But is it art?

Sat, Jan 21, 2012, 00:00

How can you tell good art from bad? As RTÉ searches for our most-loved painting, that’s also a question raised by two high-profile exhibitions. GEMMA TIPTONinvestigates how to spot the difference

WHO DECIDES WHAT ART IS? How does one artist end up with an exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art while another, with what might look like very similar work, fails to make the grade? How come popular doesn’t always mean good? And in an art world where anything goes, what makes some artists go further and faster than others?

With RTÉ looking for Ireland’s most-loved painting, ahead of a documentary on the subject to be screened in April, it’s a good time to ask whether it is possible to tell a good artist from a weak one any more. Ask anyone in the art world and they’ll give you the same answer: artists decide what art is.

Patrick Murphy, director of the Royal Hibernian Academy, in Dublin, traces this back to 1917, when Marcel Duchamp bought a urinal from JL Mott ironworks, on Fifth Avenue in New York, signed it “R Mutt 1917” and submitted it for exhibition at the Society of Independent Artists. Duchamp had thrown what Murphy terms a grenade into the history of art, changing art’s meaning and direction.

“From this act on it was the artist who decided what was art,” he says. “Duchamp shifted the focus from the craft of creating art – the handmade – to the intellectual interpretation of art: the conceptual.”

The focus hasn’t entirely shifted, as the recent spat between David Hockney and Damien Hirst makes clear. A note on the poster for Hockney’s exhibition of new works, which opens at the Royal Academy in London today, reads, “All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally.”

Hockney says he wrote this with Hirst in mind. Hirst uses assistants not only to help him make his work – a practice that goes back through the history of art – but sometimes to do all the work. He said, famously, that he got assistants to make his spot paintings for him because “I couldn’t be f**king arsed doing it”. Hirst’s exhibition The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011opened last week at all 11 branches of the Gagosian galleries – in New York, London, Paris, Los Angeles, Rome, Athens, Geneva and Hong Kong – which gives an idea of just how many spot paintings there are.

According to Hockney, this is all “a little insulting to craftsmen . . . I used to point out: at art school you can teach the craft; it’s the poetry you can’t teach. But now they try to teach the poetry and not the craft.”

James O’Halloran of James Adam Sons, the auctioneer, believes that art is now “as much about the idea as it is about the finished result”, adding that “art is as much created by the viewer as it is by the artist. Art may exist without reference to anything, but it needs those two parties to validate it.”

The problem with this, though, is that “one person viewing an artwork might think that something was art while the next one might think it was just a pile of bricks”.

The auction house is one place where the price of art gets hammered out, but, browsing through auction catalogues, a disparity emerges. Alongside names such as Tony O’Malley and Louis le Brocquy, and works by 19th- and early 20th-century Irish artists, which are a staple of art auctions in this country, other names appear that seem to have a greater existence in the world of auctions than in our national and municipal collections. Graham Knuttel, John Kingerlee and Mark O’Neill are all validated more by the auctioneer’s gavel than by our institutional systems of contemporary art.

So who is right and who is wrong? Money talks, but money on its own isn’t enough, and the price an artwork may fetch is not necessarily a guide to its true value. The American critic Blake Gopnik put it well when he wrote that “dollars are easier to measure than beauty”. He quotes the New York dealer Arne Glimcher speaking “of the ‘scuzzy’ people who keep the Warhol market hot by manipulating his auctions”, adding that “you pay a premium for a piece once owned by someone famous”.

At the very top level, money adds cachet to an artist’s work. Ernst Beyeler, the dealer who founded one of the world’s biggest art fairs, Art Basel, was once reported to have said, “If I can’t sell something, I just double the price.” Price has distorted our idea of what art is. In a recent outburst in the Guardian, Charles Saatchi, who has done a great deal of deciding about art himself, attacked today’s art buyers as “comprehensively and indisputably vulgar”, saying, “My dark little secret is that I don’t actually believe many people in the art world have much feeling for art and simply cannot tell a good artist from a weak one.”

The art world, as anyone who feels excluded from it will tell you, is all about gatekeepers and tastemakers, and judgments inevitably come into play. Despite RTÉ’s search for Ireland’s favourite painting, popular isn’t always considered good in contemporary art circles. Vladimir Tretchikoff, for example, was nicknamed “the king of kitsch” for his 1950s painting Chinese Girl, also known as the Green Lady. It is one of the bestselling art prints of all time, but you won’t find his work in any major institutions, and this is important, because the work that survives to become the legacy of art history is the work that has been preserved in collections.

So what do the gallery directors themselves think? Claire Power of Temple Bar Gallery and Studios, in Dublin, is keen to underline the key role of the artist, but she agrees that it is the galleries and public institutions that create the environments where their work is actually seen.

“Visual artists need audiences for their work,” she says. “At Temple Bar Gallery and Studios we talk a lot about how to creatively and practically support our audiences to have authentic experiences with contemporary art.”

So, from the huge volume of art out there, gallerists make the decisions and then help the public to agree with them. Or, as Kevin Kavanagh, of the Kevin Kavanagh Gallery, in Dublin, puts it, “My job is to figure out what is good or bad art, strong or weak, whether to leave something in or out. These are the kinds of decisions that I have to make.”

This doesn’t mean that there’s a clear consensus among artists, galleries or even the institutions themselves. Matthew Slack, a recent art graduate, who is starting a new arts space in Smithfield this month, says that strong art is that which retains our attention.

“Unfortunately, the exciting and critical art being made in Ireland can sometimes be obscured by the huge number of galleries displaying and selling third-rate commercial painting,” he says. “If this sounds elitist, then so be it. By a similar measure, some pop songs are cheesilicious and some are just painful.”

For artists fresh out of art school, starting their own spaces can be a good way of finding an audience and becoming part of the decision-making group. Art, Slack says, is “a radical democracy . . . who decides what art is? Anyone who has a mind to.”

Maybe, after all, it is the artists who decide in the end. Not all artists make work for money or fame; in fact, very few of them do. Perhaps a better question might be what we think art is for. Is art the famous works on museum walls? Is it the six-figure-selling paintings that make auction-record headlines? Is it the work that pushes the boundaries of what art might be? Or is it an expression of creativity that keeps the human spirit going, even if it never achieves a wider audience than one?

Valerie Coombes, of the Black Sheep Arts group, in Dalkey, both teaches and paints. “Those of us who draw, paint or sculpt, and encourage others to do so, can only keep working steadily . . . in the hope that, now and again, what emerges will be infused with that special quality that makes it art,” she says.

Put that way, maybe the trick is to love the art you love and not worry what the rest of the world thinks.

What art - or is it money - does to us. A neuroscientist explains

A group at Oxford University studied brain activity, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), while showing volunteers a series of Rembrandt paintings and some fakes. There was no clear difference in brain activity whether genuine Rembrandts or fakes were being viewed. If the subjects were told in advance that the picture was genuine, however, activity could be detected in a specific region of the brain just behind the eye (the orbitofrontal cortex, highlighted in dark green, right), which is believed to be associated with “reward, pleasure and monetary gain”. This response was similar even if the subjects were actually looking at a fake.

It is tempting to say that our brains’ responses to art are largely dictated by its perceived value. This appears to be supported by an American study in which subjects showed responses in the orbitofrontal cortex when they were told that the wine they were sampling was a grand-cru Burgundy – whether it was genuine or plonk.

But fMRI is a rather crude tool. The brain contains about a billion nerves, which form complex networks, and the increased blood flow to a relatively large bit does not prove that the same nerves are stimulated in each case. Perhaps, when told that a Rembrandt is genuine, our brains simply try to work out how the painter actually saw what he was painting rather than trying to calculate the cost. Keith Tipton