There is always a sense of outrage associated with modern art, the most outrageous exhibition being when Duchamp unveiled his display of urinals as art. However while contemporary art has never lost its ability to shock and outrage, the shock has diminished with repetition. Recently a representative of an artist group called the ‘stuckists’ presented the winner of the Tate prize with a cheque for £50,000 as the winner of the alternative bad art award ward. The winner had exhibited a concrete mould made from the interior of a demolished house as her exhibit. However the award was for bad art, not for outrage. I think that much to the dislike of contemporary artists the reaction now to their art is not outrage but boredom. This was certainly my feeling when I saw a sculpture consisting of torn cloth on ropes in the Serpentine gallery, I skipped through the gallery merely glancing at the items on display eager to get back out into the summer sun.
What prompted my writing was my visit to view a display of the art of Carol Bove at one of the local art galleries. One of the exhibits was a piece of drift wood, a piece of wood that the artist visualised as representative of a something that was beyond my understanding. The same applied to her installations of glass containers on trolleys. While I understand that the art lies in the conception or construction of the image, I failed to appreciate this in the art I viewed. The overwhelming feeling I had after viewing the art was bafflement. All the installations on view had been borrowed from various galleries, which meant that they were highly valued within the artistic community, yet I could get no pleasure from viewing them. This feeling of bafflement soon left me when I realised that the art on display was not intended for such as me, but for the cognoscenti. It was an exclusive art form that excluded the uneducated or uninitiated.
My nephew is part of this cognoscenti as an artist, while he can go to an exhibition of contemporary art and appreciate it, the art he produces is not intended for him and his artist friends. What they all desire is the sale of their art which they price in hundreds or thousands of pounds. Prices which put their work out of the reach of most the population, it is art for the well off. This is not to decry the price they charge for their work and even the simplest art installation is the product of several hours work in the studio. They are merely charging a fair price for their work. However it is the very priciness of their work that changes its nature. They are producing exclusive artefacts for the rich. Anyone could buy a porcelain urinal but only the very richest amongst us could buy Duchamp’s urinal.
Some of the super rich who buy these contemporary works of art don’t understand them either but there is a whole army of experts willing to explain the art to them. In the case of my nephew the buyer will have either the artist or the gallery owner on hand to explain his art work to them. They are enabled thereby to experience the beauty that the artist sees in their creation, while the uninformed such as me remain in ignorance. This is an experience that only the rich can enjoy the artist can transform an everyday object into something beyond the comprehension and understanding of the majority. Although my nephew would deny it he and his friends are creators of artefacts for the very rich, artefacts that enable them to emphasise their exclusivity, an exclusivity that makes them different from the rest of us.
I should add that many of the super rich purchasers of art do not appreciate the works they purchase but they do have the knowledge that the common mass has even less understanding of the works they own than them. However more usually the collector is a Maurice Saatchi a wealthy individual with an acute appreciation of contemporary art, who owns the world’s largest collection of Damien Hirsts.
The irony of Duchamp’s work is that he and others intended to bring art down from its pedestal to make it accessible to all. Instead he and others have rendered it even more inaccessible, people such as myself will always be denied the education that enables the minority to see everyday objects as items of beauty.