Wednesday 18 October 2023

Is there a divide between beautful art and meaningful art?

This post is a response to Andrew McIlroy’s article on “value-free” art in Australia. I read the post with eagerness because this is something I think about a lot, the difference in art between the purely decorative and the meaningful. I wonder how you can split the two things into separate categories? Is it a question of working withing a specific tradition? How has popular culture, specifically advertising and other media such as cinema and TV affected the fine arts? What barriers are there in people’s minds, people in the street or in the commercial gallery who come along to a show opening to mix and mingle, chat and view the works for sale?

It's a conundrum.

I think Andrew has a point in that there is a lot of art available that is objectively beautiful, and you think that the gallerist and the artist want to offer something for sale that will be acceptable to buyers who might want to take a work home and put it on a wall. I mean, it’s easier to feel comfortable with a Klee than a Kollwitz. Because of the coexistence of different styles now – it’s just as acceptable to paint an abstract as a figurative landscape – there is a lot of choice for artists who want to appeal to buyers. I wonder if Francis Bacon if he were an up-and-coming artist would have many buyers? For my part I am not a fan of Bacon but accept that he’s a valuable commodity.

In literature I coined a new term Divergism to describe the market for books, there are so many genres available now that there’s no longer a mainstream, there are several mainstreams. In visual arts it’s the same, you can do anything now it’s fine people will understand (or at least the community of collectors and aficionados will understand) if you paint abstract, figurative, semi-figurative, semi-abstract; anything goes. I guess this means that it’s possible to paint something that is objectively beautiful and that simultaneously is meaningful. I might borrow tropes from commercial art, styles of combining colours or of making lines that are common to advertising, but in doing so make a comment on life more broadly. Or I might try to be ugly, or use just black and white, and do something that is essentially designed to be merely beautiful. I fear I’m not making myself clear however, and so I’ll backtrack a bit.

In television there are two very popular types of program: cooking shows and shows that feature real estate. Both are innately highbrow but they also manage to be popular. Some are more popular than others, so for example while Nine Entertainment has ‘The Block’ the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has ‘Grand Designs’. Network Ten has on weekends many cooking shows in the afternoon. You get tradies and sportspeople cooking on ‘MasterChef’ and you get everywoman and her dog fronting up for ‘The Block’. Food and shelter are perennials.

It's different for art. It’s hard to get someone coming in off the street to front up $1000 for a painting where you can use the same amount of money to eat for two months for the whole family. But the people who are buying the paintings are the same people who are watching ‘The Block’ and ‘Grand Designs’. You know they’re interested in culture (design and food are great cultural products) and you know they value their way of life. So if all art is flattery what are the triggers that are going to separate the punter from that elusive $1k?

In the era of ‘Kath & Kim’ what’s low brow enough to please the average gallery visitor? It has to be something they want to live with, but they also want to feel as though they’re getting in on the ground floor. Everyone likes a bargain but art is inherently exclusive. It’s a fine line that commercial galleries have to walk in order to do conflicting things. On the one hand they need to appeal to the masses but on the other they need to signal that what they’re offering is high-brow.

I think that at a time when we’re confronted by Postmodern works of art that were written by our grandparents we need to find ways to accommodate a range of imperatives. I don’t think that purely decorative art is meaningless but perhaps we have too much choice. There literally are no rules, there are galleries in Sydney aimed at a range of tastes (I can’t speak about Melbourne) from Pop to Neofigurative, from Abstract to Aboriginal. In this world of zero boundaries perhaps our preference for the beautiful is a way to anchor us to something in the face of too much liberty. Perhaps we need the chain of gorgeousness to stop us from floating away on a wave of excessive feeling?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am all for beauty