art turkeys

Tom sent me an invitation to his exhibition in Amsterdam. I waited a couple days and then sent a thank you, and wished him luck, and asked him to send me photos if he could, since I was still quite curious about what it would be like. I mean, the description in the gallery’s press release he sent wasn’t any more enlightening than his own description of what he would exhibit in the show (called ‘Handle With Care’) was. He wrote: ‘I am showing a body of work based on a video diary. It’s self-portraiture, an artist’s book and three photographs.’ The press release describes the show in the following way:

"In this group show we are asking to reflect on our times, our culture, our lives. What do we have to believe in these days? With so much uncertainty perhaps we need to honour our own humanity. Are we still capable of having true intimacy – that kindredness of body, soul and spirit – with ourselves, with others, and with the planet we share? Do we dare love the unlovable in ourselves, and the failings of others? In this show the artists have given their interpreatations [sic], whether a short film capturing the essence of life according to Aernout O.; a book of self-portraits as a performance by Thomas H.; the uniqueness and humanness of a diverse group of individuals, as captured in Amsterdam street portraits by Eveline R. or a reflection on elements of the natural world in which we all share as shown by Claire B. and others. We invite you to come and see for yourself."

Yes, they know, as everyone does, where the proof of the pudding is. So I was happy when Tom sent me a photo (top left) of part of the installation (I guess that’s what they call it). As you can see, it seems to consist primarily of Tom contorting his face variously. Grimacing for art, you might call it. Though at the risk of sounding cynical I am tempted to ask, ‘but is it art at all?’ I mean, technically I’m sure it is. Actually, it’s a stupid question, I know. It’s like asking if, say, a boiled potato on a plate is a meal. Well, technically, yes. Whether it’s a good, or worthwhile meal is another question. And an admittedly relative one. It might be a tasty meal for someone brought up on a diet of elephant dung (speaking of art), though maybe not as spicy. And for the cook, it might be a triumph, indeed, if, say, we lived in a society that had just stolen fire from the gods. It’s an imperfect analogy, I’ll admit, but instructive when looking at art nowadays. Yes, surely everything in ‘Handle With Care’ is art. You can tell (as with meals) by the packaging.

The thing that gets my goat when I look at this photo is, Jesus, I could do that! I mean, I do do that (bottom left)! Is it art when I do it? And if not, then why not? Do people have to see it in order for it to be art? Is that what it is? John Berger doesn’t seem to think so. I mean, when he visited the caves in Chauvet, he thought: ‘These rock paintings were made where they were so that they might exist in the dark. They were for the dark. They were hidden in the dark so that what they embodied would outlast everything visible, and promise, perhaps, survival.’ But it’s obvious that even in Chauvet the paintings were seen, and probably they were meant to be seen, just not by everyone. And it’s just possible artists have not evolved all that much since the cro mags. Whether or not it’s art probably still has a lot to do with who sees it. (This is what Mark Helprin calls ‘arts turkeys giving arts turkeys to arts turkeys’.)

I know that Tom, if pressed to produce proof of artistic merit (and he would surely preface any argument by saying that this is entirely the wrong approach to art), would at some point have to fall back on the artist’s superior training and equipment. He would also likely argue (in a gentle way) that the subtle qualities that differentiate art from mere artifact are difficult for the untrained eye to see. But that’s OK, actually, because, thank heavens nowadays art is very demotic. Even though only artists really know the internal mechanisms that make art art, they aren’t about imposing their knowledge (or anything else, heavens no) on anyone.

But the less distinguished from other forms of representation (personality, for example, or advertising, which is presumably not pure art on account of its intentions, but can be made into art—voila!—simply by subverting them—through [mis]appropriation, for example, like Warhol did with the soup cans), the more labyrinthine theories of art have become, and the more opaque and incoherent the vocabulary of art artists use to define it (or rather, perhaps, to defend themselves). Yet, there is a certain condescension amongst artist who would like to in a highbrow way argue for the possibility of lowbrow appreciation of their work. This is sort of the Frenák trick, the bluff, and it works on nine out of ten art-victims. The setting is the thing. It used to help to be provocative, like, say Nan Goldin, in your subject matter, but nowadays I think that’s even taking art too far.

Utter banality is much more subtle. After art as outrage and outrage as art, after the shock tactics of eighties art, where the artist set himself apart, art nowadays is about how very ordinary artists are. They are really just like you and me. And to prove it here are a hundred and seventy three snapshots from their family trip to the Adirondacks. Voila! Art!

But it is precisely the mystical quality of art artists are obviously craving. The problem is, just as with music and poetry, formal principles are necessary in art in order to get there. Artists today would like to get there without the formal principles. I mean, despite what anyone says, poetry without meter or rhyme is prose. It’s not a problem, of course, it’s just not poetry.

What was interesting about Tom’s comments on his trip to Rome was how he viewed everything in terms of its emotional impact on him. Of Titian’s Pietà (left), he lamented "There was not enough in me to comprehend him." (But really it was not a lament—it was a kind of false modesty, I hink—he is really saying that he was so sensitive to the brilliance of the work that he could appreciate how little he could actually appreciate it, which shows that he appreciated it more than people who thought they could appreciate it, who obviously could not have grasped the brilliance of it or they would have appreciated how little they could really appreciate it.) The fact that the mystery of the work is reduced in this equation to depth of the personality of the artist is telling.

(The whole passage reads: ‘And then Titian’s Pieta at the Venice Academy, which is the most profound work of art I have ever seen. I felt guilty taking leave of the painting. I turned the corner with an immense sense of loss. There was not enough in me to comprehend him.’)

Personally, this particular work by Titian doesn’t move my heart, although it moves the eye rather ingeniously. His pictures, to quote Gombrich "tended to be more pleasing than moving." It’s abundantly obvious from the complex and precise network of intersecting lines that command the eye here that Titian himself gave a great deal of thought to this most technical aspect of the painting. Whether or not Tom did, I don’t really know.

Titian is usually praised for his mastery of color, but as for colors that fit the particular mood of a pietà, I prefer chiaroscuro. Titian’s version is dull and drab, and though Mary is very pretty, Christ looks like a drunk.

And speaking of chiaroscuro and modeling your Christs after drunks, when I was talking to Csaba about all this he said it was natural to prefer Caravaggio over all the others. Everyone does, after all. And, he suggested, maybe that’s why Tom had to make a big to-do over Titian. To show that he’s an artist and all. But I think calling this picture ‘the most profound work of art I have ever seen’ is being rather too emphatic, even for an artist. I mean, what exactly is he trying to prove?


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