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IS IT ART?
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These are the notes on the back of my  Art Gallery collecting box. This is not a particularly intellectual analysis, but it just about summed up my attitude to the art world at the time (2001).

The idea for this donations box was inspired by a newspaper article a couple of years ago. Nicholas Serota, accompanied by a photo of himself looking impressively arrogant, pronounced that Brit Art was dead,. It reminded me of my own brush with the fine art world in the early 80s, when I was ‘discovered’ and then dismissed by the ICA.


The photo of Serota which accompanied the article
 about him pronouncing Brit art dead

I sent in the proposal for the collection box almost as a joke, never expecting to be asked to make it. After I had actually started work, I realised the problems involved. I didn’t want it to be an in-joke, funny only to people in the art world. (I had a horror of appearing as pretentious as the KLF or the Stuckists, two groups who had previously campaigned against the absurdity of the Turner prize.) The other major problem was that visitors don’t generally carry bits of art round with them, so any ‘art expert’ would be quite right in dismissing the detritus from their pockets or handbags as ‘not art’.

Eventually, after building an over-elaborate version, I realised the two problems could cancel each other out. In order not to be pretentious the box had to be obviously ‘silly’ - so pocket detritus was fine. Not the most profound solution but I think visitors will be entertained and get the general idea about art snobbery.  

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‘This is the show, madam’ (New Yorker 1965)

There’s something absurd about the question ‘what is art ?’ and something equally absurd about the fine art experts who give the impression that they know the answer. The definition of art has changed greatly through history. The ancient Greeks had seven minor goddesses called Muses to represent their arts. There were three Muses of poetry, one of oratory and one of astronomy, but none of any visual art form. Only 100 years ago needlework and flower arranging were considered to be art - while photography and film were definitely not art.

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Joshua Reynolds, Self Portrait

There has always been an elite who have attempted to be arbiters of artistic value. In Britain, this became obvious in the 18th century with the artist Joshusa Reynolds. Reynolds, a talented portrait artist, was a terrible snob. To elevate the status of his trade, he championed the idea of the artist as the inspired genius, and of paintings as intellectual exercises interpreting classical myths. To promote his ideas he founded the Royal Academy, together with its self-perpetuating succession of royal academicians. Traces of his snobbery remain in the art world, where people often still speak with an old fashioned upper class drawl.95_impressionistfear.gif (11394 bytes)

"Frightening the enemy with impressionist paintings"
(1865)

About 100 years ago the visual arts were forced to go through a period of dramatic change as photography took over the role of making representational images from painting. When the first challenge to representational art was made by the impressionists in the 1860s, their work was ridiculed by the art ‘experts’ of the day. Though to our eyes impressionist paintings look peaceful and tasteful, the paintings were dismissed as outrageous. European appreciation of the impressionists came twenty years later. (An american dealer who collected the impressionists’ work staged a successful show in New York in 1888 and triggered the European experts’ reassessment.)

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"You’ve got a long, long road ahead of you young man"
(New Yorker 1951)

Traditional art was ingeniously reinvented as ‘modern art’. The ideas behind works of ‘modern art’ were often not at all obvious, but curators and dealers could explain the works to their wealthy customers. The customers could then hang the works on their walls and explain them to their friends. The artists and the dealers made money and the customers gained instant intellectual credibility, so everyone was happy. Though today modernism has been replaced by post-modernism, this successful system of producing ‘difficult’ art carries on unchanged.

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"This is the most completely futurist painting: It is only signed now and I will never paint it"
(Journal Amusant 1912)

The art establishment of today is probably just as stuck as the art establishment was in the 19th century when the impressionists were doing their work. The annual fuss over the Turner Prize has changed little in 90 years. In 1912, long before the prize had been invented, the fuss was about a futurist who painted and signed a blank canvas. In 2001 the fuss was about a gallery space that is alternatively light and dark.

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‘It’s an attempt to realise in terms of representational non-abstractionist
three-dimensionalism the sentimentality inherent in the structure
of bourgeois emotionalism’ (Punch 1952) 

However, even though I don’t have much respect for the art establishment, I think its harmless unless taken too seriously. There are many more important things to campaign about in the world. Also some artists manage to use the system to their advantage and produce wonderful things. And for those like me who do not fit in, there are all sorts of creative opportunities outside the current boundaries of ‘fine art’.

POSTSCRIPT 2006

Looking back, I now feel a bit ashamed of myself getting so involved in the subject. 

While doing a residency at the Tryon centre, North Carolina a couple of years later, I showed slides of 'Is It Art' to the group of american artists working there. They felt I was attacking art and artists and they just couldn't understand why - they all felt so poor and powerless. America has no equivalent institutions to the UK Arts Council or the Tate Gallery, no equivalent figurehead to Nicholas Serota, and little of our deep rooted class divisions and snobbery. The UK system is really just a bit parochial.

  I also now realise there is much more healthy disrespect for posh art in the UK than I thought at the time.
 In 2004 a warehouse containing most of Charles Saccchi's collection of Brit-art burnt down (destroying Tracy Emin's tent amongst many other things). What was remarkable was the media's lack of angst at the loss. All the papers seem to regard it as a bit of a joke - I think even Tracy Emin said it was no great loss.   

Maybe Iím getting feeble as I get older, but Iím even starting to feel sympathy for the ICA where I had an exhibition in 1981. It was their policy to give young artists a chance. When starting out its great to be offered a solo exhibition. Obviously if thatís their policy, they canít continue supporting those who have previously exhibited - its just unfortunate that they didn't tell me directly. Its sad that in East Anglia (where I live) most public money for the visual arts goes into expensively importing artists from all over the world rather than supporting young local artists. 

Within a week of writing this postcript I received two notes from ex art students outraged that I should now feel ashamed of making 'Is It Art'! Besides being amazed that  several people a day read this page, it reminded me how seriously art students take the subject. Art colleges continue to indoctrinate their students about  the importance of 'the art world' and all it stands for. So particularly later in life, ex students are justifiably disgusted if decide they've been conned. So perhaps the contraption still has value for this particular audience, and I now formally dedicate it to all disgusted art students.  

Art is still a good subject for jokes, see Art Apocalypse 

 

 

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