The Big Society of Art


My grandfather had a splendid collection of tasteful watercolour nudes that hung in his dressing room. He won them at cards from a chum who worked in advertising – who had painted them. He regarded them as very fine art. Indeed, under critique from my grandmother for ‘vulgarity’, I heard him defend himself and the artworks by saying they were “better than those fat women painted by one of those bloody Dutchmen you admire so much.” This was a notably cruel jibe since dear granny was a large woman who happened to have Flemish antecedents. I was only a child at the time, and sadly, after his death the pictures vanished from his home.

I do recall them, though, as possibly my first conscious recognition of the visual rewards of the female form. The subjects (or subject, as the model may well have been the same in every picture), were petite and almost fairy-like creatures with shingled hair and wisps of diaphanous scarf to accentuate rather than disguise their nakedness. The settings were minimalised to structured tones of light and shade suggestive of an architectural theme, or a backdrop with hints of art deco.

Later on in life, when I had acquired what approximated to an education, I often thought of my grandfather’s ideas about art. It became evident the paintings that he so admired were not ‘art’, let alone Art. They were merely illustrations. On the other hand, lots of so-called illustrations are admirable for the skill with which they both celebrate and idealise subjects such as the human form. It might be argued that whether it is Venus at Her Mirror or Lunch on the Grass, you are still looking at an illustration of a naked woman. The idea that there is an educational narrative underlying the portrayal – whether intrinsic to the painting’s symbols or to its history – may be merely the fig leaf of intellectual special pleading.

In sculpture, much the same applies, with the Venus de Milo or Rodin’s The Kiss acceptable even to nuns despite their blatant sensuality (though rumour has it nuns prefer Michelangelo’s David. A Lalique nymph on the other hand might be seen as a tad louche. Even so, naked nymphs were very fashionable in their day, and with artistic winsomeness supported many a bourgeois table lamp. Luckily, neither Henry Moore nor Barbara Hepworth produced sculpture that was decipherable to anyone except a trained Freudian, which ensured their respectability in the eyes of the public. In other contexts, objects featuring discernible sexual parts, especially those originating from the Pacific Islands, are mostly classified as ‘folk art’ with ritual meaning, and hence acceptable in intelligent and sensitive society. The erect phallus especially seems to need the sanction of anthropological function.

All of which begs the question ‘what is art?’ There is of course ‘Fine Art’ –presumably just a notch superior to ‘Art’. I’ve often wondered whether the concept of Fine Art is similar to that of Fine Wine or, and this worries me, ‘Fine Dining’. Somehow the term carries an immutable whiff of artificial snobbery, unwarranted deference and the provinces. Jack Vettriano (whom my grandfather would have loved) is a victim of such snobbery from the Scottish Royal Academy, whose alumni refuse to hang his work. Luckily, the Scotsman’s persecuted status is compensated by huge popularity. Tretchikoff, author of the Chinese Girl, was another of many popular but despised artists before Jack. It remains to be seen if The Singing Butler will go down (ho ho) as Vettriano’s most memorable work. Personally, I hope not. The man is much wittier than that. Still, the concept of art (with or without capitalisation) leads me to reflect on other gradations of esteem for the creative works of the, well, artistically creative.

So we might consider the issues of descriptors such as ‘artistic’ and ‘creative’. These are often used as synonyms and to describe such widely separated presentations as a flower arrangement or the danseuses and their routines in up-market strip clubs and high-class cabarets, such as the famous Crazy Horse in Paris. In fact, ‘artistic’ has a long history of use to vaunt and sanction the live or illustrated depictions of the naked female form. The term ‘creative’ has become so attenuated that it is attached to things like accounting and is beyond further consideration, although it must be noted that it is used by women about lovers, as in ‘he’s very creative in bed.’

There is the duopoly of ‘artefact’ and ‘artisan’. Pottery is the primary and most eclectic art form representing this aspect of art. Indeed, it has exponents of style and design such as Bernard Leach and Clarice Cliff who achieved ‘artist’ status. I don’t know of any potters who had a secret predilection for pottery porn. That said, the process of forming a pot on the wheel with all the wet, silky clay rising between the hands does a lot for the libido, so maybe there are some privately owned collectibles. If so, they may well be exhibited along with the clay Trobriand Island fertility dolls, which is where they belong.

Then we have notions of the ‘artful’ and ‘artifice’. This idea spans so much human activity it cannot be confined to one sphere of deception. It is also equivocal insofar as it can be applied either pejoratively or admiringly. Either way, the concept derives from the belief that somehow art is not reality, but an interpretation of reality that in turn may carry with it a greater insight or meaning than… what? Well, than reality unmediated by any form of interpretation. Reality, which even if stopped for a moment in time by brush or camera is in truth ‘artless’. The term is often applied to amateur or naïf works that for whatever reason attract the approval of the cognoscenti.

Photographic artlessness is sometimes called ‘rapportage’. Its successes can only be accidental, and most often are associated with lucky shots of events or celebrities. War, sadly, provides many of these as Vietnam Napalm (the 1972 photograph of the little girl burning by Phan Thị Kim Phúc) proved. Nowadays, the mobile phone is being employed to report specific happenings and to make films. The spontaneous and personal quality of such recordings is puffed as somehow more ‘authentic’ – this is shorthand for amateur. Which means life seen as reality TV, but sanctioned by some self-conscious fuck-witted idea that it is worthwhile and interesting to people who don’t know or care about you except to laugh at you, especially if you fall off a cliff. By the way, the fuzz has been selling their CCTV and in-car camera off-cuts to television for years. Presumably as ‘the art of policing’.

In the sex business such authenticity is best represented by ‘readers’ wives’ photos or ‘gonzo’ films. Yet is such artlessness in fact a form of art? Would it qualify as art or even Art if a gallery of readers’ wives and gonzo video or, better still, if a permanent, ‘dogee’ couple in a steamed up Vauxhall Vectra were installed in Tate Modern? And would their watchers themselves begin dogging and so become part of the exhibit? But stop: the great current worry is that our little girlies are transmitting intimate phone-photos of themselves to their ‘friends’ on Facebook and are becoming actors, victims and hence artists: how very authentic and artless of them.

Photography and digital manipulation certainly call into question the degree to which all the variations of ‘art’ from at least ‘Art’ to ‘artificial’ may apply. Hence we might ponder the Artistic and technical interface or possibly make a link between Bresson and Mapplethorpe. We should reflect on the artistic merit of Helmut Newton. Whilst considering Mapplethorpe might we not wonder why one of his erect penis studies is so much more artistic than any other, amateur, photographs taken for more self-promotional (but in their context, perfectly worthy) or commercial (hence more exploitative but still legitimate) reasons? Assuming the organs featured are of similar aesthetic appeal, the answer must be in the lighting and the composition.

The specific and explicit focus of pornography generally precludes it from consideration as in any way artistic. Critics are fond of shuddering about its ‘gynaecological’ emphasis. Well, it’s sad if the female vulva is cause for revulsion – especially in its sexual role. But once again it seems our intimate body parts and their employment are only fit subjects for public presentation if rendered as documentary, or in their very contextually framed, totally not-fun reproductive biological function; or, if they are to be considered as ‘art’, then in some Baconian interpretation of our fleshy imperfections.

But the real problem for porn is that it is, like any mass art, a commercial exercise and above all one that is totally inclusive of anyone who wants to access it. Even worse for the art snob, it is dynamic. But then, so is the art world. Tracy Emin, Sam Taylor-Wood, Damien Hirst appear and disappear from our gaze. One day, they may reappear as exponents of what we have been told is ‘Fine Art’. Meanwhile they belong in the waiting room of that ultimate Art Pantheon along with an emergent new breed.

These are the art democrats, the revolutionaries who will, in their massive outpourings of technology-facilitated opportunity and drug-fuelled fantasy, tear down the barriers to new Fine Art approval. Pamela Anderson and Paris Hilton have long heralded the new art democracy. Reality TV has reminded us that if we are the stars we might as well be the directors and producers. It is now commonplace for anyone who wants to flash their groin or record their dying granny on their mobile for their friends on Facebook to do it and share it. The film-phone has already proved its worth as a news source. It is now being embraced as an art vehicle. If it’s Real Life, and especially if it involves sex and can shock in a ‘meaningful’ way BBC or Ch4 will want to show it, and it will be art. On Ch5 and other high-digit adult channels it’s just cheap crap unless we watch it and say, “oh, how interesting!”

In the Observer of 23rd January 2011, reporter Paul Harris was subbed alongside an article illustrating some fat saddie covered with ink, with the line, ‘Tattoos are becoming as coveted as fine art…’ What do you think of that Brian Sewell?

Bruno Phillips’s book, The Main Point: The Life and Work of a Porno Film Maker, is available now at Amazon.

Illustration by Orlux.

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