Monday, November 22, 2010

What would Rolf Harris do

I have been befriended by a group of artists recently. They operate out of an old warehouse in Manchester, and use words like "space", "installation" and "interactive". They are all terribly nice, and I don't want to spoil everything by saying "You know who's a good artist? Rolf Harris!"

Rolf is the anthithesis of contemporary art. I saw some of Rolf's wares in the "art" section of Fenwick's department store in Newcastle recently. A picture of a lion was on sale for £700. And it actually looked like a lion. Afterwards I went to the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art. It is a huge space, formally an old flour mill on the River Tyne, which houses all the best most cutting-edgest contemporary art. There was a big dead palm tree on the floor of one room. I had no idea what it was about, but I wanted to scream "Rolf Harris" and fill that massive empty, silly space with the name of someone I consider to be a good artist.

Last week I went to the National Portrait Gallery and saw the Photographic Portrait Prize 2010. There were a wide range of photographs, and to be honest, I was a little shocked at a couple of them. One in particular was entitled Portrait of My British Wife (google it, go on, just don't do it at work) and showed a picture of a young women, not wearing any trouser bottoms. It won second prize and £3000. Faced with this picture, I suddenly came over all Mary Whitehouse and started thinking "But what about the children!" This article in The Guardian, a couple of weeks ago, sums up how I felt. Actually, forget the children. I didn't like seeing it. I like to be able to choose when I see a vagina. And I didn't fancy seeing one that day thanks. At least a verbal warning would have been nice.

I don't like art that tries to be shocking or challenging. It just makes me bored and turned off. It's so dreary and glum. And I don't like it when artists simply want to get a reaction out of someone, and they say "Oh, everything's a valid response!" So even my boredom is labelled as a valid reaction in itself and therefore a success for the artist who succeeded in getting a rise out of the audience. Even a non-response is a response. How clever and post-modern! I also don't like it when shocking art is used as a way to bring attention and fame to the artist. So someone pushes a boundary, puts a vagina where you weren't expecting to see it, someone else gets a bit flustered and complains, and then before you know it - success! Debate and controvesy occur, the gallery gets a lot more visitors and everyone wins apart from the person who complained, who now looks like a prudish twat. (I used the word twat here to show that I'm not prudish, and also as a "clever" reference to the piece of art itself).

So I don't get a lot of contemporary art. I keep going to the galleries. I read the descriptions of what the artist was trying to do. I try to think about the range of possible responses and all the different things that the art could mean. I can see how I'm supposed to get it. But it just comes across as trying too hard to be clever and challenging.

I think a lot of people don't like to say that because they're afraid they'll come across as thick. I'm quite happy to be called thick. I can quote Foucault, Derrida, Bordieu - all of them until you scream at me to stop. I can do "clever".

Yet I don't buy it. It all comes across as a big fake and I don't think that even the artist has a clue half the time what they're supposed to be doing. It just comes across as lazy and like the artist is taking the piss and then taking the money. Would that Portrait of My Wife have won second prize if the wife had been wearing trouser bottoms? Is the picture technically that good? Or did it get awarded because of that brave, controversial vagina? It looks like blagging, frankly, and you wouldn't be able to get away with it in most other fields.

I guess the artists don't care. What I've said is just another valid response to them. Someone could even make a piece of art by copying all of the words in this blog posting onto a giant canvas - and perhaps writing them in shit - just to make it all the more symbolic. But I wouldn't be impressed with that either.

If I had £700, I would have bought that Rolf Harris picture. It was pretty good.


Lois (three-legged-cat) said...

Ooh Rolf Harris - that's enough to make me stop lurking & actually comment! Hello!

We went to see Rolf a couple of weeks ago. Arena have made a documentary about him (will be screened "around Christmas"). The director turned up to Sheffield's documentary festival with his not quite finished film, which we all enjoyed greatly and Rolf turned up too.

There's a moment (I think in the film, could have been in the Q & A thing afterwards) where Rolf recounts how he offered his portrait of the Queen to the National Portrait Gallery. He was turned down. Which is a shame - I like Rolf.

I think he has committed the unforgivable crime of being popular and commercially successful.

Paul Brownsey said...

Well said.

My own particular peeve is the blurb that says that the point of the exhibit is to make the viewer question something or other about the nature of art.

I always want to grab the idiot and say, "Look, if I want to question the nature of art I can do that perfectly well by myself - I am quite intelligent, you know - and might even sign up for an evening class in aesthetics. What I want from you, honey, is not patronising and, what's more, invariably shallow attempts to get me to question the nature of art, but some art itself. Come on, give me art, not questions about the nature of art."

theguyliner said...

It does make me question it, but usually that question is 'why'? Did he choose to photograph his wife because of the way her vagina looked? Or because he wanted to see if it would detract attention from her face? But the main question is 'why do things like this win and not really well-composed shots that capture something in a person other than "Ooh look my vulva looks a bit like the alien out of that Sigourney Weaver film, doesn't it? Bet I've shocked ya now!"' Art has many purposes, but it seems a lot of it is to give non-academics or artists who would've died as starving paupers in the 18th century an ivory tower from which to pontificate.