It’s not me, it’s you
ROSIE JEWELL wants an explanation from modern art.
I am so fed up of walking into galleries and feeling stupid.
It’s a similar feeling to the one I got when I once walked into class with my skirt tucked into my pants and didn’t understand why thirty people were laughing at me. That mix of humiliation and perplexity is something that already happens regularly enough to me here in Cambridge – Spanish lessons make me hate myself, and everyone knows more about the French Revolution than me (yes, I do MML). The one thing I thought I was good at is art, but my infiltration of the Cambridge art scene in various exhibitions this term has made me feel like a fraud. People don’t look at my paintings and scratch their heads – they tell me politely that they ‘like my trees’. I’m clearly missing something. Isn’t my audience supposed to be more…well…confused? I’ve lost my authority as the resident Knowledgeable Artist, and I feel like I no longer know what the hell art is about.
It’s dangerous to admit it, but I don’t think I’m the only one wondering why we often find art confusing. Mark Hudson, in a recent review of Martin Creed’s aptly named exhibition ‘What’s the point of it?’ (works include ‘A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball’ and ‘The lights going on and off’ in which the lights do literally go on and off), said: “There’s a cockiness to Creed’s approach: a sense that if you can’t judge whether it’s got absolutely everything in it or absolutely nothing in it, you aren’t cool enough to be in the gallery. Inevitably this starts to grate.”
This hits the nail on the head when it comes to ‘modern art’ and particularly the more abstract stuff. There are those who don’t get it and dismiss it as rubbish, and then there are those who don’t get it and assume that, for exactly this reason, it must be brilliant. That mind-set must have got hundreds of artists into galleries. On a side note, it’s probably also why the works of countless literary critics were published, whose crap I now have to read, and is also why Kristen Stewart thinks the words ‘ubiquitously crest fallen’ make her a poet. Now, I’m not saying that artworks like Soulages’ giant fuck-off black canvases are meaningless, but I’m asking: why are they so hard to understand? Why do they make us feel stupid? Why do we have to work so hard to access and enjoy these pieces? Why, as Larkin complained about the ‘new, bad poetry’, does the artist not do more of the work for us?
Sometimes, the ‘wow, this is amazing’ and the ‘wow… I don’t get it’ merge together when they shouldn’t. Especially here, amongst artsy intellectuals and students like me who fake it all the time. Honestly, I just want to be able to look at an artwork and gain something from it. I don’t want to read a title that is 40 words long and then find myself staring at a blank canvas hoping that someone will explain it to me.
Whether an artwork is aesthetically pleasing, or emotionally affecting, or conceptual, or narrative, it’s got to draw you in so that you want to look at it. I rave about Paula Rego, one of the artists we study in Portuguese, for example. Her artworks are usually scary or ‘offensive’, but she actually engages the offended audience and makes them think, where many artists don’t bother. She shocks people, but never gratuitously – she helps them unravel the reasons why. Many artists apparently skip that second step nowadays and just rake in the money from that initial shock factor (Damien Hirst, looking at you).
There is so much pleasure to get from studying art, and I have been persuaded in many cases that artists I had dismissed do have something interesting to say – even Soulages. But there shouldn’t be any need for that middle person, the art critic, to explain artworks for us like a parent scurrying apologetically after a rude child. I’m sure these artists don’t mean to make me feel like I missed something because I’m stupid or lazy, but really – I wish they’d stop giving me the middle finger and then shrugging their shoulders. Give me the middle finger if you will, but give me a reason to care.