‘Modern Art = I could do that + Yeah, but you didn’t’. (Legend on a 'Modern Art Pouch' for sale at the Astrup Fearnley Museet, Oslo).
I wanted to say something about this because I think it's a sort of, ‘yeah-you-got-that-right-mate’, lazy acceptance of the novelty trap in which 'modern' art has got itself entangled. For a start, the quip infers that modern art's audience is patently uninformed - a risky strategy for an art gallery - and thus seeks to validate the contents of any exhibition space because the uninformed are in no position to argue. So, before I stumped up NOK 349 (roughly £35) for a paintbrush bag and swanked about feeling modish and clever, perhaps it was worth a moment’s consideration?
Eilif Peterssen. From the Beach at Sele. 1889
‘Modern’ art is generally accepted to occupy the period between the 1860’s and the 1970’s. That bit’s easy enough and straightaway there’s some pretty tough acts to follow - Eilif Peterssen for starters. But let's not split hairs, we'll include the post-moderns, conceptual art and minimalisism because they're probably the focus of the legend's and our attention.
Fredrik Vaerslev. Untitled. 2014
‘Fredrik Varslev’s paintings can be said to belong to opposite poles….gestures reminiscent of Pollock….they can be said to almost represent the perfect illusion painting….our eyes are directed downwards towards….surfaces we rarely notice in everyday life’. (Gallery notes).
Then, ‘what’s art?’ At 3:37 the other morning, I thought I had an answer, at least it was somewhere in the ballpark for me: ‘Art is what we produce to inform ourselves of our view of the world’; simple enough but it took me a while to get there.
Robert Ryman. Accompany. 2001
‘... this constitutes an effort to investigate the values embedded in the fundamental constituents of painting….once all decorative and illustrative features have been removed’. (Gallery notes).
Where ‘Modern Art’ went wrong for the man on the Clapham Omnibus was when the artist’s view became so deeply personal and impenetrable that the lines of communication between the artist and the audience were broken. Incoherent artworks spawned disengagement with a large section of the viewing public - an inevitable consequence of the decline of a recognisable narrative and the proliferation of abstraction in mainstream art in the early 20thC.
David Smith. Untitled (Nude) 1964
‘….splashes and lines of enamel paint are spread out across a grey canvas. In contrast to Jackson Pollock’s approach, the paint has been applied sparingly to the canvas with a steady hand….but the execution is so free that one cannot be sure that the picture actually represents a nude, as the title claims’. (Gallery notes).
So Bill says, ‘I could do that’. Well, he probably could but it would be a meaningless gesture. Bill’s been unable to understand the work – he doesn’t know what the artist is trying to convey. It appears as a (for instance) mass of paint thrown haphazardly onto a canvass and Bill has based his critique solely on his assertion that he could easily imitate the physical action of the artist. You can’t blame Bill entirely for this standpoint; he’s read the accompanying notes and they’ve only added to his incomprehension.
Ellesworthy Kelly. White Triangle with Black. 1976
‘….Kelly began to work with irregularly shaped canvases….two or more of these canvases are combined to create a new, potent form. Kelly’s ‘White Triangle with Black is an example of such a ‘relief’. (Gallery notes).
Ben retorts, ‘Yeah, but you didn’t’. Ben (probably unconsciously but correctly) implies that the work is not Bill’s view of the world and for that reason Bill would have been unlikely to have produced it or anything like it in any case. Ben also hints, in his mocking tone, at the art market and he’s telling Bill that if he had produced something (like this) had got to know the right people, convinced them of his authority and had an artwork displayed in a fancy gallery, it would not only have become an object inviting scrutiny (thus acquiring intellectual worth) but, more importantly, it would have acquired a monetary value that in the ordinary view, would far out-strip its artistic merit.
Cy Twombly. Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus. 1962
‘…two gory flowers of pain are connected by a slender umbilical cord of blood. Achilles cannot let go of Patroclus; their bond is mightier than death. The ghostly rose that was Patroclus is tied forever to the pulsing heart of Achilles’. (Jonathan Jones in The Guardian).
The exchange is incomplete. Ben doesn't venture his opinion of the artwork so there's no debate. What remains is dissatisfaction with the nature of the artwork, disbelief in the artist's purpose and disaffection with the system that put it on public display. This helps nobody and is the worst of all outcomes.
If the goal of artists is to elicit a considered response to their reflections on the world, they have only themselves to blame for the general public’s dismissal of their work – especially if its abstraction is so complete as to be unfathomable – because if we could make head or tail of it, we wouldn't be chewing on this old chestnut and we'd be spared galleries' and critics' patronising claptrap that frankly, serves only to reinforce our disdain.
I didn’t need a paintbrush bag anyway.