A philistine talking about art

You can call me a philistine if you like, but I like art I can feel.

I like it to talk to me, and tell me things that might not have been in the artist’s mind and hands as he or she made it. But then again, might have been. I like art to stimulate me and make me think thoughts I would not have felt had I not experienced it.

I like art that I can understand. No, not necessarily with my mind, but with some part of my being or my field of experience. It needs to touch me with a subtle, rough or explosive tactility that leaves an effect. And I need it to please me. Or not, come to think of it. It can disturb me, too, like a Francis Bacon or a Edward Munch. It does not have to be a Degas, with its delicious pastels to get under my skin. It can be a towering smoothness by Henry Moore, or a brilliantly emotional Rodin.

What worries me is Conceptual Art. So, yes, call me a philistine. The Concept seems to have taken over. Our modern art museums are full of it and very little else; our galleries, if they want to be reviewed, need to be full to brimming with art that nobody understands, but nods knowledgably at and looks sombre in front of and is able to make intelligent sounding noises of assent as some person with an art degree describes the intricate qualities of what makes that art what it is.

And by “our” I do not mean just Maltese. I am living in Sweden at the moment, a country that loves art, that buys art, that has whole sections of newspapers dedicated to art, that often has companies allocating part of their budget to buy art … to generalise, a country whose people are not philistines, to say the least. But here too, the Concept seems to get the formal nod from those critics who refuse to even look at something that has a popular aesthetic. They need to be able to EXPLAIN the art to me, so I can say how bright they are that they can see things in the concept that I cannot even begin to think about, and how important it is that they (knowledgably, with nods and sombre looks) ignore every single other artistic expression to chase conceptual art alone. Because that is what the academies teach. That is how students get in, and, on the other hand, how students who do not push a Concept, but are good with their hands and their hearts, are left out. How you can only be a GOOD art teacher in higher education if you tout the Concept to the detriment of all else.

I am not saying no to concepts. Heaven forbid. They are at the heart of art and the artist must have them to exploit. But NOT when they take over and push everything else out. It’s like stripping the soul out of the body, or, inversely, just floating the invisible soul for all the world like the Emperor’s new clothes.

This was brought about by an article in the Swedish daily Sydsvenskan this morning, that spoke in a language I could understand and share about a Banksy exhibition here, and went on to talk about street art. The wonderful, free, expression of people who want to say something, rather than conceptualise it, obfuscate it, then call it art that people nod and look sombre at. And it made me realise how much I miss solid, communicable articles about art – ones that show the knowledge of the writer in ways that do not include wordplay and the defined hocus-pocus jargon of the critic who struggles to signify without bothering to feel.

So call me a philistine, if you like. You have a right to.

But I have a right to my art, because I cannot live without it.


12 thoughts on “A philistine talking about art

  1. Gustav Pace

    This reminded me of Pierre Bourdieu’s work on art consumption. Our taste is haunted and even shaped by a sense of class consciousness. We use art to cultivate a sense of distinction and a common mechanism to preserve a certain power and prestige is to veer towards what is inaccessible and difficult to digest. It’s a real bummer, but after reading Bourdieu’s work I can’t think of my own taste in music or art as particularly personal or self upholding.

  2. Greta Borg-Carbott

    Hi Gorg

    I agree with your article! I like to think about the artist as a craftsman or creator – not a type of speechless philosopher. The artefact (or artwork) should be as important as the concept. And surely, the whole idea of conceptual art should be to communicate a message visually? Yet, most abstract art needs to be translated into words (usually long critiques or lectures) and cannot stand alone.

    Another problem, as I see it, is that the art world is dominated by traders and investors and there is a great amount of distortion in the market. What is important is the financial value of an artwork, rather than its own merit. A really interesting article I read recently is appropriately entitled: Who Put the Con in Contemporary Art (ironically, it was published by Saatchi online!) 🙂 This is the link: http://magazine.saatchionline.com/articles/artnews/who_put_the_con_in_contemporar

    I wonder when we will experience another revolution in the art world. I think it is long overdue !

  3. I appreciate the fact that you can speak openly about it which is more than most practicing artists are ready to do since we happen to live on a island that is so small that, wanting to or not we try to refrain from rubbing the so called art critics the wrong way since we reluctantly depend on their occasional comment to keep us from sinking into oblivion – unless of coures we are the kind of “artists” that they opt to promote simply because they cannot speak about any form of art other than the so called conceptual, which apparently makes them appear high brow.
    Unfortunately many so-called art critics are either failed artists or worse still, self imposed critics of art (very likely philistines themselves) without knowing hands on what it takes to produce a valid work of art.
    Unfortunately art critics are favouring conceptual art, which to be fair, some can be very imaginative and artistic but which others, very often, are purely rubbish, but the promoter barely knows the difference so he carries on trying to impress gullible patrons with the jargon he barely understands himself.
    Since you mention the Emperor’s new clothes I would like to quote what I said in one of Fr. Joe’s blog: http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20091115/blogs/no-prosecution-please-we-are-artists.
    “Does this not recall the story of ‘THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES’?
    We are being fooled into thinking that it is ART and we dare not say it is otherwise for we do not want to appear to be uncultured.
    As the story goes, it took a little boy to speak out at the nakedness of the Emperor who had been duped into thinking that he was wearing fabulous clothes when in reality he had nothing on. The little boy is an analogy of the truthfulness of a person who is not influenced by the general trend of thought that we are expected to conform to.

    But then again isn’t it symptomatic of our times? But rest assured that times will change and this kind of work will be remembered only as a reflection of the degenerate times we are living through. Finer works of art will be remembered for their own sakes, for only those will withstand the test of time.”

  4. Ġorġ, my friend, you’re more than entitled to your opinion but I’m not exactly sure what you’re reacting to exactly. My impression on reading your rant is that you’re over-reacting to something that rubbed you the wrong way. Perhaps I say this because things seem very different from where I sit in the sleepy seaside town of Scarborough in North Yorkshire.

    You’re certainly no philistine but you may very well be acting like what the Brits here like calling a pleb. 😉

    One thing I’m sure we’ll agree on 100% – art is no longer what it used to be.

    1. Not reacting, Toni, but letting off some pent-up steam that’s been accumulating for years. I am deeply offended by BS and there’s just too much of it going the art rounds. Call it a useful catharsis instead of a rant? And, hey … a pleb is a pleb, eh? At least he’s not a diminished-cognition exemplification of the human species (ah, I feel an art criticism coming on…). So why not?

  5. Sandra

    Hi Gorg!

    Didn’t know you moved to Sweden. Hope you are doing well. I definitely agree with you. For me art is a way of communicating feelings, mood, experiences etc. The final product should be able to move the onlookers not just bring on this blank stare which in the comic world would be translated to a bubble with a lot of questionmarks!

  6. Art has always been an expresssion of what an artist wanted to convey. Unfortunately today we are so very ready to call some idea, which granted, could have a sound basis but which, unfortunately, the so-called artist is unable to put into practice for the simple reason that he is not competent to do so. So he/she proceeds with the urge to do something without even knowing that the craft is needed to be able to concretize something that is in his/her head.
    Such artists are being egged on by the idea that everybody is an artist and that all you need is the idea. So they get the most bizarre, inane, simplistic ideas and want to pass them off as art.
    They think they can offer philosophical explanation about what they are doing but I have yet to be convinced of their sincerity.
    Art critics are the culprits for they are always on the lookout for enigmas because they can promote enigmas (which they themselves do not understand) feeling safe that they can say whatever comes to their minds while at the same time leaving the onlookers baffled as to what they mean and, what’s more, demoralized at their ignorance.
    It is all BS if whatever is presented as an artistic expression fails on at least two counts: The craft and the sincerity that what they are doing is an expression that needs to be projected by means that the onlookers can understand and thereby communicate.
    What is so philosophical about tubes filled with human excrement or whole areas filled with rubbish? Do these so-called artists feel that by so doing thay are making a statement? BS!!!

    For instance: What is so artistic about crudely cut, crumpled pieces of silver and gold paper attached to the iron structure of a bridge ostensibly meant to attract the light and create some kind of shimmer? I tried to keep an open mind because like the average man in the street I try to understand the idea behind it but I fail to see the sense of it. What’s more, by the time I was across the bridge (this was in Germany, last month) some of these papers were already being torn away by the breeze and some had ended up floating on the water and others were littering the surroundings. Is this art?

  7. Pamela Hallén Rizzo

    Since this text is for ‘public’ use, I’d love to use it in class since we are working on Banksy’s graffiti art and his wonderful documentary ‘Exit through the gift shop’, as part of the English course. My students are dissatiafied with the lack of ‘feeling’ in postmodern art and I was more than willing to discuss this topic since I’m also interested in the use of ‘trash’ and ‘garbage’ in literature and film.

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