24 June 2013
Yes, But Is It Art? – Part Two
Some of you may remember that in November last year, following the trip my wife and I made to America and our visit to MoMA, I wrote an article questioning contemporary art. I professed not to understand it and asked for help, either from the general public or from ‘the authorities’ if they cared to provide it. I received no reply and so remained in the dark.
My disquiet on the subject was deepened by a more recent expedition to Bruges to see the works of the Flemish Primitives (such as Memling and van Eyck) when I came across the ‘tribute’ paid to them by the French artiste Fabienne Verdier (In Bruges – Part Three).
This week I was given a second chance to get to the bottom of things when the opportunity arose to see the author and art critic Brian Sewell in conversation as part of the York Festival of Ideas. The prospectus told me I would be given his thoughts on English contemporary art - just what I needed, I thought.
My problem was that I had preconceived ideas. Being entirely uneducated in such matters, my experience of these occasions is that I often fail to understand what is being said because it’s couched in academic gobbledegook. Anyone who read In Bruges – Part Three will know exactly what I mean. Here’s a reminder.
‘It is a complete dialogue through the chosen spiritual elements transcending to the material world that drives her creations. The cosmic power of existence is expanded through her art in a philosophical manner at a given instant, beyond boundaries.’
I had assumed the same would be true of Mr Sewell and I had accordingly prepared a question along the lines of ‘If I am representative of the population at large and I haven’t a clue as to what you’re talking about, how is there to be any broader understanding of contemporary art amongst the general public and beyond the narrow confines of academia?’ As it turned out, I didn’t need to ask it as not only were Mr Sewell’s remarks perfectly intelligible, but they also placed him firmly on my side of the fence. In fact, he went on to prove my point, but not in the way I had expected.
Brian Sewell holds himself in despair (and possibly contempt) of contemporary art. Art (and painting in particular) is declining, he says, and it will be difficult to recover. In the second half of the 20th century people started painting ‘nothing’ and there has been a catastrophic rupture with the past. ‘These days, hardly anyone actually knows how to paint,’ he continued, and the ‘skill’ of painting is being lost. Hockney, he claimed, was a case in point. In his painting of the trees at Warter he had applied paint to canvas but there was ‘no art’ in it. The modern idea that ‘all we need to do is express ourselves’ wasn’t good enough and we should get back to producing ‘good’ art. His interviewer suggested that the motivation that lay behind this was the need to self-publicise rather than the desire to honour the work itself.
You can imagine how this conversation was music to my ears and how much it reminded me of the comparison I had made between the exquisite paintings of the Flemish Primitives and the apparently careless work of Ms. Verdier. The Primitives I had admired for their great skill and representational ability. What I had admired in Ms. Verdier’s work was not her skill in painting (and to listen to Mr Sewell, you’d think she didn’t have any) but rather her skill in passing it off as art. While I marveled at van Eyck’s ‘Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele’ I had no desire to learn more about the man – but with Ms. Verdier, I was far more interested in her personality than I was in her work. What goes on in the mind of such people? I wondered. If her intention truly was to publicise herself in this way, then she had certainly succeeded.
It seems to me then (as it might to Mr Sewell) that the basis of contemporary art is the overwhelming desire to draw attention to oneself. Modern works of art, or the ideas that lie behind them (so-called ‘conceptual art’), are, in my view, gimmicks. It’s no longer about how well you paint (or sculpt, or whatever), it’s about how outrageously you do it. This, of course, is in keeping with the modern cult of celebrity and the present-day triumph of style over substance. We might laugh at Tracy Emmins’ unmade bed and Damien Hirst’s diamond-studded skull, but somehow they succeed in ensnaring us into believing that these are people of great import. They have certainly succeeded in ensnaring the artistic establishment as the contemporary sections of public galleries today are full of nothing but piles of assorted jumble masquerading as art. As for a decent painting, you’ll struggle to find one – if there are any ‘skilled’ artists out there, they’re being excluded.
According to Mr Sewell, there is a consensus amongst the authorities, the Tate, the Arts Council etc. and even amongst the private collectors (Charles Saatchi, for instance) to perpetuate this depressing state of affairs. No-one wants to be dubbed old-fashioned or ‘fuddy-duddy’ by leading a return to traditional values. ‘You don’t get to find out what’s wrong by talking to the people who run things’, he says and it seems we will have to wait for the equivalent of the child in Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ to cry out before they realise how much they’ve exposed themselves.
Finally, let me return to the question I had in mind when we set off. So if that’s the way things are, how is there to be any broader understanding of contemporary art amongst the general public and beyond the narrow confines of academia?
Back in the 15th century, I believe the general public was in touch with art and knew what it stood for. When van Eyck painted ‘Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele’ it was for public consumption and designed to show the people how grandiose van der Paele was. The iconography of such paintings was well known, Catherine and her wheel, Barbara and her tower etc. and they were often displayed in a public place eg. a church. Most, if not all, could see what it was about. Deprived of television, it passed for entertainment.
Contemporary art may show how grandiose its patrons are (who of us could afford to buy the diamond–studded skull?) - but we don’t understand it. Beyond the ivory towers of the artistic establishment, the public at large hold it in contempt. They invariably see the subject of the Turner Prize as a sick joke and their attitude is summed up by what was said to me recently by one of the stewards at the Middlesbrough Literary Festival. When I asked as to what was contained in the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art next door, I was firmly told, ‘You don’t want to go in there – it’s full of all that conceptual shite.’
This suggests to me that I may have underestimated the general public and they’re already onto the idea that the Emperor’s New Clothes are a scam. This and the discussion in York have certainly helped me in my understanding of contemporary art. In my opinion, it’s vacuous, self-publicising, narcissistic and artful rather than being art itself.
My thanks go to the steward – and to you, Mr Sewell.