Saturday, February 14, 2009

Them Bleedin' Artists...

(Author's note: this article is ridiculously long, as I got carried away writing it. So be warned if launching into it in one sitting! It may also be repetitive and verbose, so my apologies, but it is, after all, a blog post, not a college dissertation, and closer to a set of notes on the subject rather than a finished, polished argument. Any comments and criticisms are welcomed (as well as typos, as I'm goggle-eyed after writing and then proofreading all this. For ease of consumption, sections are numbered and Parsons' assertions are in bold, while my responses follow in bullet-point form. I'd also like to point out that while this Irish Times article is dismissive of modern art, the same paper regularly publishes Aidan Dunne and others whose opinions are fair, open-minded, and intelligent.)

I wrote the following after reading an article by Michael Parsons about modern art in The Irish Times (published on March 25th, 2008). What inspired me was the fact that this article is a wonderful encapsulation of every idiotic rant I’ve ever heard about contemporary and modern art, and as such is worthy of a lengthy and prolonged dissection. Mr Parsons’ fundamental assertion is that a work of visual art should be little more than a competently executed, pleasing decoration to “brighten up your home”; that such forms of expression as installation art exist solely because the artists are unable to master basic drawing; and that the international art market (and contemporary art in general) exists solely to enrich a handful of talentless charlatans (which, in Parsons’ view, means being unable to draw or paint a competent still-life or portrait). One could argue that he’s being ironic, but whether he is or not (and I see little evidence to support this view) the noxious theory he espouses is one which has a depressingly large following, especially in the UK and Ireland.

1) In the opening paragraphs, he starts by discussing the international art market and the astronomical prices paid for paintings and other works, calling it a “speculative frenzy” in which works are sold for “dizzying millions”. He states that ‘Number 5, 1948’ by Jackson Pollock sold for $110 million dollars, the highest price ever paid for any painting ever.

a) It's a fair point. It’s true that the art market (like every other market) has seen prices skyrocket as a result of the enormous wealth generated by the recent global bubble (something which I imagine is reversing rapidly even as I write this) and that this has done art few favours (Robert Hughes recently made a very interesting programme about this very phenomenon, which, among other things, has meant that museums, the best custodians of art, have been priced out of the market). But before I get to the rest of his article, where the philistine nonsense that he peddles begins in earnest, I’d just like to make a point in regards to art and money.
Simply put, the value that the market places on a work of art is absolutely, totally irrelevant to its aesthetic value. Whether a painting sells for 20p or £20 million matters not a jot! I cannot emphasise this strongly enough, as it’s a concept that a lot of people seem unable to grasp. The value put on a painting by the art market is only what someone is willing to pay for it. An excellent analogy is the housing market: fifteen years ago a house in Dublin may have been worth £75,000; two years ago it may have been worth £750,000, and today it might be worth £500,000 and sliding. But it’s the same house; it wasn’t ten times larger when the price was ten times greater. It’s just that, at the height of our housing bubble, there was no sane limit to what people would pay for property in our capital city. But, to extend the analogy, if you grew up in that house, lived all your life there, raised your children there, and never had any intention of selling it, the house has a meaning and significance for you that is outside of any price. And that kind of value is an echo of the value of a great work of art, which gains its significance from its profundity, from its beauty, from its emotional power, not what some investment banker with money to burn is willing to pay for it.
b) Another interesting feature of this obsession with the price of art is that while Damien Hirst, for example, is excoriated for the fact that someone bought a work of his for £50 million, this outrage (characteristic of the red tops in particular) doesn’t seem to extend to other arenas. For example, millions of pounds are routinely spent in professional football, average Hollywood stars are paid obscene sums of money to appear in often worthless movies, rock musicians rake in a vast income from royalties and spend enormous sums touring, yet nobody seems to take umbrage at such excesses. In the worldview of the average tabloid, if a golfer earns $50 million for wandering about in a field hitting a ball with a stick, he is feted as a modern-day Achilles; if a painting by Jackson Pollock sells for that, there’s something profoundly out-of-kilter in the world. What this seems to suggest is that the general public doesn’t mind colossal sums being squandered on things, as long as it’s things they like, and approve of.
But let’s get back to the article, and start dealing with some of Mr. Parson’s more outrageous (and idiotic) notions! While the primary thrust of his argument is against the YBAs (such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and the like), his hostility seems to be considerably wider in its scope.

2) Parsons: “[Jackson Pollock’s] so-called “drip painting” was created by the artist pouring oils on a canvas. He had experimentally dispensed with brushes. They’re not much use if you can’t paint. His innovative style – which had art luvvies swooning – results in the sort of picture that prompts people to say, “Sure, my two-year-old could do better than that”.”

a) “They’re not much use if you can’t paint.” This comment alone reveals the amount of research that Parsons has done here. It seems redundant to point out that while Pollock wasn’t a natural draughtsman, he could draw, and did realistic paintings under the influence of Thomas Hart Benton before progressing to his mature style. But Parsons is also, by inference, attacking any artist who uses a seemingly simple or experimental style, as if they only adopted such a style to cover up a basic lack of craft (I’ve had the same nonsense said to me about Piet Mondrian and Sean Scully, to mention just two). Obviously, even the most cursory examination of art history will show this to be utter rubbish, yet it’s a slander which, depressing, is obviously widespread enough for Parsons to repeat here.
b) “which had art luvvies swooning” Not exactly. Pollock’s work may have them swooning now but, outside of small coterie of supporters, it was roundly derided by the media and art world of the time. Note use of the contemptuous phrase “luvvies” here.
c) “Sure, my two-year-old could do better than that” Oh, if I had a euro for every time I’ve heard that! That old chestnut, the mating call of the philistine. Well, to this I’d like to say: prove your point, Mr. Parsons. And not your two-year-old, either. You, personally, execute a drip painting that matches one of Pollock’s, and I’ll eat my computer. I saw a retrospective of Pollock’s in Tate Modern a few years back, and it was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. His best paintings are alive with grace and energy, and I sat before ‘Lavender Mist’ for twenty minutes, mesmerized by its shimmering, cloudy beauty. And if Parsons can’t see what it is that makes Pollock’s best paintings so extraordinary, then I must say I feel sorry for him, because his world must be a dreary place indeed.

3) Parsons then goes on to round up the usual suspects of contemporary art, and in particular attacks Damien Hirst. “[A diamond encrusted] skull is apparently on sale with a price tag of £50 million. Instead of being horsewhipped through Piccadilly, Hirst is feted as a genius and regarded as a “celebrity” – the new term for a charlatan.” He then goes on to berate Mark Wallinger (who won the Turner Prize in 2007 with a video piece called Sleeper), Mary Kelly (who exhibited black and white photos of herself cutting her toenails), and Tomoko Takahashi (whose piece involved drinking 48 bottle of beer, then walking across a balancing beam).

a) Isn’t it interesting that when guys like Parsons attack contemporary art, it’s always the same tired names you hear dragged into the argument? Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Martin Creed, the Turner Prize and whatever happen to win it that year, et cetera? And, like all conservative commentators who know bugger-all about modern art bar what they read in the tabloids, Parsons takes the most extreme, outré examples of contemporary art and holds them up as entirely representative, in the same way that those attacking, say, feminism will take those on the extreme fringes and present a caricatured version of the same as wholly representative (“castratin’ lesbians in dungarees, the lot of ’em!”). But such sensationalist art exists, to a large degree, because conservative commentators excoriate it with such gusto, thus giving it ample space in the national media and bringing it to the attention of millions. Damien Hirst must rub his hands together with glee every time an article such as Parsons’ appears in print (along with a large picture of the aforementioned skull) as such publicity keeps his name in the spotlight and cements his bad-boy-of-art reputation. Parsons writes: “The British media have reported that a painting by fashionable artist Damien Hirst was, in fact, "thrown together" by the artist's two-year-old son and a 10-year-old playmate. No one seems particularly dismayed by the revelation. After all, Hirst, who is famous for pickling sheep and sharks in formaldehyde, and recently for decorating a human skull with diamonds, has also cheerfully and unashamedly admitted to using production-line methods and employing a large staff to produce his "works of art".” Does it never occur to him that perhaps Hirst is baiting the media by doing this? That perhaps he has a sense of humour? Or that, by challenging preconceptions about what constitutes art, he is getting a debate going about that very subject? As for production-line methods, has Parsons never heard of Peter Paul Rubens, who did precisely the same thing to capitalize on the demand for his painting? (I must point out that I’m not an admirer of Damien Hirst’s art, and consider him as primarily a provocateur whose work has little significance beyond that). My point is that there are hundreds of serious, intelligent, exciting artists working today who produce innovative work either by transforming old styles into new forms, or by using new forms of media, but these are rarely mentioned in national newspapers, as they will not excite a scandal and sell copies. Which gets more attention: “£50 million for Hirst-sculpture shocker!” or “Serious, intelligent installation art excites no controversy whatsoever!”? In the end of the day, the whole Damien Hirst controversy works in three ways: Hirst gets rich and gets his name in the media a lot; a small group of attention seekers in London get to feel they’re on the cutting edge; and the general public gets their opinion confirmed that all art that’s new and unfamiliar is rubbish. Meanwhile, real art goes on elsewhere, and is there for anyone with intelligence and discretion to find. And it’s a shame that guys like Michael Parsons can’t be bothered going in search of it.

4) Parsons states, astonishingly, that “the current fad is for “installation art”, which is what art students produce when they discover – as most do – their inability to draw or to execute even a passable still-life apple.” Let’s deal with some of the inferences from this philistine statement, shall we?

a) He implies that the only reason art students (and by implication, artists in general) are drawn to installation art is because they can’t draw or paint. Obviously, the fact that there now exists a whole world of new technologies (computers, digital cameras and so forth) which can be utilized to create art is irrelevant. Parsons’ obviously wants art students to ignore all this and only use media that were available to the Victorians.
b) Why should an installation artist who works primarily in video and sound need to know how to draw? Should a draughtsman know how to use an editing suite?
c) The fact that the work of most art students is poor is not a reflection on the medium. The majority of art in any era is poor, whether it’s someone drawing a Greek statue or someone filming swans on the Liffey. Being able to draw to a technically competent standard is no guarantee of artistic excellence. Imagination, intelligence, discernment, style; all these play a part. Anyone can draw, with enough practice, but only a true artist can draw well. And an intelligent, thoughtful artist will always bring out the best in whatever medium he works in. But intelligence and thoughtfulness in art don’t interest Parsons. Substituting the word “artist” for “composer”, Karlheinz Stockhausen said: “I demand two things of [an artist]; invention, and that they astonish me”. Parsons says: “Can you draw a good apple?”

5) Parsons: “Hirst - and his growing band of fellow-traveller con-artists - are gleefully milking a gullible, greedy and, apparently, insatiable public demand for art "investments". Their success is a devastating indictment of an art market cartel propped up by a cabal of gallery owners, auction houses, curators, critics and academics who encourage the truly dismal work being pumped out by graduates of art schools everywhere.”

a) “Con-artists” The phrases “con-artist” and “charlatan” have usually been directed at any artist in the last 100 years who produced work that falls outside the mainstream view of what constitutes “art”, especially by those who see art as, first and foremost, a commodity defined by its monetary value rather than by its aesthetic value. It’s a slur that has been leveled at practically every school of modern art, most enthusiastically by totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany. In Parsons’ case, although his argument is directed against the YBAs, he includes Pollock and Louis le Brocquy in his band of “charlatans”, which makes it difficult to know exactly which artists he is objecting to, and leads one to suspect that his net is cast as wide as possible. This vagueness, I would imagine, is deliberate, as the conservative reader is invited to include whoever they happen to have a dislike of. But on the subject of Pollock, let us point out that, when he created his drip paintings, Pollock had no idea that they would sell in the way they did, and the biggest prices were achieved long after his death. To claim that it was some conspiracy to defraud the public, as Parsons does, is idiotic. But let’s let Darius Milhaud do the talking here: “I have never been able to fathom why sensible beings should imagine that any artist would spend his time working, with all that agonizing passion that goes into the process of creation, with the sole purpose of making fools of a few of them…” (Notes Without Music, p. 107)
b) “are gleefully milking a gullible, greedy and, apparently, insatiable public demand for art "investments".” Public demand? What public demand? Art is bought by the very wealthy, not by the public. Do the great unwashed line up in Sotheby’s to spend their weekly paychecks on Francis Bacon drawings? While it is true that such art is bought as “investments”, it may also be bought because the buyer actually likes it. And rich people’s money is theirs to do with as they please. Have artists and their agents muscled their way into the homes of the rich and dragged them protesting to galleries? And a point I made earlier is worth repeating: if a rich man buys a football club, nobody bats an eyelid; if he buys a work of art that the general public disapproves of, it’s a “disgrace”.
c) “an art market cartel propped up by a cabal of gallery owners, auction houses, curators, critics and academics” Oooh, the conspiracy! The evil masterminds pushing through their plan to destroy traditional values while enriching themselves! Where’s James Bond when you need him? Actually, there’s a certain truth in this phrase, but if you want to see it explored in a more thoughtful and intelligent fashion, I again recommend watching Robert Hughes’s programme on the subject (which has the added advantage of being made by a man who actually knows what he’s talking about, and whose Shock of the New is a vital text on modern art).
d) “who encourage the truly dismal work being pumped out by graduates of art schools everywhere” As opposed, of course, to the truly dismal traditional work one can see in the average commercial gallery, which is usually mediocre, unimaginative, bland representational dreck, executed by people whose grasp of the human figure, of colour, and of creating space, leaves an awful lot to be desired (for all of Parsons’ talk about traditional artistic values). Now, I’d like to point out at this juncture that there’s nothing wrong with liking, or buying, work from such establishments. I remember once going around Merrion Square (where commercial artists hang their work on railings for sale) with my father, and being decidedly unimpressed by the work on show. My father stopped at a particular piece and looked at it for a while, then said he really liked it. I asked him why, as I saw nothing special about it (a landscape with some figures of children). He said that it really reminded him of when we were young and he used to take us down to Kerry on holidays. If this painting appealed to him in this fashion, who am I to say “no, you shouldn’t like it?” However, if my father turned around to me and said that, not only did he like this painting, but that it was a great work of art and set the standard by which all visual art should be judged, I would have to object in the strongest possible manner (actually, I would have been gobsmacked by such an uncharacteristic outburst, but after I’d recovered my composure I would have responded in the above manner). One of the most important things anyone ever said to me in art college was: “Remember, there’s sometimes a difference between what you like and what’s good art.” It’s a shame Michael Parsons is unaware of this, judging by his enthusiasm for dismissing anything that falls outside of his personal preference.

6) Parsons: “If you're looking for a nice painting to brighten up your walls, you might consider trying Woodies. The DIY and garden store with branches nationwide is selling canvases to brighten up your home. Mass-produced, vaguely abstract, modern art is, in fact, now widely available at most hardware shops and department stores. Art purists may shudder, but the pictures are not bad, are eminently affordable, fit neatly into your trolley along with tile adhesive and chrome towel rails and, even better, you won't have to deal with a snooty, merino-turtlenecked gallery assistant with a stroppy "attitude", protruding cheekbones and glacial smile.”

a) “If you're looking for a nice painting to brighten up your walls” Then you’re not looking for art, you’re looking for decoration. Big difference, Michael!
b) “Mass-produced, vaguely abstract, modern art is, in fact, now widely available” But mass-produced is the key word here. The reason a Pollock painting sells for so much is not simply because it’s by Pollock; it’s because it’s a one-of-a-kind item by a man who’s now deceased, and therefore in extremely limited supply. Mass-produced posters of Pollock’s work, by contrast, are for sale at reasonable prices in most modern art galleries. Compare like with like, Michael!
c) “the pictures are not bad” Is this the standard by which art should be judged? Did Vasari stand below the Sistine Chapel and say “Well, it’s not bad, Michelangelo, but does it go with the chrome bathroom handles?”
d) “even better, you won't have to deal with a snooty, merino-turtlenecked gallery assistant with a stroppy "attitude", protruding cheekbones and glacial smile.” I’ve been in lots of Dublin modern art galleries, and found the gallery assistants (and owners) to be helpful and accommodating. Of course, there are aloof and unhelpful ones too, but unfriendliness is not, as a trait, confined simply to galleries, as a trip to any retail shop will quickly reveal. Of course, Parsons here is peddling the stereotypical art gallery inhabitant to people who’ve probably never been in one, but imagine that’s what they’re like based on such stereotypes that they’ve seen on the telly.

7) Parsons: “If tat such as Tracy Emin's unmade bed, video "installations" by artists who really should be sectioned, or "limited-edition prints" by Louis le Brocquy qualify as "art" then, logically, why not that nice, colourful Chinese-factory-made picture (which goes great with the curtains) for just €40 from Dunnes?` Why, such an acquisition could even be described as wittily provocative and demonstrative of a thoroughly postmodern, deconstructionist approach. The Surrealists would surely have approved.”

a) “video "installations" by artists who really should be sectioned” What about freedom of expression, Michael? Earlier, he talks about whipping Damien Hirst for his affronts to art, which makes me wonder why he is getting so worked up about it. Why is it that conservatives love violence so? (The tragedy is that in totalitarian regimes artists did actually suffer violence, and die, for creating art which contravened politically sanctioned views of what was acceptable. Would you approve if Hirst was arrested and publicly beaten for “crimes against art”, Michael? Would you approve if contemporary artists whose work you disapprove of were institutionalised as insane?)
b) “"limited-edition prints" by Louis le Brocquy” My eyes popped when I saw le Brocquy’s name there. This is one of Ireland’s most significant living artists, a man who has done his country proud on the international cultural scene for decades now, and whose work is quite accessible. I lost a lot of respect for le Brocquy after seeing his dreadful portrait of Bono, but he still remains a figure who deserves respect. And Parsons believes his work to be “tat”, and in the same category as “nice, colourful Chinese-factory-made pictures”? Then Parsons is a philistine and an imbecile, and it is he who deserves “horse-whipping” before being “sectioned”. (I don't really mean that, by the way! Just getting carried away again...)
c) “The Surrealists would surely have approved” The Surrealists celebrated shock and iconoclasm, but they also knew quality when they saw it and demanded the same from the art they viewed. So I don’t think they’d approve at all. Quite the opposite, in fact.

And that's it. Congratulations if you made it this far, and let me know what you think!


Claudia said...

I wanted to be cremated (only when I die, of course) but now you have given me the desire to have all my faked diamonds encrusted in my skull. I think the Egyptian Mummies are buried with their jewels, aren't they? Which seems to be a victory over death.....And dust, you shall be dust, NO MORE!

All this to tell you that I read your excellent essay with my Sunday Brunch. Before 1984, I would have agreed with the "bleedin' critic". Since then, I have been a frequent visitor of art galleries and discovered so-called modern art. By this, I mean anything which is somehow abstract (non-representative). I like some more than others. I even bought (at a fair price) three wood sculptures, one standing 3'4', in Ontario White Ash, and called "Solitude is Strength". I wish you could see them, and also my four masks, in oak and mahogany.

I would enjoy a Pollock, but at a distance...Where can one put a huge work of art in one's house? I guess if you can afford it, you must already have the space...:)

Sorry for the length of this comment but you really touched a subject very dear to my heart. My family hardly understood why I spent that money for "useless" pieces of wood when, in fact, I really needed a new stove and frig.

The Irish Time should print your article side-by-side with the clueless, soulless critic.

Thank you for a great afternoon visiting again my many artbooks, and Pollock, Hirst and La Brocquy via Google.

Claudia said...

P.S. I also enjoy modern artwork, using different elements like George Segal's "Butcher Shop", and Claes Oldenburg's "Giant Hamburger". It's the reality of today's life as much as his Gardens were to Monet, and the Dutch people, to Rembrandt.

darren said...

..the mating call of the philistine..brilliant squire..good rant

A Doubtful Egg said...

Darren: The mating call is a handy way of spotting the Greater Crested Philistine, and he (or she) can be driven off with loud defences of video art, or a rolled-up copy of Circa.

Claudia: I think the two things which stand side by side with contemporary (or any) art are an ability to be open-minded, backed up by personal education. The more you see and know, the easier it is to separate the genuine article from the mediocre imitation. And I believe art's fundamental function is to communicate ideas and emotion, and the medium is only the conduit for that. What annoyed me so much about Parsons' article was his sneering hostility towards anything which falls outside a conservative, amazingly restrictive definition of what comprises "art" (essentially an attractive object to decorate your house). And I've heard his views repeated many times in Ireland, which is what prompted me to write at such length!
On the subject of "useless" pieces of wood versus domestic appliances, wasn't it Erasmus who said something like: "When I get money, I buy books, and if there's any left over, then I buy bread"? I approve of that...
Thanks again for the comments!

Claudia said...

Thanks for your patience with my comments. I really got carried away this time...:)

A Doubtful Egg said...

Long comments are not a problem, so please feel free to get carried away any time! After all, I do so myself on a regular basis.

Sean Jeating said...

D.E. (today standing for Dear Egg),
as you might have noticed I am (mostly - sic! hahaha) careful when it comes to use superlatives.
Having written this, and adding that this comment could easily become as long as the story about the seal which is as everybody knows very long a story, but won't as I don't wish to become diagnosed with logorrhoea, I do restrict myself to following short statement:

No alphabet, neither in this universe and very probably in those universes yet still to discover, contains of enough letters to create all superlatives to praise this artistic 'réplique à Parson' in a manner it deserves.

And now with burning patience I am waiting for Mr. Parson's reply.

A Doubtful Egg said...

I haven't actually contacted Mr Parsons re this article. I suppose I should, just to give him the right to reply.

Sean Jeating said...

I think it would ... at least could be very interesting, D.E..

Haha, word verification asks me to type 'scary'.

A Doubtful Egg said...

Just to let you know, Sean: I sent an e-mail to The Irish Times in the hope that they would contact Mr Parsons re this article. So I have to wait and see if there's any response...

Claudia said...

WOW! This is really exciting...I hope your Essay is published. But even if only the Editor, and the soulless critic, read your Essay, it will be worthy to have sent it.

A Doubtful Egg said...

In fairness to The Irish Times, they do publish a lot of writers who are quite balanced and open-minded as regards the arts. Parsons' article is relatively atypical, actually. And, for all its flaws, it's still the best Irish newspaper by a mile.
I'm also quite chuffed by the fact that this is the first post where I've broken the ten-comments-or-more barrier! I'd break out the whiskey, except that I have to work tomorrow (and I don't drink...) So thanks to everyone who's left an opinion; they're all much appreciated.

Claudia said...

Dear Egg (as Sean says!)- Does it mean that we're all famous? Or only you? I'll lift my glass of French wine tonight (and more than one!) for the good health of your blog. Congratulations!

Sean Jeating said...

Just had a look at the book of Irish supersticions, and thus thought 14 comments might not be as dangerous as 13.

So what are we drinking, D.E.? Jameson Gold or Black Bush?
Anyway. Sláinte!
And the peace of the night.

VLR said...

And probably to keep you even more out of the danger zone, Sean asked me to leave a comment here:

Great article in many aspects of the word. It is strange that somebody like this Parsons guy has been given space in a serious newspaper to say these boaring and very unwise (to say the least) things. I've heard these arguments all my life and they are always uttered by people who are not interested in art whatsoever. They want a nice landscape on the wall, a quasi sexy gipsy girl or a blue eyed child with tears on its cheeks. Well it's up to them to like that. But let them stay out of the discussion about what other people like and love.


PS: And b.t.w. my home town of The Hague has a very good collection of Mondrian paintings in the Gemeentemuseum (Municipal Museum). Be welcome here!

A Doubtful Egg said...

Thanks for both the comment and the link, Bertus, and welcome to Chez Doubtful.
As you say, there's nothing wrong with liking a "pretty" picture. But to hold it up as the standard by which all art should be judged? I don't think so!
Newspapers give guys like Parsons column space because, sadly to say, his opinions are widely shared. They certainly are in Ireland, in my experience.

goatman said...

I hope that you don't mind my copying your description of what is art. This has been on my mind lately and your words may add to my understanding and definition. Thanks

"Gobsmacked" is a good word, although I wonder what is the gob!

A Doubtful Egg said...

Feel free, goatman! And thanks for reading. I look forward to investigating your blog later in the day (when my brain has woken up properly!). All the best, Doubtful.