Monday, 16 May 2011

Modern Art: Another Opinion from 1986

In 1986 the BBC launched an ambitious project to record a snapshot of everyday life across the UK for future generations. A million volunteers took part. The BBC has launched the new Domesday Reloaded website which has lots of memories from 25 years ago.

To celebrate this on this blog, I will be posting extracts from 1986 editions of "Thinks!", the Journal of Channel Islands Mensa, on which I worked as Assistant Editor in the 1980s; the Editor was Ken Webb.

For background, I previously had posted a piece from "Thinks!" on Modern Art which I had written under the pseudonym of Dr Gideon Fell, which can be found at:

In the March 1986 edition, artist, art teacher (at Victoria College Prep), Derrick Rolls (father of famous local artist Ian Rolls) replied.

I agree with much of what Derrick says, and regarding more abstract art, I like the work of the late Robert Tilling, especially his seascapes. But I still think there is something amiss about how art is valued, not by the artist (as in the case cited of Whistler), but by critics who often are speaking absolute nonsense.

The best experimental verification of this was the "blind assessment" when an anthropologist put an "abstract" piece of art in a museum alongside other art - it looked liked colourful scrawls in paint - and gleaned all kinds of interesting comments about what the artist was intending, and what emotions he was trying to portray, also valuing it with a high price tag. It was, of course, painted by a chimpanzee!

Anyhow, here is Derrick on Modern Art:

Modern Art: Another Opinion
Contributed by Derrick Rolls.

In a recent edition of the Mensa magazine "Thinks", there was an article entitled "Modern Art". In some ways think the title is a misnomer. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate if he had called it "Art I Heartily Dislike", if you will forgive the pun!

Modern Art is a term frequently used today, but what on earth does it mean? Does it mean art that has been executed In the last twenty five years or so, or does it mean - as in the case of a modern history book which I have on my shelf entitled "Modern History from 1500 to the present day" - works of Art originating as far back as the sixteenth century? Therefore I suggest the term "Modern Art" is rather vague and valueless, far too general to describe exactly what one means.

The attractiveness of a picture, painting, a piece of sculpture, a watercolour, be it what it may, lies very much In the eye of the beholder. What one person can live with I'm quite sure another would detest. Therefore the true artist paints because he has to. He paints that which he likes; he does not paint, necessarily, for the general public. His art is a very personal thing.

Art has never been solely concerned with the true, the good, the beautiful. Artists throughout the history of Art have depicted the gruesome and the grotesque. One has only to look at the paintings of Bosch (people with weird monsters and torturing demons) or the wood cuts of Durer (depicting apocalyptic prophesies) to have proof of that.

Durer also, incidentally, produced many studies of nature which speak of nothing but beauty and innocence. When an artist exhibits his paintings he is presenting his work to the public, not necessarily for approval but for reaction and that public is no more compelled to like or live with any of the exhibited works than the television viewer is compelled to watch a programme he dislikes.

Since all artists, to some extent, are a reflection of what goes on around then, by necessity, the ugliness must be recorded alongside the beauty, for without the one we cannot know the other.

But to return to the opinion of Gideon Fell: it is not very clear to my mind what kind of "Modern Art" he is referring to because, on re-reading the article I find he does not mention the word "Abstract" at all, which rather surprises me. Most people think of "Modern Art" as the abstract art which one finds so frequently in galleries and exhibitions.

As far as abstract art is concerned, I personally like some abstract art but on the whole, I do not like much of what I see. In fact I think, especially when one hears a painting described or "explained" by an art "expert", much of what is said is the speaker's own opinion which is often very far from what the artist intended. I am quite sure there are the unscrupulous artists whose art is a "big con". They are almost poking fun at the general public and at the same time, I suggest, "laughing all the way to the bank".

It must also not be forgotten, for example, that in the days of the "Impressionists" their work was as evolutionary and detested just as much as some of the art referred to by Gideon Fell. Whistler is the classic case of an artist whose paintings today are considered to be sublime exercises in good taste but in whose day were thought to be extreme and outrageous and an attempt to "con" the public.

E.H.Gombrich in his book "The Story of Art", relates how in 1877 Whistler exhibited nine pieces in the Japanese manner which he called "Nocturnes", asking 200 guineas for each. A critic wrote:- "I have never expected to hear a cockscomb ask 200 guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler sued him for libel and the case once more brought out the deep cleavage that separated the public's paint of view from that of the artist. When cross examined as to whether he really asked that enormous sum for 'two days' work, Whistler replied - "I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime".

Artists ( who are by nature observant and receptive) have always borrowed, and always will borrow, elements from many different sources. These may include tribal art but will almost certainly include art from different cultures which cross fertilise at regular intervals. So when an artist uses elements from the art of a different culture, perhaps even unknowingly, he is not consciously imitating but utilising qualities of colour, shape,
line etc. , which be admires for their own sake. Whistler in particular and the Impressionists in general were greatly influenced by the aesthetic simplicity of Japanese Art but in no way could be accused of imitating another culture's art.

However, on the whole, I cannot help agreeing with much of what Gideon Fell has written. There is a great deal in so called "Modern Art" which I dislike and could not live with. However, there is also much that I find beautiful, colourful and appealing and could live with, quite happily, in my own home.

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