A couple days ago, I guess, some protestors entered the National Gallery (the British one, not the American one) and had a go at a painting, because that's a thing we're doing now. To be clear, I don't think people ought to do this in general, and I don't think these protests make any sense. It's clearly just a "bit" the kids have settled on.
That said, it raises in my mind the question of who actually cares? There's been an outcry, of course, about our
cultural heritage and so on. These valuable artifacts must be preserved, and their destruction is a crime against
humanity! I've seen calls for much more vigorous security arrangements, which seems like a terrible idea to me. I don't really
want angry, tense, guards on a hair trigger.
What, exactly, is the value that any of these paintings is bringing? I'll accept extremely abstract answers! I'm
not here to reduce culture to dollars or to British pounds. Did the Rokeby Venus enlarge anyone's life? Does a Monet?
I am, for reference, extremely pleased that these things existed! I am pleased that they exist, and I don't think
people should destroy them! At the same time, I am not entirely sure why we should mourn their loss. There is no
"mysterious air" here, it's just a picture.
If the painting had been, instead of vandalized, suddenly revealed to be a modern forgery, well, what then? The painting
would quietly vanish from the walls, and the consensus would surely be that Culture writ large has been Improved
rather than Impoverished. And yet, it would be the same painting. The fact that we believe it to be authentic seems
to be an essential feature of whatever actual value it's bringing to us. Berger covers all this in "Ways of Seeing"
of course, with his marvelous takedown of da Vinci's "The Virgin of the Rocks," it's not new with me.
Functionally, the Rokeby Venus has been the subject of a few million glazed-over glances, a few hundred art student
sketches, and a very small handful of the weeping fans. What its current existence does for Culture is pretty vague.
Also, the mirror looks like a fucking head in a box, not a mirror. Dude, wtf were you thinking?
The history of the thing is pretty interesting! It occupies a notable position in art history! Something something
nudes Spanish Inquisition, you can read all about it on wikipedia. The physical artifact on the wall doesn't seem to
be particularly relevant to that, though, except as a sort of moral anchor to the story, a reification of the story. It performs the role of a photo illustrating a news item.
Let us compare, though, with an annual event here in Bellingham, the 6x6 show hosted by our local art store.
This is an open show. You can pick up a 6 inch by 6 inch square of one of several materials, for free, from the art
store. Cover it with art. Anything. Paint it, carve it, attach sculpture to it, sew it. Return it to the shop,
they'll give you a coupon for future purposes as a reward, and they'll hang your work. Zero curation, everything goes up. They have a show for about a month with a grid of 100s of 6x6
artworks on the wall of their gallery. You can buy any piece for $25. Proceeds to a local art non-profit.
The work is everything from 5 year old kids scribbling with crayons to professional working artists painting small
landscapes. One piece was made by the artist's pet snails crawling around with pigment.
It is, easily, my favorite Art Thing in the world.
I'm now going to stealthily replace the Rokeby Venus with Monet, because the position of Monet in our culture while
similar is more immediately salient. You won't have to think as much.
I put things in the 6x6 show, and so do my kids. I am, this year, the only photographer (I think) in something like
470 pieces. Which is wild! My kids draw/paint stuff. Usually, nobody buys anything we put in, about which more anon.
But what about this small, often poorly made, extremely local, art? It hits quite differently from a Monet. I could
write at length about why a Monet is "better" but at the same time some child's crude drawing of a frog has its own
intense value. At the bottom, the Monet and the Frog are the same: a piece of decor, with the potential to move us
emotionally, to enlarge us as humans. They are the same in that both Claude and the child, let's call her Susie,
essentially wanted to show us what something looked like: A Garden, A Frog.
There are endless details of scale, of technique, of scope of imagination, and so on that could be brought to bear
to show how the two paintings are different, and one much superior. Mostly, though, the Monet painting is superior
because the people we pay to tell us what's superior have said that it is superior.
Looking at a Monet can hit pretty hard! The effect is real! I love Monet, and have travelled to see Monet paintings!
At the same time, though, a part of what I experience is the cultural baggage, the stamp of approval from the
curatorial staff of various museums, the stamp of approval from critics and historians. The Frog hits differently,
it has no baggage.
Nevertheless, it manifests with awful clarity the sincerity of the artist. The Monet and The Frog both reveal the will, shared by Susie and Claude,
to show us what something looks like. Looking at Monet, the cloud of cultural baggage tends to obscure this will; looking at Susie's Frog nothing is obscured. There is a reason theorists and critics are obsessed with the ways
children draw. There is an authenticity, a clarity of purpose, a purity of method (as it were) that a more thoroughly
educated artist, or even art appreciator, loses.
Monet is in a sense sealed in amber and elevated to a pedestal. We cannot but react to the paintings, because
we're told to do so. Monet is distant. You literally have to take a trip to see a Monet. For $25 I can have Susie's
Frog in my home, over my desk, and look at it every day by raising my chin slightly. Susie's Frog was made here,
in my town, by a child who probably lives no more than 2 miles away from me. There is an immediacy here, a
nearness. Susie's Frog is a radically different cultural artifact than is a Monet painting, and in many ways
it's much more salient.
Looking at a Monet can be a powerful experience, but in the end I leave the gallery and return to my life
much as I was before. This kind of High Culture, as defined and managed by the priesthood, feels like a
separate track, a kind of entertainment I can step into when I want to, but which doesn't live and breathe
with me, with us. It has nothing to do with my daily life, with the daily clockwork of my little town.
Something is lost when an artist matures. The childish authenticity fades as the artist works to become more
technically proficient, to make something look real; or perhaps the artist is trying to imbue their work with
some sort of abstract meaning. Passing "beyond" the desire to show you what a frog looks like, the mature artist
tries to make the frog look "real" or tries to make the frog stand in for something else.
This is, of course, the business of High Art, but damn is it hard. Many, perhaps most, artists spend a long
time in the doldrums between childish directness and the actual ability to make the frog mean something. They're not painting a frog, they're painting a painting of a frog but no more than that.
Interestingly, the pieces that sell quickly at the 6x6 show are exactly these pictures. The realistic but
ultimately kind of empty paintings of bicycles or boats, the well-made pictures with silly jokes, and so on. I like these things too, but I don't much want to own one. As well, there are certainly a few artists in play who are genuinely injecting meaning and depth into their well
made pictures, and those sometimes sell as well. The childish frogs don't really sell, which is in a way
a pity. I dare say people want to have something that's obviously well made, rather than something
clumsy. Perhaps they're not very interested in the art children make; their loss.
In the end, I love 6x6 more than anything else Arty, because it hits inside my world, rather than outside it.
It's Art that lands inside my life, my existence, not outside it in some temple to culture, not on a track that
is parallel to my life, but actually on the rails my life runs on.