Odds & Ends: Art or a Naked Emperor?

A ten year-old Italian boy called Federico went to the Tate Modern with his mother.  When he saw Damian Hirst’s formaldehyde-pickled cows, he said, “That’s cruel.  Why didn’t they allow this calf to grow up and have calves of its own?”

I was told about this occurrence over dinner, that evening, by some amused adults.  I leaned across the table and said to the boy, “I totally agree with you.”

Federico’s eyes sparkled with intelligent fun.  I winked back.  He had helped me unleash thoughts about Modern Art, I had harboured for some time.

Striking.  Powerful.  Controversial.  Raw.  Brave.  Statement.  Subversive.

Words often used to describe Modern Art.  Words of violence.  Words we also often use when we find ourselves before a thing in a museum, which baffles us but which we think we should understand.  We do not want to appear stupid, by not understanding.  We think that this thing must be rich in meaning or symbolism, surely, or it would not be displayed in a reputable gallery or museum.  Critics would not call it a “milestone” or a “seminal work”, would they? Critics are free-thinkers, right?

“That’s cruel.  Why didn’t they allow this calf to grow up and have calves of its own?”

That is the voice of the free-thinker.  The voice of unadulterated innocence, which speaks straight from the heart.  It does not care if someone thinks it is stupid.  It is true to itself.  It is that same voice which rose from the crowd, in Hans Christian Andersen’s story, and cried, “But, Mummy, the Emperor is naked!”

Shortly after the wonderful, intelligent Nora Ephron passed away, I read this quotation of hers: “I am continually fascinated at the difficulty intelligent people have in distinguishing what is controversial from what is merely offensive.”

Just because something breaks the rules of convention does not, per se, mean it is good, or Art.  One must first assess whether that convention is good or bad, before deciding if breaking it is an act of courage or the spitefulness of an egotistic brat.

Being original is not automatically good.  You cannot try to be original.  Originality is like style – you’ve either got it in you, or you haven’t.  Trying to be original can only result in tack.

I think many contemporary artists seek – above all else – to break the mould, to defy rules for the sake of defying them, and to brand the world’s stage with the mark of their ego – as opposed to creating a work of art that will please.  Pleasing is now considered weak, unadventurous, dull.  Pleasure has become coupled with guilt.  It does not occur to them that it takes skill to please.  Today’s motto is subvert, shock, make people feel uncomfortable (again, discomfort is not always a path to learning; it can also be an instinctive rebellion against something that is actually wrong for us).

My question is, what gives an artist the right to be so aggressive? What degree of arrogance allows an artist to think he or she has the keys to the Truth? In my book, a true artist loves the art more than him or herself.  He/she is the servant of Art – not its manipulator.

Let us take London’s newest building, the Shard (the very word makes me wince).  As its name suggests, the building looks like a sharp fragment of broken glass stabbing into the soft blue sky.  This is not the inspirational spire of the Chrysler Building, streamlined and refined.  It is a weapon in a pub fight.  What kind of society admires a shape that evokes violent cutting, breaking, bleeding, pain?

Until the 20th Century, Art was designed to caress the senses, glorify Nature and the human body.  Art enhanced the pleasure of life.  Art exalted Beauty.  John Keats wrote

“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

You only need to observe the colours and forms of Nature, to realise that this is, indeed, true.  Purposefully creating ugliness is an egotistic perversion, since nothing in the natural world is ugly.  Ugliness teaches only ugliness.  It is unnatural, in the strongest sense of the word.  It goes against the perfection of this beautiful World.

Of course, we cannot all like the same things.  I may gush in front of Verrocchio’s Tobias and the Angel at the National Gallery, while you may rejoice at the sight of Rosina Wachtmeister’s cats.  However, let us not shy away from being discriminating.  There is art; there is what – with the correct marketing spin – becomes a money-making venture aimed at the same people who marvelled at the Emperor’s invisible thread cloak; and there is also what Kenneth Branagh’s character in the film Peter’s Friends calls “Shit with a capital SH”.

In this era where reclaiming personal power is so frequently advocated, let us claim back our right to be pleased, to be caressed, to be spoilt with Beauty.  Let us demand to be wrapped in it, to swim in it, to drink it to our hearts’ content.  Let us gratefully rediscover Pleasure.


Scribe Doll

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20 Responses to Odds & Ends: Art or a Naked Emperor?

  1. ognik says:

    I found your blog when your note was freshly posted, added it to favourites to read more later (this is what I do when I find some REALLY interesting blogs: I read ALL archives :D), I was tempted to comment few times already but this touched something I’ve been struggling with for quite a while, on one hand I do agree with you on the other…well: de gustibus non est disputandum
    some stuff I would never bring home with me but I admire it and find it very moving, some are just pretty and cute and I would never think of them as Art even if they are pleasant to look at
    I dabble in photography, some of my friends find my photos beautiful but only when one of them used it for her painting (commissioned by my as a gift for another friend) I would say that it became Art
    idea, thought, soul and heart and SKKILL-one needs all that
    and so many now have a skill..in marketing, advertising and making themselves known…
    I’m still not sure what “true” Art is…I know what I like or dislike and that is what I say when discussing Art: I like this, I’m impressed or: I don’t like it, I find it repulsive

    here links to notes I wrote on subject quite a while ago:

    ohhhh, this is rather long comment for a first comment…I hope you don’t mind 🙂
    and please forgive me mistakes I make in English, I’m still learning and your blog is an amazing inspiration 🙂

    • scribedoll says:

      Welcome and thank you for commenting! It makes all the difference to me when readers comment. Otherwise, it’s like sending stuff out into the ether and not knowing where/if it reaches anyone.

      Thank you for the links to your pieces, which I read with interest. Personally, I tend to adhere to a more classical concept of art but then there are those who would equal “classical” with “conservative”. For me, art is to please, caress. If it makes a statement, then it’s a statement, a political/social/ideological stand. It is no less valid, but – at least for me – it is not art. Just a question of definition.

      Again, this is just MY PERSONAL OPINION.

      Please comment again :–)

  2. denizsezgun says:

    I agree with you considering this new building named Shard. Both the name and the image irritates my soul. And kindly congragulate you for this beautiful, honest post!
    Being me a real Post Romantic in a very Modern family, we always have the same discussion about art. Some late pieces of our century (including poems…) simply don’t make me feel any “real” emotion like fear, sorrow, happiness or excitement, however I find some artificial urge in the piece the artist might have had…
    My parents find such pieces a very real part of our generations’ reality and believe that these should be judged / critised not with the classical terms of art but the contemporary expressions of our time in order to get somewhere.
    And according to the fact of dialectics, what we felt so intense for classical art is turning into a shallow feeling for the contemporary ones…
    Hard to decide, however I’d like to trust my feelings instead of such logic games when I stare at a piece in a museum. Art is about feelings at first place, not about logic, right? :))

    • scribedoll says:

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. I feel that art should ‘speak’ to us. Like you, I believe in emotions – not just thoughts.

    • The famous writer Henry James says something like “all fruit for art must be gathered from the garden of life; all material not gathered from there becomes stale and uneatable,” or words to that effect. I guess the problem with a) modern and b) contemporary art is that it focuses more on the a) structural form or b) outer nature and thus doesn’t appeal as readily to our human feelings. Or so I tell myself when I’m left “cold” by a piece of art from the 20th-21st centuries.

      • scribedoll says:

        I’ve stopped making excuses for art works I don’t understand. Pascal said something along the lines of – if it’s clear enough in your mind, then you’ll convey it equally clearly. Thank you for your comment.

  3. Hemingway says:

    Hey, I liked this one, it made me think; I guess art tries to make us look at things in different ways, and the calf succeeds in this ….. though if you’re looking for a heartfelt, unadulterated (think about this word) response, then go to the child …. a strange thing this morning, a butterfly in my tube carriage, no doubt escaped from a bag, a display of nature’s beauty deep underground, though most people still absorbed in their own world, except the child, fascinated by this flapping fantasy ..

  4. simon roberts says:

    I don’t think artists are necessarily arrogant in presenting The Truth; I don’t even think that any artist attempts to present The Truth. Surely, what an artist is attempting to do is to be truthful. An artist questions, not answers, and sometimes that question may be put aggressively because he/she is unsettled by what he/she sees ( see anything by Francis Bacon ).

    • scribedoll says:

      Ah, but you see, I would not have a Francis Bacon painting anywhere on display if it came free. It’s just a matter of personal taste. If an artist alienates me, I will not be well disposed to listening to his/her message.
      Good to see you back. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  5. clinock says:

    I’m unsure if I want to get into this – your thoughtful and well written post poses so many questions about what Art is – almost impossible to answer in a comment. If you examine the history of art, of some of those artists we now consider traditional and makers of ‘beauty’ you will find that many of them were viciously condemned by the public and critics as creating ‘ugly’ art. Manet and Monet were both the butt of ridicule and Manet’s paintings were physically attacked. As Clement Greenburg so astutely put it, “All profoundly original art looks ugly at first.” Like Picasso’s ‘The Young Ladies of Avignon’, great works of art have often initially been considered profanely hideous, and only later claimed to be seminally beautiful. Our concept of ‘beauty’ has changed over the centuries and continues to do so. I admit to also being offended by some of Hirst’s work but I am also offended by what I hear on the news and read in the papers – I am offended by humanity’s ignorance and cruelty. Blissfully and supported by my pension I make art to please myself, my friends and some fellow bloggers. But what do I say about the agony of the world? Zilch! If an artist has the courage to make us feel uncomfortable about some aspect of truth then maybe we should pay attention to that feeling…

    • scribedoll says:

      Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment. You see, I think LES DEMOISELLES D’AVIGNON is actually hideous. Interesting – very interesting – but I would never hang it on my wall. I totally agree with you – I am also offended but much of what I hear on the news and read in the papers. I think an artist can still make us feel uncomfortable about certain injustices but by using polished craft and skill. You can still use elegance to convey a message. Thank you again for your very interesting and enjoyable comments.

  6. Tim says:

    Hirst is an opportunist low-talent charlatan, agreed. But I wouldn’t write them all off with his brush. I think you’re in danger of slipping back into Pre-Raphaelism; as far as I can tell (never having actually seen any of it in the flesh, so to speak), there’s a lot of exciting stuff out there.

    • scribedoll says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I am puzzled. What do you mean by “never having actually seen any of it in the flesh”?

      • Tim says:

        Just that I’ve only seen it via other media – photos, TV, You Tube etc – because I don’t get out enough … ‘In the flesh’ I thought was appropriate in the Hirstian context!

  7. Refreshing, your passion. I don’t necessarily object to shocking art, or the unnatural, if it moves the heart with a strong message. But Damian Hirst’s pickled cow is merely revolting. I don’t know that The Shard is much different to church towers or the pyramids. The name was ironically coined by English Heritage, who criticised the design, saying … a shard of glass through the heart of historic London … the Italian architect liked the term and so it stuck.

  8. Reblogged this on notes to the milkman and commented:
    Mr Hirst’s detractors seem to get younger and younger! A spot on post!

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