06/11/2014

Seven Days In The Art World

Sarah Thornton
2008

Fascinating insight into an alien world

I came to this book hoping to have my prejudices about modern art refuted but expecting to have them confirmed. Unexpectedly, it did both. I still think most of the art is ridiculous - literally, deserving of ridicule - but it turns out that not all of the people producing, selling or buying it are conmen or marks.

On reflection, this isn't surprising. The art world is big enough that its inhabitants are not a homogeneous collection of people with the same opinions, motives and objectives. Therefore it makes sense that, for every pretentious twit warbling nonsense about the latest prodigy, there's a no-nonsense business woman or man lining up the next deal; for each arriviste billionaire attempting to purchase credibility, there's an artist genuinely moved to produce their life's work; for all opportunistic hangers on, there are rational human beings who love their world.

The art world, from this excellent, measured portrait anyway, has a number of interesting parallels with the music world. The commercial demand for more and more product has increased the value of novelty, of something different; "originality" is highly prized. The commercial aspects of the business are now what drives it. There are stars and wannabes, sharks and innocents. The biggest difference is that what customers buy is the original art work itself rather than something endlessly reproducible, so although this is now a bigger market, it's still an exclusive, expensive one.

Considered in this light, the one thing that didn't make sense to me now becomes slightly clearer. My view of the art under discussion here - primarily "modern" art (the term is only used by ignorants such as me, apparently) - is that it's almost all garbage. I don't understand why anyone would give it house room. But that's no different from my assessment of the quality of most pop music - most of it's cannon fodder, mud thrown at a wall. It's there because people will pay for it, everyone has different tastes and sometimes we just want something for a specific mood.

What is also different is the attitude to the art. In music, no-one's really pretending (apart from those with a direct interest) that the latest new sensation is producing anything more important than another throwaway tune. In art, everything has have meaning and significance, hence some of the piffle spouted about transparently mundane works.

Oddly though, this insistence on meaning extends to the artist. A key quote from the book is that "in a world that has jettisoned craftsmanship as the dominant criterion by which to judge art, a higher premium is put on the character of the artist." In fact, it's quite clear that it is the "character" of the artist that is much more important. If I made a painting of a load of spots, it would be stupid. But if Damian Hirst does it ... then it illustrates "the harmony of where colour can exist on its own, interacting with other colours in a perfect format". Or to put it another way, you can churn out any old crap as long as you're an "artist". 

The Last Clown by Francis Alÿs illustrates the issue. It's a very short, low quality animation (sorry, installation, how gauche of me) about a man tripping over a dog. It looks like a student project - and not a very good one. Oh, but because it's made by an actual artist, well, it's making all sorts of important valid points about the relationship between art and humour and entertainment. The fact that any of the Pixar shorts make the points more effectively and much more entertainingly is, well, beside the point.

In an environment where there is no absolute "meaning" to any work of art, there is therefore no actual meaning, since any person of moderate intelligence or imagination could make something up. For example, the cover (above) shows Maurizio Cattelan's "Untitled" (2007) [and what is it with "untitled" works - are these pretentious twerps afraid to commit themselves?] - a stuffed horse's body hanging on a wall. I could construct a number of interpretations, but if it wasn't presented as "art" it would be pointless, crude and shallow. But because it is presented as art we attempt to impose our own meaning on it. And doubtless some would say that's the point. In that case why not just lead a bunch of art critics to a cow pat and call that art? We could have a long discussion about the relationship between art and nature.

But equally, where everything is so highly subjective, the fact that I find the art derivative and empty is irrelevant. Someone loves it; they should buy it and enjoy owning it, sharing it. Another makes a living out of it and meets interesting people; that sounds like a nice life to me. If the irony of being so completely unjudgemental about what constitutes good art and yet so completely judgemental about who can create it or even buy it has struck anyone, then they're keeping it quiet.

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