Given the direction of modern art, a question has persisted about the basis of what constitutes a ‘work of art’. From pickled animals to an unmade bed, there have been plenty of voices to criticise works that fail to follow traditional approaches. It has long seemed to me that the question is best answered by the decision to frame something. A frame places a boundary which invites the gaze of a viewer, separating one thing from another. It adds human intent and purpose even when the contents of the frame may appear to be naturally occurring or pre-existent. While some artists may eschew a frame in a formal sense, there remains the boundary of the canvas, block or space, which delineates what we are able to see.

The frame is the necessary condition for perception being possible, for any kind of structural perception.

Kemp, W. (1996). The narrativity of the frame in ‘The Rhetoric of the Frame’, Cambridge

It would be misleading to suggest that frames have a consistent meaning across the history of art. Kemp’s thesis, quoted above, addresses the role of the frame in the creation of Medieval altarpieces. Kemp argues that for approximately a thousand years frame-making was the task of leading artists and had a critical role in organising the elements within the frame to enable perception. For Kemp a previous understanding that art brings the frame to life, is inverted to become: “The frame brings the work of art into existence”.

In 1999 an exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park featured a work by a Japanese sculptor which set a gold frame just in front of a curved white surface. The frame echoed the shape of the object but also allowed space for shifting perspectives as the viewer changed position. It suggests the possibility that some frames can be permissive, allowing us some element of choice about what is encompassed.

Sculpture exhibited at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 1999

The picture at the header of this blog was painted in the Outer Hebrides by Ruth P’Dell. Entitled Peatcutters 3 it seems a timeless depiction of something that would have been a part of island life for centuries. When I bought it the gallery let me leaf through a number of unframed paintings of the same subject by the artist. In some of these the workers wore baseball caps – a detail which suddenly transformed an image that could have belonged to any era into something contemporary. During recent filming in York, I was similarly reminded how a simple detail can change the perception of the viewer (below). The crew of every period drama expends a great deal of effort excluding items which would otherwise shatter our illusion of another time.

Decisions about including and excluding content are a basic part of being human. I imagine that as we look back on the start of the pandemic, documentaries and films may focus on some initial detail. Something which seemed trivial at the time, but which in hindsight would have made clear the pressing and urgent need to act. We cannot see everything simultaneously, nor can our picture of unfolding events ever be complete. Perhaps, like the piece at the Sculpture Park, we need frames that allow some flexibility. Frames which give us the capacity to adjust our position just enough to allow a fresh perspective – and see the critical detail which transforms our recognition of what lies before us.

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