Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Art for art's sake? Why it should never pay to kid ourselves in the interests of The Truth

I’ve just heard something on radio which got me thinking (yet again) about the kind of ‘double think’ we are apt to engage in. I think I might have touched upon it before when I mentioned that all too often some people will deny the existence of ‘an absolute’ (whether or not they mean by that a ‘God’) and insist that everything is ‘relative’, and yet also insist that there are – for example – ‘human rights’ which, by their nature, are unassailable and immutable. They might also state – all the while insisting that everything is relative – that certain kinds of human behaviour, for example racism, are intrinsically evil. The notion of ‘relativity’ – and I am not here talking of nuclear physics or anything like that, although it is surely pertinent that its development in the sciences was concomitant with its development in what might conveniently be called ‘modern thought’ (i.e. the ideas which have bubbled up in what is thought of as the ‘20th century’) – is actually rather a useful one, although in the sense that is useful that a blind man cannot see as it makes picking his pockets far easier. For example, this ‘modern’ notion of relativity allows us to embrace other notions such as ‘subjective truth’ (which Kierkegaard was so fond of) and also, for example, make legitimate any claims that something ‘is art’ because it is art ‘to me’. As far as I can see (and a French cousin who must remain nameless in this blog or else I am in big trouble, but who would most certainly disagree with me were he here), that extremely ‘subjective’ notion of art is the central plank supporting the recent spate of ‘conceptual art’. It really does seem to be a case of wanting it both ways. Would it not make more sense to state that something is or is not art, rather than sometimes something is art and at other times it isn't? Well, I would have thought it would. Except that if we are to bow down to those who insist on priority of relative truth and that, therefore, if something is 'art to me' it is therefore 'art', in theory everything could be art, which is another way of saying nothing is art. But such fourth-form philosophy is purely for those who write blogs. Meanwhile back in the real world what is or is not art is rather important. For art is big business involving big, big bucks, and where big bucks are to be made, there can be little room for doubt. If I am selling you a Picasso for $10 million, you want to be pretty certain that it is worth $10 million, so it helps to have a league of experts to hand who will certify that the Picasso painting I am selling you is ‘great art’, that Picasso was
a ‘great artist’ and that it is worth every last cent of the $10 million you are handing over. On the other hand (they will say), this pitiful painting I completed last week, which was an attempt to copy Picasso’s style, is not art at all, even though for me it is art. That’s the trouble with subjective truths: unless they are accepted as truths by others, the majority, perhaps, they have little value as truths. So, for example, the only reason that the market in Picassos holds up is because everyone plays the game and signs up to the ‘truth’ that Picasso created ‘great art’. Ironically, as far as Damien Hirst is concerned, the game seems to be coming to a rather premature end in that the fabulous prices that were paid for his work barely five years ago are collapsing like a house of cards. Yet this has nothing to do with the works themselves: they are surely as ‘good’ or as ‘bad’ as they always were. What has changed is nothing more fanciful than that blowing through the Western world is the chill wind of economic hardship.
But what has this to do with what I heard on the radio? Well, it was this: the British pop artist Peter Blake was featured on a BBC Radio 4 programme, of which I caught the tail end. And I heard him describe his ‘anger’ with the venality of the art world which he first encountered as a young artist. It seems he was holding one of his first exhibitions, and several of his works were proving to be very popular. So he was taken aside by the gallery owner who inquired whether he was prepared to paint ‘another 12 of these’. Blake (there's an example of his work below) was outraged. He didn’t actually go on to say so in the snippet of
the programme I heard, but the subtext was that art, and a work of art, is a sacred, a one-off, and the very idea of mass-producing several of a kind was utterly sacrilegious. (So what does Mr Blake make of Damien Hurst production line?) But what occurred to me when I heard Blake speaking was: why on earth not? You were a young artist who had decided to earn his living by painting, and here was the chance to earn a little money to keep the wolf from the door and possibly to save a little money. What on earth is so wrong with that? And what if he had painted another 12 copies of more or less the same painting. Would only the first have been art but not the subsequent 12? Or would some, in some mystical way, be ‘art’ but not others. Could six of them be ‘art’, and six not be art? There could be no disputing that although each resembled the others, each is most certainly unique: there is simply no way one could, again in some mystical way, also be another. And what would Blake say, for example, to the many self-portraits Rembrandt painted? All are most certainly regarded as works of art, and anyone arguing that subsequent self-portraits, those painted after the first was painted, would do nothing more than make himself look ridiculous.
In fact, what I am doing here is not talking of ‘art’ at all: I am trying to expose the extremely woolly nature of all talk about ‘art’. All too often – and here I am speaking from experience, having done exactly what I am about to describe – when an ‘art expert’ is pushed to explain just why a particular work is ‘art’ and anther isn’t ‘art’, usually one ends up with the expert rather lamely claiming that he and other experts simply ‘know’, ‘can tell’ what is ‘art’, and that it has a lot to do with an acquaintance with other works of art, with a knowledge of the history of art and that kind of thing. It is a pretty useful argument, because there is no very effective counter argument (and I am again using useful in the sense that it is useful that blind people can’t see because it makes picking their pockets all the easier).
So what was so precious about that first painting by Blake which made the request that he should paint another 12 like it so crass? There will be those reading this who will agree with me and ask the same question. And there will be others who will throw up their hands in horror at such philistinism. Art, surely, is art. It is not, heavens, a mere commodity. It is art.
Oh, really?

For the record, I like what I have seen of Picasso's work very much. I am not at all bothered with Damien Hirst or Peter Blake. And, by way of contrast to these three stalwarts of the, more or less, modern art world, here is a painting by a chappie called Lawrence Alma Tadema. He was a very big noise in his time (the end of the 19th century), about as big as, if not bigger than, Hirst at the height of his 15 minutes. Today, I don't think anyone has ever heard of him. Here is one of his paintings. And below that, for good measure, Hirst's famous shark. I should think that today’s art world cognoscenti will throw up their arms at the sight of Alma Tadema’s work and shudder (just as they doubtlessly shudder when they come across a copy of Vladimir Tretchikoff's The Green Lady). Yet at one time Lawrence Alma Tadema was considered to be the bee's knees and his work was thought of as high art, and, furthermore, art at is best.
But rather than reflect on notions such as the mutability of art and some such, wouldn’t it just be far easier, not to say more truthful, to admit to ourselves:
1) Art is what we want it to be, and that there is no quintessence which distinguishes a work of art from a work of non-art?
2) The true value of a work of art in the commercial market is what you can get for it? No more, no less?

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