Am I missing the point?

Am I missing the point?  But a few weeks ago the Turner prize for art was awarded to Helen Martin, a 31-year-old English woman for her sculpture? installation? pile of detritus? entitled Night Blooming Genera. She wins £25,000, which she plans to share with all those who were shortlisted. Now I confess that I possess no artistic talent whatsoever. The best thing I can do with a sheet of paper is leave it blank. I must also confess that Martin’s object leaves me baffled for it consists of a load of discarded junk that has been strung together to form a roughly fusiform, tubular shape suspended from a series of brackets screwed into the gallery wall. Michael Gove, an ex-Tory cabinet minister and now columnist for the London Times, wrote a telling article about this award and the philosophy of the prize selecting committee: "By rejecting art that represents man or nature, our cultural commissars have created nothing more than a smug clique”. (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/turner-prize-pseuds-deserve-the-brush-off-6s2dq9xqb) I find it hard to disagree for I can find nothing of merit in the work and certainly nothing that deserves a substantial prize. She is in good company for a few years ago Tracy Emin won the same prize with her celebrated work, entitled My Bed.


(My Bed by Tracy Emin)

Several years ago I came across Mark Rothko’s Pillars of Fire in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. For those who are not familiar with this painting it consists of an enormous narrow canvas containing three vertical stripes of colour. A few days later, I was in the Musée du Louvre in Paris and saw a collection of  Greco-Roman sculptures depicting the human form. None of these was especially celebrated but all revealed an astonishing degree of craftsmanship. Many of the figures were draped and it was easy to imagine that one could discern the outline of the body through the marble drapes. Now, I felt that given a very large canvas, a  tall, sturdy stepladder, a paint roller and three tins of paint, I could have created a reasonable facsimile of Rothko’s celebrated work. Moreover, hung on the wall by the side of the original and viewed from sixty or seventy metres, the length of the gallery in New York, it would have been very hard to tell which was which. On the other hand, there was no way in a million years that I could have done anything with a suitable block of marble other than  spoil it.

Jean-Michel Basquiat died very recently. His works have sold for several millions of dollars. To me they look like the merest daubs or something that the proud parent of a six-year old would be pleased to stick on the fridge door if the little darling carted it home from school. An example of his work is shown below. For more of his more costlier works, go to https://news.artnet.com/market/jean-michel-basquiat-most-expensive-works-2016-496796 . Perhaps his celebrity has been enhanced by his liaison with pop icon Madonna. ( Rather unkindly, I have placed the little black and white sketch by my seven year-old great grandson, Emmett, alongside the work of Jean-Michel. Emmett drew it  this morning while waiting for his great grandma to take him to school. He called it ‘Aliens’.)

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Many years ago I took an undergraduate university course in aesthetics. What stands out in my memory is the theory that works of art result from the tension between form and content and that the greatest of them gets the balance just right. Of course, such judgements are purely subjective and in these days of deconstructionism, who is to say whose view of the balance in any given work is the right one: that of the esteemed critic or of those an old muddy duddy like me? Pictorial art surely must demonstrate craftsmanship and there is little sign of that quality in Night Blooming Genera or in Jean-Michel’s stuff. Just as I consider that I could have a crack at Rothko’s Pillars of Fire, I reckon I could collect lots of junk and string it together and come up with something like Martin’s little jeu d’esprit. I most certainly could take my unmade bed along to a gallery and display it although I would be hard pressed to make it look quite as sluttish as hers.

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There are three artists in my family, although one died ten years ago. In preparing this piece, I consulted the two, who remain with us, about their training. Caroline, my daughter, took a degree in fine arts and told me that she spent many hours honing her drawing technique. She subsequently specialised in pottery and earned her living in that field for a few years. An example of an exercise to demonstrate her mastery of perspective is shown on the left. (Sepia view of an old cartwheel) Skye, her son, now works as a graphic artist in the film industry in Vancouver where he also attended art school.  He, too, spent hours in life classes and took instruction in many art fields. An example his work is also shown. (Portrait of a young woman) Lily Sercombe, my mother-in-law, produced many paintings in different genres and although she was not fortunate to attend any art school – there was not much spare cash in her family when she was a girl – she sought instruction from professionals when she could. One of her works, a water colour of an estuary in East Anglia is shown, as well – quite Turneresque! The three of them can obviously draw. They seem to know what they are doing. They're not seekig to be clever or brash. And they have taken pains to put down on paper what they saw. There is an air of competence about their work and it looks as if  measure of skill has been extended. I find that the same cannot be said of Helen Martin, Tracy Emin or Jean-Michel Basquiat. Their stuff is contrived, tricksy, careless and without merit. How difficult is it to string junk together and hang it on the wall? How much effort does it take to cart a sluttish bed to a gallery and display it. What great skill can be found in Basquiat’s daubs? 

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 Tom Wolfe, an American novelist and columnist, wrote piece called The Painted Word in the early seventies. in it he claimed that a small clique of critics and art gallery proprietors had taken it upon themselves to tell us what we see when we look at  pieces of modern art. He found little merit in most of what was being produced and that had become highly fashionable and selling for inflated prices. Indeed, he suggested that the general public was being taken for a ride by a bunch of fraudsters. Much of what he said back then, applies today. An excellent illustration of what he meant can be found in the New South Wales Museum of Art where you will find a medium-sized canvas covered with muddy looking paint from which a large propeller protrudes. Alongside this work, is displayed a two page written description and explanation of the significance of the muddiness and the propeller. I am not quite sure why it should be  necessary to post a short essay next to a painting in order to reveal its mysteries. The old principle of 'res ipsa loquitur'  (let the thing speak for itself) has been lost. Just around the corner from the propeller painting, is a beautiful marble statue of Diana the huntress looking down upon her wounded flank. No explanatory essay was visible or required. I am well aware that suggesting Helen Martin, Tracy Emin and Jean-Michel Basquiat  are leading us all around by the nose will open me to a charge of philistinism and I am prepared to accept that. Anthony Blanche, flaneur and dilettante, a character in Evelyn Waugh’s novel, Brideshead Revisited, tells Charles Ryder, the hero, that the exhibition they had just toured was, “…. the most t-t-t- terrible tripe, my dear.” A man after my own heart!

Am I missing the point?

Comments, please.

David Amies,

Lethbridge,

January 5, 2017