Saturday, 29 March 2014

Getting the Picture

Michael Peters attempts to find the dividing line between art and interior design and proposes that more time should be given over to in-bathroom video installations.

I remember a particular episode of the television quiz show Pointless in which a pair were asked to identify artists featured in the 'notorious art exhibition Sensation.' They looked at each other quizzically, and, after an extended pause, one turned to the other and asked, 'bought any pictures recently?'

This scene shows how, for many people (if not most), the term 'art' is essentially synonymous with interior design – something that should be purchased and displayed in the home. Paintings are wall decorations, sculptures are ornaments. As for video, sound, installation, performance, they don’t even register on the radar. 

It is the medium that makes the distinction between what many people picture when they think of “modern art”, and the art that hangs in the home. It’s fairly common for people to have paintings and drawings dotted about the house, but it’s rare to walk into someone’s loo and find a video installation in there. 

Jay-Z performs Picasso Baby at Pace Gallery, NY

The reason for this is primarily historical: before the 20th century there was little distinction between art and interior design and painting and sculpture were the only manifestations of formal art. Furthermore it was a time when most art existed in private collections. The multimedia forms of video, sound, installation etc. have only existed since the rise of contemporary art galleries; they just wouldn’t go in a home.

What we might consider to be 'high art' though, the art that resides in galleries, remains to be used as decoration by the super rich. Russian oligarchs, Japanese business tycoons, Saudi oil billionaires: they buy Warhols, de Koonings, Pollocks etc. as adornment for the walls of their plush New York apartments, German castles and beach houses in the Maldives. 

'Buy' and 'Sell' are two words they don’t teach you in art school, and yet art is just as much an affluent person's commodity as diamonds and Bugattis. Let’s take a look at the lyrics to Jay-Z’s Picasso Baby:

It ain't hard to tell
I'm the new Jean Michel
Surrounded by Warhols
My whole team ball
Twin Bugattis outside the Art Basel
I just wanna live life colossal
Leonardo Da Vinci flows
Riccardo Tisci Givenchy clothes
See me thrown at the Met
Vogue'ing on these niggas
Champagne on my breath, Yes
House like the Louvre or the Tate Modern
Because I be going ape at the auction
Oh what a feeling
Aw fuck it I want a trillion
Sleeping every night next to Mona Lisa
The modern day version
With better features
Yellow Basquiat in my kitchen corner
Go ahead lean on that shit Blue
You own it

He’s not lying about the Basquiat: in November 2013 it was reported that he had bought a painting called Mecca for $4.5 million, and if these lyrics are to be believed, he owns another and keeps it where food is prepared. Let’s hope he doesn’t cook anything that splatters.

Mecca by Jean-Michel Basquiat – a snip at $4.5 million

I suppose the art that hangs in galleries belongs to what we collectively refer to as 'good taste,' or at least, is something that can reputably to be presented to the public. But just because the super rich can afford to purchase from this bracket of art doesn’t automatically provide them a reputation for discernment. In fact, they are usually excused from the game of taste altogether. Many things that might be considered vulgar (enormous flat screen televisions, flashy sports cars, designer handbags) are perfectly tolerable in the hands of millionaires.  

Though the work of art hanging on their bedroom wall may be of profound artistic depth, when it is bought because it matches the d├ęcor, it somewhat loses its air of intellectual importance. This is why the mass produced prints you can buy in Ikea and M&S are so often sneered at by the liberal elite – their function is to go with the curtains rather than to stimulate the viewer. 

But can something so popular be dismissed as 'bad' so flippantly? There is undoubtedly a merit in connecting with consumers and in achieving a mainstream appeal rather than a niche audience. As Warhol so famously put it: 'Good business is the best art'.

Michael Peters 

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