I want to write about a woman writing about two people writing about how we look at modern art.
In last Sunday’s Telegraph, in the Seven magazine there were three interesting items about visual art. One was a review about two books – “Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That” by Susie Hodge and “What Are You Looking At?” by Will Gompertz.
The reviewer, Lucy Davies, was optimistic about the first. Hodge discusses how we mistake “an apparent lack of technique for a lack of artistic sophistication.” Davies writes: “I liked her introduction very much…. From here she goes downhill.” The problem seems to be that Hodge has selected 100 pieces of modern art and for each entry there is a box explaining why “no child could have created this.” For example, in reference to Tracey Emin’s bed: “Children may often leave their beds unmade … but a close look reveals that the bed and strewn items belong to an adult.” Davies continues: “In labouring this one point, over and over, she wrings the life out of every piece. Actually she’s treating her readers like five year-olds.”
Strangely enough, another review in the Daily Telegraph by Daisy Dunn was more favourable to the book.
Lucy Davies found Will Gompertz book better. She refers to a quote from him “Even when an artist removes every reference to the known world, our brain still searches for it “like a satnav searching for a signal”.” This reminds me of a recent post on her blog from Woman Walking Slowly about an exhibition of abstract work by David Reed. “A satin antique frock eaten by moths” and “a night sky that retains the memory of daylight” were just a couple of her comments.
“Gompertz” writes Davies ” is full of useful explanations. I’ve had difficulty with conceptual works. Mostly this is a time issue. Many works repay a thorough read around and a think. But when it comes to art, we’re conditioned for the instant hit.
“Gompertz is good on this. Back in 1917, he tells us, the painter Kazimir Malevich upset “Tsar Nicholas and his aristocratic chums” by painting a black square on a white canvas. Gompertz explains that the scepticism surrounding Malevich’s black square (and every abstract work since), comes from Malevich turning the traditional relationship between artist and audience on its head. Historically the artist was subservient. It was up to him to please us, and we decided if he had succeeded. But Malevich turned art into “a mind game in which the artist sets all the rules”.”
A second article in Seven, was a review of a new exhibition of Spanish drawings at the British Museum called “Renaissance to Goya”. Being a printer, I liked Alistair Smart’s comments about Goya’s prints: “Still, it’s fascinating to see the progress from such early prints as 1778’s “Blind Guitarist” (etched like a drawing, Goya’s lines showing the fluidity of pen and ink) to the horrific 1810-15 “Disasters of War” series (where he wields his etching needle like a weapon of protest).”
The final article I want to mention was one about people who have received brain injuries which have released some hidden talent. One of these people with “sudden savant syndrome” is Tommy McHugh, a ex-builder, who suffered a severe stroke, with haemorrhaging on both sides of his brain. He began painting and hasn’t stopped. “It was as though a balloon had popped. I could see the beauty of the world. I knew who I was. The man I used to be had gone forever.”
Dr Mark Lythgoe, a neurologist at University College London, who has studied the McHugh case, says: “It may be that the brain damage that Tommy sustained has caused disinhibition of brain pathways, allowing his creativity to surface. Perhaps whatever was keeping his artistic talents hidden or dormant has been damaged just enough to allow them to pour through.”