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Art attack

Tate parcel

Once upon a time I worked as a media studies teacher at my local college. The course was run by the art department, for some reason, and it was very jolly and bohemian. Some of the lecturers had gone to the Chelsea School of Art or the Slade in the sixties and they all had beards and hippie skirts and smelt vaguely of patchouli. They were truly nice people and excellent teachers and living in revolutionary times had taught them to be open minded about other people’s ideas. Which meant, really, to me, that they were ready to accept any old rubbish if the person producing it was enthusiastic enough.

Take the guy with the vacuum cleaner. He arrived in the staff room one day with a pile of painted stuff on a tray. It looked like that mountain that Richard Dreyfuss sculpts out of mashed potato in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was in fact, the contents of a vacuum cleaner dust bag covered in grey gloss paint.

I think, ‘What the fuck is that?’ was my reaction.

But the art lecturers listened to him keenly and nodded in sympathy as he told them how he simply couldn’t get any sponsorship to make more dustbag mounds in order truly to explore his themes of rejection and redemption. I offered to give him the contents of my vacuum cleaner, but I have to say I was thanked gently and then ignored, possibly because it was obvious I was not taking him seriously.

And then, that same year, artist Chris Ofili won the £20,000 Turner Prize for his art, which was splattered with elephant dung. So what do I know?

I began thinking about this again when I went to London’s Tate Britain on Saturday. The gallery, in Pimlico, is a beautiful building with a huge central space. And at the moment it is filled with packing cases and cardboard all nailed together under the name of Dock by sculptor Phyllida Barlow.


The Tate website says:

Suspended, collapsed, stacked, wrapped or folded, the works of Phyllida Barlow spring from an interrogation of some of the most fundamental aspects of sculpture: its physical attributes and its presence in space.

That is the kind of sentence that you need to read if you are having trouble sleeping. It’s a sales pitch. And it makes me feel that if they have to sell it with fancy words, then it can’t sell itself. Why can’t they just say:

Phyllida Barlow’s works are suspended, collapsed, stacked, wrapped or folded. She is inspired by the basic idea of sculpture; what it looks like and how it affects its environment.

Which, when you think about it, means absolutely nothing.

It’s interesting that all the other pictures and sculptures in the gallery, the ones that have been executed with skilled draughtsmanship, and an eye for colour and balance, and that absorb you, have really simple descriptions. There’s no need to package them with cheap snake-oil sentences. They speak for themselves.

Our English Coasts by William Holman Hunt

Our English Coasts by William Holman Hunt

It doesn’t matter how smarmily Dock is described, it just reminds me of something I might see done by a sixth former at school.

The problem I have with this kind of art is that it is more an expression of its time, than of any particular artistic skill. If the gallery was (God forbid) set on fire, nobody afterwards could recreate a Turner or a painting by William Blake. However, it would be reasonably easy for anyone, given a hammer and some packing cases and bit of gaffer tape, to recreate Dock.

But why would anyone want to?

Pictures from Wikimedia, via Creative Commons:




About elainecanham

I started blogging because I'm a writer, and I thought I ought to. Now I realise that I blog because I lwant to; even when I can't think of much to say. I do a lot of work for local businesses - get in touch if you like my style.


26 thoughts on “Art attack

  1. I love this post, Elaine. It reminded me of a game I used to play in modern art galleries with a friend called “ArtW***” – as in, is it Art, or is it W***?

    The best worst example was in San Francisco Moma, where I sample the delights of Bjork’s dude, Matthew Barney, who was supposed to be brilliant, according to SF MOMA and America at the time, apparently.

    He had an exhibition which was supposed to reflect restrictions and suppression of the body. One of his pieces was a video installation of him drawing on the wall with his left hand. With his arms and legs tied. While dressed as General MacArthur.

    I finally burst out laughing when I looked at the child’s scribble on the ceiling, which we were told was a face. He’d drawn it, one pen stroke at a time, each time he bounced high enough, from a trampoline.

    We can all vomit some self-declared deep thoughts onto various forms of media and call it art. But if it means nothing without an overblown estate agent-like explanation, it’s W***.

    Posted by Tara Sparling | September 26, 2014, 9:45 am
    • Yes…. I’m just thinking, Tara, I could get the kids’ old trampoline out and…we could do it together;…we could scribble on my kitchen ceiling and call it ‘struggling artists’ . Bound to pay better than plays…and I’d get my ceiling redecorated. Right, get on a plane and I’ll go and buy the felt tips.

      Posted by elainecanham | September 26, 2014, 2:11 pm
    • Grand. Although I think the trampoline is a bit derivative, now. If you can get a bouncy castle instead to signify the weight of our childhoods, I’m totally there dude.

      Posted by Tara Sparling | September 26, 2014, 11:05 pm
    • Hmm, I see what you mean. Perhaps I could dig out the stilts, as a metaphor for our artistic labouring. And they’re harder, so they’d count for more.

      Posted by elainecanham | September 27, 2014, 12:16 am
    • Gosh yes. And there’s the obvious connotations, for extra kudos. The Pinocchioization of the modern man. Etc.

      Posted by Tara Sparling | September 27, 2014, 12:21 am
    • I’ve gone off at a tangent now; that word is amazing. Pinocchioization????

      Posted by elainecanham | September 27, 2014, 12:29 am
    • I know. There probably should. But it came from a very deeeep thought I had. Don’t fall in.

      Posted by Tara Sparling | September 27, 2014, 7:55 am
  2. It is very subjective, like many things in life. I guess there’s no written rule that all art has to be representational (I’ve always liked some abstract art although I’m not sure I’d be able to say why). Music isn’t. We do get used to seeing and understanding things that, as noted in the discussion, were dismissed to begin with. And that is because somebody dared to create them and imposed their vision on the rest of the world, that is no mean achievement. I’m not sure where I stand with regards to certain works. Like street art. Some I like, some annoy me, some make me think, some puzzle me, some horrify me, some make me laugh…and some I don’t like. But that’s fine. And I love crafts.

    Posted by olganm | September 25, 2014, 9:23 am
    • I suppose you could say that Dock has value because it makes you think about what art is. But I value artistic skills, and to me that doesn’t have any. I also like abstract stuff; it is difficult, isn’t it? In the end it comes down to the old truism of, ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.’

      Posted by elainecanham | September 25, 2014, 12:02 pm
  3. Where the hell did I put my patchouli? I need a splash of it lest I become a fuddy-duddy. The winner of the NZ Art Award this year was a handmade carpet depicting the face of a woman who had callously murdered her husband. More patchouli! Quick!

    Posted by Bruce Goodman | September 24, 2014, 6:36 pm
    • Callously murdered him? What a beastly woman. She could have nicely murdered him. But, really, are you serious? I mean the craft section, ok. Unless the winner painted the carpet, of course, or sculpted it out of the killer’s toenails, or something. Now, that would be art.
      I think I might need some of that patchouli!

      Posted by elainecanham | September 24, 2014, 6:47 pm
  4. You gave that sales pitch too much credit. I’ll tell you what it really ought to say:
    Look, shit’s taking up a lot of space.
    Simple, elegant, and true to the theme of the artist.

    Posted by naptimethoughts | September 24, 2014, 4:04 pm
  5. Perhaps I’m from a more simplistic time but I like to view art and know what it represents. I like the artists skill at recreating it in a different medium, paint or sculpture. When someone has to go to the trouble of explaining what it is to me then it”s not for me. When someone wants to display a bed complete with sheets stained with seminal fluids it doesn’t say art to me and because there are ladies present we won’t go into what I think it is.
    I grew up in the 60’s and know what you mean about some hippies. I fear those of my age who opened their hearts to any old waffle are the ones sitting on the Turner Prize Committee.

    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    Posted by davidprosser | September 24, 2014, 2:55 pm
    • It’s just such a difficult area, isn’t it. How do you decide what is good and what isn’t? I love Salvador Dali, and his pictures are bonkers, but I find them absorbing. Why that is, I can’t explain, but you can’t fault his skill with a paintbrush.

      Posted by elainecanham | September 24, 2014, 3:55 pm
  6. I dunno. Tracey’s tent (“Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995”) wasn’t the worst, involving a bit more work and imagination than chucking together a load of Hoover bags or packing crates, or probably even that notorious bed of hers.

    But you’re spot on about the sales pitch and fancy words, the shite you often come across in the Artist’s Statement or the exhibition catalogue. “An interrogation”? Interrogations are bad enough in courtrooms and copshops, let alone an art gallery

    Posted by Irish writer Mel Healy | September 24, 2014, 2:42 pm
    • I suppose, when I look at a piece of art I want to see something in a new way; to think about something I hadn’t really thought of before. And with lots of these installations, I just feel that I’m being fobbed off.

      Posted by elainecanham | September 24, 2014, 3:51 pm
  7. It’s the Emperor’s New Art syndrome.

    Posted by helen meikle's scribblefest | September 24, 2014, 2:41 pm
    • It is isn’t it? You do get the impression with this stuff that you are being taken for a ride. I don’t know which is worse, the people you feel are trying to fool you, or the people who are themselves completely deluded.

      Posted by elainecanham | September 24, 2014, 4:24 pm
  8. Interesting. I know little about art, but I have a few friends who crow about new stuff that looks like my 5-year-old put it together. Maybe the current trend is simplicity or crudeness, but nobody wants to use such terms. It does make wonder something. Were the masterpieces of old considered rubbish when they were originally done?

    Posted by Charles Yallowitz | September 24, 2014, 12:52 pm
    • The impressionists certainly were. Cezanne was laughed at by the Ecole des Beaux Arts for his Bathers. I’m not criticising modern art as such. I just don’t agree that freedom of expression is necessarily art. Just because somebody wants to mould dust and paint, doesn’t mean that their work has any artistic merit. Trouble is when you start trying to define what art is…

      Posted by elainecanham | September 24, 2014, 1:08 pm
    • Yeah. It’s just open to interpretation. Though the elephant dung one had to raise a few concerned eyebrows. I’m just thinking of how sanitary that thing could possibly be.

      Posted by Charles Yallowitz | September 24, 2014, 1:12 pm
    • That’s certainly a new way of evaluating art 🙂 Under that criteria Tracey Emin’s Unmade bed wouldn’t make it through the doorway, thank God.

      Posted by elainecanham | September 24, 2014, 1:52 pm

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