Grayson Perry, an Essex-born artist and Turner Prize winner, was complaining about modern art in the Independent last week, describing most contemporary work as ‘rubbish’. It is incredibly hard to find anyone, when put on the spot, who will robustly defend modern art. Why?
The problem with modern art, as my philistine mind sees it, comes in two flavours. Firstly, it feels too accessible. Shown a typical modern art exhibit, most people will find themselves thinking ‘That’s art! I could do that. I could do that with no arms. Or eyes.’ That may not in fact be true, but that doesn’t matter. Perception is the thing.
You don’t get that reaction so much with pre-20th century paintings or sculpture. If you gave me – a malcoordinated orang-utan – a chisel, an infinite supply of white marble and a million years, I’ll deliver you enough gravel to pave every driveway in Surrey. What I will not do is produce any recognisable objects. Similarly, you could provide with a gallon of oils and I would be singularly unable to produce anything but pictures of trees a parent would never stick on their fridge.
What I can do, though, is picture the pieces of modern art I would produce. Picture the photograph. An oily puddle on a dirty concrete floor. An urban filthscape reflects off it, redolent with decay and waste. Fuzzy in the background are dark shadows and the chipped grey pillars of a multistorey car park. Also on the floor, fragments of a broken ceramic pot are carelessly strewn. The title: ‘Not Even A Pot’.
Or perhaps this – a simple glass tumbler stands alone on a brilliant white plinth. Behind it is a brilliant white wall background. The glass is precisely half full with yellow liquid. The title: ‘Pissimisism’.
Which brings me on to problem two – titles. There’s something bankrupt about having to explain why your art should affect its audience. Surely good art – effective art – should move people in and of itself, emote, communicate, without having to tell you how or why it’s doing so. Hamlet doesn’t have to pause during his soliloquy and whisper sotto voce to the audience, ‘I’m saying all this because it conveys humanity’s deep fear of uncertainty you know.’
I understand that Duchamp’s bog, Emin’s bed and other sacred cows of modern art are often intended to be witty comments on the state of art, it’s ridiculousness, blah blah blah, I get it. But the joke’s usually only amusing to those who are already in art’s rarefied and strange world – the five hundred or so people who actually buy big-name original art.
That’s not always true though. My favourite piece of modern art is by Graham Fagen and pictured below, which I saw at the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow.
I hope someone paid good money for ‘Pish Balloon’.