June 14, 2003
Unfinished Turners at Tate Ancient

Earlier today I went to an art gallery. I like the paintings I like, but I can go for years without looking at them, and I seldom visit art galleries alone, purely to see the pictures. I just don't love paintings.

But I do like the sort of people who do like paintings, and I like going to an art gallery with a friend of this sort. That's what I did today. We went to the nearby Tate Gallery – not the Modern one, the original one, Tate Ancient, ho ho.

We looked at only a few paintings before repairing to the café but they were very good and interesting ones, seascapes by Turner that he used to prepare in private and then finish in public. He was, you might say, an early performance artist. As I said to my friend, Rolf Harris used to do this on the telly long ago, but we agreed that clever as Rolf was, this didn't make him as good a painter as Turner.

These unfinished seascapes were remarkable. Close up, they look exactly like modern abstract daubs, but from across the room what they were going to be of became very clear. In most paintings of the sea, the distinction between the sea and the air above it is very clear. With Turner it's the opposite. He liked his sea spraying itself into the air to the point of utter confusion between the two.

The place was not at all crowded. The café food was good, and good value. So it was altogether a most pleasant and diverting few hours.

Which is part of why "modern art" is doing so well these days. (Yesterday I promised some words on this and I can now start to deliver.)

Music has to sound nice. Modern music mostly doesn't and is hence disliked and shunned. But modern art works almost as well as real art. It may be silly, but it can be walked past if you don't like it, and frankly most of modern art is offensive only in its pretentiousness. If you came across the same object, but not labelled as "art" and given a stupid title, you wouldn't dislike it at all. Therefore an art gallery, even if decorated with modern instead of proper art such as I saw today, is a pleasant place to pass the time, and a great way to spend time with a friend.

A concert hall with horrible modern music playing in it is of no use to anybody.

The point is: it isn't just modern art that is popular (and it is); it is art galleries. If you have a town and you want it to become a nicer town, with somewhere for quiet intellectual people like me to meet their friends, you build an art gallery. And then, because an art gallery without art would be peculiar, you stuff the art gallery with art - real art if you can obtain some. But modern art, which is mostly a lot cheaper, will do almost as well.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:35 PM
Category: Painting