The Art of Taking Risks
In 1917, the Society of Independent Artists received a urinal fixed to a plinth as a submission for their annual exhibition. The work of art, signed R Mutt, was rejected on the basis that such an object had no place in an exhibition of art. Of course, the urinal has since become one of the most infamous sculptures that the art world has ever seen. Marcel Duchamp, like Tracey Emin with her unmade bed and Sarah Lucas with Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab (above), was a risk-taker.
Whenever individuals expose their ideas, opinions, beliefs and emotions in the public sphere, there is an element of risk involved – the greatest artists and writers are those who have truly stepped outside the norm. So where are the risk takers now? Art critic Will Gompertz recently stated, ‘We need artists to work outside the establishment and start looking at the world in a different way – to challenge preconceptions instead of reinforcing them.’
It’s often hard to believe that some of the most treasured works of art hanging on the walls of some of the world’s most prestigious galleries were once fiercely criticised. Michelangelo’s depiction of nudes in his enormous fresco of The Last Judgement, or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which portrays five nude female prostitutes from a brothel on Avinyó Street in Barcelona, were both extremely contentious when first painted.
Another prime example is the work of JMW Turner. The Sinking of the Temeraire was voted the nation’s favourite painting in 2005, but Turner was a controversial figure in his day. His expressive style and use of colour, as opposed to the imitative painting styles of his contemporaries, were bold risks to take in nineteenth century Britain.
And let’s not forget those who took a risk with their topic matter. Henry Wallis’s The Stonebreaker (1857) rejected the Victorian ‘rose-tinted’ and sentimental approach to art, while Picasso’s Guernica (1937) addressed war and brutality – topics which society so often refused to deal with head on.
For centuries simply picking up a paint brush posed a huge risk for women. Female artists were forced to work under pseudonyms and were expected to produce only certain kinds of work: watercolours and still life, for example, were long recommended for ‘gentile’ female artists. Fortunately, by the second half of the nineteenth century, brave young women such as military painter Elizabeth Thompson were starting to take an unprecedented stand in tackling issues once solely the territory of men.
Every artist who has taken risks for their art illustrates the importance of questioning the status quo. So often it is hard to look beyond the present and what is expected of you – but those who have done so have created some of the greatest works of art in existence.
As painter Mark Rothko summed up so succinctly, ‘Art is an adventure into an unknown world, which can be explored only by those willing to take risks.’
Words by Ellie Fry