Art – or ‘art’?

Yeah, it’s cryptic title time, only this time not because I wanted a cryptic visitor-hooking title but because I actually couldn’t come up with something which said what this post was about any better than that did.

I found myself today looking at a website of art by somebody I sort of know, I knew she did art but had no idea what it was like – she’s called Bryony Aston and the site is here if you want to take a look. I think it’s good, in fact I think it’s really good: I’d have one of her paintings on the wall any time (this one if I could pick). So that got me thinking about all the amazing artists we’ve never heard of, which got me thinking about why some artists sell for millions at auction, which got me thinking about all the artists who don’t even exhibit. What is it about some art and some artists which suddenly makes them, if not famous, then at least well known. When does somebody’s art become Art?

Now there is a part of me which has always thought that art really shouldn’t ever be monetarily worth more than the materials and time involved in its creation. Let artists be fairly recompensed for their creativity and effort, and gallery owners for their work in selling the art on, but they should be the ones who benefit, not somebody who really never even knew them years down the line, not people who buy art as an investment. Think how much more visually interesting the world would be if that were the case, nobody would buy pictures as investments and stick them in vaults where people can’t see them, public galleries would be able to build their collections easily without having panic funding drives to keep something in the country. What’s more with low values on the stuff it might be easier to borrow and exchange works (dunno about that though). People who owned art wouldn’t be forced to sell it off to cover taxes, and folks could take their pictures along to the antiques roadshow without the risk of finding it’s so bloody valuable the they can’t really have it on the wall of the living room any more due to the risk of theft. So yeah, I’m opposed to investment art in general. I’m in favour of art because the more art you have the better civilisation you have, your world is a better place.

So what about all the unknown art? What about all the hundreds of thousands of creatives like Bryony out there? What about the art you and I have never heard about? Well, I reckon without Art there would be more respect for art – Joni Mitchell said ‘he knew they’d never been on their tv, so he passed his good music by’ and that’s the lot of a load of artists out there, they make stuff which immeasurably improves our world, but it doesn’t get shown. Frankly, if I had a choice of a reproduction Old Master and one of Bryony’s paintings I’d take hers any day, because a reproduction isn’t the painting, it lacks everything which makes the painting worth looking at. I’d rather have a picture by somebody unknown which I loved on the wall any day. Okay, I have a lot of prints of pictures, including one I’m not ever going to take down, but that’s going to be a future blog post (‘spoilers, sweetie’).

See, frankly, I’m not convinced that Art is actually any better than art. Certainly much of it is brilliant, though a lot isn’t I think that great – I’m not doing the old master v modernism thing here, it’s got nothing to do with the type of art, some is just better than others. I accept that ‘better’ is a personal opinion thing though. For example if Millias had not painted after Ophelia I’d have been happy, it would have saved us from mawkish dreck like Bubbles. We clearly can’t think it’s all good because it’s famous because if you watch anybody visiting a gallery they wander the rooms and stop at some paintings because those are the ones which engage them. You know what? I reckon if you took one of Bryony’s paintings and put it in an exhibition of art by well known abstract painters as many of the public would stop to look at it as they wander the rooms as those by famous painters in the same genre. Because deep down art lovers, real art lovers (it’s my blog, I can be as polemical as I like) look at and enjoy art which engages and captivates them. The Ecstasy of St Theresa doesn’t captivate because it’s by Bernini, it captivates because you swear that if you reached out and pushed on one of her feet it would swing.

The Cass Arts chain says “lets fill this town with artists” – they’re actually wrong to say that (though I totally applaud the sentiment), it already is full of artists, we just need to realise that everybody who paints, or draws or sculpts, or scrapes, or prints is an artist, even if they’re not Artists.

 

Andrew Wyeth – marmite artist

What is it about Wyeth?

Up till a few weeks ago the only Andrew Wyeth painting I knew was (yes you’ve guessed it) Christina’ World. This wasn’t down to intentional avoidance tactics, just that somehow I’d managed to miss the rest. So while working out what I was going to say in this post I’ve been spending some time exploring his work. There’s a lot of it. I think it’s really good. I’m not planning on talking so much about him and his life because loads of people have already done it really well (links at the end); I want to talk about his marmite effect. See I’ve found that he’s somewhat contentious, people love him or loathe him. Not all people of course, that’s a rhetorical effect again. I like those. As in my previous post.

He seems to be the depleted uranium round in the war with modernism. The laser-guided munition fired against all the drippers and splodgers. The American Artist (in fact the ‘premier American Artist’ of which more later) who painted real people doing real things in a proper painterly manner with real skill, unlike all that stuff 5 year olds could do. It’s all bollocks of course, apart from the real skill part, he was all that. He picked on a difficult medium, egg tempera, which requires a lot of skill to master and which gives his work it’s texture. Spent a lot of work out in the field sketching and was a bloody good draftsman.

But a painter of real life, no way. Wyeth no more paints real American life any more than Ansel Adams photographed the real American landscape or constable painted 19th century rural England. The cheerful rustic dream of the Hay Wain isn’t the real one of poverty, under-employement and the poor laws. Take the painting we all know – now it’s easy to read this as young girl, in a field on her nice family farm. Touseled hair, sprawled on the ground, dreaming of her future. Easy reading isn’t it? I read it like that and so did at least one other person I ran it past. But it’s not: it’s a 55 year old woman crippled with polio looking at the house where she eaked out a poverty stricken existence…and it’s not even her, other people posed for parts of her because Wyeth wasn’t happy about asking her to pose too much. He’s not guilty of pulling of any deceptions here, he painted what he wanted to paint in the way he wanted to paint it. He’s not staking any claims to be a particular type of artist or to be opposed to anything.

1948, the year of Christina’s World has Pollock getting really into the dripping and De Kooning abstracting for all he’s worth. The year after would see Life ask of Pollock “is this the greatest living American painter?”. As time goes on Wyeth is either loved or vilified, depending on what side of the abstraction fence you were on (or indeed perhaps still are). He’s either about real art or a reactionary has been depending on how blinkered your viewpoint was. I think, and it’s a personal view though not an original one, that the reason Wyeth is so much a poster child for ‘real art’ is about what he isn’t.

*“In today’s scrambled-egg school of art, Wyeth stands out as a wild-eyed radical,” one journalist wrote in 1963, speaking for the masses. “For the people he paints wear their noses in the usual place, and the weathered barns and bare-limbed trees in his starkly simple landscapes are more real than reality.” *

So there you are; he’s the painter of the person on the Maine omnibus, the one it’s safe to like, the one you don’t have to think any of those wild modernist ideas to like. It’s very easy to remember the 60s (if you can) as the summer of love, woodstock and all that sort of thing, but most of it wasn’t like that. In 63, black people were still using separate drinking fountains in much of the south, the pill wasn’t easy to get (and it’s way before Roe v Wade), fuel was cheap, the US hasn’t yet realised where it’s involvement in Vietnam was going and the Hayes Code still pretty much governed cinema. I reckon it’s the America the republicans wished they still had. Talk to many conservatives in the US today and they view Europe as a place from which all the dangerous and left wing ideas flow…and modernism was just so very European. Who is the journalist in the above quote talking about who paint people without their noses in the right place? Sounds very pre-war too me, not really very 60s art at all, not Pop Art or anything. I’ve just read an article which takes the position that one of the candidates in the current American election isn’t fit because he’s a socialist and that all the countries in Europe do that and are somehow ‘bad’ because they state control a lot of things.

In 65 Time called him America’s Pre-Eminent Artist (in an interview in which he, interestingly, called himself an abstractionist and said he detested the sweetness in muc realistic paiting) – now that’s a heck of a big accolade for anybody and one which Time doesn’t justify in the article. It throws it in right at the begining, twice, and then moves on. I’d say it’s an empty bit of rhetoric for any artist at any time and in any place and is more interesting for what it says about Time than about what it says about Wyeth. The article is free to look at on the Time archive and is worth reading for anybody interested in Wyeth and drawing their own conclusions

Personally, I think he’s generally very ‘modern’, he may be right in calling himself an abstrationist but not in the sense of the abstract expressionists, cubists, futurists, vortacists or whatever. His work is not chocolate box stuff, apart from Christina’s World until you lean what the image is about at any rate. So I’m not going to join in the line drawing and name calling: he’s an artist, he’s a good one too. Job done in my book.

Some other interesting articles

Andrew Wyeth dot Com

Smithsonian Mag

His obituary

Looking Out, Looking In

 

"The Bricks"

The first time I was aware in any sense about this thing called ‘Modern Art’ was in the late 70s when the media furore over Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII erupted…having done some research I can now date this to 1976 when a piece appeared in The Sunday Times newspaper called The Tate drops a costly Brick by Colin Simpson. Now we didn’t take The Sunday Times, my parents were strictly Daily and Sunday Express people, but I remember clearly it being on the news and the subject of a piece on the now (thankfully) defunct current affairs program Nationwide alongside the skateboarding ducks. In this piece a variety of presenters produced various heaps of bricks and then spouted made up jargon about what they’d done..and how we were all invited to laugh along with them. Like most of Nationwide it was pretty much content light. Okay, I’m the first to admit we were, as a family, classic members of the Nationwide demographic. We didn’t have ‘the arts’; we didn’t have classical music, we had Mantovani and James Last; we didn’t have radical thoughts, we didn’t have modernism. So we sat in our living room every evening watching situation comedies and programs like Horizon, getting our news from the Express, and watching Nationwide. I was a very non-alternative teenager, easy-listening rather than popular music, Top of the Pops rather than Whistle Test, Blue Peter rather than Magpie, reading not very challenging books. Actually, I did have an older sister who did the whole summer of love thing (TM, the maharishi, etc etc) who had a lot of very bohemian friends. I sometimes wonder how much pot I may have passively inhaled growing up with her and her friends around! But she died when I was 13 so she wasn’t around during this part of my life. I often wonder if things might have been different if she’d been around for my teenage years, but hey. So I laughed along with the rest, didn’t do art or music at school, had a shit time, failed my exams, and went out to work at 16.

Okay, so now we fast-forward a few years and my world did a shift, as it often does. I had money to buy books, and started reading a lot of (fun but not very good) science fiction, discovered Hawkwind and Rush, and met a very strange bloke a few years older called Pete who was hugely alternative. Thanks to him I read Richard Brautigan, and Jack Kerouac, and Tom Robbins, and found that The Guardian was so much better than The Express, and because he said it was worth visiting I went to the Tate Gallery for the first time. This was the old Tate Gallery, what is now Tate Britain, before all the modern art went off to Bankside. So there I am, intellectually totally unequipped for modern art, but curious. I wandered around looking at pictures I could identify now but couldn’t then, and not sure what to make of it all. Then, all of a sudden, there I am looking at The Bricks. Equivalent VIII by Carl Andre – not that at the time I could have told you what it was called or who it was by – and thought ‘hey, these are what all that fuss was about years ago, these are stupid’…only it wasn’t. Actually it had something, I couldn’t pin down what it was, but it was definitely something. Yes, it was 120 bricks, arranged in two layers, it was everything that Nationwide had said it was. Though it was more than it’s substance, it had….something. If you were to ask me what it is now, I’d say it was things like balance, and a sense of physical presence, satisfying colour and texture, the way it fills the space, stuff like that. But at the time all I knew was that I liked it. It wasn’t rubbish. It wasn’t silly. It wasn’t remotely like the piles of bricks the clowns on Nationwide had produced, it was more than that.

So I suppose, if you had to ask me to pin down my art gallery moment, that would be it. I still don’t know very much about Andre, though I do like the work 144 Magnesium Square a lot (also in the Tate collection), and perhaps I ought to find out more about him.

Tate Gallery Page on Equivalent VIII

http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/andre-equivalent-viii-t01534/text-catalogue-entry