It is surprising and disheartening to see how such a topic as contemporary art could illicit such emotionally charged responses within media reporting or informal conversation- or how these two outlets of opinion would converge in synchronicity in the past week, bringing my own experiences as an art gallery volunteer to relevance just as it has come to an end.
The Herbert Art Gallery exhibition From Here to There was devised around works held in The Arts council collection with a loosely connected theme of journeys and transitions in all the art. The curator deliberately chose the work of artists “living in Britain” that people with minimal art background will recognise and there was a mix of painting, photography, installation, sculpture and illustration.
The concept behind the volunteering initiative had been noble enough to entice many creative students and local artistic enthusiasts to offer up their time to promoting the exhibition and its message through “public engagement” with the works themselves. From the onset, we had been prepared for the challenge faced of a local family-friendly gallery in the English Midlands with breaking down the barriers that visitors have towards contemporary art, especially when presented with it in an atypical setting.
The reality meant that -akin to a sales assistant hovering cautiously over a potential buyer for the right moment to sell- our friendly smiles and innocent conversation-starters were quickly rebuffed with a cynical “I’m just looking” attitude.
Sometimes grown adults with supposed autonomy appear oddly resentful of even being there, as if coerced by social expectations towards cultural appreciation, despite their instinctual tendencies to the contrary.
As I approach, the visitors makes it clear that they don’t want to be disturbed and offering them an unsolicited explanation can be interpreted as an insinuation that they don’t (or couldn’t) understand the work -that being the reason they don’t like it.
Often the excuse is the well-worn phrase, “Well I could do that” and I think to myself: YES- and why shouldn’t it be like that? Art is not some exclusive, sacred talent bestowed from on high upon a select group of lofty geniuses. Their work does not have to be the unattainable aspiration of us lowly peasants who could only hope to master two-point perspective; if this was the only way we could justify paying for something, could we never appreciate the work of another?
Some people seem to yearn for what I see as the old boys club that was classical artists- tightly controlled work commissioned by religious institutions and royalty that was technically deft but leaves me a emotionally indifferent when I pass by the grand scale paintings of historical events and biblical stories.
So I liked being in gallery three the most; a more intimate space at the end of the exhibition I sat amongst the decaying red gerberas of Anya Gallacio’s Can love remember the question and the answer, Mark Quinn’s eternally preserved Garden² and of course, Tracey Emin’s looped video Why I never became a dancer, where she narrates the story of her adolescence in the go-nowhere British seaside town of Margate. Despite its frank sexual references that threaten the delicate sensibilities of local gallery visitors, it is usually the one I take people to see first or one which I observe with great interest peoples reactions as a sit passively on my invigilators chair. It is sad that many people have lost the ability to interact with another’s journey for more than two minutes (for which Emin’s video was over 6) and many walk away before the triumphant dance finale to Sylvesters You make me feel.
I, like many others had my initial reservations about the members of the Young British Artists super hype to emerge in early 1990’s Britain without having really experienced it first-hand. So when I encountered Emin’s softly-spoken yet commanding voice slicing through the silence for the first time in the gallery, as she chants SLAG, SLAG, SLAG I felt part of an exclusive conversation with the artist and my previous assumptions were dispelled.
I am either too eager to connect with the experiences of strangers or am a naïve, highly suggestible appreciator of vulgar tat, mindlessly following trendy creative and social movements that I am blinded to the lack of artistic merit in most of contemporary art. Or so it would seem after reading Charles Saatchi donates 200 art works to the nation, the article that was published on The Guardian website on Thursday the 1st of July. Within the 24 allocated hours of public input, the comment free-for-all had racked up 177 comments of highly contrasting opinion.
Much mud-slinging was reserved for Saatchi himself and his dubious past in the commercial art sector but there was the typical scorn for the bourgeois values of the assumed middle-class Guardian demographic.
Emin was held up for ritual sacrifice for the atrocities that the Young British Artist community had imposed on the traditional art loving nation and despite some well-intentioned support for both Emin and Saatchi, comments that emphasised their ability to also create/appreciate/collect art in the “traditional sense” – “Do you know Tracey Emin can also paint?” – only seeks to further this perception that contemporary art must continually justify its existence as an imposter on work that is more uniformly valued.
Many of the positive comments on the Charles Saatchi saga touched on the preservation of these works as artefacts of their time and place and their historical relevance, rather than focusing on whether the works were attractive, appealing or particularly skilful demonstrations of their medium.
The works to make up the collection at his Chelsea Gallery -to eventually be renamed The Museum of Contemporary Art, London when the building itself becomes state-owned, yet privately financed- represent £25m worth of contemporary art from across Britain and Europe.
Yet as one reader saw it:
“Do you really believe that in 100/200 years time people-who hopefully haven’t been brainwashed at art school by some failed, talentless, bitter drunkard-are going to believe most of this tat is really and truly great art? Though it does kind of represent a place and time. Brit Art, Brit pop and Nu labour with its Cool Britania rhetoric are all intrinsically linked. But they will all only be remembered on any level as fashion, bullshit, hype and fraud. None of which necessarily have any place in great art, really just some modern “art”. There are some great modern artists out there, but most of you middle class guardian reader types don’t have a clue who they are.”
Despite many comments not recognising the important distinction between the Contemporary Art that Saatchi collects and the generic term they refer to it as “Modern Art”, which technically covers a specific artistic period in history now finished, undoubtedly the issue of contempt for most of the critics of contemporary work stems from what people concede as an unjustifiably high monetary value placed on individual works or the works of a particular artist.
Without delving too much into the logic of the supply and demand economic principals that affect the art industry just as they do any commodity, I always refer back to an anecdote my high school art teacher once relayed to us; the time when the Gogh Whitlam government purchased Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles for the National Gallery of Australia in 1973. At US$ 2 million it was the highest price ever paid for a modern painting at the time and this inevitably lead to mass outcry at such reckless spending of public money.
The painting is now one of the most popular exhibits in the gallery, and now is thought to be worth as much as AU$180 million. Of course this last part is perhaps irrelevant; art has value that cannot be concluded in monetary terms- for the individual viewer, the owner, the state and for society as a whole.