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Mark Rothko, at the Philips Gallery

Jonathan Jones, that no nonsense, speak your truth art critic for the Guardian, reported on his visit to the new Tanks interactive art space at the Tate Modern:

Six psychics sit at plain wooden booths as part of Fawcett’s contribution to the new Undercurrent series of live events at The Tanks. Psychics! It sounds on paper like an underground circus with smoke, crystal balls and tarot readings. But although my interviewer assured me she is a trained psychic, what she did was ask me a series of questions about my job and interests, how honest I am, my views on politics, economics and the nature of power. It was a questionnaire that started in the banal and tried to touch on larger themes. Then I was invited to give contact details to continue the “screening process”.

It’s probably a work that gets richer the more you put into it. If you get in the spirit, it might be fun. But why should I?

A certain class of art has moved “the art experience” closer to entertainment. I’m not against the easy pleasing of a confectionary offering—something light and fun can be a worthwhile distraction from the heavier parts of life—but at some point there is a need to advocate for the other end of the spectrum. Contemplative engagement with art rarely garners the same coverage as playfully theatrical events, events that are conceptually driven but often conceptually shallow.

There is room in our world for lots of types of expression. and I don’t think it is excessively curmudgeonly to ask for equal time.

Jones seems to agree:

Art should be a contemplative, personal experience. It should leave us free to engage on our own terms. The idea that interaction is good for us is patronising and treats us as lazy-minded idiots who must be prodded like cattle in order to respond. Somehow, if I sit answering inane questions about politics from a psychic, that is supposed to be more active and real and meaningful than if I sat for an hour looking at a Rothko.

Can I go and see the abstract paintings now, please sir? I’ve done my interactions.

Jones nails a nagging discomfort I have felt repeatedly. A set up like the one Jones describes IS patronizing. And it is that particular form of condescension that frequently turns me off when I visit similar interactive exhibits. Respect me as a viewer, please. The way a great painting respects me.

So yes, I’ll take that hour in front of a Rothko.

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Damien Hirst

Gotta love Jonathan Jones at the Guardian. He’s calling it as he sees it.

Bad art is ugly art, in the end. Whatever language we might prefer to use, it all comes down to beauty and ugliness. Hirst’s ideas seemed to me once to possess an intellectual and emotional beauty – and their own physical beauty, too. Now everything he does is ugly, ugly, ugly, and it adds to the world’s already copious stores of junk. His paintings betray a stupidity and arrogance that makes me lose all interest in him. I love painting and I hate to see it abused.

But … I could probably kid myself otherwise, given time and a change of direction. That’s why I have decided to shun Hirst. He’s wasted so much of my time over the years. I freely admit that my determination to believe in him distorted my judgement. I won’t get fooled again.

I’ve got my personal list too, of artists whose works haven’t worn well over time—visual artists, writers, poets. Not that I have a need to broadcast it and focusing on what doesn’t satisfy. There are, after all, so many wonderful vista points in my aesthetic landscape. But I admire Jones for speaking his truth.

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Damien Hirst with his diamond-encrusted skull. Photograph: HO/Reuters

Jonathan Jones writes for the UK-based Guardian, and more often than not I find safe harbor in his point of view. He’s not a complexifier or a critic caught in the po-mo net of obfuscation (my exhaustion with that gamey approach to art is showing, isn’t it?) He speaks with an Everyman simplicity about issues that are often parsed and minced ad infinitum, ad nauseam. I like his proclivity to speak straight.

Jones is an art critic equivalent of food writer Mark Bittman. Bittman’s approach to cooking (in his New York Times column “The Minimalist” and in his many excellent cookbooks) consistently focuses on simple recipes that produce delicious feasts without 20 pages of directions or a reliance on exotic ingredients. It is a simple soulful approach that has no pretense or artifice.

In a recent posting, Jones addresses the segment of contemporary art making that is focused primarily on providing commentary on contemporary culture. A reasonable question can be asked: Is it possible for something to be brilliant as culture, yet rubbish as art?

Jones defines “culture” in its broad anthropological sense as “a whole way of life, plus the forms of art—elite and popular, readable and abstract—that represent that way of life to itself. British culture, in other words, means not just museums and Jane Austen but sports events, newspapers, hairstyles, going to the shops and falling in love.”

As Jones phrases it:

The works of art that make most impact on most people are the ones that directly address and even participate in this larger culture. Art, since the 1980s, has become very good at doing that. It stands to reason that if a work makes a cultural impact it is good – doesn’t it?

Well, obviously not. There’s a long list of works of art that have made a spectacular cultural impact with little or no critical approval as art. Diamond skull, anyone? Myra Hindley portrait?

But a diamond skull is manifestly a cultural symbol: an artist who presents one is acting in culture, playing with collective meanings. Does artistic merit in the old sense actually matter, in the age of potent cultural intervention chronicled by Tate Modern’s exhibition Pop Life?

I think it does. But I don’t think it is the only truth. A work of art can be both horrible and effective. That happens again and again—often on the fourth plinth. But we desperately need a quiet space where art can be enjoyed in itself, for itself. A cultureless museum.

Yes, yes, yes.

This short piece by Jonathan Jones (in The Guardian) captures rather succinctly many of the frustrations I have written about here in earlier posts. We are currently living through a period of inappropriate dependence on language to extol and explain what is often beyond language in the visual arts. Enough words! My voice joins others in a plea for inviting a variety of different responses including silence, stillness, and to be outside of thinking and logic.

The anecdote about Jackson Pollock is particularly heartwarming…

It is a vice of second-rate art to come with its own eloquent explanation attached. If an artist can translate the meaning and purpose of a work into easily understandable words, it means one of two things. Either the artist is lying, in order to ease the way with patrons and funders; or the artist is a fool. And if dishonesty is the reason, that too is something that vitiates art. No serious art is easy to interpret. Nor is there ever a single valid interpretation of art. If art is good, there are many things to be said about it and much that will remain unsayable.

Yet, there are more and more pressures today on artists to explain themselves. Once, an artist was allowed to hide behind a vague and mysterious aura. The American abstract expressionist painters made grand pronouncements about their work that are so enigmatic they give away no hostages – nor do the kinds of epigrammatic comments made by Francis Bacon. Yet artists in Britain today are always offering explanations for what they do.

If you’re looking for the root cause of anything annoying, silly or spurious in the culture of art in 21stcentury Britain the source of the problem is never hard to locate. Once again the culprit is … public art, in which the popularization of art, the determination of institutions from parks to to local councils to be associated with it, and a lingering British Puritan visual clumsiness produce a lot of guff as artists try to promote the accessible virtues of their ideas.

As soon as you start saying what people want to hear, adapting your art to the common sense political and moral platitudes of ordinary speech, you betray subtlety and poetry. Artists presenting proposals for the Fourth Plinth, the Tate Turbine Hall and elsewhere should rebel again this. They should agree to all submit the woolliest and least explanatory pronouncements they can dream up. Something like: “The pictures I contemplate painting would constitute a halfway state, and an attempt to point out the direction of the future, without arriving there completely.”

That’s Jackson Pollock, writing a grant application in 1947. I don’t suppose it would get him much of a grant in Britain now. He’d have to explain what his webs and loops of abstract paint are all about … but he’d sit there chewing his pen, no more able to offer a simple explanation of them than the critic is half a century later.

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