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October 11, 2008


You should do tours of some of them. Whenever I look at modern art these days I feel like a complete philistine because it means nothing to me. I know nothing about what any of the artists are trying to do and am so out of touch with the art scene generally that I can't even guess. Unless it "looks nice" I roll my eyes and walk on. I'd love to go with someone who knows something.

Since 1913-1917 - Duchamp's readymades - we've known that the question isn't "is it art?" but "is it good art?", though "good" remains tricky to pin down.

Some approach it in purely personal terms, in which case "Unless it 'looks nice' I roll my eyes and walk on" isn't a bad strategy at all (even though the art world's high-handedness has culturally trained the rest of us that a personal or personal/aesthetic response isn't quite sufficient). Other arbiters of value might include: the accurate capturing of a visual truth (though obviously photography does much of this work culturally now); the capturing of a deeper non-visual truth; the quality or impact of the ideas that the art work embodies; financial sums achieved in the art market itself; which galleries are representing the art; the winning of art prizes; the influence an artist might have on other artists; what the art press/criticism/historians are saying (and some are trying to quantify this, eg David Galenson or Komar & Melamid); etc... All of those are slightly tangled up in each other. And I know you know all of those already!

But beyond all that there are a couple of interesting things:

Firstly, there's the committed spectator: if you look at a *lot* of art, it becomes a lot clearer what's good and what isn't, and what's being attempted. There's a nice anecdote about this in Vonnegut's Bluebeard: "All you have to do is look at a million paintings".

Secondly, if you make art, it changes how you look at art. You start to see correspondances between what you're doing or want to do and what you're seeing. You start to see that some art is difficult to achieve. So that's the practitioner's view. (You'll perhaps have seen the same dynamic with acting?)

The other thing to note is that art fairs show a hell of a lot of work. This plenitude means that works that are visually arresting are privileged.

Duchamp: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Readymades_of_Marcel_Duchamp
Galenson: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/04/arts/design/04pica.html?_r=1&oref=slogin&pagewanted=all and http://histoiremesure.revues.org/document900.html
Vonnegut: http://rodcorp.typepad.com/rodcorp/2006/07/all_you_have_to.html

Thanks Rod, interesting. The only exhibition I've been to recently was the ICA Auction exhibition... so much of it, for me, wasn't aesthetically pleasing and didn't look particularly technically challenging to produce. So I'm left with the knowledge that presumably the artist is trying to communicate or explore some idea, but I can very rarely guess with the remotest confidence what that might be. So I get bored and grumpy, feel stupid, and vow not to go to another exhibition for some time.

At the other end of the spectrum, I went to the Pompidou centre over the summer and loved the early twentieth century stuff. I'm not sure if this is because I've learned what they were trying to do, or because it's clearer what they were trying to do, or because they created "nicer looking" art, or because it's old and it's in the Pompidou and therefore it must be Good.

I work with a London events listings website and we have an awesome arts editor who's going to be at (I think although I'm not quite sure how he's going to manage it time-wise) just about all of those fairs and will be twitter back from the events (http://twitter.com/spoonfed) which is nice for the rest of us in the office.

I'm really looking forward to checking out Frieze but I always feel so uncultured (like Phil said in his comment) when looking at most current art.

Gotta say, though, The Fountain didn't do it for me so I'm probably in the 'if it's not pretty I move on' category.

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