Category Archive • Modern art
January 18, 2005
"… a big loss for Britain …"

It's always hard to tell of course, but I reckon that this could be a very smart move.

Charles Saatchi, who bought Damien Hirst's infamous 14-foot tiger shark floating in a tank of formaldehyde for £50,000 pounds 14 years ago, has been offered £6.25 million for the work.

The deal is likely to be clinched "in the next few weeks," said a spokesman for Mr Saatchi yesterday.

With the sale, Mr Saatchi, who is the country's biggest collector of contemporary art, will relinquish the most iconic work by a British artist in the late 20th century and the single most valuable asset in his collection.

My favourite comment on this is by Sunday Times arts editor Richard Brooks, who solemnly states, in an article about this deal last Sunday:

The departure of the shark, which was placed in formaldehyde in a tank to help its preservation, is a big loss to Britain. …

SharkTank.jpgTo me it seems more like a big profit.

Will there be one of those public appeals, in which The Nation is asked to stump up a vast sum to keep some vital National Treasure in its Rightful Place? I somehow think not, because the laughter would be too humiliating to those who would be humiliated, and too enjoyable to those who would enjoy it.

I found this picture of Hirst's greatest coup here.

My thanks to Gerald Hartup for alerting me to this unfolding national catastrophe. (Well, for some people, it is.)

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:26 PM
September 30, 2004
Tubular art

I just watched a nice little TV programme ("Map Man" BBC2 TV 7.30pm) about the London Tube Map, during which a brief reference was made to this:


I found my way to it via here. (Scroll down to "The Tube Map as Art".) Art? Well, if an "artist" says so, so be it, but all the art in this is surely down to the original designer, Harry Beck. Simon Patterson's rehash is not very profound, being little more than a joke. But it does show what a very strong design the original is.

Change all the stations, yet still it remains instantly recognisable.

The philosophers go round and round in a circle, going nowhere. Ho ho.

I also found myself being intrigued by the sight of this. Strange how isolating the middle of the original muddle makes it seem so much less muddled.

More Tube mapology here.

Nice things were also said on the programme about the design of the Moscow Underground map.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:16 PM
June 24, 2004
Wheelchair with a difference

I'm coming down with something I think. So, just a quicky posting today, as happens rather often here, but there you go, you get what you pay for.


It's an untitled work by Mona Hatoum, and this is a scan in of a postcard I bought at the Tate (can't remember whether Ancient or Modern). I think it says a lot about what it feels like to help and to be helped, but done only with a piece of equipment, with not a person in sight. A clever pun I think.

If at first you don't get it, and some don't, well … you will.

I've not seen the thing itself.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:46 PM
June 21, 2004
Broken mirror monkey

Last Saturday I attended the Chelsea Art School end of year show, or whatever they call it. I saw lots of stuff, concerning which I hope to write more later, but this will have to do for now:


The exhibit was just a broken mirror. I found the person photographing it much more interesting.

However, I went in too close, and at the top I left myself no cropping leeway at all. Live and learn.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:36 PM
June 04, 2004
The Dog Woman and her Puppy Babies are not The Painted Word

Shock art, yes, but rather entertaining:


This was hit number one when I googled for "art" images twenty minutes ago.

The picture appears at the top of a review of a book called What's Wrong With Contemporary Art?.

So far as I can judge by only reading this review, Peter Timms' book has been done a long time ago and done far better, by Tom Wolfe, in the form of The Painted Word, at a time when what it says was actually pretty much true. But things have moved on since the tendencies which Wolfe reported on so accurately and which Timms says are still in play.

Modern Art is no longer a bad university lecture, with mysteriously expensive illustrations slapped onto the front of the enterprise. It has now morphed into something more like a self-important and rather (but not always) humour-lacking branch of the circus business, with things which are quite entertaining (like the Dog Woman and her brood of Human Puppies above) being either arbitrarily dismissed to car boot sale land, or alternatively lauded to the skies with absurdly earnest and excessive praise.

I wouldn't have the Dog Woman and Her Puppy Babies in my living room if you paid me, a lot, any more than I would want to share my life with a circus clown. But seeing it once, in a picture, was … fun.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:49 PM
May 26, 2004
"… a cloud of wind-borne conceptualism …"

And so (see previous posting) … it begins:

The fallout from a huge warehouse fire that has destroyed millions of pounds-worth of modern art is spreading a lethal plume of post modern conceptualism over London, it has emerged.

The fire, at the Momart art warehouse facility at Leyton to the north-east of the capital has destroyed work owned by art collector Charles Saatchi, which includes pieces by Tracey Emin, the Chapman Brothers and other artists in the Britart movement.

Now, fears are growing that a cloud of wind-borne conceptualism released in the blaze could be carried over Central London, affecting institutions and Government. A number of spontaneous incidents are said to have already occurred, including an alleged meeting of the cabinet in nude and the installation of a mannequin as Foreign Secretary. Observers are closely following today's Prime Minister's Question Time in the House of Commons, where Tony Blair is expected to query his right, in existential terms, to be Prime Minister at all.

Fire fighters at the blaze brought the inferno under control last night and then relit it, to "see what would happen".


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:04 PM
Hell has been destroyed

Last night, because trade there was so thin, I flung up in haste a Samizdata posting about the Brit Art fire, confining my commentary to having a rather unkind laugh at the expense of all the embarrassed Brit Artists whose work has been destroyed. You guys need to look at reality in a different way. Stop thinking of them as disparate works of art. Blah blah hah hah. Quite a few further comments have accumulated in a similar vein, and if you want to have a cultural read with a Samizdatistan sneering-at-Modern-Art twist to it, you can go there.

But as Michael Jennings said in one of the kinder comments:

Saatchi has spent a lot of time putting the collection together, I am sure he valued the art greatly, and when he says that he "feels sick" about the fire, I am sure that this is completely true. If you have put effort into accumulating a big collection of anything, losing it feels painful. So he quite genuinely has my sympathy here. …

I concur. However, as Michael also went on to say:

… On the other hand, if the fire had destroyed ten Turners belonging to the Tate Gallery I would be extremely upset about it, whereas I will confess that finding out about the loss of this art doesn't appear to have affected my morning unduly.

I concur again. Mine neither.

I think this may turn into a rather big story, with an "end of an era" feel to it. Journalists will use it to illustrate the end of the Blair Moment, the final official death of Cool Britannia, etc. Together with The Dome, it all adds to the atmosphere of an New Elite which is not as competent as it ought to be and would like to be. After all, if it can't even stop its own art going up in flames …

My other reaction this evening is that this, from the story linked to above, has got to be one of the newspaper paragraphs of the year so far:

Dinos Chapman last night confirmed that Hell had been destroyed. "It has burnt," he said. "We have had it confirmed by two or three sources."

Shrieks of demonic laughter, and my envious congratulations to Nic Fleming and Will Bennett of the Telegraph.

Further reaction: Something tells me that I and the Samizdata commentariat will not be alone in letting out a whoop of ignoble pleasure at this Brit Art Bonfire. And this time it's going to hurt, which is why it may go on for a while. After all, the catcalls and howls of contempt aimed at Modern Art usually only serve to add to the fuss, to the price, and to the irresistible success of Modern Art. Bourgeois Opinion has learned that Modern Art must not be criticised, because that will only encourage it. Confonted with the latest variant of Duchamp's Urinal, Bourgeois Opinion has learned to bite its tongue.

This, however, is going to be a media frenzy with a difference, one which the Modern Artists will find it much harder to profit from. It is accordingly a chance for Bourgeois Opinion to really put the boot in, at a rare time of Modern Art vulnerability. This time, the Modern Artists will be the ones whose "point of view" will be held up to public ridicule, and whose public squirmings and howls of outrage (at not being accorded sufficient sympathy for their various losses by all the people whom they have spent the last century despising) will only add to the fun. Dinos Chapman's masterpiece of unconscious humour, siezed upon and exhibited for us by those Telegraph guys, may only be the first of many such mirth opportunities.

What can they do? Bundle up the ashes and turn them into yet another aesthetically empty but pseudo-religiously fraught exhibit? This will just be a cue for further derision.

Well, we'll see. Maybe it will be forgotten in a fortnight, by all but the bereaved.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:57 PM
May 06, 2004
Far out man

I agree with Dave Barry's co-worker judi that this is fairly pathetic. On the other hand, Dave himself links to this, which I think is really something.

Punky Brewster agreed. He left twelve identical comments on the DB posting, linking to this twelve times, and then a thirteenth comment saying sorry for the previous eleven comments.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:25 PM
April 13, 2004
I photoed it - but what is it?

I took this photograph this afternoon in the general vicinity of Tate Modern, and it is definitely of some Art, because I saw a bit on TV about it arriving, presumably at Tate Modern. The person I was with told me who did it, but I didn't catch the name, and can't find any trace of it at the Tate Modern website.


Can anyone clarify?

You don't often get the chance to photograph Art, because galleries (understandably) don't take kindly to it. But this was just standing there, right next to a big floor to ceiling window, and just begging to be photoed. So I photoed. But what is it called and who is it by?

They look like underwater tentacles to me. And what they are (as opposed to what they're called and who they're by) is rather beautiful, to my eye.

UPDATE: My companion of yesterday tells me that it is by Ioan Nemtoi. I can't find this particular piece, but that is presumably because it is new work.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:44 PM
February 24, 2004
The elder brother pops by with some art books

pbm.jpgBrother Peter is a book dealer, and since he regularly visits London to participate in a Gamelin orchestra, and since his book dealing often yields little clutches of books that he can't sell for anything worth getting, but which are of interest to me, he visits from time to time, with goodies. He did this yesterday. I am now finding art books especially useful, because I can browse through them and whistle up the pictures in them on the Internet, because the art books supply titles, and with a title I can search.

However, the two pictures here are my own. One of Peter, which I was able to take quickly (thanks to my new photographic superpowers) and show him on my computer screen within about half a minute. The other is also by me and is called 18 Nescafé Gold Blend Jars 2004.


This was inspired a picture in one of the books Peter brought, Pop Art by David McCarthy, one of the Movements in Modern Art series published by Tate Gallery Publishing. That picture is called 200 Campbell's Soup Cans 1962, and is by Andy Warhol. However, Warhol's picture involved rather more work than mine, because if you scrutinise it you disover that the soup cans are not identical, the way my coffee jars are (is). On the contrary, twenty different soup flavours are involved: onion, consomme, tomato, mushroom, green pea, cream of asparagus, scotch broth, cream of celery, chicken gumbo, vegetable, beef noodle, clam chowder, vegetarian vegetable (how that differs from vegetable vegetable I cannot say), pepperpot, cream of chicken, black bean, bean with bacon, cream of mushroom (evidently different from mere mushroom), chicken with rice, and beef.

As it says here:

When Andy Warhol started painting Campbell's soup cans in 1962, the company sent lawyers along to investigate. Little did they know, then, what an effect the paintings would have on their sales, as a new movement in art, Pop Art, was born; and all the experts could do was watch with bemusement and astonishment, as Andy signed soup cans and sold them as souvenirs.

For the early paintings Andy used the red and white of the original cans - but later he incorporated a wide variety of arbitrary colours.

200gm Gold Blend jars signed by me are available on request, price £500 each.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:08 PM
February 20, 2004
More on Transcendental Values

I'm working on a rather unwieldy posting with lots of photos which I don't want to rush, so it's fobbing off time.

So, about the previous post, the one where I disagree with Dennis Dutton, and by way of elaboration: what I think happened was not that twentieth century classical composers, and artists in general, just stopped believing in transcendental values, exactly. Nor was it a case of positively wanting something different, and nastier, as I think I implied in the previous post, in fact as I think I said. That wasn't it. What happened (I now think on further reflection) was that the traditional tonal language of music became tainted in their ears, and representational art became tainted in their eyes, by what it started to be used, in the twentieth century, to celebrate. To be blunt about it, artists felt that traditional art got stolen by hideous politicians.

Take Mondrian. I'm no Modern Art expert, as regulars here well know. I'm an innocent when I go to art galleries, which has its uses and generates its own insights. But I do recall reading something somewhere, in some Art Book, about why Mondrian turned his back on representational art. It was the politicians. It was that vile God, the one who was on "our side", everywhere, right in the thick of all the fighting. I refuse to tell stories with my pictures, he said, because the stories now told by representational art are all monstrous. My paintings are not of anything. They are themselves. They have no meaning, other than what they simply are.

It was as if the artists went on strike. The world wants us to tell lies about God, and about Workers, and about Aryans. Well we won't. And if that means we tell the world a great Nothing, then so be it.

We refuse to sing in tune. Tunes are tunes of spurious glory. Tunes marched the West into the slaughter of the trenches, and tunes wave a blood-sodden red flag or a swastika. Screw tunes.

That, I think, is how Transcendental Values factored in to twentieth century art. It's not that the artists abandoned them, more that they recoiled in horror at the way that monsters hijacked the traditional means of expressing Transcendental Values.

But Dutton's notion that the problem was merely technical, if that's what he truly said (and I realise that I am often wrong about these things), remains, I humbly submit, quite wrong.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:54 PM
January 27, 2004
Electric Review on John Cage etc.

I've been concentrating a bit on my Education Blog during the last day or so, so I am now going to palm you off with someone else's writing. It's Allen Buchler, the music critic of the Conservative electro-organ of cultural commentary, Electric Review, writing about the performance of John Cage's 4'33", which was performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Laurence Foster at the Barbican on January 16th, and televised live by BBC4 TV.

I've been fretting for some time now over the relative ease with which I find I can write about the visual arts, and the relative ease with which I can fling up illustrations of what I'm writing about, compared to music, which I find a lot harder to describe or illustrate, by comparison, for the kind of people I imagine to be the readers of this blog. So this chunk of writing fills a definite gap here.

The score of this piece (which was available for purchase in the foyer at the price of £4.33) is simplicity itself. Silence is to be maintained for the stated period, divided into three sections, the lengths of which can be arbitrarily determined. Although the piece was originally conceived for piano solo, the orchestra rose to the challenge and gave a technically faultless performance. I do however have serious reservations about the interpretation.

And the convenient thing about that is that you all know, approximately speaking, what silence sounds like. No need to link to that, or have a box at the side full of it.

The enigma of 4'33", which Cage himself was careful to maintain, is whether it is serious or is a joke. The joke aspect is apparent to us – it is music catching up, 25 years late, with Duchamps. That there may be a serious – or at least non-trivial – point to consider in this jape (as with Duchamps), I have tried to adumbrate above. The only way in which you can try to catch both these (and any other) aspects is to play the piece absolutely po-faced.

The performance interestingly demonstrated this. Foster mounted the podium and lowered his baton as the indication that the work had commenced. Nobody stirred – not in the orchestra, or even in the audience. The absence of coughing or spluttering was in fact astonishing. No-one wanted to break the spell, to giggle, to boo – we were genuinely held in suspense, the more so as we had no idea at what point the first section would end, or indeed what we might do at this release. As it happened, when the baton was raised to mark this event, we did, remarkably, what we always do — cough, mutter to our companions, stretch a little. This was also in its way interesting, but then I am afraid Foster broke the spell – he drew out his handkerchief and, in the time-honoured affectation of the orchestral maestro, mopped his brow. So now we were all safe – it was clearly just for laughs. The last two sections were marked by a notable lack of concentration compared to the first section, particularly after a further lapse at the end of the second section, when the orchestra-members turned the page of their parts.

Well, it is certainly a valid interpretation of 4'33", but not, I fear, one that reaches its full potential. But perhaps the perfect 4'33" is as elusive as the perfect 'Ring'.

Buchler is a conscientious reviewer, and if you are at all interested in the more serious American composers (Antheil, Copland, Cowell, Ives, Schuman (nothing to do with Robert Schumann)) of recent times, I recommend that you read the whole thing, and for that matter track down Buchler's other writings for Electric Review.

(By the way, Alice Bachini also comments on 4'33", here. And she supplies some sort of link to it.)

I was reminded of Electric Review's continuing existence by my friend Bunny Smedley, who also writes for it. Bunny herself writes about the visual arts, her line being that Modern Art is something that libertarians in particular, but non-lefties generally, ought to relax about and enjoy rather than fulminate at, as I sometimes do here and expect to go on doing. I suspect that I take Modern Art more seriously than she does. Guess: she thinks that at worst Modern Art is stupid; I think that at worst Modern Art is evil.

Bunny's latest piece deals at length with the same Philip Guston whom I wrote about here the other day but only very briefly.

My thanks to Bunny for the email, and my congratulations to all at Electric Review for their most interesting publication.

I have long known about Electric Review. (As I say, Bunny is a friend.) But I have refrained from linking to it because until now I couldn't get the links to work properly, and feared that others might have the same experience. Worse, I didn't want even to read it, in case – as I am sure would have happened constantly – I wanted to comment about something in it here. Very annoying. I'm glad to say that all such nonsense is now a thing of my past. Electric Review has now had a retread of some complicated sort and all now seems to be working fine.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:09 PM
January 24, 2004
A little heartbraquer

This is truly wonderful.


Read the story here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:56 PM
Is this art? (No and that'll be 40% please)

brancusi.jpgThis Telegraph article is interesting, about a big legal ruckus in the USA concerning the definition of art. Marcel Duchamp wanted to import some Brancusis, but wanted it acknowledged that his Brancusis were definitely art, otherwise importing them would cost more.

The definition of art is not something that anyone would lightly undertake. Nor would it normally be left to a US customs official to decide. But that is exactly what happened in October 1926 when Marcel Duchamp arrived on the New York dockside accompanying 20 modernist masterpieces from Brancusi's studio that were destined for selling exhibitions in New York and Chicago. Duchamp at that time had given up art in favour of chess, and was trying to eke out a living by art-dealing with his friend Henri-Pierre Roché, mainly in Brancusi.

The point was that ordinary merchandise was subject to duty at 40 per cent, while art was not. And the customs official on duty at the time happened to be an amateur sculptor – just the sort of person to have bumptiously confident views about matters aesthetic. He took one look at the Brancusis, concluded that they weren't art, and levied $4,000 duty.

The respectable majority comment here would probably now be that those ghastly customs officials ought not to be such philistines. Mine is that if the government is nagged by aesthetes into placing "art" into a special and more economically advantageous category, then the government is bound to be asked, sooner or later, just what is or is not art.

A similar thing happens with "education" subsidies, or for that matter education vouchers. If arrangements like that are put in place, then the government has to decide what education is.

And if you put your government in the position of making decisions like this, do not be surprised if you don't like the answer it gives you.

FJH Kracke, federal customs appraiser, was in no doubt. "After long enquiry and a written report from the inspector in charge of the case," he told the New York Evening Post, "it has been decided that Brancusi's work is not art. Several men, high in the art world, were asked to express their opinions for the government. They are unanimous in their decision. One of them told us, 'If that's art, I'm a bricklayer.'"

Brancusi in turn received pugnacious support from the poet Ezra Pound: "I was sick to hear a bastard in New York made you pay duty on your sculpture. I could spit in the eye of the skinflint in charge of these matters." …

What a pity that Ezra Pound couldn't find it in him to get angrier about people besides his friends having to pay duty on the things they want to import. No discriminatory duty, better yet no duty at all on anything, and there would be no legal argument.

In the event, the judgment was surprisingly sensible. "There has been developing a so-called new school of art, whose exponents attempt to portray abstract ideas rather than to imitate natural objects. Whether or not we are in sympathy with these newer ideas, we think that the facts of their existence and their influence on the art world must be considered." In other words, there is this stuff called modern art, the judges concluded, and, whether you happen to like it or not, people admire it and collect it, so it is ridiculous to classify it as hardware.

If enough of the right people say it's art, it is art. But what if building materials suppliers start importing bricks and calling them art? If Duchamp can do this, why not they? Wrong people. Tradesmen.

It's all a matter of power.

Although, I do like Brancusi's birds. The one I show here is called Bird in Space.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:48 PM
January 23, 2004
Philip Guston at the Royal Academy

There's an exhibition of paintings by Philip Guston at the Royal Academy. So says Andrew Lambirth in the Spectator.

I don't know how they decide who gets to have a exhibition at the RA and have themselves written up in the Spectator for their Apocalyptic Vision, and who gets flogged off in car boot sales for less than the cost of the paint, but I went a-googling anyway, and quickly found this site and these pictures, and I clicked pictures until I found one I really liked. And the winner was: The Studio.


I think this is really funny. I particularly like the big hand.

Guston strongly disapproves of the Ku Klux Klan, naturally. Judging by this picture he made them seem like Daleks, evil but comic.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:54 PM
January 21, 2004
Indoor sun inside Tate Modern

The Digital Camera Monkey visited Tate Modern a few days ago, and once again the best results were from pointing the camera almost directly at the sun, although in this case it was an artificial sun. Michael Jenning' pictures here had made me want to see this, and photo it. Remember, the more light there is pouring into the camera, the less long the camera wants to look, and the sharper the picture.


As you can see, the horizontals of which the sun is constructed have slid a bit sideways.

I like that rather Wagnerian wall to the right, don't you? We're not in London, we're in post-Nazi Bayreuth and everything is being re-evaluated, confusingly but impressively.

It took me a while to get that the people lit by it were more interesting, photographically, than the sun itself.


And I tried doing all sorts of things to this next one, cropping and photoshop fiddling, but in the end I left it as it emerged from the camera, the best of a blurry lot of attempted portraits, because it gets how much she's enjoying it. Other viewers were better photographed, but less fun to look at.


And here are all the true worshippers.


However, they are not worshipping the sun. They are worshipping themselves, as reflected in the ceiling, as you can see at the top of this.


Right, that's enough Tate Modern sun photos. For more about the sun go here.

I recall once visiting the Acropolis and hearing an American, who had been taking lots of photos, say to his children (who wanted to stay and look at it): "Come on, come on, we'll look at it when we get home." This is now how I feel about my photography expeditions. The things themselves are okay, but the point is the photos. Make or break time comes when I get home.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:30 PM
January 13, 2004
This is not an ice sculpture

Here's an ice sculpture, which I found here that is to say a picture of an ice sculpture, and it vividly illustrates the difference between how a camera sees and how the human eye sees.


During the run-up to the recently and very satisfactorily concluded Rugby World Cup, I posted some great photos of the great rugby player Jonah Lomu, and I made this same point. Chris disagreed:

And Brian ... I beg to differ about your take on how the eye actually sees things. All that blurry stuff, caused by depth of field focus is exactly what I see when I focus on something HERE and not BACK THERE. Try it.

Ever since then I've been meaning to respond to Chris, and have meanwhile been watching myself watch foreground objects and background backgrounds, to see how I do it. So I have tried it. And Chris is, unless he and I are members of different species which I suppose is always a possibility, completely wrong. When we see an object and a background, what we see is a volume. We see the space between the object and things behind it. We size up the situation, by moving, both our bodies and our eyes. We theorise – sometimes wrongly, which is when this difference really hits you – about what is going on, and from then on that theory informs and shapes every incoming signal.

But what the camera sees is a static, two dimensional surface, in or out of focus but never both at different moments right next to each other, still less any different angle on the scene. The two experiences could hardly be more different.

Getting back to the picture of the ice sculpture, there is no way that the human eye would allow itself to be so comprehensively confused about what the hell this object consists of, the way this camera was. This picture is about as clear a description of what is going on as the special effects in the latest James Bond for that invisible car.

The eye would duck and weave, to establish volume and shape and surface. It wouldn't just gawp – camera style – at whatever incoming light signals came in, and just tabulate them in a baffling, static rectangle. I'm not saying it's a bad photo. In a way, its very bafflingness makes it rather a good one, if you like that sort of thing. But it is a very different experience from actually seeing the thing.

Photography is one of the great under-discussed influences on Modern Art. It is discussed quite a lot, but not enough.

Consider. Photography pretty much drove the painters out of the likeness-making industry. They had to do other things. Photography publicised what the painters subsequently did, which gave huge impetus to the whole shock-art style of self-advancement. In general, the experience of Art nowadays is utterly saturated with the experiencing of Art via photos. And maybe (I'm a lot less sure of this part of the story but it makes sense to me that it should be so) the very first thing that photography did to Art was to make painters unprecedentedly aware of and self-conscious about the various processes involved in seeing things. After all, many of the first photographers were themselves painters, applying this new technology to their existing trade.

Impressionism looks very post-photographic to me. You can just here them saying: hey, we could do that, but in colour. But, we'd better get a move on.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:12 PM
January 11, 2004
Vettriano – not completely out in the cold

The Observer, to its credit, today gives another nod of mainstream media recognition to Jack Vettriano:

Anyone wishing to see an original Vettriano must travel to Scotland's Kirkcaldy Art Gallery, which has two. Last night the artist, a former mining engineer from Fife, launched a withering attack on the cultural elite that leaves him out in the cold.

In a rare interview, Vettriano said: 'The art world is not a lot to do with art; it's to do with money and power and position. Annually the national galleries are given a budget of taxpayers' money and they should spend it on behalf of the people of Great Britain, but I feel they don't.

"If they've decided you fit what they like, you'll be in; if they've made up their minds otherwise, you never will be. I appear to be in the latter category. If they were truly buying for the people of Great Britain then they would buy my work, that is as clear as day. But they don't.

'I have days when I couldn't care less, and other days when I wonder why the gulf exists. There's a snob association: when something's too popular it's regarded as a bit trashy. But I would rather my paintings sold to ordinary people, rather than being stacked in a store house at the National Gallery.'

Vettriano, 52, has sold more than three million poster reproductions around the world and earns an estimated £500,000 a year from the royalties. The works themselves disappear from public view into the hands of private collectors, with buyers including Hollywood star Jack Nicholson, composer Sir Tim Rice and British actor Robbie Coltrane.

You can see how the Official Galleries would hate such a person. Vettriano doesn't need them. He'd like their recognition, but is damned if he'll beg for it. After all, he thinks he's better than they are. And they think they're better than him. A classic dog fight in other words.

I believe that the internet can only add to the problems of the Official Art scene, by breaking their definition of "art" into a thousand pieces. In this spirit, I pick a nice looking Vettriano to reproduce here. This one is my favourite today:


But hello. What's this?

The next Vettriano exhibition will be at Portland Gallery in 2004. Further details and exact dates are yet to be confirmed but as soon as we have this information, our website will be updated accordingly.

And just whereabouts in the wilds of Scotland might the Portland Gallery be?

Just south of Picadilly, in a little Scottish village called London. So that would be the other galleries that are ignoring him, then. And could all this launching of withering attacks perchance be all mixed up with his forthcoming show at the Portland?

Half a million a year minimum, and a nice friendly London gallery. He's getting by.

So much for the up-to-the-minute tittle tattle. The real story here is that Vettriano is celebrating a way of life, and an attitude to life, that twentieth century Modern Art quite deliberately set out to destroy. Modern Art says that dreaming of your own personal, individual future, by envisaging it, picturing it, by representing it, is Old Hat man. A picture is just a thing. It ain't of anything. All representation is suspect, and if you do it, you must draw attention to the fact that you are doing it, and how suspect it is. God forbid you should ever perpetrate, in the bullseye words of one of Barry Humphries' alter egos, cartoon Aussie innocent Barry McKenzie, "hand done photos", which are about something completely other than the process of and the suspectness of picture making.

So along comes Vettriano. He hand does photos of achingly romantic beautiful people, doing achingly romantic things like have dinner parties on the beach. They have servants who aren't complaining. They yearn. They put on make-up. They race racing cars. They are the beautiful people, or they were, or they would like to be, or they would have liked to have been, and they want to become more beautiful or to remain beautiful, or just to imagine themselves beautiful. They're looking forward to, or wanting to remember, all their I-had-my-moments moments.

Vettriano obliges. He gives his public what they want. How vulgar. How ghastly. And as if Picasso didn't.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:37 PM
December 31, 2003
Michael Jennings at Tate Modern

Email from Michael Jennings:

I have some thoughts on Tate Modern on my blog that you might be interested in.


Meanwhile, I think this is a really fun photo:


Once again, a constant theme here, light games by pointing the camera (or the painter) at the big light source, with distant objects having light in front of them – in the form, I'm guessing, of illuminated gas or dust particles – and nearer objects less so.

The big sun is part of the Weather Project, by somebody or other who is good at talking his way into Tate Modern.

Thinking about it some more, I think what we may be witnessing here is the divergence along two separate paths of, on the one hand, "art" (i.e. paintings, sculptures, stupid objects), and on the other hand the process of attracting people to, and entertaining people in, what are still called "art" galleries.

This is a trend I thoroughly approve of, because on the whole I think that "art" these days is too big for its boots, and depends far more than it realises on the fact that people simply like going to art galleries, regardless of what's in them, simply because they are nice places where you can hear what any person you go with is saying and have a nice cup of coffee and a bun and buy an amusing biro. Discos without the bloody disco music, you might say, and with less disastrous drugs.

If that's right, and it is, it follows that there is no particular reason for "art" galleries to contain only things which Tate Czar Nicholas Serota has decided are art. Why not veteran cars, tea trolleys, old games machines, underwear, hand held weapons through the ages, CD sleeves, potato crisp packets, batteries, food magazine illustrations, shoes, stills from the movies, Christmas cards, ancient photos taken by regular people rather than just by famous photographers, letters from the front, videos of buildings being demolished, etc. etc. etc. etc.???? Who needs art, and who cares whether the stuff in the gallery is art or not?

It would be a nice irony if a temple supposedly devoted to the worship of Modern Art actually became a force for dethroning the stuff.

Whatever. Happy New Year everybody.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:16 PM
December 06, 2003
Will this increase my traffic?

Another Dave Barry find. There's something, he says, very troubling about this:


I'll say.

This specially designed mannequin is made of "fiber glass," a special form of plastic that features light weight and durable use. It comes with a shiny metal base. (Metal base is taped at the bottom of the box under a piece of cardboard, near the rod that is taped to one corner of the box.) It is very detailed, with human hair eyelashes. With detachable hands, arms, left leg, and upper body, it is easy to set up and dress. Lovely and unique, this mannequin will easily attract attention. If displayed in your store front, it will certainly increase traffic in your store.

Shock/conceptual/post-modern/whatever art meets retailing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:47 PM
December 01, 2003
The modern art of committing suicide

From the Guardian:

In Romania, local media report that the country's "first" institution of higher learning, the University of Arts, in Iasi, was the scene of an official investigation this month after police removed the corpse of a man believed to have hanged himself on the campus. Builders and students at the university had initially mistaken it for a modern work of art.

According to Reuters, the body hung for a whole day in a sculpture-laden garden building that had been re-opened for repairs before onlookers twigged to what it was and called the cops.

When the world ends, vital hours will be lost on account of people thinking it's modern art rather than the end of the world.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:52 PM
November 24, 2003
Brit Art – not conceptual and not painted but still messing about

This strikes me as a good article, which is not surprising given that it was linked to by Arts & Letters Daily. It's Josie Apppleton of Spiked writing about Brit Art, Conceptual Art, Marcel Duchamp's Urinal, and so forth:

In fact, when reduced to the 'idea', most modern British art becomes banal. This is a good sign. Mark Quinn's Self (now lying in the Saatchi Gallery), which involved removing several pints of blood and freezing it in a cast of his head, doesn't succeed on the level of the idea. The idea is 'I am my blood', or something like that. As an idea, it's worse than alternatives, such as 'I am my class' or 'I am my religion'. Self is impressive as a work of art because of the audacity of Quinn's chosen material - and because of the haunting effect of the finished product, which seems to have the waxy quality of a death mask. Nauman's 'Raw War', by contrast, would lose little on being reduced to the idea.

There is little point in opposing the art in the Turner Prize with some fixed idea of 'proper' art. The Stuckists, who demonstrate outside the prize every year, show how this position easily slips into caricature. Proper art is paint and canvas, they say – which ends up with a ridiculous fetishisation of the medium. It is as if they attribute paint with almost magic qualities, so that you only need take a few brushstrokes in order for it to be real art. The conclusion must be that, while every primary schoolchild produces art, Damien Hirst does not (one Stuckist recently described his work as 'taxidermy').

In actual fact, painting is just one medium among many - arguably no better or worse than video art, readymades or installations. At a recent debate, the British artist David Cotterrell said that when he moved from painting to other media, he applied the exactly the same standards of self-discipline. It wasn't as if when he painted he was serious, and when he began to use video and interventions he started just messing around.

There are major problems with conceptual art, but modern British art cannot stand accused on these grounds. Rather than demonstrating outside Tate Britain calling for a return to painting, it would be far better to head inside.

I agree about painting not being that big a deal. Painting is a basically obsolete picture making technology, which may hang around in the same way that organs still hang around (in cathedrals and churches mostly, which likewise hang around, but elsewhere also) for as long as there are people who can play the thing, even after the invention first of the symphony orchestra, and then of the recording studio, the subsequent Kings of Instruments that dethroned the organ. Painting is now finding a new lease of life as an adjunct to digital art, much as organs now play along with symphony orchestra, where you paint with a computer rather than a literal paint brush.

But however non-reliant on the trivial insights served up to us by conceptual artists, and however unimportant it may be that the people doing it don't paint that much any more, Brit Art of the Tate Modern sort doesn't seem to me that appealing. I haven't seen anything by David Cotterrell, but from time to time videos produced by other "artists" pop up on our televisions from time to time, usully in connection with the Turner Prize, and they do not inspire. My reaction to these silly little flickerings is to say: sorry mate, Spielberg, or for that matter the bloke who does the Walker's crisps adverts, is doing this stuff seriously and you're not. Whatever you may feel while you're doing it, "just messing around" is exactly what you are doing. "Painters" were, and still are, the best painters around. Is Cotterrell up there with the best video artists? I don't think so.

It really is time I did that piece about why it matters what "art" is, why it matters who "artists" are (or are thought to be), and why it is accordingly reasonable to complain about this or that work of "art", even if it is easily ignored.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:22 PM
November 18, 2003
Alice on Frida

I don't plan to be seeing the movie Frida until I can sample it on TV, but there's an interesting short posting and comment exchange about it over at Alice Bachini's.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:13 PM
November 14, 2003
Paul Johnson on Jackson Pollock

I haven't got seriously stuck into Paul Johnson's Art: A New History yet. Instead I've been dipping. Today I chanced upon his caption for this painting:


Of this Johnson says drily:

Jackson Pollock's White Light (1950s) illustrates the colour theory and practice of Abstract Expressionism. Much thought went into this inspired linoleum.

Could such opinions as this be part of why such disapproval has been expressed about this book?

Pollocks don't all look like lino.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:44 PM
October 01, 2003
Lynn Chadwick beats Bridget Riley

Like Alice Bachini, with whom I saw them last Sunday, I liked the sculptures by Lynn Chadwick at the Tate. I preferred the semi-representational ones that were definitely people to the more famous ones, i.e. the ones I've seen a couple of before, that look a bit like birds but basically lilke weird things with messy horizontal heads.

chadwic2.jpg    riley1.jpg

This one on the left is the best Chadwick picture I could find on the Internet, which I got from here.

After Alice had gone I paid £8.50 to see the Bridget Riley exhibition, i.e. all the stuff done by the woman who did the one on the right, above. Seeing the originals adds nothing to seeing decent copies, except the knowledge that seeing the originals adds nothing to seeing decent copies, which is, I suppose, something. The paintings of Bridget Riley are artwork for the printer, presented as if they were regular paintings, and although I like them a lot, I'd already seen them all, in perfectly satisfactory printouts thank you.

Some of the pictures are like those bits of artwork they have in magazines to show you how the eye can sometimes be deceived, into seeing colours that aren't there, and into seeing diagonals which are really upright, and so on. Some of them look like that new flag someone has designed for the EU, like a multicoloured barcode. They aren't unpleasant. Many are very pretty. And if you do the same artistic thing for about four decades, it will have its own kind of single-minded impressiveness. But … the Chadwicks were much better to actually see in the flesh, I thought. The Chadwicks are still there, unlike the Rileys which finished on Sunday, and viewing the Chadwicks costs nothing.

My favourite Chadwicks, and I couldn't find a photo of these, were three ladies with shiny golden triangular flat faces, and with shiny golden rectangles of accurately done bosoms and bellies on the front of otherwise very sculptural and black and abstract figures. It was as if they had a window on their fronts instead of clothes.

If Chadwick's reputation had taken a slightly different turn, things like these, only smaller (as some of the Chadwicks themselves are - as Alice explains) could easily be the stuff of car boot sales, with the art critics all sneering away at their crass popular appeal and shameless playing-to-the-gallery quality, what with the nicest of them so clearly being of something.

If they were at a car boot sale, would I have liked them so much? Probably not. At the Tate the Chadwicks are keeping out stuff that would almost certainly have been far worse, whereas there's usually fun stuff at car boot sales, if you look. At a car boot sale I would have said: these are okay. At the Tate I said: Hey! These are okay! With modern art, you are grateful for small mercies.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:30 AM
September 29, 2003
Art critics being silly

Perry de Havilland reports on the ruffled feathers of the art critics in connection with the Lloyd Webber collection now on display at the Royal Academy, quoting from an Ian Hislop piece from yesterday's Sunday Telegraph (paper only):

What appears to really annoy a lot of the critics is the literalism of the paintings: the idea that there is a story or a message, or even something as vulgar as a moral in the artwork, rather than just an impression or a mood or an emotion. Brian Sewell says that Webber has "a literal eye" and that this "has nothing to do with Art". Nothing at all? This seems rather harsh.

Indeed. Perry comments:

… Most art critics hate literal art because literal art can be understood by anyone who takes the time to learn a bit about the context within which the art was created. … much of what passes for art these days is so obscure that it requires an ArtCrit, such as Sewell or Saatchi, to give it some meaning. I guess what I am really saying is that much of what the likes of Tracey Emin does is so devoid of intrinsic meaning that only a professional arbiter of artistic values and taste can tell us poor muggles what the hell it means. …

Perry himself supplies that link to The Bed. (The Bed has now replaced The Pile of Bricks as the popular British definition of the silliness of Modern Art.)

I'd go further. Literal art can often be understood without any extra learning at all, especially if it is literal art of the here and now, like the movies or television or pop music. Yes, there may be plenty more to enjoy if one learns some more, but the enjoyment can start straight away, without any critic being involved at all.

A central skill for all culture vultures is that of keeping critics in their place, at the back, explaining why the punters seem to enjoy this rather than that, and adding humbly that they might also enjoy this, and maybe that, and that they personally rather like this, and also that. But what many critics seem to want to do is to decide that people must enjoy this rather than that. And sometimes they even announce that the punters do actually enjoy this rather than that, and that if the punters say otherwise, they are mistaken.

Perry supplies a link to a piece by Brian Sewell, who I think probably knows a thing or two about oil paintings, but who knows very little indeed about art in general. As I report at the end of this Samizdata piece, he proved this to me in just the one fatuously wrong-headed syllable with the answer he gave to a question I asked him about popular art. Basically I asked him if popular art can ever be to art of the higher sort, artistic type art. His reply was: "No." Idiot.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:04 AM
September 14, 2003
Genius ahead – drive carefully

A few days ago, I did a scornful Transport Blog posting about this:


But the more I look at it, the more I like the look of it, especially from a helicopter. So here it is, viewed from a helicopter, at a culture blog where it surely belongs.

Here's what I think. The photograph could be a lot better, but the thing itself is a work of genius. It has proportion, uniformity, consistency, economy.

Ergo, the motorists will just have to get used to driving on it. Genius is immune to petty considerations like whether the damn thing works. Art has its own reasons.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:47 PM
August 23, 2003
Auschwitz outrage art

Yes, more art as outrage. Read this (which I got to from here and then here):

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - A Polish artist has sparked controversy in the Netherlands by selling "Auschwitz souvenirs" -- from crematorium fridge magnets to "Arbeit Macht Frei" key rings -- to remind people of the horrors of the Nazi death camp.

T-shirts with the menacing skull-and-crossbones symbol from the camp's electric fences and key rings bearing the camp gate's infamous German inscription "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Sets You Free) have been on sale at a Dutch art show since late July.

Agata Siwek, a 30-year-old fine arts graduate who grew up near Auschwitz, said Thursday the items she put on sale in the southern city of Den Bosch were intended to remind people of the Holocaust and the need to combat discrimination and war.

"Taking a souvenir and hanging it on your keys is a way to remember the evil inside all of us. It (Auschwitz) is the symbol of the ultimate evil," Siwek said.

Well, Ms. Siwek now has her flurry of publicity, this posting now being part of that.

Next, joke key rings with the face of Mohammed, an exact model of the Mosque at Mecca made out of camel dung, some Satanic Verses spelt out with Coca-Cola bottle tops, stuff like that.

Well, no, because that sort of thing would be too scandalous. The art of outrage art is to be just outrageous enough to get that publicity flurry, but not so outrageous that they come and put you in prison or murder you or decide that you can't be in the newspapers or on the telly, or some such disaster. The trick is to understand the shifting frontiers of respectability, the fluctuating battle lines of outrageousness, searching for that spot where the "outrageous" in the newspaper sense meets up with the truly outrageous, in the outrageous sense, and to place yourself in the exact spot that nobody else has spotted, which used to be beyond art but which has just recently come in rage, and then when they interview you, you say something emollient and completely politically correct as if you'd done nothing outrageous at all. Basically you say: "What's all the fuss about?" Which is bullshit because the capable outrage artists knows exactly what the fuss is about, and if there was no fuss, the project would have been a failure.

The cunning of Ms. Siwek's outrage art is that it makes use of the outrage opportunities made possible by the somewhat less extreme outrageousness of anti-Semitism in Europe these days. This means that it is now just about okay, arguably, to exploit Auschwitz for outrage art purposes. Unhappy Jews still matter, of course they do. But they don't matter quite as much as they used to. And that's the sort of opportunity that an outrage artist is looking for.

Ms Siwek has showed herself to be an expert outrage artist, who understands exactly how these things are done. There will be many more entrepreneurs from Eastern Europe in our midst in the next few years, mostly to our extreme benefit and doing mostly respectable and honourable things, but also things like this.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:34 AM
August 19, 2003
Art and outrage – and Prince Harry

Jackie D of au currant has some art crit:

Modern artists the world over have spent the last couple of decades trying to push the envelope, coming up with ever more deliberately offensive works to the point where the world largely fails to notice anymore. Figure of Jesus Christ sculpted out of poo? Yawn. Two men and a donkey getting their freak on in an aquarium full of vomit and urine? Zzzz.

And then who should come along and produce works of art that result in honest to goodness controversy but Prince Harry. And with his art A-level submissions, no less. Aborigines are all pissed off, but as someone pointed out to me recently, Prince Harry's paintings aren't that different from the sort of prints one can easily buy at places in the mall like Pier One Imports.

One of Jackie D's commenters says read Tom Wolfe's The Painted Word, which I did a long time ago. It is the last word on the art/outrage syndrome, despite having been published nearly thirty years ago now.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:54 PM
July 17, 2003
Damien Hirst draws

This from an article in the latest Spectator, by Mark Glazebrook:

Few people in any country have seen Damien Hirst’s drawings. It may even have been thought that he didn’t do any. After all, the telephone is sometimes more useful than the pencil to the conceptual artist. It may have been thought that Damien Hirst just has to ring some farm in Devon where he now lives, or the abattoir, or the butcher, plus the formaldehyde suppliers, the electrician and the factory where vitrines come from and, hey presto!, a lamb or a sliced pig becomes an expensive work of art. Surely it would take no more than a couple of extra calls, to Jay Jopling and Charles Saatchi, perhaps, and an invoice from Hirst’s firm Science Ltd., before a deal would be concluded?

Yes, that is pretty much how I imagine it.

But it turns out that the man can draw. Or at any rate that he does draw. Earlier paragraphs:

To the question ‘Can Hirst draw?’ the answer is ‘Of course’. It would seem that you cannot stop him. It emerges that Hirst has been a compulsive draughtsman from childhood on. Legend has it that his mother helped by never running out of bits of paper with which to feed his hungry hand. This show contains many quite different subjects, types and sizes of drawing. Hirst may investigate an actual skull or a woman’s head in a painting by Delacroix. (There are many elements of the Romantic artist in Hirst.) Some drawings, at least one of them explicitly, show Hirst’s fascination with the preoccupations of Francis Bacon. Hirst’s spot paintings, which are interestingly different from each other in their shapes and in other ways, are worked out in ink on graph paper. These are studies. His spin drawings are in very soft lead pencil and stand on their own, like his spin paintings.

To the question ‘How good are Hirst’s drawings?’, the answer is that even the simplest ones are good enough for his own purposes. They are rather good in their own way. …

In their own way. That could mean good, or rubbish, or anything in between. But the fact that Damien Hirst can draw and does draw doesn't mean that his conceptual art is other than foolishness. Maybe the rule is that in order to put weird junk in art galleries you have to be able to do old fashioned drawing to an adequate standard. So what? Lots of absurdly overpaid professions are defended with irrelevant but tough-to-negotiate entrance requirements.

That Hirst can do hands-on drawing says nothing about the merit of his various hands-off installations. You aren't a good artist merely because it has been decided that you are entitled to be.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:49 PM
Scruton on kitsch

I use google as a spellchecker, and all I did, while doing the posting below, was type in "Kitsch" to see if I'd spelt it write.

But what I found was this, an essay about kitsch by Roger Scruton from 1999. I'm a third of the way into it, and finding it most helpful and illuminating.

The guts of it (so far) is that avant-guarde art critic Clement Greenberg decreed that you had to be abstract, because representational meant you'd descend into kitsch. He had a point, but made rather too much of it. Not all recent representational art is kitsch, but a lot of the abstract avant-guarde stuff has been:

The problem is, however, that you land yourself in kitsch in any case. Take a stroll around MoMA, and you will encounter it in almost every room: avant-garde, certainly—novel in its presumption, if not in its effect—but also kitsch, abstract kitsch, of the kind that makes modernist wallpaper or is botched together for the tourist trade on the Boulevard Montparnasse. The effusions of Georgia O'Keeffe, with their gushing suggestions of feminine and floral things, are telling instances. Study them, if you can bear it, and you will see that the disease that rotted the heart of figurative painting has struck at its successor. What makes for kitsch is not the attempt to compete with the photograph but the attempt to have your emotions on the cheap—the attempt to appear sublime without the effort of being so. And this cut-price version of the sublime artistic gesture is there for all to see in Barnett Newman or Frank Stella. When the avant-garde becomes a cliché, then it is impossible to defend yourself from kitsch by being avant-garde.

One of the many things I also like about this piece of Scruton's is that it explains something of what was so wrong with pre-modern representational art, and what was so right about, say, the Impressionists. By stripping out the obvious classical allusions, the Impressionists at least ensured that the feelings they did capture were genuine, rather than just, so to speak, linked to.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:53 PM
July 11, 2003
As found Art in London

Okay what's this? A three-dimensional piece of Abstract Impressionism? (That's the one where you just chuck it about at random.) The latest Brit Art imperialising of an entire room in some government-funded art palace?


It's a photo I took on my wanderings around London earlier this week. And I know it hasn't come out very well, but you get the idea. You get the picture. Is it some kind of vegetation? The roots of a huge tree that's fallen over, perhaps?

Well, you probably know already, but for those of you who don't, I'll tell you that it's the reinforced concrete bottom end of a tower block in the middle of being destroyed to make way for some boring flats. The "vegetation" is bent out of shape steel reinforcing rods after a grubbing machine has been at them.

The ex-towers were the Department of the Environment towers which used to wreck the view of the Houses of Parliament from the Wheel by looming up behind them. That piece of visual bad manners aside, I used to rather like those towers. I liked the view of them from the big square near me. But now that they're gone I can see the Wheel and Big Ben from the same square. How about that?

If you suspect that this photo is all part of my campaign to piss on Modern Art so often and so completely that it is reduced to a sodden slurry of gunge in the sewer of history, you'd be right. But actually, in its more lucid moments, I'm doing what Modern Art says I should, which is just keep my eyes open for interesting things that crop up in the real world, which look as if they could be Modern Art too.

As so often with Modern Art, this is a message that makes more sense as a piece of verbal advice. There's no need to go to the bother of making Art out of it, other than by taking a photo or two. After all, if Art is all around us, who needs it in museums?

Photography is the way to capture these sorts of things. It's one of the nicest things about photography that it can do this. Thanks to photography, we can see and record these strangenesses and spare the world the bother of lugging whatever it is into a museum.

In the olden days, I suppose someone could have done a painting, but I think that would have been a waste of scarce skilled picture making time. When there are people in the world who haven't been pictured, you shoudn't be painting demolitional serendipity, however amusing. Cameras have changed all that, glory be to them. Now all who want pictures of themselves can have them, and there is abundant camera power left over for us to note the amusingness of disintegrating tower foundations.

But it was capitalism (in the form of the cameras) that did all this. The Artists are merely tagging along behind, trying to stay relevant and to find things to do that still make some sense. Not succeeding mind, just trying.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:49 AM
June 27, 2003
Some reflections on art criticism – and some further reflections (or not as the case may be) on the work of Bridget Riley and on computer screens for reproducing paintings

As regulars here will know by now, the unprovoked visiting of art galleries just to look at pictures or sculptures is not something I often do. But, rootling about in the arts pages of the electrical national dailies, just to get my culture blogging done for the day, I came across an article about Bridget Riley from which I actually learned something. (This is the best set of Bridget Riley images I could find by googling.)

I wouldn't want to go overboard. The writer, Adrian Searle of the Guardian, is after all a writer about modern art for the Guardian, so as to what the things are about and what exactly they signify, it's anyone's mad random guess and he guesses away madly and randomly like he's paid to.

… Description tends to deaden a body of work which at its best is full of life, sensation, and a fugitive equivalence to the visual world in which we live. Her paintings aren't "like" anything.

Well, actually they're like post-sixties wallpaper and fabric designs, for in Bridget Riley's case life has imitated art on a huge scale.

A Riley is a Riley, a chunk of sensation, a singular field, an event, an encounter. A Bridget Riley painting is not a depiction. This singularity is peculiar, …

Whereas all other paintings these days are "depictions". Get a grip man. No, sorry, don't. That's good. That's tripe and it's what you're paid for. Blah blah blah.

But now it gets informative. This particular blah is based on a fact, and a fact I was not until now aware of. I've always found Riley's pictures to be pretty, but I didn't know how she did them, until now.

… given that her paintings are made by other hands. From the early 1960s, she has used assistants to manufacture her paintings, after her own production of numerous studies, drawings, variations, diagrams and colour swatch tests, in which every colour relationship is fine-tuned in terms of its hue-value, saturation, its place on the tonal scale, as well as in terms of its opacity, its flow, its gloss or mattness, its maleability as a semi-liquid material. Every single element of every work is premeditated, every painting planned to the last detail.

Careful my dear chap. You're telling us so much actual informative-type information, you'll end up not being an art critic at all.

There is a fascinating room of Riley's studies here. However methodical and cold-blooded they are, they are often great drawings – precisely because they have no self-regard or affectation of style.

More like it, but still vaguely informative.

A consistent feature of her works is their disinterestedness.

"Disinterestedness." Better. In normal art critical circumstances this would mean nothing at all.

There's no pawing about of the surface, no expression, no reworking, no accidents.

Okay, but now actual sense and actual information is being circled around and arrived at again, from the great sky of nonsense that is modern art criticism of the usual sort.

In fact, the paintings themselves can barely be said to have any painterly touch at all.

Normally this would do. But here, it verges on the lucid.

I ask myself, as an aside, why it is that while people complain about art being made or fabricated by others, as though the artist were somehow cheating, no one ever levels this accusation at Riley?

Now this is the kind of thing you should avoid at all costs, and calling it an aside is no excuse whatever. Your job is to talk about the incomprehensibly idiotic reactions of your idiotically incomprehensible self. Don't recycle the lucid observations of the general public. Big mistake. Your core readership likes modern art and accordingly opposes sensibleness whenever and wherever it rears its beautiful head. Piss off your regular lunatics and who else will read your stuff? Who on earth wants to read sensible writing about modern art day after day, when there's so much sensible stuff out there already, about sensible things?

You writing something that I accidentally encountered, liked and learned from isn't going to make me want to read you every day, for goodness sake. I'm sensible too.


Ho ho. Anyway, setting aside the rights and wrongs of being a decent, proper, gibberish modern art critic such as we've all come to expect and despise, I now want to talk about Bridget Riley and how she does things.

I've spent the last month or two, in among doing things that I actually know how to do, trying to understand HTML, web design, blog design etc. (Not that you'd know it from looking at this, blah blah, usual apology for how this looks, usual claim that things will improve Real Soon Now.) And the way Riley goes about her business is that she's doing something which will eventually, like HTML now, be doable by machine. Go back to that bit about …

… diagrams and colour swatch tests, in which every colour relationship is fine-tuned in terms of its hue-value, saturation, its place on the tonal scale, as well as in terms of its opacity, its flow, its gloss or mattness, its maleability as a semi-liquid material …

All those exact numbers that denote exact colours – now where have we all seen that before? That's right, in those numbers that go something like 33FF33 (pardon me if that's an impossible colour – I'm not yet on top of this stuff) that are buried in among the coding of web pages.

This woman isn't just a painter; she's a painting "programmer" and has been for forty years, in much the same way that I was a desktop publisher before computers could do that. (For me, phrases like "cut and paste" used once to mean … cut and paste.)

Eventually, Riley, or her technical great-grandchildren, will be able to type her graphics programmes into a computer, push a button (like the one you push on a programme Patrick Crozier has been showing me called "Textpad") which immediately shows you what you've done.

To some extent, you can do this with Riley paintings now, as my link to Riley pictures above illustrates. You don't get the full effect, if only because computers screens are now mostly too small. But the mathematics-friendly aspect of her work and its lack of "painterly" quality, as Searle calls it, means that already it cries out to be computerised.

And as Searle notes, we would no more accuse Bridget Riley of being an idle, skiving, modern art layabout than bloggers would accuse Sekimori of not doing anything merely because she doesn't hand paint your blog for you. Sekimori and Bridget Riley are both in the business of creating not images, but instructions for images. (The normal skiving modern artist now just says "bung a fish in a tank would you lads", which of course is cheating.)


Well, that's a blog posting. But I don't want to leave it there, because one of the variables which Searle notes that Riley specifies shows just how far we have to go before we can flick a switch and see paintings on computer screens, and I mean really see them. This is the respect in which Riley's stuff can't yet be seen in all its splendour in our kitchens and living rooms.

I don't know exactly how "maleability as a semi-liquid material" works. I mean, is the painting supposed to remain sticky for ever? Surely not. I suppose that degree of stickiness while it's being applied somehow affects how it ends up looking.

But that matt/gloss thing I do understand. I used to do Airfix kits of airplanes, and I was pretty good at it. That I know about. And just imagine how far computer screens have to go before they can recreate shininess, or not shininess, to order: a coloured surface that either does behave quite a lot like a mirror, or doesn't behave at all like a mirror, or any specified combination of the two. As I understand computer screens, that decision is now made just the once, by the people who design the screen. There's no way they can let Bridget Riley or for that matter Sekimori loose on the screen to decide different degrees of mattness or glossiness for different specified bits of it.

And just to be clear about this anmd to answer one possible objection right now, the way you make things look shiny on a computer screen now is have them reflect particular things you decide about, in the picture. I'm talking about a computer screen which will reflect or not reflect, with controllable variability, the actual things in front of it.

Question for paintings buffs. Is this matt/gloss variability an important issue for paintings generally? Does the effective recreation on a computer screen of a Titian or a Constable or a Turner or Monet or a Picasso need, if it is to be truly effective, a matt/gloss capability? I rather think it does.

And if computer screens can't yet do such a thing, are computer printers any better. My understanding is that computer printers, just like computer screens, have their matt/gloss setting preordained for the entire surface, and as much by the paper as by the printer itself.

And of course once you get into oil painting of the relatively recent vintage, it would help if you could also give the surface of the screen that is trying to recreate it a three-D capability. Oil paintings of the more exuberant sort have for centuries been like those relief maps in expensive Atlases, where the mountains stick up towards you. Good luck to the nerds trying to make that happen on a computer screen.

I should reckon that old-fashioned printers, but working in colour, can just about do all this stuff, if they are at the very top of their game and working for money-no-object customers. But computer printers of the "affordeable" sort, no, and computer screens, not for decades. I recall expressing here, some while ago, optimism about how near we are to art-for-all – all-art-for-all at the flick of a switch – courtesy of Bill Gates and his minions. Yet the truth is that current computer screens hardly scratch the surface (ho ho) of all the problems involved.

And just as the painters, in order to stay busy, responded to photography by doing stuff that the photographers couldn't do (like paintings that weren't of anything, and paintings that were of things, but which were also very "painted", if you get my drift), so too, as soon as the nerds crack how to make a Constable on a computer screen that you really can't tell from the original (apart from it being in better condition), the artists will devise things that the nerds can't fake up with their machines. Indeed, are not "installations" the artists seeing this moment on its way, and them taking their usual precautionary evasive action?

That's enough for today. Long piece, and probably several typos and muddles. But I don't have time to do any more cleaning up. The problem is that each time I go through this, I find more things I want to say, and it gets even more muddled. So, enough.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:38 PM
June 23, 2003
It depends what you mean by modern

I swung Jim's (of Jim's Journal) comment on this posting here over to Samizdata, basically because I thought they'd like it and comment on it, and so it has proved. Most agreed, some chiming in with further gleeful stories of pranksters inserting undetectably random bric-a-brac into other places of modern art worship.

A_t dissented, as is his habit on Samzidata, and issued the following challenge:

I'm curious though... from all you people who've just been dissing away, is there anything of the modern world of art or music that you actually like?

My answer is that it depends what exactly you mean by "modern". Taking the word in its literal sense, to mean recent, I generally like the latest architectural stuff with its sun-glasses glass and shiny steel exteriors, and I like lots of current pop music and lots of current movies.

But of course that isn't quite what A_t means, or wants us here to mean, by "modern", or I don't think it is. He means the very self-consciously artistic "modern art" stuff, of the sort that qualifies for Arts Council grants and a spot in a Modern Art museum or Modern Music concert at Symphony Hall. And by this definition, "modern art" has been going since at least as far back as the teens and twenties of the last century,

In other words "modern" means a particular sort of style or attitude to doing art, rather than merely that which is the most recent art. "Modern Art" in this sense is quite capable of being superceded by something very different, and I for one hope that it is.

So. What – if any – of that stuff do I like? My answer to that is: you're right mate, pretty damn little. And I should guess that goes for most of the rest of the Samizdata writership and readership.

Whenever you hear the phrase "I'm curious", you know you are in the company of an enemy whose intentions are far more hostile than he wishes third-party onlookers to realise. A smiling prosecuting council, in other words, trying to box you in with a question which is only apparently inconsequential.

And what A_t is, I think, getting at with his question is that I, and Samizdata, and most of Samizdata's readers, are all mindlessly prejudiced against all Modern Art. And what a pack of fools to object to an entire category of human artefact just because it's recent. He is, I believe, definition hopping. He uses the phrase "modern" to refer to a particular category of human artefact define by its philosophy and attitude rather than its time of creation, and having extracted the required answer, he than wants to announce to those third-party onlookers that we oppose everything that has happened for the last fifty to a hundred years, simply because of when it happened, and that, again mindlessly, we want to turn the clock back to some golden age of our own foolish imagining.

But we do not oppose "Modern Art" mindlessly. We oppose it very mindfully. It's that philosophy, that attitude, that we object to, not the dates. And we're right to object to that attitude, because it's a stupid attitude.

We are our editors now. If you try playing word games with us on our blogs, we'll expose it, and we'll have the last word.

Which was, for now, going to be that. But instead I will add this reply to A_t from "David", which appeared at Samizdata after I'd written the above.


Yes, I do like some modern art, mostly aviation or space art. The Air Force Academy has some excellent paintings as well as the tourist area of the Space Center in Orlando.

Other than that, my enjoyment of painting ends with Matisse. No, I'll take that back, I do like some of Kandinsky's paintings. After that people merely looked for a way to make a name for themselves. One guy would paint only black squares. After that, nobody else was allowed to paint black squares, as if he had cornered the art market on that theme. Jackson Pollack owned splatter art. Rothko got to do large vaguely square colors. Franz Kline got black on white and Reinhardt got the best, monocolor (look, it's all black, it's art).

The problem with this approach is that it fails to appeal to the mass market because people realize they could, with no training, produce similar art. Furthermore, the art no longer touches our soul. In fact, artists almost seem to go out of their way to ensure that their products are inaccesible. I think it gives them a sense of self-importance and soothes their feelings of inadaquacy, but that's just an opinion.
As someone who loves painting and has invested considerable time and expense to visit every major art museum in Asia, Europe and the U.S., with the exception of Russia, it hurts to see the wasteland which so called modern art has made of the great artistic traditions.

Painting, regardless of the culture or style, has the potential of moving us and that has been tossed aside in the last fifty years.

Which is why I only really enjoy modern aviation and space art. The people who paint those pictures do so with a love and dedication missing from the "serious" art community. And that love can move me to tears, something de Kooning and Dubuffet never will.

Mindless? I think not.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:38 PM
June 19, 2003
Keeping Barbara Hepworth in her place

Last night I watched a TV programme (On BBC1) about the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, the best little clutch of photos of her work that I could find quickly being this one.

I enjoyed myself. We got the family history, the marriages and the divorces, the children (including – get this – triplets!!!), and lots of pictures of the sculptures and of Dame Barbara sculpting them. What a feisty old Dame – stubborn, deadly serious, and amazingly productive, decade after decade. I enjoyed the pictures of the sculptures, several of which I must myself have seen for real.

And then there were the photos, of Hepworth and her artist friends lolling about by the sea, discussing Socialism. She did some interesting pictures of National Health Service doctors doing an operation (and you got the impression that she valued their masked, and thus "faceless" quality, which turned them from individuals into a collective archetype).

Barbara Hepworth's early "inspiration" and "passion", of which much was made by compere Alan Yentob, was landscape and seaside rocks and pebbles. In Hepworth's hands this sometimes merged into forms suggestive also of human figures. Later she played about with colour, and her creations started to have insides and outsides, in different colours. Holes started to go through them. Strings like the strings of a harp or a piano join up bits of them. All very pleasing to look at, in a harmless, make-what-you-like-of-it kind of way.

And then they showed a picture of a big Barbara Hepworth outside the United Nations building in New York.

Whoooaaaarrrggghhh!!! A spasm of rage suddenly engulfed your blogger. The sneaky, mad, batty old bitch has seduced me into a state of neutrality concerning the public, abstract "sculpture" of the 1950 to 1980 era, which is one of the most horrible art atrocities of my lifetime.

You know the kind of rubbish I'm talking about. Huge dull skyscraper, with large, dull square in front of it, park benches to sit on if you're lucky, rubbish blowing about in the crazy breezes caused by the skyscraper, and plonked down in the middle of the square: a meaningless, far-too-big-to-ignore piece of bullshit "sculpture" that looks like it was helicoptered in by an evil cosmic prankster in the dead of night, and they haven't yet taken it away because it will cost a fortune to do that and they haven't yet worked out who has to do it.

What was happeningto me? I had been transformed by one dim old photograph from a maiden aunt nodding benignly at how "interesting" it all looked, into a Daily Mail reader, drunk at the wheel of a Ford Transit loaded with dynamite. Ease up Brian. Relax. It's only Modern Art. Don't get so angry. You're only Playing Into Their Hands.

Why was I so contentedly relaxed about small Hepworths in little art galleries or gardens, but driven crazy by big ones in front of famous skyscrapers?

It was because small Hepworths in galleries are in their proper place in the world, but big Hepworth's in city squares are not just getting above themselves, they are also getting in the way of something better.

There is something very ridiculous about Barbara Hepworth, and her "inspiration" and her "passion". Basically, what she spent her life doing, with huge labour, was doing something that for humans is immensely hard work, but which Mother Nature does without trying. I mean, seriously, what the hell is the point of making hundreds of bits of stuff "inspired" by the things that the sea does to stone? Surely the logical thing to do if this "inspires" you is to take photos, or go on walks and look at it all. But a life-time of making giant pebbles? Smacking away with your chisel at big lumps of stone for man-years on end, to create effects that the Atlantic Ocean can do without even being alive? This really is a human doing what humans are not built for. This is playing from weakness. This is us at our daftest.

Put it this way. Suppose that you observed not the sea shaping stone, but, say, some elephants manipulating some huge bits of wood, doing what they do best, which is move things about with their amazing, elongated noses. Suppose that this "inspired" you. Would it really make sense for you then to spend the rest of your life copying the elephants by pushing things about with your nose? Or perhaps by heaving bits of timber about with your arms, on account of your nose being so unsuited? You're never going to beat the elephants, any more than Barbara Hepworth is going to beat the sea.

When Hepworth sells one of her giant pebbles to someone who likes it and reckons it to be art, and who puts it in an art gallery for others who like the look of giant pebbles to come an gaze at, well, I've no problem with that. Hepworth's objects are an excellent example of something I've already written about here, namely "art", which if it hadn't been called art, would cause no annoyance whatever. Who could possibly object to a big pebble?

But when you take one of these giant I-wonder-what-that-is things and stick it in a serious, much populated urban public space, my patience suddenly snaps. Now, suddenly, I am being asked to take this giant piece of bric-a-brac seriously, and agree that it signifies something profound, something as profound as those "passions" that were swirling about inside poor old Barbara Hepworth's brain while she was carving the damn thing and making the surface go this way or that way for who the hell knows what reason. Now the lack of any shared or sharable meaning ceases to be quaintly picturesque, and becomes actively and intrusively offensive.

When I was a child, we used to go by car to Monmouthshire to visit the grandmother, who lived in a mini stately home. One of the highlights of the journey, if we went through the town of Monmouth itself, was to observe the statue of the great aviator and car salesman Charles Rolls in the town centre, holding up a model biplane. Now that was a statue. That meant something. Later I got to know the statues of London, my favourites being the ones outside the old War Office of Montgomery, Brooke and Slim, Britain's leading World War II soldiers.

Imagine the stink if any of these were taken away, and replaced by half a a ton of random Hepworth. Well, that's pretty much what did happen in the space outside the UN building.

Personally I despise the UN, but I'll agree that it is at least trying, approximately speaking, to do something important. Like the Hepworth object in front of it, it is occupying an important space in the world. So why was I so angry? Isn't a meaningless piece of junk in front of it just what I would have wanted in front of this vile operation? Well, yes, indeed. But what I was cursing wasn't that particular sculpture, so much as all the bits of junk in cities everywhere, where real sculptures (or real somethings) should have been instead. There could have been something that celebrated qualities or aspirations or achievements in a way that was clearly expressed and plainly visible – instead of just a blob of the silly and utterly uncommunicated "passions" of some stubborn old git like Barbara bloody Hepworth.

Happily, a happy ending to this story is even now unfolding. The meaningless lump style of sculpture has not been utterly defeated, but it has been driven out of these significant public spaces, back into the art galleries and gardens where it belongs, where it can be communed with by those who like that sort of thing but where it won't annoy the rest of us.

We are, in Britain, just at the beginning of a new golden age of public sculpture, heralded by the Angel of the North. This, to me, somewhat half-hearted figure has revealed, by the mere fact of its public existence, a huge fan base for public sculpture that is of something, that really says something and celebrates something, in this case, presumably, the rise of a new North of England from the rust and dust and mud of the old. The happy hubbub of talk that surrounds this somewhat banal but nevertheless appealing little figure, stuck up above the A1 just south of Gateshead, is in extreme contrast to the bitter and angry public silence by which all those Hepworth-style blobs were surrounded by when they were unveiled. And just like the architects before them, the sculptors have decided which response they prefer, and are lunging for public glory. Good for them.

Meanwhile, other lesser but still very appealing statues that actually communicate are popping up everywhere.

Thinking about this Hepworth business has told me is something that I hadn't quite grasped until now, which is that "Modern Art" is already in retreat. The meaningless lump style still dominates great swathes of "art", in the galleries, alongside the more recent and equally meaningless "hey! – take a look at what I just found" style. But it has been banished from real life. Now real life is elbowing its way back into the galleries.

For years I have longed to sink Modern Art with one killer phrase, like the Bismarck sinking the Hood. One day, I dreamed to myself, I would craft a meme as deadly as Tom Wolfe's "The Painted Word". Now I am starting to feel twinges of the magnanimity that accompanies victory.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:47 PM
June 13, 2003
More messing with chess

News of more mucking about with the design of chess sets, this time by Brit artists. (See also the posting immediately before and below this one, about the American architect, Michael Graves.)

Chess is a supremely great game, with a universe of profound associations attached to it stretching back for centuries, from pure logic to visions of slaughter. There's been at least one ballet based on it that I have personally heard of (Checkmate by Arthur Bliss), and there must be plenty more. The world chess champion is one of the most unversally recognised cleverest people alive. So, art based on chess is plugging into and hitch-hiking inside one of the archetypal human experiences. Fair enough, so long as no one is expected to play chess with any of these objects.

Hirst and the Chapman brothers produced two of five recently commissioned chess sets by leading contemporary artists, including Yayoi Kusama and Paul McCarthy. Others who feature in the exhibition include Yoko Ono, …

You know that the rest of this sentence is going to reveal something ridiculous.

… who created a set in 1966 which would confound any player: both sides are white and identical, while the game is played on a pure white board.

So no surprise there.

This however, is truly interesting:

Two sets created by Marcel Duchamp, who represented France at the 1928 Chess Olympiad, are displayed, …

I never knew that. Mr Urinal himself was a chess fiend.

… as well as one by his friend Man Ray.

Another ancient modernist.

But then we're back to business as usual, with our favourite cockney artist/wideboy

Hirst's offering, Mental Escapology, features a glass and mirror board displaying …

Blah blah blah. Brit art gets its effect from being regarded as some kind of revolutionary revelation that erupted about a decade ago, out of absolutely nowhere. Actually, as this article shows and this exhibition will show, Brit art is the seeping downwards and outwards of stupid ideas first unleashed the best part of a century ago.

Soon I will have to do that posting about why Modern Art, if it's so ridiculous, is nevertheless doing so well. Coming Real Soon Now.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:45 PM
May 29, 2003
But is it art?

Have minutes of modern art fun with this Art or Crap? quiz.

With thanks to

UPDATE (via Dave Barry): This is definitely art.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:54 PM
May 16, 2003
Aaron Haspel on the modern art of pranking

I recommend this piece by Aaron Haspel. Anyone who supposes that as found art was some kind of eighties Brit art revelation will learn a lot.

Final two paragraphs:

Warhol famously made movies, indescribably dull movies, like the 12-hour shot of the Empire State Building whose only action is a bird flying by every half hour or so. He was often asked why he gave up painting for movies. "Because it's easier," he would say. He once advertised in The Village Voice that he would endorse anything for money. The beauty of these jokes is that they were literally true.

No jokes, however, are funny after the first couple times you've heard them, and these days it is hard to raise more than a yawn when you hear that the Tate Gallery has bought tin cans of some poor lunatic's excrement. Nonetheless, we should remember that it was funny once. Duchamp and Warhol have an indelible place in history, though it may not be in art history — possibly the history of humor, or public relations.

Quite right. When we speak of modern art we are definitely speaking about art, but not of the usual kind. Being a successful con artists is, after all, not easy.

There was recently a BBC4 TV documentary about those here's-my-unmade-bed here's-a-dead-cow-sliced-down-the-middle school of Brit art, and I was struck by that same air of delighted amazement, this time expressed by cockney wide boys, that the scheme was working so well and has such legs.

You can't understand modern art without including the modern media in the story. No newspapers and magazines to puff, discuss, denounce, and there's very little left of it. Ancient art was the media. Modern art is a mere succession of media events, whose media frisson is caused by their very outrageousness and vacuity.

Above all, there must be photography. Even as you curse this nonsense, you want to know what the damn stuff looks like. Would the telegraph have bothered with those tins of crap if there'd be no photograph of them? Have you seen what those Tate bricks look like? I have. I've got a little postcard of them. They're nothing special, but my curiosity was aroused and has been satisfied.

Someone, loot Tate Modern, this time for real.

(As usual, the blogcrap archiving seems to be shot to hell, so go to MJ's main page and then back to May 15th, if you can. Good news: although this link doesn't take you to MJ's May 15th piece about Baghdad (non) looting, it does instead take you to a great May 11th posting about Salam Pax.)

But no one will. The economic value of this stuff would collapse completely if the society which sustains their "importance" were ever to crumble to the point where such looting was doable. Put it this way, if western civilisation in London and its surrounding areas were to collapse next Thursday afternoon, just after lunch, and you were prowling the ruins looking for a pension fund to replace the one you had, would you give the Emin bed a second glance? Well, I suppose you might, on the off chance that Americans might want it, to help them ponder what on earth had gone wrong with these benighted islands.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:11 PM
April 09, 2003
Interview art

Carrying on with this pleasure/art thing, I was watching a documentary about James Stewart while finalising the posting below, and they included clips of him being interviewed by Michael Parkinson.

Michael Parkinson is a classic pleasure merchant. Art is art, and chatshows are just chatshows. It's seldom said. It is simply assumed. A James Stewart film, provided it's good enough, is art. But an interview done by James Stewart with Parky is just an interview.

Yet this interview, like a film, is also now a permanent thing. It's some kind of superior BBC variety of video tape, or some such. So this interview passes the physics test.

How about the other test, the "how good was it?" test? Well, it is now very clear that James Stewart presenting "himself" on a chat show was every bit as much Art as any of his other performance creations. The story about Pie the horse doing a scene in one take, after Stewart had talked with him for a while. "This is not going to be easy for you … because you're a horse", etc., all timed to perfection, and surely honed during many private hours with friends and acquaintances, just like any other performance. Art, surely.

Or what about that fabulous interview that Alec Guinness did with Parky, when he performed a brilliant impersonation of a big bird in a zoo, which stood absolutely still whenever you were looking at it, but which, as soon as your back was turned, adopted a quite different pose, so when you looked back again (Grandmother's Footsteps style), there he was, standing motionless again, but differently. Classic. Guiness even gave the cameramen directions, so that they too were looking away when the bird moved.

Or what of Oliver Reed, giving Parky (again) a master class in what being a film actor actually consists of, by actually doing a scene for everyone. "If you think it's so easy, you do it."

And what of Parky himself? Can it be coincidence that these film and theatre giants seem to give of their very best to posterity, when he just happens to be sitting next to them mumbling his way through his non-questions until they interrupt him with their artful self-presentations? He too may be judged by Posterity to have been more of an artist than he's now reckoned to be.

But the bad news for Parky is what these three much loved actors now have in common. They're dead. We treasure their conversational relics the way we never did when they were still around to add to the pile. So, drop dead Parky. As soon as you do, you'll be a True Artist.

Tracey Emin, on the other hand, seems likely to head in the exact opposite direction. As soon as she stops being around to tell us all that she's an artist, she'll stop being thought of as one. Well, not an art artist anyway.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:20 AM
April 06, 2003
The Kiss is not just The Kiss

Natalie Solent links to this piece, about (a) an artist who has wrapped Rodin's The Kiss in string, and about (b) some other person who has taken a pair of scissors to the string in defence of the original sculpture.

I find the strung version of the Rodin quite appealing and vivid, as a message about how romantic love can enmesh you in a disfunctional relationship. I dare say Alice Bachini would also approve, because this is the kind of thing she also says.

But notice how the tables are turning. The Establishment Artist is the one doing prankish and studenty things to the Great Masterpiece, and the Anti-Establishment Rebel is the one trying to undo them.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:43 PM