Once I’d seen this poster, I knew I’d be booking in. “Free” enticed me, and so did the Mona Lisa revamp. Oh, and of course I want to know more about art. It was strange being back in student role, and finding myself as silent in a group as I was in university tutorials more than fifty years ago, for much the same reason: everyone else knew a lot more than I did. The one time I did try to say something, the words stuck in my throat. At least I could indulge in a bit of somewhat amused introspection about my odd self-consciousness and about the level of my appreciation of art, as we answered questions on worksheets: Do you like it? How does it make you feel? Is it art?
The two pieces we began with were images of Damien Hirst’s 1993 Turner-prize-winning Mother and child divided and Raphael’s 1505 Madonna of the meadow. Hirst’s are real cows in formaldehyde and boxed: my immediate questions were “Why bother? What for?” The Madonna was a lot more accessible because it came out of a tradition I’m familiar with, and therefore I could like it for landscape, relationships (especially between the two boys even if they are playing with a crucifix) and composition. I was aware that I might be missing meaning in iconography – the poppies, the strawberries, the colours – but I was fairly confident that I understood most of what I was looking at. Not so with the cows. I could invent meanings, but I could be sure only that they were inventions. Then we looked at two paintings owned by the gallery: Stephen Baxter’s 1991 Self portrait: Aggression and Douglas Watson’s 1979 Sunny interior.
Discussion of these two painting centred on colour, emotion, the frames, technique, and whether we’d want either of them hanging on our wall. I took against Sunny interior because of the blandness of the curtain on the left hand side, and because Grace Cossington-Smith uses a similar palette with far greater assurance. There was a great deal of discussion about whether the woman was a willing sitter, and the meaning of the expression on her face.group preference was for aggression. The last painting we looked at was in fact a bench, very much unoccupied. It proved to be the one we’d choose to. hang on our wall; the one with the most masterful technique; the one with the best tonal qualities. I was left with two questions: does it do anything a photo couldn’t do? and does it matter?
Of course we ran out of time before we got to what I really wanted: lengthy discussion of techniques, colour, meaning and context. In the end, there really wasn’t much connection between the poster and the session. When I got home, J asked the pertinent question: “What did you get out of it?” I had to sleep on it. After all, since the discussion I’d bought alpaca pellets, dog bones and human groceries. By the next day I had a few answers. It was interesting to consider what I think makes something art. Then I measured my two Carlos Barrios paintings against my own criteria, and found a lot of them inapplicable. And yet I was driven to buy those paintings. I enjoyed listening to the various ways other participants viewed a painting. The Storyteller invented a detailed story about characters: the Iconographer had knowledge about obscure rituals of prognostication; the Practitioner offered insights into the process of oil painting and started a discussion about art v craft and the painting v background knowledge; the Down-to-earth Man (painter and farmer) was willing to say “I hate it”; the Mathematician liked geometric shapes and knew a lot about composition; the Self-proclaimed Ignoramus (not me) still managed to offer an interesting perspective. I discovered that if I look long enough I see things a cursory glance doesn’t offer: I was staring at the five artworks for about two hours. Common sense of course, but I realised I dissipate my attention in galleries and don’t spend long enough scrutinising individual artworks. This reinforced my sense longstanding belief that there need to be benches in art galleries for proper contemplation As for modern art, I now realise clearly that often its aim is to shock, to push the boundaries, to provoke. I feel quite easy in refusing to play that game. I want artworks to express something I can understand and that I want to think about; I want the artist to be present in the work; I want beauty, very broadly defined. I’d rather look at William Robinson’s cows than Damien Hirst’s any day. (And I’d rather watch Babette’s feast than Magic Mike2.)