Gumming up the works

Alfred Wallis, Five ships: Mount’s Bay, 1928

The sale of Dan Cohen’s chewing-gum piece recently by Christie’s (for £481,875 – to his own dealer) gives one pause. Bendor Grosvenor has blogged about the vacuity of the catalogue entry accorded a work which – although it looks like a square of 1960s linoleum – is actually a canvas dense with small pieces of gum, each hand-chewed (as it were) by the artist.

John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888

If this piece could bear the weight of the interpretation given it in the catalogue, it would surely not be necessary for the artist’s dealer to purchase it, presumably in order to keep its putative value circling high above the clouds of taste, sense and comprehension.  If not a dealer, do you buy such a thing for its aesthetic charm, its intellectual content, its capacity to make you re-see the world, or its spiritual uplift?  Do you buy it for its ironic comment on the consumer-driven society which hatched it (and on which it surfs), or for its expression of the contemporary, fragmented zeitgeist? Is it actually applied, rather than fine, art – like a wall-hanging – chosen to fit an interior by its unique blend of tone and colour?  Is it a self-portrait of the artist, modelled from spit and shaded with DNA, capable of regenerating him at some point in the scientific future?  What of truth, beauty and the human condition would post-apocalyptic man gain from this canvas if he dug it from an archaeological pit in a thousand years’ time, and how would he differentiate it from the floor tiles or rags of curtain in the pit?

John Everett Millais, Ophelia, 1851-52

The Art Everywhere initiative (supported by Tate and the Art Fund amongst others), which aims to show 50 of the nation’s favourite works of art on billboards, bus stops, and as posters all over the country this summer, has been going since mid-May; by 24 June the 5 front-runners of the 50 artworks (chosen for us) had emerged by popular vote as: Alfred Wallis’s Five ships, c.1928; Waterhouse’s The Lady of Shalott; Millais’s Ophelia, 1851-52; Whistler’s Nocturne in Blue & silver, c.1871, and Turner’s Norham Castle: sunrise, c.1845. So that’s four places for the 19th century, one for the early 20th, and nul points for the YBAs et al. As of 26th June, we are being chivvied to vote for the poor and unappreciated Hirsts and Emins, because sports days aren’t about winning, and if you’ve so much as entered the egg-&-spoon then you’ve done really, really well.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and silver – Chelsea, c.1871

Tate Modern has drawn in vast crowds since its opening, and it would hardly be just or logical to conclude that most of those crowds have flocked to it for the bread and circuses, drawn by the hyperbole of publicity.  On the other hand, you have only to stand for a short while in a gallery to discover that the average time the viewer expends on an individual painting is 10 to 15 seconds, with another 20 or so to read the caption; the National Gallery is promoting events where you go and sit in front of a painting for a sustained period to try to redress this fast art approach.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, Norham Castle: sunrise, c.1845

What to conclude from all of this? Well, that people like to visit art galleries and museums, but perhaps not generally in order to submerge themselves in the art they find there; that when they do want to be submerged in publicly-owned art, or when they choose art to fill their own houses, they tend to go for things which would probably be universally acknowledged in any age to be works of art, rather than what sits on the cutting edge of the wave of ephemeral fashion; and that anything in that latter class is accruing much of its status from its transient investment potential, rather than its inherent appeal. Do we want art which has a price, or art which has value?

Roberts D. Greenham, Tango final of British Championship, Blackpool, 1969, 1970

About Mark Mitchell

Dealers in 19th-20th Century British and Continental Works of Art
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