I went to see Pop Life: Art in a Material World at the National Gallery over the weekend. There were some great pieces, there were some OK pieces, there were some incredibly juvenile pieces.
I should admit upfront, I am generally not a fan of contemporary art. It’s not that I don’t think there are great artists around – for sure, some of my friends are wonderful artists. But I have a very strict notion of what I am willing to consider art, and a lot of the stuff that has come along over the last 30-ish years definitely fails my test. Essentially, my rule comes down to this:
Ignoring the question of inspiration, and presuming access to the right materials, if I personally could recreate a piece well enough that the average observer could not tell the difference between my copy and the original – it is not art.
To me, art is not about inspiration and a message. It’s not enough to simply have an idea, know what you think it means, and then give it physical form.
Art is about skill.
Leonardo da Vinci created magnificent, timeless paintings. He did so with primitive canvases and paints, but he had the skill to bring life to his work. Unfortunately a lot of the pieces I saw on Saturday were stark, simple and lifeless. One piece, that I wish I had noted the information for, was nothing more than coloured dots on a white background. Some people were asking, “What does it mean?” I was answering, “Who cares.” It failed my test.
Then of course there were the controversial pieces. I don’t have any issue with nudity in art. If it passes my initial art test, I will accept pretty much anything – even if I personally don’t like it. As such, Richard Price’s piece depicting a 10-year old Brooke Shields nude passes the test. It took skill to craft the photograph out of colour and shadow. Brooke Shields is nothing more than a 10-year old canvas. However, another piece which is essentially just a close-up photograph of a penis near a woman’s mouth, does not pass. Why? Because it took nothing to create. A woman wearing lipstick opened her mouth in front of a blank background and a penis was put close to it. Zoom in, snap! Picture taken. That’s all.
The piece relies solely on the shock of the observer. Without anyone to be shocked by it, the piece would be nothing. I can take a picture of a penis close to a woman’s mouth. So can anyone with a camera. And even passing acquaintance with the internet will show you that there are millions of people who do exactly that. They are not all artists. And was I shocked? No. I’ve seen lots of porn.
Strangely, the Gallery decided that 10-year old Brooke shields should not be displayed, but the penis and mouth should. I’ve seen the Brooke Shields piece elsewhere, I can tell you that it is infinitely more appropriate than the penis and mouth. Even the piece depicting a dead horse – made with actual horse skin and eerily realistic – was more interesting.
The Pop Shop piece was interesting. I haven’t decided how I feel about being used as a part of the art, but I will admit that I came “this close” to buying a t-shirt from the girl in the window. That is, until I discovered that they were selling for $32.99. That is a really expensive t-shirt. I’m not paying that much for a shirt unless I am at a concert.
The twins were good. I liked that they were allowed to talk to the observers, though I didn’t talk to them myself. (Again, I’m not sure how I feel about being a part of the art.)
For me, the absolute best piece involved the below video. I won’t explain it, because I really, really, can’t. But just watch it. It’s awesome.
Did you watch it? Good. Now go see the rest of the show! (Just try to ignore the porn.)
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