‘Inspo’, where does it come from?

The word is a bit of an annoyance because if we’re being picky, it should be ‘inspi’, but as shorthand for that body of images and words, experiences, and miasmic mashups of a lived life, it will do nicely.

I’ve often found it difficult to pin down what might have inspired a particular painting, even more so when I’m asked about artists I have been inspired by. My argument has always been that these influences exist somewhere in my unconscious, separated from their identities and bundled with similar ideas or imagery. But that doesn’t quite wash because, increasingly, I find myself watching the opening titles and closing credits of TV shows that don’t always quite live up to their richness or subtlety. Game of Thrones started it – the deep colours, the rise and fall of parts of the visual landscape significant to the season’s story arc, the pounding grandeur of the music. Then there was The Bridge which had a totally different tonal palette and perspective – wide, dark, monochromatic greys reflecting the bleak black volcanic larva of the land underpinned by Hollow Talk by Choir of Young Believers. Haunting rather than dramatic.

Perhaps it’s an attentional thing, some recognition that this is worth remembering; or maybe it’s about meaning because now I’ve begun to notice these things, I know to look and listen for clues as to the nature of the series to follow*. They set the mood, make it plain what kind of world you’re entering, place you in the landscape.

That said, I know there are others I have found equally impressive but now can’t recall although, just as with paintings that have crossed my path and made an impression, I would recognise them if I saw them or heard the music. But there is more to this, I think, because I know I am more interested in them than I am past paintings or the artists who made them – which is a risky admission to make on a painting degree! – and the difference seems likely to be about story telling.

I have been reading a Doctoral dissertation which discusses meaning in art work and where opinion among artists and some philosophers goes from the rather arrogant sounding view that, to give the viewer a clue about what’s going on is to deprive them of the opportunity to contribute something to the art themselves, to the notion that some sort of context might be handy because everyone ‘in the know’ (other artists, the art world interviewers and documentary makers, and increasingly, anyone who can find the artist on YouTube) will have chapter and verse, leaving the on-site viewer unmoored and drifting in their own confusion. [I may have added some of that myself!].

I once asked a group of MFA graduates at their show, after touring their exhibition, what their work was about. All but one, bright-eyed shining and beaming, told stories about their work which absolutely added to my experience of it when I went back to look again. Then I asked why the gallery was so empty and how they thought they might engage the people on the busy street outside. This was Brighton where arty is the norm; the place should surely have been heaving but it was a desert. They didn’t know and they had no ideas.

Upstairs, above the inclusive arts graduates who had none of the included there at the exhibition, was the barely signposted digital arts exhibition where the work was all about stories and engaging visitors. Their work was abstract but relatable, there were soundscapes and interactive filmic visualisations, and the stories were emergent.

As a visitor, I was left with the impression of a hierarchy of value: Fine Art right there on the ground floor, unmissable and somehow maintaining a conceit of exclusivity, of not having to explain itself; inclusive arts on the next floor, worthy and ready to talk about the work, but somehow of less value; then on the third floor, halfway down an un-signposted corridor, digital arts, full of exuberance and engagement but of low regard in the traditional hierarchy of what constitutes ‘respectable art’. As if to emphasise this conceptualisation, only the MFA students were included in the catalogue.

Doesn’t this have to stop? Doesn’t ‘art’ have to take a step back a have a good look at itself? I’ve watched Sky Arts artist of the year series’ for a few years now and listened to the resident critics discussing the various artists’ work. It seemed normalising with its ordinary language and few indications of being smugly up itself (Brian Sewell, anyone?). But then along came Tinie [Tempah] and his Extraordinary Portraits series, and suddenly there was someone able to discuss art with artists, to ask and to listen, to probe without scoring points, and to have understanding and a love for the work written all over him. Now there’s also The Art That Made Us with people from literature, history, and performing arts bringing the linguistic, social, and political context to life. Some delightful odd-bods but not a snoot in sight.

I’m about to make a start on the art of Scotland. I’ll report back.


*I ran a search using ‘best TV shows opening titles’ and a 2021 Buzzfeed poll came up with 23 which were mostly cartoons but included Westworld and Dr Who. Westworld was very definitely a major shift from the ordinary and, from what I recall, contained almost nothing of the eventual screenplay. Slow and stunning graphics. Dr Who is probably in its own league as an innovator of both screen graphics and radiophonic audio, but because it’s been much the same since its inception and, to my eye, hasn’t really got the depth of design quality I associate with GoT/Westworld/Bridge et al , I am not including it in this list.


The Art That Made Us. 2022. BBC2. Open University production with the BBC.

The Bridge. 2011-2018. Theme, Hollow Talk by Josh Groban, performed by the Choir of Young Believers.

Extraordinary Portraits. 2022. BBC2. Hosted by Tinie who has dropped the second part of his name.

Game of Thrones. 2011-2019, first shown on HBO. Theme by Ramin Djawadi, graphics by Rock Paper Scissors.

Jozwiak, J. 2013. Meaning and Meaning-Making. An exploration into the importance of creative viewer response for art practice. Dissertation submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Goldsmiths College, University of London.

Brian Sewell (1931-20150. Art critic. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Sewell. Accessed 14th May 2022.

Sky Arts Artist of the Year (portrait and Landscape). Sky Arts.

The Story of Scottish Art. 2022. BBC2.


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