Michael Flatley, of Riverdance fame, has a new career as an artist, and it is giving me considerable entertainment. According to the Irish Times, Mr Flatley “creates his paintings by dancing on canvases (strips of marley – a type of linoleum floor covering used on stage by dancers)”.  We learn that “At least 12 of the paintings sold, for an average price of £52,000 (€74,000). Negotiations are continuing regarding further sales”.

You couldn’t make it up.  Truly, life is imitating art – in this case the amusing 1960 film “The Rebel”, starring the late comedian Tony Hancock.  To quote from Wikipedia:

Hancock plays a downtrodden London office clerk who gives up his office job to pursue full-time his vocation as an artist. Single mindedly, and with an enthusiasm far exceeding any artistic talent (his ‘art’ has a ‘childlike’ quality – to put it mildly), he sets to work on his masterpiece Aphrodite at the Waterhole, moving to  Paris where he expects his genius will be appreciated….. The film explores existentialist themes by mocking Parisian intellectual society and portraying the pretensions of the English middle class…. The film also includes scenes parodying modern art. The scene showing Hancock splashing paint onto a canvas and riding a bike over it is a lampoon of the work of Action Painter, William Green while the childlike paintings of Hancock, referred to as the ‘infantile school’ or the ‘shapeist school’ parody the naïve style.

Alternatively, I hope Mr Flatley, with his “art”,  is having a good old-fashioned piss-take – otherwise known as “mocking … intellectual society and portraying the pretensions of the … middle class”.  Good for him if that is the case.

Surely he doesn’t actually believe his offerings are worth €50-100,000? No, it is no doubt a wonderful leg-pull on his part, at the expense of those blinded by fame into laying out large sums of money on unattractive and random smears of paint.  This must be the case, as Mr Flatley is a clever fellow.  Maybe he has even seen “the Rebel” and is carrying out his own experiment, testing the limits of art buyers’ gullibility!

Or perhaps he has seen the wonderful recent Italian film The Great Beauty (La Grande Belleza), in which a young child creates highly-prized “art” by having a temper tantrum and flinging paint at a large canvas (YouTube link here). Yes, that must be the case……

[More on the madness of modern/conceptual art here, here, here and here].

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Art vs religion

12 January, 2015

Clive James’s review of John Bayley’s collected book reviews , which was included in “The Revolt of the Pendulum”, has this:-

He just doesn’t think that art and religion make a good match, especially if the religion is an adopted one, as in the case of Waugh – and the case of Graham Greene, by whom he is enthralled even less.  Without precisely calling those two eminent Catholic converts perpetrators of a put-up job, he makes it clear that he thinks their religiosity detracts from their scope of vision rather than adding to it. …..

A work of art exists to occupy the whole space between tumultuous reality and the artist’s attempt to give it shape, with no supervening providence to nullify the order of what has been achieved. Bayley is at his very best when he is pushing his insistence that the mundane is sublime enough. (‘Boots and shoes’, ‘the detail and the dailiness’: the phrases keep on coming.) He is surely right. Art, by making bearable sense of the world, is out after religion’s job, which is probably why no religion in its fundamentalist phase has ever liked it. Art is its own ideal state, which is probably why Plato didn’t like it either.

Famously, Islam prohibits the depiction of human and animal forms in art.  The Taliban even went to the trouble of destroying the Buddhas of Bamiyan.  But strict Protestantism used to be none too keen on depictions of God and the saints.  I heard a historian claim recently that 99% of all religious artworks were destroyed in England during the Reformation.

Last Wednesday’s Guardian had an article about the Frieze Art Fair, an international contemporary art fair that takes place every October in London.  Specifically, it dealt with Christian Jankowski’s cruel artistic joke “The Finest Art on Water”.  As their chief art writer, Charlotte Higgins, puts it:

….. one artist has taken the sometimes queasy-making connection between extreme wealth and the artworld to its logical conclusion: by attempting to sell a 65-metre superyacht at the fair.

Buy it as a boat (it will be built to order by CRN of Ancona, to the buyer’s specifications), and it costs €65m (£60m). Buy it as an artwork, authenticated by the German artist Christian Jankowski, and it will cost €75m. If that seems a little steep, a smaller, 10m Aquariva Cento motorboat is on display at the fair, among the Robert Rymans and Tacita Deans. That one’s €500,000 as a mere boat; €625,000 when officially designated art.

According to Jankowski, the boats are not artworks until he has handed out a certificate to the new owner, who will then have the right to call the vessel “Christian” (for the motorboat) or “Jankowski” (for the superyacht). There is nothing, he admits, to stop the owners calling the boats what they like even without paying the extra. But without the certificate, he said, “it won’t be sculpture”.

This brilliantly exposes the typical con-job that passes for conceptual art, much as Marcel Duchamp’s urinal famously did almost 100 years ago.  In 2004, Duchamp’s work was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century and it has been asserted that, with this single work, Duchamp invented conceptual art and “severed forever the traditional link between the artist’s labour and the merit of the work”.

But, more significantly, Jankowski’s “sculpture” also highlights the dark question which we find so difficult to deal with: how can it ever be justified to pay tens of millions of dollars/euros for any artwork, no matter how rare?  If I can pay a skilled artist a few thousand euros to create an exact duplicate of (say) Van Gogh’s Irises, brush stroke by brush stroke, so that nobody can distinguish it from the original, then why should I not get as much satisfaction from hanging that on my wall as I would if I had paid $54 million for it?  It is functionally and aesthetically identical, after all.

The $54 million is surely a lot to pay for the bragging rights and reflected glory associated with owning an object which, although in principle unique, can effectively be reproduced at will by a talented forger.

Christian Jankowski is doing us all a favour by taking conceptual art to its logical (illogical?) conclusion.  If he forces the art establishment to look in the mirror and to concede that concept alone should not (or should hardly ever) triumph over skill, beauty and wit, he will deserve a place in art history.

Dublin Contemporary 2011, which is allegedly the largest contemporary art event ever staged in Ireland, opens on 6th September, and the signs are not good.  One hesitates to join in the criticism of much of the “contemporary art” that galleries see fit to display, for fear of being thought a reactionary or a camp follower of Brian Sewell.  But here goes anyway.

With the benefit of decades of observation and analysis, albeit that of an amateur, I have reluctantly come to this view: the majority of contemporary art, and most Conceptual Art (particularly installation art, performance art, and electronic/digital art), is pretentious, boring and shallow.  Emperors with no clothes.

I’m with Ivan Massow, the former Chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, who in 2002 branded conceptual art “pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat” and said it was in “danger of disappearing up its own arse ”.  Massow was forced to resign as a result of his comments.

Aidan Dunne in the Irish Times wrote about the upcoming event back in June, and his words gave little hope that Dublin Contemporary 2011 would break the mould:

Tania Bruguere has proved to be controversial with performances pieces that – separately – encouraged criticism of the Cuban authorities and involved the use of cocaine – she also sought to employ a live firearm in one show but was, unsurprisingly, refused. Danish art group Superflex devise direct social interactions that entail specific actions or commitments from the public. Teresa Margolles makes powerful works about the systematic murder of young women in north Mexico.

In terms of spectacle, there should be plenty to look at with, for example, Maarten van den Eynde’s Plastic Reef project, an ever-growing accumulation of waste plastic packaging that has proved to be thought-provoking. There should be spectacle, as well, in David Zink Yi’s (his heritage is Peruvian, German, Chinese) giant sculpture of a squid, made from ceramic and incorporating glazed plates, referencing food as a signifier of cultural identity….

Ominously, though, it has to be said that many of the featured artists habitually make elaborate, idiosyncratic installations with exhaustive theoretical rationales, the kind of work that is generally beloved by curators of international group exhibitions but may not find a corner in the heart of the casual viewer.

That’s putting it mildly.

Private Eye has a satirical cartoon series entitled Young British Artists which features a group of self-obsessed and self-promoting “chancers” and which mocks the works and attitudes of modern British artists.  But much of the prose on the official website of Dublin Contemporary 2011  would be a candidate for a different part of Private Eye, namely Pseuds’ Corner:

The title and theme of Dublin Contemporary 2011 is Terrible Beauty—Art, Crisis, Change & The Office of Non-Compliance. Taken from William Butler Yeats’ famous poem “Easter, 1916”, the exhibition’s title borrows from the Irish writer’s seminal response to turn-of-the-century political events to site [sic] art’s underused potential for commenting symbolically on the world’s societal, cultural and economic triumphs and ills. The second part of the exhibition’s title underscores Dublin Contemporary 2011’s emphasis on art that captures the spirit of the present time, while introducing the exhibition’s chief organizational engine: The Office of Non-Compliance. Headed up by Dublin Contemporary 2011 lead curators Jota Castro (artist/curator) and Christian Viveros-Fauné (critic/curator), The Office of Non-Compliance will function as a collaborative agency within Dublin Contemporary 2011, establishing creative solutions for real or symbolic problems that stretch the bounds of conventional art experience.

The Office of Non-Compliance, located within the Earlsfort Terrace exhibition site, will function as a promoter of ideas around a laundry list of non-conformist art proposals. The Office’s practice will be fuelled by the idea that not only has the world been transformed in the last few decades, the very concept of change itself has changed utterly. This element of the exhibition looks to highlight less conventional, largely artist-led models of art discourse, production and presentation. The Office of Non-Compliance will include ad-hoc, accessible structures for discourse around art and its place in society, such as a Bank of Problems, a Bank of Possibilities, One Problem a Week and a curated forum exploring one topical problem per week.

The bullshit quotient in the above extract is high, as might be expected (although the author apparently doesn’t know the difference between “cite” and “site”).  And, judging from the above, you can bet your life that Dublin Contemporary 2011 will be choc-full of works which will (according to their creators) make important statements about politics, economics and social injustice.

Yet Robert Hughes, as long ago as 1992, disposed of the argument for art as an agent of political and social influence.   The following extract is from his angry but totally coherent book, Culture of Complaint:

It seems to me that there is absolutely no reason why a museum, any museum, should favour art which is overtly political over art which is not. Today’s political art is only a coda to the idea that painting and sculpture can provoke social change.Throughout the whole history of the avant-garde, this hope has been refuted by experience. No work of art in the twentieth century has ever had the kind of impact that Uncle Tom’s Cabin did on the way Americans thought about slavery, or The Gulag Archipelago did on illusions about the real nature of Communism. The most celebrated, widely reproduced and universally recognizable political painting of the twentieth century is Picasso’s Guemica, and it didn’t change Franco’s regime one inch or shorten his life by so much as one day. What really changes political opinion is events, argument, press photographs, and TV.

The catalogue convention of the nineties is to dwell on activist artists “addressing issues” of racism, sexism, AIDS, and so forth. But an artist’s merits are not a function of his or her gender, ideology, sexual preference, skin colour or medical condition, and to address an issue is not to address a public.  The HIV virus isn’t listening.  Joe Sixpack isn’t looking … The political art we have in postmodernist America is one long exercise in preaching to the converted… it consists basically of taking an unexceptionable if obvious idea — “racism is wrong”, or “New York shouldn’t have thousands of beggars and lunatics on the street” – then coding it so obliquely that when the viewer has re-translated it he feels the glow of being included in what we call the “discourse” of the art world.  But the fact that a work of art is about AIDS or bigotry no more endows it with aesthetic merit than the fact that it’s about mermaids and palm trees.

.….In any case, much of the new activist art is so badly made that only its context — its presence in a museum – suggests that it has any aesthetic intention. I know that such an objection cuts no ice with many people: merely to ask that a work of art be well made is, to them, a sign of elitism, and presumably some critics would theorize that a badly made work of art is only a metaphor of how ratty the rest of the world of production has become, now that the ethic of craftsmanship has largely disappeared, so that artistic ineptitude thrust into the museum context has acquired some kind of critical function.

I will no doubt visit Dublin Contemporary 2011.  And I am equally sure that I will be saddened, frustrated and even annoyed by the experience. You, dear reader, can decide whether this makes me  a sad and grumpy reactionary or the equivalent of the young child who points out that the emperor has no clothes.

I was persuaded by reports of a new exhibition at The Hugh Lane Gallery (or to give it its revamped, clumsy, title the Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane) to cross the Liffey and investigate.

The exhibition, “Sir John Lavery: Passion and Politics” is probably worth a visit if you are interested in 20th Century Irish history, although, with very few exceptions, the paintings on display are not among the greatest works executed by Lavery.

My trip had a twofold purpose: as well as seeing the special Lavery exhibition, I wanted to re-acquaint myself with the gallery’s permanent collection. I was keen to do this as I hadn’t been there for many years, and a revamp had been carried out in the meantime, including the installation of Francis Bacon’s Studio.

I was bitterly disappointed to discover that large chunks of the permanent collection were closed to the public. It seems that the Hugh Lane Gallery can’t afford sufficient staff to open all the rooms. Foreign visitors were perplexed to find that their journey to Parnell Square was largely in vain (most of them were, after all, only slightly interested in Sir John Lavery).

This is a pretty disgraceful state of affairs, particularly at the height of the tourist season, and seems to me to be another example of public sector torpor and mismanagement. For instance, why cannot the gallery’s management re-arrange the opening hours and staff rosters, so that the full collection can be on show, albeit for a reduced number of hours in the week?  Or why don’t they take on volunteers or students for the summer months to allow our foreign visitors full access to what the guide books promise them? Or even, dare I say it, charge a modest admission fee to the gallery to pay for the necessary additional staff?

These are not insuperable problems. The present “solution” to staff shortages is the worst outcome for everybody.