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Home > Culture and Society

This is an art attack

A curious thing is happening in the world of art. Art is coming to the people; it's getting down with the masses. Or so it might seem.

Charlie Skelton

4 July 2003

Charles Saatchi has very kindly dumped the best in Brit-art on our doorstep: in the new Saatchi Gallery on the South Bank. We are being offered unprecedented access to the standards of taste which Saatchi himself has helped to hammer out.

The overriding feeling one gets when walking round is embarrassment: the sort of embarrassment you get when you watch the early rounds of Pop Idol. The rooms of the grand old building have high ceilings and lots of dark wood and panneling, and the extremely formal celebration of these 'ultra-modern' pieces in this slightly musty setting is just plain awkward.

But whilst Brit-art is busy grandifying itself on the walls of London Country Hall, another trend is taking place...

Yesterday's Independent carried a strange piece entitled 'Breakfast with Canaletto, the council flat masterpiece' - (a typically catchy Independent headline). The newspaper had run a competition, with the National Art Collection Fund (a Stalinist sounding body, if ever there was one), to win a day-long ownership of an 18th Century Canaletto townscape: 'Regatta on the Grand Canal'. The competition was won by Ben Haworth, a 3rd year student at the Slade School of Art in London.

This was Ben's reaction to the painting: 'The attention to detail is incredible. I cannot imagine how long it would have taken. The condition of it is very good. He must have known what he was doing!' Good luck in your finals, Ben.

For some reason - perhaps at the behest of Alan Yentob - people and art are being 'brought together' all over the place. A new (as yet unmade) TV programme is going to look at how normal folk react to 'Living With A Masterpiece'. And a similar experiment was undertaken by the Guardian a couple of Saturdays ago - they put some examples of modern art (pieces by Tracey Emin, Richard Billingham etc.) in the homes of 'real people' and looked at what the 'real people' made of it.

The result, in almost every case, was that the 'real people' didn't much care for the art. They thought it was a bit rubbish and ugly. You might think that the point of the piece was that modern art is useless and not particularly satisfying on a basic human level. However, the piece had the absolute opposite agenda: the artists were given the final comment, and expressed sadness that the people didn't 'get' what they were doing. And the people themselves were photographed very much in a Richard Billingham style: patronising, cartoonish, making the subjects look stupid and Andy Cappy. (NB. The exact same patronising classist attitude is inherent in the Independent headline 'council flat masterpiece').

What is so unpleasant about this trend is that, like modern art itself, it is revoltingly pseudo-democratic. Let us attempt, Andy Cappishly, to pick it apart. As Mark Rothko once said, forgive the broad brush strokes...

1) The movement that Charles Saatchi (for example) is actually interested in is the movement of his lovely brightly coloured baubles into the territory of 'old art' - he wants to see the public tramp quietly round the polished wooden floors of London City Hall, looking at Hirst's dots and nodding quietly, much as one might look and nod at a Canaletto in the Uffizi. He is only bringing them to the people in order to show how far away they are.

2) In Canaletto's day (back when I was a lad...) to be an artist was to be a craftsman. And it is a fact that there are no artists currently deemed important who lived and worked before the modernist era who were not technically accomplished. Art until fairly recently was a meritocracy. Nowadays it is a celebritocracy.

3) There is a sector of modern British art which is deemed important, and (more importantly) valuable. Representative of this sector are the works in the Saatchi Gallery on the South Bank.

4) What raises these artists to the station of 'significant'? These artists are significant because they are deemed to be significant by Charles Saatchi, Jay Jopling etc. The people who trade in them. Again - note that what is important, what is valued, is *not* technical accomplishment. It is some other quality.

5) In the absence of technical skill (beyond a sort of 'interior design' ability to get a smooth surface on a bit of plastic) what makes these pieces of art qualify as 'art' at all? Mostly, the fact that they represent 'ideas'. Some are quirky. Some are witty. The majority are twists on simple visual or social phenomena: like Damien Hirst's giant ashtray. What they would all claim to be is 'a take on the world'. (The mantra of modern art is that these pieces 'make you look at the world differently').

6) What is astonishing is that, in most cases (with a few notable exceptions - like Ron Mueck's 'Dead Dad', to use an example from the Saatchi Gallery), there is nothing more to the pieces than a rather bland, unexciting idea, sometimes well executed, other times (step forward Sarah Lucas) not.

7) Most people can't paint like Canaletto. Most people *can* think like Sarah Lucas. If they can be arsed. (Here's an idea: what about rows and rows of those dancing flowers in the middle of big room, swaying in time to one of Hitler's rally speeches, blaring out from a speaker? Brilliant. There is absolutely NOTHING less good about that idea than anything by Hirst or Turk. "Ten thousand saw I at a glance, Tossing their heads in sprightly dance." Yeah, whatever).

8) The point is this: where having skill is absolutely *not* a desideratum for being a successful artist, and where having any sort of a 3rd-rate brain is qualification enough, you would think that modern art would have undergone a process of democratisation. But no. It is a closed shop. Democratisation would equal devaluation, and we can't be having that, can we Charles?

9) If anything, we (the public, the non-artists) are more alienated than ever from art. The fact that there is nothing, in terms of skill or intelligence, between us and the artists, only means that the gulf between artist and non-artist has to be more fiercely guarded.

10) When we look at a painting by Titian, Raphael, Rubens, Canaletto etc. etc. - we don't feel nervous about liking them. We don't feel that we might somehow be being tricked. Most of them are very beautiful by anyone's standards, even if you've got no idea of what the intricately carved spoon in the bowl of fruit in the foreground symbolizes. (It's a reference to the death of Actaeon, you fool).

11) Who tells us to like Sarah Lucas? Who tells us to stare admiringly at an oversized ashtray? Charles Saatchi.

12) So, gathering together these strands, what does it mean - this trend of bringing art and people together? As a newspaper article or TV show, the idea only has power if the gap between the work of art and the 'ordinary person' is enormous. (There is no point in bringing teapots and people together, because there simply isn't the gap, the 'clash' of opposites). So, in the act of bringing-together, what you've actually got is an implicit distancing of the people from the art. It is part of the general trend of apotheosizing art. It is treating the art as something 'other' - something alien - something almost divine.

13) If you'll forgive the horrible -ize words: in being apotheosized, art is being celebritized. It's exactly like that programme where celebrities would go and spend a night with 'ordinary folk' (the one where Frank Bruno stayed above in that room above the pub sticks in the mind...)

14) Modern art is a cult of celebrity. Damien Hirst's most important quality as an artist is that he is Damien Hirst.

15) In all of this, the ability of the public to relate to works of art is diminished. The Canaletto (just like the Billingham photos in the Guardian experiment) is something 'other' - something weird that enters our ordinary world. This supposed 'otherness' is what modern art needs to exist. And this selfsame 'otherness' destroys our relationship with art, beauty, paintings, sculpture - it fucks us right in the eyes.

16) The gap between ordinariness and beauty has never been wider. There is no public sense of beauty, no governmental sense of charm (compare Britain with Spain or Holland in this respect).

To sum up: the coming together is a pulling apart. It's about time someone demythologized modern art. Preferably with a gun.

Step forward Sarah Lucas.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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