by Anthony Laverty
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but where does true Art lie? Is it too in the eye of the beholder? Because often, what we like is scorned and not worthy enough to be called ‘Art’. Does Art now belong only to those rich enough to buy or commission it?
Recently the 2011 Turner Prize exhibition was held at The Baltic gallery in Gateshead and I was intrigued enough to go along to see what all the fuss was about. Along with the prestige, The Turner Prize often carries with it an air of controversy. For the first time it was heading ‘up North’, spreading culture and attempting in some way to educate the masses north-east of the Pennines. It was an obvious coup for The Baltic and a chance for the North East to bask in the reflected glory of such a prestigious event, bringing with it TV coverage and many column inches in the press.
So as I entered the dark, cavernous reception area of The Baltic I can honestly say I was a little excited. The work of the four finalists lay ahead and I steeled myself ready to be amazed, enchanted, moved and even challenged. I could recall past winners and I knew the Turner penchant for voting against expectation.
The four artists chosen for the final were Karla Black, Martin Boyce, Hilary Lloyd and George Shaw.
I had to queue before entering. It was Sunday afternoon in Gateshead and not a lot happens up here on a Sunday. What lay ahead was to say the least thought-provoking. . .
The first nominee’s work, I walked straight past. Some old desk with scrawled designs upon it; some angle iron and maybe some plastic. I say maybe because to be honest I almost missed it. It resembled our school desks back at St. Bede’s metalwork room. Only when I had counted the other artists work on display did I realise that I was one short and recalled the desk on the way through. Sorry Martin.
Next I stumbled into a large white room which someone had stripped ready to redecorate. Piles of paper stained with old pastel paint littered the room. Wait a minute; yes you’re well ahead of me aren’t you. This was the next exhibit. I only knew this because about ten people stood staring at it, some bemused and some with earnest concentration on their faces. Those were the ones that gave it away. I had seen this look before. Chin stroking, slow nodding, a cool air of superior ‘know-what-it’s-all-aboutness’ hanging around them as they stared at the work of Karla Black and wondered, no doubt, if it was time they decorated their own front room. I tend to avoid these people and so I moved swiftly on.
In the next room there were some photographs of nothing much at all really. Pictures of the edges of things, things just out of shot, grouped together and displayed on video screens. This gave me the hope that they might move and turn into something spectacular. I waited. They didn’t. The pictures looked like the photographer, Hilary Lloyd, had taken an avuncular old friend along with her on the shoot. I imagined him slapping her on the back just as she was taking the pictures and offering words of encouragement as she narrowly missed each subject. Bless her though, not wanting to waste them all she kept them and decided to share them with us.
Now I realised at this point that it must be me. I am missing the point here in a big way. I started to question my knowledge, my taste and even my education. Mr. Cuthbertson bless him, hadn’t prepared me for this in our GCE Art classes back in the seventies. There was one artist left. I soldiered on, feet shuffling, shoulders drooping, feeling conspicuous in my ignorance.
Last of all I came upon the work of George Shaw and straight away I knew I was on solid ground. These were paintings. The sort you can hang on your wall. My heart lifted along with my shoulders. Paintings, with recognisable subject matter. Landscapes almost. Yes they were paintings of places I wouldn’t want to walk around necessarily. Dreary council estates just like the ones both George and I grew up on and I guess, avoid visiting if at all possible these days; especially at night. But there was something comfortably reassuring about them. Almost photo realistic. George had painted them using Humbrol enamel paint. The sort of paint I used to carry home from the model shop to paint my misshapen model aeroplanes with. Paint I kept hidden about my person as I navigated said council estate, trying to avoid bigger lads who would have the stuff off you and in your hair within seconds given half a chance. So yes, here was something that had resonance for me, thought provoking and even eerily chilling. Art I could almost understand. Suddenly I didn’t feel quite so stupid. Maybe I had some taste after all.
What came next though made me feel a whole lot better. In their wisdom, the good people at The Baltic had provided the opportunity for visitors to comment on the Turner exhibits. Now one has to question this, because I am sure they don’t do this in the Tate Modern or even The National Gallery. But in bringing The Turner exhibition to us lot up North they must have wanted to gauge the reaction. Could we handle “The shock of the new”? Were we some kind of litmus test for artistic appreciation or aesthetic awareness? If we all came out looking blue had they failed.
Well I hope so and I hope they got the message because suddenly I wasn’t feeling so bad, and as I read the coloured post-it notes provided for visitors comments plastered across an eight foot wall I began to feel progressively better. I felt less like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes and more like Che Guevara; well, Wolfie Smith at least. Power to the people! This huge outpouring of responses was as far as I could see forty percent outrage, thirty percent confusion, twenty percent sarcasm and the other ten percent represented the chin strokers points of view.
I suddenly felt vindicated, liberated even. Maybe I’m not some artistic Philistine after all. There are more people out there, just like me, who appreciate beauty, form, thought and a little bit of technique applied to their art. People who can’t afford an eight foot shark pickled in aspic and wouldn’t know where to put it if they could. People who don’t want a diamond encrusted skull, and have more unmade beds than they can handle. People who do however appreciate a well thought out, well executed piece of dare I say it “Art”. There I’ve said it. The Emperor is naked, and I am not too shy to tell everyone.