The Turner Prize vs. Guardian reader comments

Recently I’ve been fuming fairly annoyed over comments left in response to the Turner Prize on the Guardian’s website. It happens every year. The comments page gets congested with cries of “Close the art schools” or, as was the case this year, “Shedashshed” (WITTY). I blame Monet.

The argument, in my eyes, is the result of two things. One being that there is a divide between people who think being an artist should involve the same technical skills as it did 100 years ago and those who believe the message and the innovation are more important; the other thing is the lack of understanding of modern art.

Modern art is generally self referential. This means without any knowledge of the existing schema on which the ideas were built they can be incomprehensible. The end product can, when viewed without knowledge, seem trivial or ridiculous when it is, in fact, the climactic point of a long and involved study. In this situation art education is key, yet there is a resistance to teaching the skills to understand modern art which I find extraordinary. Parents of children in art classes I assisted with at secondary school have expressed the view that what their child is being taught is a meaningless waste of time and money. Several were appalled at the content of the Tate Modern (Carl Andre’s bricks are still giving some people inordinate amounts of trouble after over half a century) and the parental scorn was reiterated by the children in the classroom.

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Equivalent VIII, 1966 – Carl Andre

So do you have to be able to draw or to paint or to sculpt to be labelled an artist?

My view is that you don’t. These are forms which artistic expression can take but they are not confining. The reason for this is that art has moved in the direction where it does not need to be figurative. One does not need to render something exactly and faithfully to produce a successful artwork. Cubism and Impressionism are the most obvious examples of this.

Being able to produce a recognisible likeness is indeed a skill, but how much demand is there for portrait painters now? The role of artists as recorders of likenesses is largely removed by technological advancement. Religious changes have also had an effect on art as churches have cut down the previously vast reserves of cash spent on altar pieces and church decoration. Still lifes are currently occupying a peculiar situation. These used to be regarded as one of the lowest forms of art one could produce and now seem destined for some artistic no-mans-land: the actual ability is one prized by those critical of modern art but it’s not something anyone seems particularly willing to invest in beyond insipid prints for the dining room.

The roles fulfilled by the artist hundreds of years ago have been made redundant or significantly reduced. This has left art in general to progress to a far more introspective/introverted place. The artist, freer from patronage constraints is able to convey his or her own ideas or opinions or progress in the manner they believe is most appropriate. This freedom is not to be equated with a loss of skill, however, as media such as video installations or performances can and do require amounts of skill and patience equal to those needed for traditional painting or sculpture although this is frequently overlooked. Often it appears that what is successful is that which has a well known signature or that which can be used decoratively.

For an illustration of the first part of that statement you only have to look at The Madonna of the Pinks. This tiny painting, given no prestige before 2002 was catapulted into the limelight following Dr Nicholas Penny’s deduction that it must be the work of Raphael. Consequently the National Gallery launched a campaign to prevent the damn thing leaving the country when it came up for sale and spent £35 MILLION (£22 million after tax) “saving” it. Knowing it was by someone famous does not make it a better painting. (I think it’s fairly obvious how repellant I found the campaign, however it did raise awareness that Britain does indeed *have* art galleries).

The second point leads me nicely on to Monet. And Klimt. And Munch. And Botticelli. Notelet art. Going to see a work by any of these artists is an interesting experience. I very much enjoy Monet when I’m looking directly at his work, even those bloody waterlillies. But using the same image over and over, notelets, mouse pads, bags, coasters, teatowels, mugs… (if you’ve been through the gift shop of nearly any gallery you’ll know the list is endless), divorces the image from its context. Part of the waterlillies is the size of the canvas, the place in which they’re hung, the visibility of the brushstrokes, the way it makes you feel when you’ve stood in front of it for more than five minutes… the list goes on. Removing nearly all of these because it makes a pretty print which accentuates someone’s curtains cripples the impact of the piece.

I’m well aware that there are plenty of people who cannot afford to visit galleries or who haven’t the time to spend in a room wandering round an installation and for this reason I’m in favour of art books and of collectable postcards. This is because they aren’t anchored to something mundane. The picture by no means does the work justice but it still maintains distance from the everyday and does encourage a degree of consideration.

Anyway, this use of art as a form of decorative design has, I believe, encouraged the idea that for something to be worthwhile you need to want to hang it on your wall. There’s nothing wrong with decorative artwork but, for me there is a distinction – that ‘gallery’ art is usually already invested with a meaning by the artist while decorative art is deliberately more ambiguous and aesthetically appealing, leaving the buyer to project their own interpretation onto it and make it their own.

What I’m getting at is that I think people should be free to criticize the Turner Prize and modern art, but only after taking a little time to consider the piece or the artist because “I just don’t like it” is not a reasoned response. It may well be a valid statement for yourself, but it’s not a reason to advise abolishing modern art altogether or to ridicule that which other people find great fulfillment in, after all many of the ‘classic’ paintings we hold in such high regard now were controversial and sometimes reviled during the artists lifetime. To give a little perspective: Picasso was considered a degenerate; Botticelli’s works remained obscure until the 19th century; and many Impressionist works were rejected outright by the public and by critics for years.