Category Archives: art

Choosing art

I had the interesting experience of selecting paintings for an exhibition the other day.  I work for a Great Big Company and the local council contacted various Groups in the Community to ask for volunteers to pick paintings for a Peoples’ Choice exhibition.  (It’s Blairite, but is it Art?)  So I said “that’ll be me then” and volunteered.

There were seven or so of us, and we were given an enormous catalogue of the paintings in public ownership in the county, and told to pick three each and state our reasons.  (The catalogue turned out to be fascinating and desirable in its own right and, since it’s available from Amazon, I’ve just bought myself a copy.  Damn.) The chap was a curator at one of the local museums or art galleries and he encouraged us to be simple and direct in our reasons, giving examples of things that other groups such as school children had said.



It would have been easy to consult with others and pick a whole exhibition of social history, or local faces, or even specifically non-local work, but it was much, much harder to pick just three.

I resisted choosing damaged pictures just because they were damaged which gives them an added layer of meaning in my pretentious world.  I resisted picking the local views because that was all a bit too obvious.  I resisted two enormous and gloomy portraits of a grimly smug victorian couple which I wanted to pick on the ground that – hey look, these people are so freaking different from people today.

I discovered that when push came to shove I preferred portraits, which was rather depressing.  My brow is higher than that, surely?   I did steer myself away from just picking portraits and resisted the option to show off by going entirely for abstracts.

It was an interesting insight into the world of the curator and the choices involved in putting together an exhibition.  I’ve bought myself a copy of the catalogue of the county’s art collection, and I’m looking forward to the exhibition.  I should love it.  What better way could there be to arrive at an eclectic mix?

Rubbishing Art


Harsh critique, eh?

(Photographed with the Samsung G800, with the contrast turned up a bit with PhotoImpact).

Flash Parks

Some time ago there was a fashion, or a flashion perhaps, for flash mobbing.  Wikipedia’s current definition says: “A  is a large group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform an unusual action for a brief period of time, then quickly disperse.”

The other day I took a trip from Settle to Carlisle, and when we got there, we found what I can only describe as a flash municipal park.

Carlisle Flash Park 02

The plants were orderly and very very plentiful and

Flash Park 01

so healthy and cheap that the one I was with had to remind me just how difficult it would be to wrestle them on and off the train.  Otherwise I’d have flashed my cash and bought half the pavement.



I’ve mentioned already that I work near an art gallery. I noticed a piece of opportunistic recycling as I walked into town today.

Reinstall 02

Apparently the artist

“creates new relationships, experimenting with unexpected combinations of materials creating objects and environments, which encourage us to see the everyday world with fresh eyes”

and she

“fashions monumental objects from scrapyard materials and throws them away after use”

Though I do wonder if a graffitied garage door is quite what she intended. It pleased me though.

Across the Universe

PolarisJulie’s comment about the Turner Prize on my previous post reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write up for a while.

Wouldn’t it be better if the Turner Prize was just announced the way that the Nobel Prize is? None of this “and the nominees are…” crap.

If they did, then the prize this year should go to NASA. Yep, the eningeering dudes who run the Space Station and put men on the moon.

Yeah, I know that they’re Scientists and Americans, but they came up with the most amazing piece of art last month. They beamed the Beatles’ song “Across the Universe” at the Pole Star, Polaris, the most useful and influential of the stars visible from here.

I don’t know what the guys at NASA call it, but in my book it may be cheesy, it’s also brilliant conceptual art. They’ve blurred the boundaries between science and art and done something inspiring and witty, and clever and pointless, a piece of apposite cosmic graffiti, and we should give those geeks a prize.

It’s clever but is it art?

Kipling’s rather mannered poem “The Conundrum of the Workshops” asks “it’s clever, but is it Art?”

Most of the time, it isn’t.

We don’t send teenagers to writing school, get them to live exclusively self-referential lives once they graduate, and expect them to produce work that is either interesting or thought-provoking. However we send our artists to art-school when they are still high on hormones and coherent thinking, expose them to nothing other than cheap drugs, grubby sex and their peers, and expect them to produce art. It’s no wonder that most of their pieces are self-indulgent wank-fests: self-indulgent wanking is what teenagers do, and with some artists you see no evidence that they have grown out of their adolescence.

These past two weeks I’ve some superb imagery by graphic masters and some deeply-felt and hard-won experiences expressed as narrative paintings and I’ll let you know about them in a minute. Let’s start with the wank-fests. Three spring to mind.

The first was a series of films of a bloke in a bear-suit wandering around an empty Berlin art gallery several nights in a row. I cannot remember what it was supposed to be about. Alienation, probably. (There is a reason why the perpetrators of such self-indulgence feel alienated from the rest of us: it’s because they are so self-obsessed. It isn’t us. It really is them). Apparently the bear-suit referenced the fact that the symbol of Berlin is a bear. Presumably the fact it was in the Berlin kunstgalerie references the fact that the artist is a c**t, otherwise why not do it in Warwick, which is also symbolised by a bear. I’m sorry, but if an installation needs a page of A4 to explain itself, then what we have is a writer who embellishes their writing with really complicated illustrations. The woman who put the crack in the Tate Modern would have been an artist if she’d left it at that, but the explanation that it was about alienation (dur) and racism reduced her work to mere illustration. Shame really. As a crack in the floor it was really cool. Unlike Bungle in Berlin, but there you go.

The second was more fest than wank, but precious little of either. The artist’s page of A4 burbled about sensuality. Essentially she tried to eroticise food. However, a pair of melons with a couple of vine-eye bolts and a chain is no more than a visual pun: it’s not even as if nipple rings are that outré any more. It isn’t Mapplethorpe’s Robert having his Nipple Pierced. The rest of the photographs would have made good magazine shots, but they weren’t witty, nor erotic, nor particularly clever and certainly not art. Nice production values, though.

The third was just cheap sensationalism in a Hirsty kind of way: dead animals enlivened with fluorescent paint. There was a mounted head of an Aberdeen Angus, where the nose and horns had been painted the sort of orange you get in highlighter pens. There was a stuffed fox snarled up in a bunch of brightly coloured bailer twine which was almost interesting. And a pair of white rats turned into salt and pepper pots which were, well, a pair of white rats turned into salt and pepper pots. You get the idea.

By contrast, the one I go to art galleries with and I saw some Modiglianis, a Mondrian and a couple of Picassos the other weekend. Now, they were boys who knew how to put colour and shape onto canvas and who knew what they were painting about. The reason they produced master-pieces is not just that they had mastered their craft (though they had) it is that they had progressed beyond their apprenticeships and journey-man days as people too.

The idea that war is hell is trite. It’s a cheap non-idea, like the cheap non-eroticism of the fruit. However, if you’ve experienced atrocities, then that will come through in your expression of them, which is why Guernica is so powerful and the Kandinskys I saw last summer, come to that. And why, based on her art, sex with the melon woman would be banally predictable while she thought it was exotic and edgy. Rather like sex with Rik from the Young Ones. Which confirms my point about dull adolescent thoughts expressed as dull adolescent art, really. (You want eroticism on the edge? Check out Buck Angel’s transsexual porn. Not likely in a provincial art gallery, I’ll admit.)

Experience informs art, and I am coming to think that the way we put our artists into art school actually hamstrings them.

The final exhibition I saw yesterday was a series of narrative paintings of coal-miners mining coal. The artist was himself a miner, though had he been a different generation and class, maybe he’d have spent his time wrapping up aubergines in wire or wandering around museums in animal costumes. Instead he went down the pit and then went through the miners’ strike. The paintings are illuminate the world that George Orwell described as being “like hell, or at any rate like my own mental picture of hell. Most of the things one imagines in hell are if there–heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space.” The paintings, like Orwell’s essay, bring out the physicality of the men and the work: “the fillers look and work as though they were made of iron. … It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realize what splendid men, they are. Most of them are small (big men are at a disadvantage in that job) but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere.” I found the paintings of the coal-mines powerful and moving, and full of purpose and integrity which was not even slightly ridiculous.

So, if you want to do art that’s worth doing, then you have to have something to say that’s worth saying. And if you have to have a page of A4 stuck on the gallery wall in order to say it, then you aren’t an artist at all. You’re an illustrator.

Unsung National Treasures – 3 – Pantomime

The Russians have ballet, the Italians have opera, the French have impressionist art. The British national art form though is not high culture, in fact it’s not considered to be any kind of culture. It’s so much part of the background at this time of year that its true status in British life is invisible. You see, the British national art form is Pantomime.

Most people who aren’t actually British have no idea what Pantomime is. A few non-Brits who have over-wintered in the UK may have been taken to a pantomime by unusually malicious British friends but by and large pantomime is a peculiarly private national vice. And I do mean “peculiarly”.

First of all – what pantomime is not: It’s not venetian. It isn’t mime. It isn’t dance.

And now what it is: it’s silly, it’s funny, it’s vulgar, crude and innocent. It’s childish and seasonal. It’s frequently a young Britlet’s first and maybe only introduction to theatre. Most interestingly of all, it’s a loose collection of rituals and conventions wrapped up in any one of a dozen or so traditional plots. And that’s really the point of going to a pantomime – waiting for and enjoying the wierdness as it comes out and beats you over the head with the subtlety of a string of sausages.

The principal boy in the pantomime might be a prince or a pauper, Charming, Aladdin, Jack; it varies from pantomime to pantomime and almost doesn’t matter. The only thing that really matters about the principle boy is that she should have shapely thighs. The principal boy, you see, should be played by a girl.

Principal Boy

This delightful piece of cross-dressing is counterbalanced by the Dame, usually a maternal figure, usually on the side of good guys, always presented as a grotesque and always played as camp as Christmas by a middle aged man.

Pantomime Dame

The actual heroine, Cinderella, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, is sweetly played by a fully dressed woman, and she really is rather dull, bless her. She’s often by a soap star who has seen better days; there’s an odd cachet to playing panto these days, but it is one which no-one bothers even trying to explain when looking for work abroad.

Some pantomimes have demon kings and others have fairy godmothers and most have a comic sidekick or two. I hesitate to say “straight man” in this context, however anything less homoerotic than a pantomime is hard to imagine.

Pantomimes are full of slapstick and prattfalls, full of clowns clowning around, full of awful puns, appalling jokes and ludicrous double- and single-entendres.


The dramatic tension in a pantomime doesn’t come from plot or characterisation, it comes from where and how the ritualised elements will be incorporated. There should be a horse played by two actors in a single costume; camels are permissible in Aladdin, Sinbad or Ali Baba, but they aren’t really hardcore because if you are playing the back hump of the camel you can just about stand up straight. You see, that’s the whole point of the pantomime horse: one bloke you can’t see has his head up the bum of another bloke you can’t see, and I still say it’s not homoerotic. Though I admit you’d be deeply worried by pantomime if you were an anthropologist from Mars.

Someone will hold a ritualised argument with the audience – oh yes they will – oh no they won’t – oh yes they will, and at some point two actors will rotate on stage in such a way that one of them cannot see the other – despite loud shouts of “He’s beHIND you” from every audience member under the age of seven. Anyone under four foot tall in the first ten rows of the stalls will be brought up on stage to help sing a song the words of which will are painted on a bed-sheet and winched down from the flies. Sweets will be thrown at the audience.

Pantomimes are gloriously surreal, like Music Hall on acid. What I find fascinating though is that nationally we have no idea what we have here. We don’t take pantomime to the world as our national art form even though that is precisely what it is, with the Carry On films, I’m sorry I haven’t a Clue and McGill‘s seaside postcards expressing the same innocent filth in other media. We are almost unaware of just how peculiar and wonderful pantomime actually is. Panto is brilliant, wierd, idiosyncratic, silly, ritualised, great fun and uniquely British.

Ladies and gentlemen, as my panto-season gift to you, I offer you the unsung national treasure which no-one wants to publicise abroad.

Oh no they don’t.

Thank goodness.