25 million people visited one of London’s principal public art museums in 2017. Meanwhile, Tate Modern has become the most popular of all of London’s tourist attractions. Art in general, and modern art in particular, is extremely popular. Whether we seek something beautiful, thought-provoking or historically significant, art museums have something for every taste. Having a good museum now does for civic pride what being the home of a major abbey or cathedral once did. Where pilgrims came in their thousands to pray before a saint’s relics; now they arrive in their millions to see a painting of the saint–preferably at the moment of his or her suitably gory death.
For city fathers bent on enhancing their cultural balance sheet, a museum is their first choice. Unfortunately, the supply of Old Masters essentially dried up long ago. Fortunately, there is a solution.
The first American museum devoted explicitly to modern art was MoMA, back in 1929. Since then there has been an explosion in construction of new public art galleries, leading to a commensurate explosion in demand for content. And, no surprise, a corresponding explosion in the content supply business.
Every year, approximately 100,000 fine arts graduates are churned out from UK and US colleges alone. Extrapolating from this, perhaps 200,000 individuals every year become working artists. This is roughly equivalent to the entire population of Florence at the time when Leonardo, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael were active. Every year.
To ensure that the supply of graduates continues unabated, in recent years what was previously the absolute bedrock of art education, the ability to draw, has been eliminated as a requirement for entry or graduation.
An explosion in the supply of artists and in the number of public and private galleries means either (a) since the Renaissance there has been a sudden and colossal outbreak of hitherto unrecognised artistic ability or (b) there has been a redefinition of what we mean by ‘art’ – a redefinition that has massively expanded the universe of things we consider to be works of art.
During the Renaissance, any definition of an artist would include a prerequisite of craft skills. Buildings and sculptures shouldn’t fall down, objects represented in paintings should be recognisable for what they are (even if what they are is imaginary), compositions should demonstrate a familiarity with one or other tonal system, dance moves should bear some connection to music (even if unheard) and so on.
As any requirement for craft skills has been eliminated, how then do we distinguish between ‘art’ and self-expression?
Anyone who knows me will tell you I cannot sing. But I sing in the shower, I sing in the car. So I can, in fact, sing. What is undeniable is that I lack the basic craft skills – pitch, tone, control – to be counted as a ‘singer’. In this sense, I also lack the basic skills to be an artist.
But wait. There are no skills required to be an artist, and a highly regarded one at that.
When researching for a recent book, I came across the following text, presented as an example of opaque artspeak.
“My practice examines hesitation as part of the process of decision-making, where the object is neither the object of objecthood nor the art-object. It is rather the oblique object of my intentions. …”
Quoted by Scott Naismith (abstract landscape artist)
Naturally, I had to take a look at the work of the artist in question, Jo Baer. On the art selling site artsy.net, I read the description of one of her works available as a print.
“For nearly 15 years, [Jo Baer] produced light squares edged with thin bands of color, edged, in turn, with thick black bands. The light interior and black exterior framed the color, drawing out its subtle, electric resonance.”
By now, I could hardly wait. I went to the artist’s own site to check out her work. Here is the piece referenced by artsy.net, hanging in the University of Texas Blanton Museum of Art, with the following accompanying text.
“Her aim was to create a painting that emphasized its frontal plane in a way that would echo the wall behind it, suggesting the architectural character of the painting’s shape. … The artist has challenged the viewer to regard her minimal work, stripped of the more ingratiating aspects of painting, as absolute in its simplicity.”
(Thanks to Kent Wang, of styleforum for this.)
And here it is:
Not to be confused with:
Which hangs in the world-renowned Guggenheim Museum in New York City, or with many more subtle variants hanging in prestigious galleries around the world.
(I love the fact that the artist has stripped anything “ingratiating” from these canvases. God forbid there would be anything ‘intended to gain approval or favour’ in a serious work of modern art.)
What makes these pieces, ‘art’? Not the works themselves.
In his seminal book, ‘The Shock of the New’, renowned critic, Robert Hughes, pointed out, with reference to the infamous pile of bricks curated in the Tate Gallery by Carl André, “A Rodin in a car park is still a misplaced Rodin; Equivalent VIII in the same lot is just bricks.” In other words, only context transforms the stacking skills of a particularly tidy bricklayer into a work of ‘art’.
This sentiment was the essence of Grayson Perry’s 2013 BBC Reith Lectures, which essentially concluded that ‘art’ is whatever a relative handful of self-selecting, mostly white males, mostly educated in the same elite fine arts schools, deem to be ‘art’. These men run the major American and British public galleries and auction houses; they are the owners of a few exceptional dealerships and one or two of them are collectors. You and I have no worthwhile opinion in the matter; only this tiny elite.
So, I submit, with Ms Baer’s works. They went from being meaningless self-expression to ‘art’ the moment a prestigious gallery owner signed her, or a public gallery curator acquired her (perhaps free, as a means of self-promotion).
After that, the art business took over. Catalogue and caption writers generated the nonsense quoted above; insecure collectors with lots of money, but no confidence in their own taste, happily leapt on the bandwagon and bought these slivers of colour rectangles with their ‘electric resonance’.
No one knows what, if anything, this work means. Indeed, the tragedy of the Instant Art Critique Phrase Generator available on Pixmaven.com is that its outputs are so incredibly similar to the meaningless text you can find in artspeak magazines, gallery notes and the like.
Does any of this matter? Not really. People who buy ‘art’ are spending disposable income that would otherwise be spent on some other consumer goods. Very little public money is spent, and that in any case, is recouped from tax revenues from tourism and VAT.
Except for one thought perhaps. If we so stretch the definition of a word such as ‘artist’, to embrace Baer, André, Van Gogh and J.M.W. Turner, does it retain any meaning?
I am reminded of a comment by my then brother-in-law, a house painter and decorator. He pointed out that comparing my singing to Frank Sinatra’s was akin to comparing himself with Michelangelo, ‘because we both paint ceilings’.
 Only 10% of fine arts graduates end up as working artists. Only about 20% of working artists are fine arts graduates. Conservatively, I assumed that there are 3 entrants from countries other than US/UK for every 1 from those countries.