“Modern Art Is A Ass!”
If Dickens’ Mr Bumble had the good sense to pooh-pooh one of the Law’s many paradoxes, what would he have said about modern art? Probably unprintable.
A long time ago I worked dispassionately in the printing trade behind a huge window opposite a Belfast art gallery. One morning a van pulled up and some new exhibits were unloaded. Among these was a mid-20th century kitchen chair, in itself as artistically plausible as any object in the universe can be. But rising up through its seat was a disturbing wooden point, like a huge thorn, painted to give the impression it was running with fresh blood. Blasé gallery staff set about positioning the hideous thing on display where it would unnerve the public walking by on the street and give small children nightmares.
But hey ho — it’s art. Maybe the artist regularly smoked a banned substance and found his inspiration and creativity in that. Who knows. And who should care.
There’s a lot of this artistic lunacy about. Did you hear about the everyday industrial skip, creatively outlined in “glowing yellow”, that was placed on a street as part of Brighton’s arts festival? According the event’s curator, “It is just amazing how [the artist] can transform ordinary, everyday objects into something extraordinary.” What’s absolutely amazing is the £90,000 taxpayer-funded grant that made it possible. It’s perhaps surprising that no one threw the artist in it. But once again, it’s art. Or maybe the joke’s on us?
Art is also a pile of used nappies (diapers if you’re American), bricks laid out in rows, a dirty unmade bed (“littered with dog ends, condoms and underwear”), and a huge black rectangle, all of which were successfully exhibited at one time or another. As was a pickled sheep, and a frozen blood head — whatever that is. Some years ago an artist on TV turned himself into living art by taking off his clothes and becoming a hat stand and somewhere to park a bicycle. Seriously.
Sometimes normal people mistake so-called art for literal rubbish, and who could blame them. A sculpture made from polystyrene, resin and cement was thrown out by waste disposal workers. Staff at Tate Britain in London very reasonably threw away a sculpture they thought was a bag of waste paper, which in fact it was.
Back in 2001 a cleaner removed an exhibition after it was mistaken for rubbish that needed cleared up. “The collection of beer bottles, coffee cups and overflowing ashtrays was said to represent the chaos of an artist’s studio” (newspaper report). In the 80s what was thought to be “a very dirty bath” was scrubbed clean by a conscientious gallery worker in Germany. Such industry is commendable.
What about photographic art? While there’s plenty of twaddle to be found here too (particularly in black and white it seems, judging by the magazines), it can be a wonderful way to create a visually arresting image. I had a go at one myself, and in an unrestrained moment of inspiration and originality called it Winter Apples. See what you think. Would you hang it on your wall? I thought not.
Art and photography will meet wherever you want — what’s your vision? Here the intention was a stripped back artistic representation depicting fruit stubbornly clinging to bare branches, despite the bitter arrival of winter. Sharpness and tonal range can be overrated and technical excellence shouldn’t always be the goal, but that’s no excuse for creating imagery that’s the photographic equivalent of a pickled sheep.
The image I used was a passing grab shot over an old wall. Even with a mid-zoom lens it wasn’t possible to get close enough to frame the detail I needed without trespassing. Although metered from a mid-tone and underexposed by 1/3, the 2005 camera still managed to lose important highlight detail in the apples. Working on the cropped image in software, the matching apple tone and colour were added to the hot spots from elsewhere then feathered and subtly faded.
In a new layer a copy of the image was darkened and the original apples were allowed to show through by careful use of the erasure tool (yes, it’s typically best to paint in and paint out). Another copy was then drastically brightened several times and blurred before the application of a merge mode. Finally, magenta, green, red and blue were targeted and reduced.
Increasing the pixel dimensions of this image (upscaling) means it’s possible to print to whatever size I like. It’s also possible to scan a smaller pro lab print to retain good quality in much larger sizes. This approach is often overlooked.
See also: Lose the Dead Shots