Postscripts – “What Is Art?” and “Portraits Again”

Today’s Daily Telegraph had two reviews for exhibitions I have mentioned before. (If I have one criticism of the art coverage in the Telegraph is that they often cover some exhibitions three or four times in various guises, and ignore others completely.) Richard Dorment has been to see the British Museum’s Ice Age Art. His review includes the following contribution to the What Is Art? debate:

“Until well into the 20th century, the carvings and drawings we see at the BM were normally exhibited in Natural History and Ethnographic museums where they were dehumanised by labels identifying them as artefacts made by primitive people. That is why it was important for the British Museum to make it crystal clear that what visitors see is art. Most of the objects on display had no practical use or else are embellished in ways that go far beyond utilitarian necessity.”

“… no practical use…”? What happened to ‘purpose and function’?

Dorment had a problem with the exhibition’s subtitle “The Arrival of the Moderm Mind”. “It is by seeing this art through the prism of 20th-entury art that we came to appreciate its aesthetic dimensions. But that doesn’t make it “modern”…. While it is inevitable that we bring our knowledge of 20th-century art to our perception of this work, that is very different from projecting modern ideas about art onto the distant past.”

Meanwhile, Alistair Sooke visited Man Ray at the National Portrait Gallery. In Portraits Again, I suggested that, with it being only portraits, and many of them of celebrities, it was unlikely that I would go. I was, therefore, interested in reading this part of the review:

“Why, then, did I leave the exhibition feeling slightly flat? In part, this was due to the familiarity of many of the images, which are reproduced endlessly in publications and exhibitions about Surrealism. In part, too, this was because of the celebrity of the sitters: sometimes the charisma of a subject, such as Picasso, is more forceful than the artistry of the portrait.”

He then went on “I wish that some of the breadth of Man Ray’s creative achievements had been represented [though] his paintings, experimental films, Surrealist objects and “rayographs” (camera-less photographs created using a technique that he pioneered) fall outside the remit of the exhibition.”

Perhaps Sooke is like myself in looking forward to some gallery organising a more comprehensive Man Ray exhibition in the not too distant future.

About notes to the milkman

I'm a printmaker based in the North West of England, living in Bolton and printing at Hot Bed Press in Salford. Please visit my website
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2 Responses to Postscripts – “What Is Art?” and “Portraits Again”

  1. Nancy Farmer says:

    Intrigued about the BM’s exhibition, I followed your link. Irritating to find that, for information about the exhibition, they intend you to watch the fancy-pants video, that mostly serves only to demonstrate the ability of their techy graphic artists. The video really says nothing else apart from the firm assertion that this ice age art is definitely modern art. I agree with your Telegraph writer – it is misleading and just plain wrong to be labelling it as ‘modern’ art, and unhelpful to be linking this concept with ‘the arrival of the modern mind’ (the exhibitions subtitle) which seems to be quite a reasonable assertion, in evolutionary terms.

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