April 08, 2011

Popular, Beautiful, Intentional, Provocative?

Carnation Lily Lily Rose by John Singer Sargent

My inspiration for devoting a week to art came from a recent article about an experiment at the Tate Britain which looked at how long patrons spent admiring, studying, and engaging with paintings. Four contemporary works were placed with four paintings from "historic great masters" against popular figures in contemporary art. Then the visitors to the museum were timed--how long did visitors spend, on average, examining each piece. The modern works mostly were glanced over, and the four British paintings were studied for as long as 30 minutes each.

The Courtier responded with this thoughtful critique of the experiment (and I'll address his main critique below). Meanwhile, when I shared it on my Google reader feed, it got some feisty responses, too: "I'm sure the same people spent as long as 60 min watching Big Brother re-runs, that doesn't mean that it's great art."

But lets give these visitors some credit, please. First, the experiment was conducted on a Monday and Wednesday--days when the patrons tend to be more discerning, if only because they carved out time from their busy day to visit the gallery. For the most part, they, as quoted at the end of the article, are perceptive in their critiques, when given, and genuine in their appreciation.  The Children who visited acted as we can expect when confronted with a big black sculpture (Whitehead's), and laughed at the anatomical parts of Hirst's sheep.  But they also thought Hirst's dots were pretty cool, and "One six-year-old was so entranced [by Opheilia], his mother had to take him away after 90 seconds but he wandered back to look again."

I will admit to all of The Courtier's critques of Ophelia.  It is certainly overly sentimental, and, though I loved it when I saw it in person...I was also 14 years old, and loved it for all the reasons a 14 year old loves art: pretty to look at, and emotional, and about a tragic peer. But, no matter its faults, it is not Big Brother or even dogs playing cards.

The Whistler (Cremorne Lights) and Sargent (above) are genuinely beautiful, masterful works of art, and, at one time, quite shocking and avant garde.  Whistler pushed the bounds of representation, and Sargent shocked people with the intimacy of his portraits. If we now see them as simply pretty is due to our lack of perception, not any intrinsic fault in the works themselves.

We can lay this same complaint against those who ignore the more contemporary works (, Emin)--if we don't take the time to consider them, how do we know what they have to tell us.  I think this is what the first commenter would say, ultimately, and that's fair and true.  (Personally, I am only familiar with Hirst, and have little patience for it.)  Anyway, I'd like to give a little more credit to both the patrons.

Mr. Newton ultimately argues:
It also engages in what has always been, in art history terms, a problematic exercise, i.e. using popularity as the best gauge of whether or not something is a work of art, instead of questioning whether the art is good, and if not why not. Indeed, the article might have been more cogent if it questioned how contemporary Britain sees itself, as reflected in the art it puts on display in a museum dedicated specially to British art. These are the types of questions that need answering, and remain unanswered in this piece.
Mr. Newton is right in noting that this little experiment doesn't tell us anything we don't know--we like looking at beautiful things, and struggle with things that challenge us.  But I don't see anywhere this judgement that that which is popular is good.  Even the attention grabbing headline (which is all it is) simply says "We know what we like and it's not Modern Art".  That's not really an aesthetic judgement--just an exaggeration of the an observed fact. It has flaws.  Frankly, it can hardly be called an experiment; it was merely observing a pattern (as far as I can tell, they didn't set these works up in a single gallery wherein the comparison might be more marked.  Or might not.  Who knows?)  But it doesn't use popularity to judge the worth of the pieces at hand.

Rather, this little experiment seems to me to be a starting point. It has told us that people don't pay attention to contemporary art--and what attention they do give it is silly (the boys sniggering at the anatomy of Hirst's sheep.).  The questions naturally follow: Why are we inclined to the beautiful (even if it is sentimental)?  Are we wrong for any of these judgments? Should we pay attention to these works and artists?  Why?  Answering these questions are the work of another day.

Philip Hensher's account of the experiment concludes:
But it certainly seems there was little sense of connection between some of the art given pride of place by Tate Britain and an ordinary, well-informed artistic public. Our observation of gallery-goers' apathy is something that professional curators might like to ponder.
That, it seems to me, is something we can all agree on.  (Also, that Whistler is awesome.)

Cremore Lights by J.M. Whistler

1 comment:

  1. My question is: aren't the other ones nearer to the Big-Brother crowd in culturally-established sensibility? I.e., there're questions apart from ultimate worth, and one of them is significance or approachability. Why isn't it enough to point out that they're out of touch with the agw they purport to speak on behalf of?