Tuesday’s Irish Times saw the publication of a dismal opinion piece by Michael Parsons on the excesses of the contemporary art market, although I suppose it accurately reflects some common sentiment about the state of contemporary art. Moaning about the stratospheric prices of art world superstars (Bacon, Pollock, Emin, Hirst — though the first two are somewhat uneasy company with the latter two) is nothing new– but the sheer level of sweeping generalisation and stereotyped polemic evidenced by the article was remarkable.
‘Much contemporary art defies mockery,’ Parsons writes, but surely many artists seek to engage the category of ‘art’ precisely through absurdity or through the use of ephemeral media– perhaps even inviting the ‘mockery’ Parsons thinks they are impervious to? The critiques he hurls at Pollock’s ‘drip’ paintings (evidently this is because he ‘can’t paint’) and Hirst’s use of assistants to produce his work all seem based on an indignant response to their shoddy work ethic– how very Celtic Tiger, and how completely ahistorical… Pollock of course was a very competent ‘realist’ painter (having studied under Thomas Hart Benton), and his abstract paintings demonstrate an intense mastery of both form and concept. And of course, artists since the medieval period have used workshop assistants to produce art– so why all the fuss?
Parsons is entitled to his opinion, and of course much contemporary art is probably dross and will be seen as such in the long term– but his critiques could probably have been written at any point during the history of art, in response to any avant garde or innovation, and feel tiresome. Michelangelo exaggerating the idealised figurative proportions of the early Renaissance in that horrible Last Judgement? A travesty. Titian making a quick buck off the backs of workshop flunkies? A rip-off. The aspect which probably annoyed the most, however, was the absurd depiction of the art world as a swish world full of lazy artists palming substandard work off on suckers:
Their success is a devastating indictment of an art market cartel propped up by a cabal of gallery owners, auction houses, curators, critics and academics who encourage the truly dismal work being pumped out by graduates of art schools everywhere. However, there are welcome signs that the public is wising up. If you’re looking for a nice painting to brighten up your walls, you might consider trying Woodie’s.
The DIY and garden store with branches nationwide is selling canvases to brighten up your home. Mass-produced, vaguely abstract, modern art is, in fact, now widely available at most hardware shops and department stores.
Art purists may shudder, but the pictures are not bad, are eminently affordable, fit neatly into your trolley along with tile adhesive and chrome towel rails and, even better, you won’t have to deal with a snooty, merino-turtlenecked gallery assistant with a stroppy “attitude”, protruding cheekbones and glacial smile.
Art “by the square foot” is the market’s brilliant “emperor has no clothes” riposte to the po-faced art establishment which accords uncritical acclaim to dross.
If tat such as Tracy Emin’s unmade bed, video “installations” by artists who really should be sectioned, or “limited-edition prints” by Louis le Brocquy qualify as “art” then, logically, why not that nice, colourful Chinese-factory-made picture (which goes great with the curtains) for just €40 from Dunnes?
Truly, that’s the way to ‘stick it to the art world’: refuse to acknowledge the existence of artists (not superstars) struggling to make ends meet and who sacrifice financial comforts in pursuit of challenging and uncertain aspirations. They clearly deserve our mockery and condemnation for trying to do anything that we don’t immediately understand or like.