Art / Decor / Garbage

For the past year or so I’ve been immersed in the world of traditional figurative art of the Italian Renaissance, researching my novel, ‘All Visible Things’. In the course of this eminently enjoyable endeavour, a number of questions have been nagging at me.

– Why is it considered a bit tacky to hang a reproduction of (say) the Mona Lisa on your wall? What about an engraving by Dürer? An aquatint by Matisse? A 1920’s travel poster? An Ansel Adams print? These are all mechanical reproductions and yet while the first is generally despised and certainly worthless, the others command many thousands of pounds / dollars / euros.

– All the media coverage over the mysterious Leonardo (?) painting, Salvator Mundi, emphasises the fact that at the very least, the painting has been heavily over-painted, a fancy way of saying most of it was painted last week. How much of the visible paint has have been applied by Leonardo himself for the painting to be attributed to Leonardo? What if a painting was done entirely by an assistant but then signed by Leonardo? (Yes, I know he didn’t sign his works; whatever.) What about a dot painting by Damien Hirst? Not only does he not paint them, but he acknowledges that some of the staff how do paint them are better at it than others and presumably better that Hirst would be – but they are all sold as by Damien Hirst, and command prices accordingly.

–  Felix Gonzalez-Torres was a Cuban-born conceptual artist. His Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) consists of 175lbs of wrapped candies piled on the floor. There are several versions of this work in prominent museums including MoMA in New York. The works sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. This piece raises a myriad of questions.

  • Visitors are invited to each take a candy. Each evening, museum staff replenish the lost candy. (By the way, this action apparently represents the slow death from AIDS of Gonzales-Torres’ partner Ross.) So the entire artwork is renewed very few weeks – nothing remains of the original. Is it an original artwork?
  • The Art Institute of Chicago loaned their version to a museum in Japan. However, they learned late in the day that the brand of candy employed wasn’t available in Japan, so they would have to ship enough candy to allow for the daily replenishing. Instead, they told the Japanese museum to go out and buy 175lbs of locally available wrapped candies. While the Japanese installation was on view, the Art Institute removed its version from display. WTF?
  • Gonzales-Torres is dead, so how are the various installations authenticated? He didn’t buy the candy now on display. He didn’t position (ie tip from a bag) the candies now on display. If I bought 175lbs of wrapped candies and tipped them out on my floor, do I have a museum-quality piece of contemporary art? If not, why not? By the way, as I mentioned above, Gonzales-Torres sold several versions of this piece during his life. What does this mean? Did he buy 175lbs of candy from Walmart, FedEx the package to Chicago and invoice them $200,000? Or did he just get Walmart to deliver direct to Chicago and save the double postage? And repeat.
  • Is the piece untitled?

– Although I am an atheist, I love visiting the great cathedrals of Europe. (Special shout out to the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. If you have visited it since the roof was completed, you should.) My favourite exteriors tend to be the soaring Gothic structures, many of the finest of which are in England. The recent fire at Notre Dame and the debate about how exactly the spire should be rebuilt is an echo of a question I have never seen aired in the media.
Many ancient British cathedrals have been seriously defaced at times of religious strife. In particular internal and external decorative schemes of statues of saints, popes, church fathers and so on have often been ruined. Why don’t we replace them? If a surviving statue has been degraded by environmental damage, it will be replaced. But if its twin was destroyed by Cromwell’s followers, its niche will generally be left empty. And so the fabulous facades often present a series of empty plinths.
Having said all of this, the west facade of Salisbury cathedral (probably the finest in the UK) boasts 79 statues, only 7 of which pre-date the mid-19th century.

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