Arty Pants

 |  February 25, 2010

OK Chiang Mai – time for your exam question.

The world of modern art is completely out of touch with reality: discuss.

If I was a good student (which I never was…too much wine, women, song and other nefarious substances when I was studying), I would construct the perfectly balanced six paragraph essay to answer this question. The first would introduce the theme; the second and third would explore one viewpoint whilst the fourth and fifth would then provide a counter argument. This would allow the last paragraph to provide a well-founded and erudite conclusion that would guarantee top marks. Job done – let’s go down the pub.

But on this particular topic, I can’t do that. Don’t get me wrong; I like ‘art’ as much as the next average person. The romantic idea of the artist struggling to express their inner angst in a creative way is an important part of cultural development. Good ‘art’ should challenge how we look at the world and make us stop and think. This might be a painting, a sculpture, a piece of music or even a piece of graffiti in some cases. Self-expression is vital to the human condition.

Nothing wrong with artists selling their work either. Or being paid by wealthy patrons to produce something ‘interesting’ for their mansion. This is no different to me going to work and getting paid for what I do except I have the artistic ability of a brick and the creativity of a turnip. I admire those people who can create original work that looks nothing like a vegetable.

Being dead is also a distinct advantage for many artists as the value of their work goes through the roof. Of course, it doesn’t actually do them much good but collectors and connoisseurs of late artists pay lots of money to own a piece of art. Again, nothing inherently wrong in that but it is in this area that I feel the art world has lost its way.

In February, a bronze statue by the late Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (feature above) sold at auction for 65 million pound sterling. To save you doing the calculations that is US$ 103 million or THB 3.4 billion. Giacometti is supposed to be one of the most influential surrealist sculptors and painters of the 20th century.

Having died in 1966 (see – told you it was an advantage), this particular 1961 life-size statue called ‘L’Homme Qui Marche’ (literally ‘the walking man’) is recognised as being one of his greatest sculptures. The price reflects that and also the rarity with which these are available.

I’m sorry. Load of bollocks. Have you seen it? It looks like a stick man that has been beaten with a hammer. I have not spoken to one person who thinks that this particular work could not have been completed by a five year old. Indeed, if we gave one of the elephants at the sanctuary a piece of bronze and a hammer we would probably get a more interesting piece. Have you seen their paintings? Now pachyderm painting is really trippy. I want what they are having…

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the same applies to a piece of art. An individual work must be understood in terms of its position within an artist’s output and its significance or influence. I can understand that – no issue. But I cannot understand how this particular piece is worth $103 million. That is just an obscene amount of money for something that nobody seems to understand or relate to (at least amongst those that I have spoken to).

Maybe that is the point of course. I am not worthy or capable of understanding. I did try when I read about the sale, by learning about the artist but this has nothing to do with him; he’s dead and I accept the fact that this has had a significant effect on his subsequent output and hence the value of work. But $103 million?

How can someone justify this amount in today’s world? If you want to create art, why not pay 1,000 artists something each to produce new work? Or give $100 million to charity and spend $3 million having a statue of yourself made in gold if it is about ego? Or give it all to cancer or AIDS or some other good cause?

Please – those that know, educate me. Tell me where I am missing the point. Explain to me how this amount of money is justified for this work and relevant in today’s world. Show me why the art experts are not a bunch of elitist snobs and are not simply creating artificial value where there is none.

What would the great masters have made of this? What would Van Gogh have said after he cut off his ear lobe?