I’m a great believer in the old adage ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. For that reason, I’m not averse to a bit of contemporary art. If a piece of visual nonsense floats even one person’s boat then it justifies its existence, regardless of what I think. Indeed, if there’s one thing I particularly like about modern art it’s the fact that it provokes thought and invites the viewer to contemplate its meaning, or at the very least what the artist was trying to express through slightly bizarre means.
The thing about something like a portrait is that we all kind of view and judge it by the same criteria: “Yes; that looks a lot like The Queen, therefore it’s a good portrait.” Modern art is different. It’s challenging, it’s abstract, it’s rarely obvious and – regardless of the artist’s intentions – more often than not it demands your own, personal interpretation.
Except, of course, when it doesn’t, because some tosser has taken the opportunity to tell you exactly what you’re supposed to think and feel and made you feel like an uneducated dullard in the process. Because underneath the plain white canvas adorned with a single splodge of green paint there’s a piece of card explaining that while you may have been drawn in by the piece’s elegant simplicity, what you’re really looking at is a meditation on transgender politics of the 19th century. You’re informed that the image evokes trepidation with a hint of eroticism that speaks to women more than men and that the longer it is studied, the more tangible the feelings of regret and nostalgia become. That long after you’ve finished viewing the piece, you’ll be haunted by the artist’s intentions and the unshakable certainty that you’ve been profoundly affected by a wake up call of seizmic proportions. That Sir Gamult Frosenbury believes it to be the most exhilarating piece of art to come out of his Young Visionary Scholarship for decades. That it took over 2 years for the artist to develop, including painstaking research across three continents where she worked tirelessly to concoct the perfect hue using the leaves of a rare plant that blooms but twice a decade on a remote Tibetan mountaintop. Oh, and it costs £150,000 should you wish to hang this emotionally complex masterpiece on your toilet wall at home.
Fuck off. It’s a splodge of green paint. I liked it 5 minutes ago. Now I actively despise it.
To spend an evening in a gallery of modern art, especially at a preview or a new exhibition, is to experience first-hand the tangible fear of intellectual inadequacy among the majority, and to marvel at the incomprehensible pomposity of a select few who are able to summon vast torrents of innane bullshit with which to regale their less confident peers. And before you know it you’ve got a room full of nodding sycophants trying desperately to hide the fact they haven’t derived any meaning whatsoever from the works on display, terrified that their own opinion shows them up to be lacking in education, intelligence and creative verve.
If there’s one place to stride around in the buff, bits dangling as nature intended, claiming to all and sundry that you’re actually wearing the finest silk robes that only the clever and insightful can see, then you could pick no better venue.
I once was at such a gathering (fully clothed, I might add) and found myself staring for an inordinate amount of time at a canvas of white paint gradating slowly to a light shade of cream. A pretty young woman joined me in quiet contemplation before whispering:
“It’s very powerful, isn’t it?”
What I should’ve said was “You mean the stench of self-importance?” but instead I simply shrugged and said in my best Michael Barrymore voice: “It’s all-wight” .
Granted this was a dreadful gag, but I was hoping it would elicit at least a groan or a dismissive shake of the head at my comedic ineptitude. Do you know what she said?
“Yes. Yes it is all white. It’s very very moving.”
I’m strongly against any form of violence towards women. But that tested me.
Modern art critics bother me as well. I understand how one can critisise fine art – technique, brush strokes, composition, all that stuff – but how on the planet arse can a person be qualified to tell the rest of us whether a Barbie doll covered with coloured rubber bands is good or not?! When the only thing you can judge a piece on is how it affects you presonally, a critic’s opinion is as valid or as in-valid as anyone else’s, including my mum’s. Yet my mum doesn’t get paid handsomly for writing an inordinate amount of guff about what it did for her! And I’d actually be more interested to read that.
So, in conclusion: your own personal response to a piece of modern art is valid and enriching. However, never let another human being tell you what it should or shouldn’t make you feel. Even the artist. They can tell you what it was meant to achieve or represent, but they have no control over how it affects you. And the ‘true meaning’ being loudly and forcefully espoused by Julian to his vacuous trust fund pals behind you is 100% unfettered, self-indulgant bullshit.
Don’t read the card. You’ll enjoy it more.