Monday, 18 August 2008

But is it art?

Popped over to London to see my 86 year old mum's new sheltered flat (well, more like bedsit), which is very cosy and much less trouble than the four-bedroom house she had before.

We went to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in Piccadilly which rather bemused my mum. The large number of abstract and semi-abstract paintings left her scratching her head, as she prefers the more realistic stuff - landscapes, portraits, still lives, that sort of thing.

Me: That's a brilliant painting (i.e. colourful abstract)
Mum: There's nothing to it. I could have done that.
Me: I doubt if you could.
Mum: And that one's got paint dripping off the bottom.
Me: Yes, that's the Jackson Pollock drip technique, mum.
Mum: I see (i.e. what the hell's he talking about?)
Me: And I love this one.
Mum: But what does it mean?
Me: Whatever you want it to mean, mum. That's the whole point of abstracts.
Mum: Well, I can't say I like it (i.e. it's a load of bollocks)

She was also fascinated by the little red Sold stickers.

Mum: Goodness, that one's got a lot of stickers.
Me: I think it's the painting we're meant to be looking at, not the stickers.
Mum: But I can't see why they all like it so much.
Me: Well, it must be to their taste, mum.

I hasten to add that my mum has many admirable qualities - including a fierce desire to hang on to her independence for as long as possible. But her appreciation of art is strictly limited and anything under the heading of "contemporary" or "modern" blows every fuse instantly.

I think she's missing out on a vast swathe of artistic culture. She probably thinks I'm a pretentious poseur taken in by talentless charlatans. I can't see a meeting of minds anytime soon. Or in the next decade, come to that.

I got back to Belfast to find our brand-new multi-million pound city centre underpass had been completely flooded by torrential rain and had to be closed and pumped out. An urgent inquiry is under way by red-faced politicians.


  1. I thought that was a section of kitchen tiles ;)

  2. Oh, the generation gap, Nick. I know I felt it with my dad too. So many topics to avoid like modern art, I can still hear his voice "What a load of rubbish, what gullible fools we are to even look at it!".
    Said loudly enough to make me cringe.
    but I miss him.

  3. Grannymar, you're wicked. I suspect you've got some sneaking sympathy for my mother!

    www - Hmmm, I don't like that term generation gap, it's a bit of a stereotype. I think differences of opinion are more between people than between generations. I'm sure there are plenty of oldies who adore abstract art and plenty of teenagers who don't.

  4. I used to complain like your mum, but then someone told me that it's all about who thinks of doing a certain kind of abstract creation first. And then it's about making the right contacts to sell it.

  5. I'm baffled by a lot of modern art myself possibly even swaying into mother territory from time to time :-)I've only recently begun to come round (a little bit) to Mondrian's squares - still prefer his older stuff though.

  6. Not a fan of modern painting, surely if it evokes an emotion in me other than that the artist intended it gets a big FAIL on the communication front? Sculpture I am comfortable with, I even liked the strange cage with the lightbulb that moved up and down creating shifting shadows, that I could relate to.
    No, I will always consider a mandelbrot set to be a more beautiful an expresssion of the abstract that the hyped up duabings of someone with good networking skills.

  7. Liz - Hmm, the cynical response! But I don't think you'd be able to sell an abstract artist unless there's some talent there to start with.

    Conor - I like Mondrian too, but I do find some of his stuff (like the squares) a bit too cool and clinical.

    Thrifty - Another cynical response! I can't see any problem with having an unintended reaction to something. I'm sure that's equally possible with non-abstract paintings, in fact with any kind of art at all. Surely an unintended reaction adds to the interest?

  8. Depends. I'm fairly sure the response "My 3 year old could do that" is not one that enhances. I stand by my mandelbrot comment, it is way cool.

  9. The problem with art is that it is subjective. In both people's appreciation of it and in the emotions and thoughts which it provokes.

    I do like some modern art, Jackson Pollock and Mondrian. I would love to see the Saatchi Gallery in London. However I'm not a fan of Damien Hurst, most of his work doesn't inspire emotion or thought in me. Some of induces vomit and only exists for shock value.

    I also like some of the old masters, including Caravaggio. Their work is amazing and they were so talented. But I think sometimes even they're work doesn't illicit the emotional response which the artist orginally intended.

  10. Thrifty - I'd like to see a three year old reproduce a Rothko or Dali or Bridget Riley. And I'd agree the mandelbrots are art as well, though surely too symmetrical to be truly interesting?

    DJ - I agree the old masters did some wonderful work. And the painters of today will probably be revered as old masters in centuries to come. You're right that art is subjective - who's to say what's a right or wrong response?

  11. Dali was surreal rather than abstract no? I quite like his stuff.

  12. Have you heard the story of art.

    A female artist, gets pregnant. quite deliberately. Then she declares her child when it is born will be called art. Everything the child does will be art.

    So the artist reaches full-term and goes into labour. She has arranged with her doctor, midwife etc. to go a warehouse, to give birth. Here adoring fans will watch the birth of art. At the warehouse the baby is delivered. Then the artist delivers her afterbirth on to a White canvas, to serve as a second more permanent reminder of the birth of art.

    So young art starts to grow, surrounded by an entourage of art groupies and all of the important milestones of his life are documented called art and displayed in his mother's gallery.

    Art becomes a teenager, his life is still being documented. Art's drunken brawl etc. The years continue to pass and Art now in his 20's becomes disillusioned with his life. Having no idea whether the people who surround him actually care for him, including his own mother.

    Time still passes and art, is growing increasingly disillusioned with his life. He speaks frequently to his hangers-on about suicide, initially to illicit some sort of emotional response. To hear one of them say, but I really like you and don't want anything to happen to you. The only response they ever give is, why? you are art, it must be amazing to be art.

    After a time art decides there is no point to his existence, he returns to the warehouse where he was born. And fashions a noose from some rope and finds a stool. He is fully prepared for his final act and knows nobody will stop him. With the noose around his neck art steps of the stool, into to the air, into the afterlife.

    In his final moments art released bowel, bladder and ejaculent on to a large black canvas. That unbeknownst to art, had sat on the floor of the warehouse since his birth. Undisturbed waiting for this moment, to document the death of art.

  13. Thrifty - I agree, Dali isn't abstract. Still way ahead of a three year old's abilities though.

    DJ - My God, you lot are cynical. The death of art? Art as afterbirth? Art groupies? I can only say I adore modern art and my life would have been the poorer without it.

  14. Sorry Nick, didn't mean to upset you. As you say Dali was an excellent painter, he applied the technical skills of his art to producing challenging images of considerable beauty. I also love Escher. It's the splodges or single small red square on an otherwise bare canvas that leave me cold. There may well be artistic intention behind them, but one can't help feeling that in some cases the products are being "marketed" as modern art because it would be terribly difficult to tell the difference between something with a real artistic motivation and something someone tossed up one afternoon to be talked up by a salesman who knows their audience has plenty of money and bugger all sense. Cynical yes, but I have no doubt it happens.

  15. Thrifty - Don't worry, no upset at all, I like a good argument! Yes, Escher was extremely clever. I think at the end of the day it's quite difficult to say what's genuine talent and what's hyped-up nonsense (if that's what it is). Art like beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder.

  16. I wasn't being cynical, I just heard that somewhere. I thought it would make an interesting comment.

    I think the point of the story is, just because an "artist" says it's art doesn't mean that it is.

    There beautiful works of art out there, both modern and classical. Pieces that touch our soul, they are beautiful to look at and inspire emotion and thought. Or provide us with insight. There are pieces that are simply iconic and had a major impact on our culture.

    Then there are pieces which only serve to make the artist rich. They do none of the things which art should do, they exist to force a reaction from the viewer. They are born from who knows what impulse, and show no signs of talent or passion.

    Whoever coined the phrase, "I don't know art, but I know what I like", was a very wise man.

  17. DJ - True enough, it's not art just because the 'artist' says so. And true that there are many beautiful and iconic pieces of art. But can you give me an example of something talentless that's only enriched the artist? A dead animal floating in a tank maybe? Personally I would say "I know art,and I know what I like".

  18. Almost anything by Damien Hurst, falls into the category of get rich quick scheme. It's not art, if the viewers reaction to it is visceral.

    Interestingly, I typed modern art into google and look at the article in wikipedia. On the list of Modern Artists, Damien Hurst is not metioned. Nor is Tracy Emin, whose work I do have an appreciation for.

    I think perhaps there is an argument, that Andy Warhol contributed a lot of get rich quick schemes, to the modern art movement.

  19. DJ - Damien Hurst is obviously good at promoting himself and making huge amounts of money, but that doesn't mean his work must be rubbish. Some of it I like, some I don't. Ditto Warhol.