I went to the Ashbourne Arts Festival Summer Exhibition and thoroughly enjoyed it. Since my mid-teens I’ve loved going to art galleries. I enjoyed art at school and I can draw in a draughtsman-like way and paint to a to a toilet-wall-only standard. It think this helps me to appreciate galleries.
You walk into any art gallery and are confronted with a literal wealth of works of art. Everyone deals with it in a different way but I like to go with the flow. I’m not a big fan of “historic” art. Although the religious icons are impressive and marked a significant switch in the role of art in everyday life they leave me cold. From the Renaissance onwards I think I’m pretty eclectic in my taste.
On a few occasions I’ve joined a tour that has focused on a single painting in a gallery and listened to the experts explain the symbolism and the artists state of mind at the time. I find it fascinating but my appreciation of art is at a much more basic level. I love to stand back from a painting and just imagine, if given the same subject matter to paint, what would I produce? It’s truly humbling. For me the technical execution is the least interesting part of it. I think this is a truth in most art – and most aspects of life. Almost all professional tennis players hit a ball as cleanly as each other. All concert pianists can play a score note-perfect. What separates Lionel Messi, Damien Hirst and Rafael Nadal from the rest (and clearly from me) is what’s between their ears. This is what separates a genius from a journeyman and it is what excites me in music, art, football and people.
Anyone can be different; anyone can shock; but the real artist can latch on to emotion, wit or the zeitgeist to raise a smile, a frown or an astonished gape. By definition therefore art is in the eye of the beholder. I can accept people saying they don’t like a particular piece of art or admit that they can’t understand it. What I struggle to accept is the denial that it is art in the first place. I’ve seen the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and been left cold by it. It is such a familiar image but it does nothing for me. I’ve seen Michelangelo’s David and been in awe of it. The scale and the setting never fail to impress. I suppose one of the factors which I didn’t like about the Mona Lisa was the huge crowd queuing to inch forward and photograph it. It’s a small painting in the first place and this was frankly ridiculous – paintings shouldn’t be worshipped but rather they should be loved and revisited like a good book or piece of music. One of my favourite experiences in a gallery was seeing Grayson Perry’s exhibition at the British Museum. I had enjoyed his documentaries on TV and was aware of his pottery and his transvestism but I didn’t expect to stand laughing at a work of art or find myself edging ever closer to a vase to see the detail up close. I arrived expecting to walk around a museum exhibit and left wanting to have dinner with Grayson Perry. This is why contemporary art is easier to relate to. Through the pieces you see the soul, politics, and state of mind of the creator and the references are shared. You can’t relate to the same world view of a Renaissance Italian.
Trying to value art is less attractive. Quite honestly there are two categories – art which should be priced by the square foot or raw material and then work which is almost priceless. The former accounts for the vast majority of work available. If it is contemporary it gets distorted by marketing and by rarity value if it is antique or the work of a dead artist. It astonishes me that new artists or their galleries charge a fortune for essentially decorative pieces – it’s a vanity equivalent to a young footballer publishing his first autobiography. I’m not knocking this category – I love the fact that essentially art is a usable item like furniture. I’m merely challenging those people who try to make more of it. Those people who make good quality furniture would rightly argue that they are artists in their own right. Their work elicits the same response as a print or a vase would stimulate on entering a room. Around the country there are bands gigging who can get a crowd up and dancing but they will not stand the test of time.
This last example also helps to show the difference. Anything which is derivative, a tribute or covers band for example, almost by definition is unlikely and almost unable to make great art. Originality and testing the bounds is a fundamental component. It is risk taking and lays bare the artist to criticism or even ridicule. They have to balance their innate search for perfection with the certainty of failure and the constant comment from those who write about it rather than do. It takes a very special kind of person to deal with the pressure and to still drive for something new and exciting in any field.
And so you return to the simple painting hanging on the wall. Ultimately it boils down to viewing a piece of art that the artist has judged fit to be displayed. It has achieved their seal of approval but the only test of the true value is in the eye of the beholder – does a personal feeling or idea communicate to other people – let alone in the way the artist intended? This is an almost impossible objective. Think of your own family and the diverse tastes in terms of the colours, styles of music and who is judged beautiful or handsome. Somehow an artist has to conjure something fixed which is edgy enough to create emotion but conforming to subconscious ideas of colour schemes and composition. I take my hat off to them all. Anyone bold enough to put themselves forward to exhibit their art deserves applause and they deserve our time to take a moment to properly evaluate what we see rather than flick through them like holiday snaps. In a world where increasingly we seem to be able to concentrate for shorter periods of time and where opinion is spoon-fed the arts are a respite. We are blessed with a fabulous town which has inspired or accommodated artists. Have a look at Ashbourne Art to see some of them.