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Thought for the Day - Rev Lucy Winkett - 09/10/2012

Rev Lucy Winkett

A year before his suicide in 1970 the Russian born artist Mark Rothko donated to the Tate galleries his painting “Black on Maroon”. Rothko’s paintings are overwhelming; huge blocks of colour on gigantic canvases. They are arguably best viewed from very close, so that the colour almost envelops you as you as you approach them. He himself said of his work that he was expressing “basic human emotions - tragedy, ecstasy, doom...The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them."

The precise reason why a former art student, also Russian born, calmly by all accounts walked up to Rothko’s masterpiece in London on Sunday and wrote over it in marker pen is not yet clear and is the subject of a police investigation. Behaviour that crosses a line into vandalism can’t of course be condoned. And his claim that he will increase the value of the painting is an interesting if dubious one in this particular case. But there’s something else here. If an artist themselves makes something designed to provoke a reaction, can such a reaction be objected to? Is it possible to “deface” art after Duchamps’s famous moustache on Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa which became an art work in its own right and encouraged a succession of conceptual art that followed? Henry Moore’s public sculpture has been crawled over and discoloured by the heat and dirt of human touch. Does this add or detract to it? There are analogies here between what happens with art and what happens with religion. Art galleries, with their subsidised free entry and magnificent contents are said to be the new cathedrals. This is where many go in a modern city to contemplate the big questions of life and to experience the awakening of their spirits. Themes of orthodoxy and heresy may apply here too. Judgements about beauty, appropriateness and the classification of what art is, has resonances with organised religion, often keen to try to draw boundaries around doctrine, right ritual, agreed behaviour.

But perhaps, notwithstanding this particular marker pen incident, it is as well to reflect that when the art establishment or religious institutions become too rigid about what is acceptable and what isn’t something precious is lost which is awareness of what the Bible calls the “spirit who blows where it wills”. The ungovernable and wholly independent spiritual reality that Christians call God, the generative presence that underpins the universe is the same spirit that inspires and invigorates the artist inside all of us who will not be told what to do or what to believe and who treasures our most precious human characteristic; imagination.

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3 minutes