May 27, 2004

In the Eye of the Beholder, After All

IT WAS A BAD DAY for visual artists in England yesterday. For as we learned via Brian Micklethwait, the London-based Samizdata correspondent, a large warehouse fire in the City destroyed many works of modern art; and furthermore, many of that nation's leading art collectors considered these works Quite Important.

In an article from The Guardian which Mr Micklethwait helpfully provides, the scope of the loss is catalogued:

Today a painful task will begin in Leyton, east London: picking through the remains of a devastating fire which destroyed a huge warehouse containing priceless works of art.

Many of the lost works are from the collection of Charles Saatchi. It is thought that they may include Jake and Dinos Chapman's Hell.

Tracey Emin's famous Everyone I Have Ever Slept With may be another: the tent appliqued with the names of her past lovers was the star of the famous Royal Academy Sensation! exhibition and to many became emblematic of the endeavours of a generation of young British artists. "I don't know what specific pieces have been lost," Mr Saatchi said yesterday. "So far it has been a day of many rumours." ...

... The confusion about which pieces have succumbed stems partly from Momart's uncertainty about what was stored in the building, Mr Saatchi said. Work by Sarah Lucas, famed for substituting parts of the human body with poultry, fried eggs and vegetables in her pieces, was also feared to have been destroyed.

Now, we must say we felt awfully guilty upon reading Mr Micklethwait's response to this development. After all, as a writer, there is nothing we fear more than fire in terms of potential loss to our work; although in our case it is the destruction of unfinished material that is of concern. After all, once we publish our work on the blog or anyplace else, it has been disseminated. Yet we can see why this news would cause instinctive pain to any visual artist or painter, because one can't really replace destroyed artwork. As such, we are ashamed to say we found Mr Micklethwait's response, well, a bit funny:

"No no no. This was not "devastating." This was an art happening. These people need to dispense with their outdated ways of seeing so-called "reality" and instead look at the world in a new way. This fire did not destroy, it merely moved some objects from one state of being to another We need to think beyond "specific pieces" to the totality of life ...

Now, we do of course understand Mr Micklethwait's point. It is quite a stretch for most rational people to go along with getting lectured -- that word is too-often accurate -- from artists about how they see the world. We can further see the satisfaction one might derive from throwing artists' pseudo-analysis back at them; even if seizing upon a relative tragedy is awfully cruel.

But, moving on, we do owe a debt to Mr Micklethwait for pointing out this Guardian story to us, as it seizes upon several broad ideas which we don't understand. First, the idea that art is priceless; second, why modern art gets the acclaim it does; third, why the loss of the destroyed artwork represents a great loss to society as a whole.

On the first point, it seems clear that a better word to describe art would be irreplacable. For it stands to reason that art is not priceless per se. Art may provide much in the way of intangible pleasures, yes, but the intangibles impact the tangible piece of artwork. Hence, art has a price; that is how artists earn their living, and at least part of why art collectors buy the stuff -- it may go up in value.

To take that a step further, while we have no doubt Mr Saatchi stores great sentimental and emotional value in the art he had bought, we can also surmise that its destruction will result in an insurance settlement. Thus, art has a price. Q. E. D.

Admittedly, we can't say we envy Mr Saatchi's insurance adjusters, as well as the adjusters for the other collectors who lost works in the fire. For one wonders how to set a fair-market value on a large tent on which an artist has emblazoned the names of her ex-lovers. True, we could have looked at such a work and -- after a bit -- said, ah, there's a point; but for the most part, we would have looked at the thing and questioned its value as art. It's a frickin' tent with names on it. How is this any different from someone spray-painting an overpass?

Now, perhaps it's just us, but it seems few art critics today admit that part of what makes art art is that an artist has a skill. A painter, for instance, has the job of putting onto an easel a representation of the things which he is painting. Professional painters do that job better than those who are not professionals. The same goes for actors and writers and musicians and so on down the line. For try as one might, one can't get away from the fact that some people are better -- due to training, talent, and time invested -- at certain skills than others.

We may be able to write a decent sentence here or there, but we sure as hell can't fix our car if it decides to have a mechanical failure. Why should a similar concept not hold when it comes to art? Yet given the weird and preposterous critical acclaim given to badly-conceived visual art these days, it would appear the old standards have gone out the window. There used to be a difference between judging art and judging politics, even if an artwork was inherently political.

The end result, to borrow a line from Matt, the Telegraph's cartoonist, is that the average Joe seeing visual art these days instinctively thinks his three-year-old could do a better job. And one also wonders how much acclaim a future era's critics would have given some of the destroyed art, especially if the art in question was the noxious tent with the artist's lovers named on it. If in the future they greatly dislike such things, would that not impact just how much of a loss was actually suffered in the here and now?

Of course, perhaps they would think such art brilliant. Beauty is all in the eye of the beholder, after all.

* * *

SPEAKING OF BEAUTY -- although a different kind -- we took note of this article in the New York Times about attractive women who play classical music. We are fans of classical music, so of course we highly approve of this trend; but it seems that some in the classical-music world are having trouble dealing with it.

This to us is silly. When it comes right down to it, we don't think that hard-core classical music fans are going to buy recordings based on the fact the soloist is a fox. The quality of the orchestra, yes; the quality of the recording, yes; the music itself, yes; but the fact the soloist is a babe? No. In such a highly-competitive field, looks alone will not seal the deal. They just won't. And while we will admit that looks could give a performer a boost when it came to a live performace, we do not think even the most beautiful performer could count on her looks to erase the consequences of hitting bad notes.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at May 27, 2004 03:53 PM | TrackBack

Re your last point, I take it you're unfamiliar with the recent hubbub in the opera world about Covent Garden firing famed soprano Deborah Voigt from a run of "Ariadne auf Naxos" (one of her signature roles) *because she wouldn't fit into the dress the director had decided on for the leading lady's costume.* They filled the role with a woman of lesser voice because of Voigt's zaftig dimensions--and this in an art form where the sole consideration for the leading lady has traditionally been the notes coming out of her throat. I've seen Voigt perform; if I were a Covent Garden ticket holder I'd be furious.

For your perusal:

Posted by: Kerry at May 27, 2004 05:45 PM

Regarding contemporary art...
In my never-ending quest to find a decent job, I applied at a modern and contemporary art museum affiliated with the Smithsonian. One of the questions on the application packet was "Describe your view of modern and contemporary art."

Well. I couldn't exactly write that modern art makes me want to slit my wrists... That surrealism is the equivalent of a thousand night terrors. I ended up writing a very tactful sentence about realism and the Art Deco movement. It was challenging indeed. I hope I get the job.

Posted by: Allison at May 28, 2004 04:00 PM


I'm not too familiar with opera, but I must say that is an appalling story. However, if opera fans have the same general reaction as you did to the news, then I would argue it proves my point: fans care deeply about the quality of the music, not the looks of the people performing it.

As for the director, though, I am mystified as to what the person was thinking.



You COULD have written that, but it would have undoubtedly made for an awkward interview! Also, best of luck with the job search -- I hope that goes very well for you.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at May 28, 2004 07:41 PM