Monday 15 June 2015

Yes, but is it Art?

Most aspects of modern life at the personal level tend to operate on the basis of meritocracy.  The better you are at something, the more likely you are to be recognized and rewarded for it.  Of course, there are exceptions and points of disagreement.  And the field in which these tend to be most strongly debated is the Fine Arts.

Throughout history, recognition in the fine arts has traditionally come by dint of serious talent.  Think of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, or Turner.  Sometimes the extent of that talent is not immediately recognized - the perfect example would be Van Gogh - but that generally represents a re-assessment of the nature of the talent rather than a debate as to whether it existed in the first place.  These days, however, it is all too common for there to be serious debate as to whether an artist actually has any talent whatsoever - the names of Jackson Pollock and (admittedly, a controversial inclusion here) Thierry Guetta may come to mind.

In many ways, Jackson Pollock is an easy target.  When he started out, his early work did undoubtedly exhibit elements of form and composition.  But as he matured, his methods increasingly shed anything that could be attributed to a considered application of technical skill.  He would throw liquid paint at the canvas in an uncontrolled manner, producing finished works that courted both controversy and adulation.  Check him out on YouTube.  A noted alcoholic, ‘Jack the Dripper’ died at 44, drunk at the wheel, in a single-car accident which also took the life of one of his passengers.

Pollock’s No 5, 1948 assumed the mantle of the world’s most expensive painting when it sold privately in 2006 for the incredible sum of $140,000,000.  The painting was originally bought from a gallery by a collector, but it was damaged during delivery to the purchaser’s home.  After much to-and-fro, Pollock agreed to ‘repair’ the damaged painting.  He did this by repainting the whole thing, reportedly saying of the customer “He’ll never know”.  The collector, it turned out, did know, but was satisfied nonetheless, even though the ‘repaired’ image was not even the same as the original (no record of which is believed to exist).  Check out images of No 5, 1948 on the Internet.  What do you think?  Worth $140 Million? - and if not, then how much?  Since Pollock is dead, I stand ready to step in.

I’ve always enjoyed photography, although I don’t have much talent for it.  Back in the day, before the Internet, I used to subscribe to a particular photography magazine.  One recurring theme was readers’ letters which expressed their lack of appreciation for some of the photographs that had appeared in the magazine.  The general gist of the complaints was always “That was not a particularly good photograph - I could have taken it myself”.  To which the reply repeatedly offered was something smug along the lines of “Well, why didn’t you then?”  To me, this seemed to be intentionally skirting what was an obvious issue.  What the reader was really trying to convey was “If I had taken that photograph I would not have considered it worthy of publication”.  To my mind that was a serious point that could - and should - have been productively explored.

These days there are many web sites which run a ‘photograph of the month’ competition, and the quality of the winning entries is always stunning.  I am sure that there would be unanimous agreement among viewers that those pictures were, if nothing else, at least worthy of submission to the competition.  Rare would be the viewer who would not have been pretty pleased with themselves had they been the one to take the picture.  Ordinary people are in general very appreciative of a good photograph.  They recognize the skill involved in taking the picture, which they appreciate may be beyond their own abilities.

Although both are images, there are some significant differences between a painting and a photograph.  Chief among them is that a photograph, inherent in its very nature, can be exactly replicated, whereas each painting is a unique entity.  Nonetheless a photograph makes for a useful analogy in making the point I want to make about art.  In the world of Fine Art these days, new art rarely makes a positive impression on the market in isolation.  The artist generally needs to ‘sell’ the piece by presenting some abstract rationale behind the existence of the work.  Imagine how that would work in photography.

Like this, I imagine:  I invent some elaborate strategy for taking pseudo-random photographs.  I then ‘carefully’ pick one and present it to a selected audience of influential photograph collectors.  I come up with some rationale for how the photograph is the outcome of a particular artistic endeavour and consequently encapsulates those artistic principles in this or that manner.  As a finishing touch, I have the word put out that I am a troubled and cantankerous soul, thin-skinned and hard to work with.  I don’t know about you, but that sets off my BS meter way into the red zone.  Yet this is how the Fine Art market has operated for most of the last century.

Although both art and music fall into the general sphere of ‘The Arts’, for the purpose of this discussion I shall choose to use the term ‘Art’ to describe only visual art - painting, sculpture, photography, etc, so that ‘Art’ and ‘Music’ are to have distinct and separate meanings.  I shall then break both spheres down into two separate categories, which I shall term ‘background’ and ‘foreground’.

Foreground Art and Music are those specific categories which are intended to be appreciated for their own intrinsic merit as standalone entities.  Foreground Art is something which transcends the mere decorative.  It is something we want exclusively for what it is, rather than for how well it blends in.  Foreground Art is something we make room for.  Background Art is something we only desire because it blends in so well.  Background Art is the background to our lives as we go about them … it is part of the decor.  Foreground Art is are the things for which we pause our lives to focus on our appreciation of them.  Foreground Art is the meat to background Art’s potatoes.  Likewise, foreground Music is the reason we have HiFi systems.  We set aside time to listen specifically to foreground Music, and when we do we usually immerse ourselves into it.  Me, I like to turn the lights off.

Background Music is a term which is already established in our lexicon.  It is the soundtrack to our lives.  It has to be harmless, comfortable, and above all not distracting … even while it can often be annoyingly loud.  It helps if its rhythms reflect and enhance the rhythms of whatever we are occupying ourselves with.  Background Music has become a necessary beat to the dance of life.  Modern movies, for example, often have a virtually continuous soundtrack.  By contrast, foreground Music is for when we want to stop whatever else we are doing and just listen.  Sometimes we may choose it specifically for the mood it embodies, but mostly we want to appreciate it entirely on its own merits.

In both Art and Music there are highbrow adherents who like to think of themselves as the arbiters and standard bearers of taste and formal appreciation.  Oftentimes they succeed in those endeavours, in that they are willing and able to devote significant proportions of their lives and personal resources to the task.  But it doesn’t mean that the rest of us - you and I - don’t have taste and a true sense of appreciation.  It just means that when the latest Jackson Pollocks of our age come up for sale we have neither the desire nor the wherewithal to be anywhere near the front of the line.  We are, to use a term Richard Nixon popularized for an entirely different meaning, the ‘Silent Majority’.

We - the Silent Majority - tend to be very clear that we expect both our Art and our Music to require a measure of clear and present skill in its conception, execution and delivery.  We’re even willing to take two out of three.  When we see a 30-foot square canvas painted entirely in red in an art gallery, and read that the gallery acquired it for a million dollars, we shout BS!!!  We no longer write to the magazine editors saying “I have taken better pictures than that and don’t think especially highly of them”, but we still think it.  Likewise, we expect our musicians to perform with an evident degree of serious skill and/or write moving, observant, and incisive songs.

Don’t get confused by the latest pop, rap, and lounge superstars.  That’s not foreground music.  That’s background music.  Way back when Milli Vanilli were being outed as being a fake pop band, whose music was actually recorded by session musicians (‘The Monkees’, anyone?), I don’t recall there being any real consumer outrage.  It was all the embarrassed industry insiders, whose carefully crafted aura of expertise and fine judgement was very publicly pricked, who made all the noise.  If it happened today, would anybody actually care whether or not Ariana Grande actually sings on her own songs?

Me?  I’m hoping to score tickets to see Rodrigo y Gabriela at the Montreal Jazz Festival.  Wish me luck.