Tuesday, 12 July 2016

How to Understand Modern Art (Part 1)

One of my favourite artists of all time is the english transvestite potter Grayson Perry. He won the Turner Prize in 2003 for his work and often steps out for social occasions as his alter ego, Clare. He has made a couple of programmes for UK television, including Grayson Perry: Who Are You?All in the Best Possible Taste, and most recently, All Man, all of which I would really recommend, but particularly the first.

His book, Playing to the Gallery: Helping contemporary art in its struggle to be understood, was a real eye-opener for me. It is a short book (about 130 pages in total) and is a recommended read for anyone interested in art. He writes,
It's easy to feel insecure around art and its appreciation, as though we cannot enjoy certain artworks if we don't have a lot of academic and historical knowledge. But if there's one message that I want you to take away it's that anybody can enjoy art and anybody can have a life in the arts - even me! For even I, an Essex transvestite potter, have been let in by the art-world mafia.
The book itself is divided into 4 sections:

  • What is quality, how might we judge it, whose opinion counts, and does it even matter any more?
  • What counts as art? Although we live in an era when anything can be art, not everything qualifies.
  • Is art still capable of shocking us, or have we seen it all before?
  • How do you become a contemporary artist?
He covers a huge range of topics with his usual cheekiness, from curators to consumerism to IAE (International Art English) to canned faeces. Filled with examples of innovative artists across the world, the book aims to tackle the inpenetrability of modern art, and helps us to enjoy it more. 

Brillo Soap Pad Box (1964) Andy Warhol, and Artist's Shit (1961) Piero Manzoni


This is a question that is asked often by many people. Who gets to say what is good art and what isn't? Why do curators or critics seem to have more say than the general public? Has quality changed over time? And what is International Art English?

'If the public chose the artwork that was in art galleries, would it be the same?'
Komar and Melamid, two russian artists, conducted professional surveys asking the public of several countries what they wanted most in art. In nearly every country, the results were the same:

  • landscape
  • a few figures
  • animals in the foreground
  • mostly blue in colour
The artists remarked that 'in looking for freedom [they] found slavery.'

Most Wanted, (a selection) Komar and Melamid (USA, Turkey, France, Iceland, Denmark, Finland)

Empirical explanations
Over time, many people have tried to find an empirical explanation of good quality art, including:
  • the Golden Ratio 
    the golden ratio
  • The Venetian Secret - Benjamin West in the Royal Academy around 1796.
      "In 1796 Benjamin West, the American-born president of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, fell victim to a remarkable fraud. A shadowy figure, Thomas Provis, and his artist daughter, Ann Jemima Provis, persuaded West that they possessed a copy of an old manuscript purporting to contain descriptions of materials and techniques used by the Venetian painters of the High Renaissance, including Titian, to achieve the famously luminous effects of color that had long been thought lost, forgotten, or shrouded in secrecy. West experimented with these materials and techniques and used them to execute a history painting entitled Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (1796–97). In fact, the manuscript was fake and the story an absurd invention, but West believed it, and through him the Provises managed to dupe a number of other key artists of the Academy. " (x)
    the line of beauty
  • the Serpentine Line of Beauty - an "S" shape visible in the artwork that the eye is drawn to.
Size matters?
In commerical art galleries, pieces are often priced by size - the smaller worth less, and the largest worth more. Grayson comments that 'in my experience an artist's biggest work is very rarely their best'. At an auction, on the other hand, 'the "good painting" will always get the highest price even if it is a tiny little one.'

The artists of the past were locked into their time in history. Now we are in a time of post-historical art, anything can be art but not everything is art. In an age without boundaries, I am more fascinated than ever by their possibility.
The second chapter of Perry's book is perhaps the most practical. It gives some tongue-in-cheek pointers to us discerning readers as to how we should approach art, and particularly modern art. The classic definition of art is something of a visual medium, usually something 'made by the artist's hand, which is a pleasure to make, look at and to show others.' Today, the boundaries of art have perhaps shifted a little - socialogical, tribal, philosophical.... maybe even financial.

Would you consider the following examples as art?

So how can we know what counts as art nowadays? Grayson gives 8 pointers to help us understand the ever-changing and expanding art world:

  1. Is it in a gallery or an art context?
    This is a good place to start, generally, although it doesn't automatically make a work of art good. It can give an artwork "borrowed importance".
    Examples: Duchamp's urinal, Keith Tyson's use of 'magical activation' (instead of bringing in objects to his show, he renamed already existing objects in the room using magical activation, such as "the light bulb of awareness" and "the Apocalyptic switch")
    Duchamp's urinal
  2. Is it a boring version of something else?
    Sometimes it seems as though art can be super serious and takes the fun out of things. Tolstoy once remarked that 'in order to define art, it is necessary first of all to cease to consider it as a means of pleasure'. Was he talking about the benches in the video art rooms?!
  3. Is it made by an artist?
    Can it be art if it is done by someone who doesn't acknowledge themselves as an artist?
    Examples: aboriginal art (originally maps and spiritual guides - not always meant as art), 'The Maybe' (1995) by Cornelia Parker - this featured Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass box. Swinton decided to do it again in 2013. She was the artwork in 1995, but was she in 2013?
    The Maybe, (1994) Cornelia Parker
  4. Photography
    How can you tell if a photograph is art?
       - 'if they're smiling, it's probably not art'
       - size - the larger it is, the bigger the probability it's art!
       - is there a lot of meaning emanating from this image?
    Examples: Andreas Gursky produces huge photographs, sometimes as large as 4 metres x 2 metres. His photo of the Rhine sold for $4.5 million - this is the highest price of any photograph ever!
    Rhein ii, Andreas Gursky
  5. The Limited Edition test
    The reason that Gusrky's photo sold for so much was because it was the only one left on the private market - there were 6 and the other 5 had been purchased for museums (the Tate owns the 5th).
    Having endless editions of a print is giving away part of its qualification as art.
  6. The Handbag-and-Hipster testAre there hipsters with beards and cool sunglasses and women with expensive handbags at the exhibition? Are there queues to go in? Then it's probably art.
    A question to consider: if an artwork falls over in a forest, if nobody sees it, does it exist and is it an artwork?
       "People want an outrageous and exciting experience from art and then they want to slightly puzzle over what it's about."
    Examples: Tino Sebgal set up unsettling human interactions as part of his exhibitions, such as children talking art speak, gallery attendants trying to engage with you in philosophical  debate, and performers provoking the audience to talk about them. He also prohibits photography or any kind of video recording at his exhibitions.
  7. The Rubbish Dump test
    1. Place the artwork in a rubbish dump.
    2. It qualifies as art if a passer-by spotted it and wondered why an artwork had been thrown away.
    'But of course many good artworks would fail this test because the rubbish dump itself might be the artwork.'
    Examples: Jean Tinguely, 'Homage to New York' (1960) - a self-destructing mechanical object. A lot of artworks involve (self) destruction. 
  8. The Computer-art testHow do I know that I'm looking at art and not just an interesting website?
    Charlie Gere, Professor of Media Theory and History: 'You know it might be art rather than just an interesting website when it has the grip of porn without the possibility of consummation or a happy ending' - or in other words, '...to detain and suspend us in a state of frustration and ambivalence, and to make us pause and think rather than simply react.' 



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