistic colours, as contemporary critics pointed out. However, this is exactly what he is now revered for, as one of the most famous and popular artists for our time. Tourists flock to the National Gallery just to see his sunflowers, and the recent film ‘Loving Vincent’ is a work of art itself, in homage to the artist.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler was also harshly critiqued during his lifetime. He was accused by an esteemed critic of the Royal Academy of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”, so to speak, with his painting, Nocturne in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket. John Ruskin, the critic in question, found Whistler’s paintings so offensive to the Academy’s values that the pair brought their disagreements to court and Whistler sued Ruskin for libel. In the end, the farcical court case was won by Whistler, who gained a meagre farthing in compensation for the slanderous publicity.

The Art of Rebellion!

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1875, oil on panel, 60.2 x 46.7 cm (Detroit Institute of the Arts) 

It may interest you to know that whilst this trial was going on in the late 1800s, Ruskin was a lodger in the University of Warwick’s student town, Leamington Spa. Close to Vialli’s Fast Food and Sicilian’s Pizza (a prime location for appreciating art) you can find a blue plaque outside his house, number 8 on Russell Terrace.

Since Whistler’s death, like Van Gogh, he has gained more fame and appreciation. Whistler favoured Japanese techniques and decorative artwork, and his involvement with the Aesthetic Movement has linked him to the notions of ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ rather than the ‘Truth to Nature’ that Ruskin so fiercely promoted in the London art scene.

Whistler’s Nocturnes and Symphonies artworks aspired to be as complex and nuanced as a piece of music, as the aesthetic theories of Walter Pater would suggest, and by rebelling against the Royal Academy’s Victorian standards Whistler has promoted a different form of art appreciation… For the pleasure of enjoying art and capturing a fleeting moment like a falling firework, not for a moral purpose or for certain values that guide the construction of a painting. ‘The Gentle Art of Making Enemies’(1892), written by Whistler in part as a response to Ruskin, aptly suggests how Whistler’s artistic sensibility was advanced by his attitude.

Moving this article from a London court case to American incarceration, we come to Mark Loughney, an American artist and illustrator who is currently using his art as a means of reaching out from his prison cell. “As a guy below the salt, visual art is my only means to reach the people above the salt.” Loughney has been participating in a written Q&A with the Warwick History of Art Society, giving insights to his personal experience and artistic practice within jail. The interview series highlights how art can be used as a means of challenging social narratives. Loughney’s over 500-part series of portraits of his fellow inmates, titled “Pyrrhic Defeat” (2015 – ), is to be displayed in the MoMa PS1’s exhibition curated by Dr Nicole Fleetwood, her book and the exhibition are named “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration”. Read all about Mark and his answers to our questions on the HoASOC social media pages and website. Without condoning Mark’s arson felony, we do think it’s important to acknowledge that his art has reached a wide audience about the carceral issues surrounding his artistic practice. Mark is bringing the role of art as a tool to challenge social narratives and perceptions into the limelight.

The Art of Rebellion!
Mark Loughney, Pyrrhic Defeat: A Visual Study of Mass Incarceration, 2014-present. Graphite on paper (series of 500 drawings). Each 12 x 9 in. Courtesy of the artist.

Art has also been instrumental in the rise of feminism. Artemia Gentileschi channeled her vengeance through painting her rapist as the victim in what have come to be known as her ‘revenge’ works. Frida Kahlo painted herself in a surrealist manner that rises above her tumultuous relationship and disability from an accident. Both manage to outwardly express their pains in a way that was not dismissed as female hysteria. Peggy Guggenheim, not an artist but a collector, used art to establish herself… She was a rebel against norms in her own way –have you seen her sunglasses?! She was also very promiscuous for a lady in the 60’s, with a string of lovers and husbands (not always her own at that!)

The Art of Rebellion!
Peggy Guggenheim, image courtesy of 

Sean Scully has certainly used art as a means of rising above his unfortune and climbing social ladders. He started in poverty in Ireland, became a plasterer in his youth, was rejected from plenty of art courses but eventually managed to go to an art college and then study at Newcastle University. Since then, Scully has become one of the most famous British artists today. He recently exhibited in the 2019 Venice Biennale, in the church of San Giorgio Maggiore, a classical Renaissance and architectural wonder by Palladio in 1610. Scully’s exhibition ‘Human’ was respectful in its religious context, personal in the significance of his colour palette, and through simplicity on the surface, he conveys a love of labour and aims to manifest something we can all recognise in the universality of his brush strokes. Scully’s attitude is a huge part of the artist’s persona. Some artists, Banksy for example, take great pleasure in anonymity and revealing as little as possible. Scully on the other hand, since the very beginning of his studies “always knew he would be a success”. He rose against all the odds to be at the forefront of art today, having helped guide the progression from Minimalism to Emotional abstraction.

The Art of Rebellion!
Sean Scully, Opulent Ascension, 2019, Felt on wood 10.4 x 3.6 x 3.6m. Image courtesy of 

Something all these figures have in common, is that in the act of going against something, they have DONE something for the art world and ultimately risen to today’s standards of what constitutes as art. Whether it be advancing the Post-Impressionist movement and serving as inspiration for artists down the line, bringing a different approach to the purpose of art and appreciation thereof, or using art as a means to challenge societal expectations, we ought to channel their forms of self-expression ourselves. They owe their reputation to rebellion of sorts. So, with that in mind, rise up, get out of bed (unless you’re the next Tracy Emin), express yourself!

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