I was watching a natural history programme the other evening; of the type where the out-of-his-comfort-zone Westerner is constantly amazed by the survival skills of the people who’ve lived in the area in question for hundreds of generations. In amongst the subtly patronising comments and sweeping vistas so essential to such a chunk of television (North Greenland in this instance), invariably we are invited to be revolted by the base nature of their eating habits. Bruce, our host, was offered the eyeball of a recently dispatched seal. Whilst it didn’t appear to be valued as a delicacy, it was apparent that one of the Inuit hunters was giving up something he considered special. Bruce didn’t hesitate, and sucked the contents of the eyeball down. And with it, he balled his eyes up, retched a little and generally made sure that his hosts knew what he thought of their little treat. I’ve had dinner guests like that, but I was asking them to appreciate my chicken curry, and they could reasonably have expected their meal to have been edible.
Serve up seal eyeballs to a restaurant critic at any NY restaurant, and (unless they are Anthony Bourdain or suffering from the most serious case of Emperor’s New Clothes) the resulting review will be unfavourable at best, a simple cartoon of spluttering Bruce at worst. You’re wondering what the fuck I’m on about, so perhaps I should cut to the chase; different people like different things, and this is the only truth about art.
Take the case of Damien Hirst. Much like my dinner guests anticipated that eating my food would not lead to prolonged visits to the bathroom, I was expecting the recent Damien Hirst No Love Lost, Blue Paintings exhibition to be challenging and witty. Unfortunately they were mediocre pastiches of Francis Bacon, as if copied for a high school art project. This was compounded by the fact that Hirst had spent a small fortune persuading the Wallace Collection to show the pieces. That these paintings are his own work, rather than the product of his workshops, is telling. The work preceding was the spectacular For The Love Of God; maybe he set the bar too high? The work after is the very similar For Heaven’s Sake which smacks of desperation. Oh, Damien, how confusing. And then, in early June, I was given a glimpse into his new project. Half of me wishes I could share (by the time this is in print you may already have seen the painful fruits of his latest work), but the other half is genuinely excited to have had an “in” before not only most of the world, but the majority of the art world. The project that he is involved in with several other names finally moves the Banksy commercial question into a challenging new direction, something the wall dauber has consistently failed to do. This critic’s mind’s-eye sees the quality graph of his recent portfolio as a heartbeat monitor – at least he isn’t flat lining. But this is all my opinion. Art is subjective, you and I can like what we want. And art critics sometimes forget that.
Robert Mapplethorpe was able to divide opinion like almost no other. In the 1980s it seemed every accessible published word was written by the shocked moral majority; the same breed that delights in taking offence at issues large and small in the 2010s, Twittering horror, emailing outrage and registering digital disgust. It’s true that the photography of Mapplethorpe was challenging, and some of the later work, especially of children, flirted with the very boundaries of decency. However, unless one actively seeks out this work alone, stumbling across the nudes is highly unlikely. Many people will have seen his touching portraits of Patti Smith and developed an understanding of his work as a whole, rather than being wilfully upset by the homoerotic images. I was in San Francisco at Fulsom Fair time, a couple of years ago. There with work for a conference on marine fuels (yes folks, some of us have lived the dream, tasted true manna), three of my colleagues decided to go to the fair; middle-class, straight white girls from London off to gawp and point and whisper at the strange gay men. I declined the invitation to go, as I don’t approve of zoos, human or otherwise. They returned ashen-faced and faux-corrupted. I asked them what they had expected, “Well, not that”, was the reply. Within three minutes, there were 3 digital cameras in front of me, accompanied by a commentary of all the disgusting and vile acts committed in public – all looked like fucking good fun, literally. My opinion was completely different to theirs, but was torn apart as invalid. As the evening wore on, more drink taken, I lost my patience. “Don’t tell me what to think,” was my petulant response, starting in motion an untenable situation that led to my eventual resignation. To be told how to respond to anything – art, life, anything – is to assume a lack of intelligence, a lack of sense. Or, worse, it is the arrogant belief that the critic’s subjective opinion is the only one worth considering.
Jeff Koons’s self-portrait photographs with his then lover, Cicciolina are far less shocking to me than his ambiguous sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles. My mother, my nephew and a legion of fans will most certainly see it through different lenses. No doubt some people see the epic seascapes painted by JMW Turner in his later years as the daubings of a near-blind, over-praised old man – I have sat for an age in front of just one painting, endlessly intrigued by this brush-stroke taking wave to cloud, questioning whether the brilliance of painting with failing sight can be regarded as the true beginning of Impressionism.
You’ll have to excuse me for a slightly UK-centric look at what must be a global occurrence, but such is my frame of reference. We have an annual art award, The Turner Prize, which never fails to get the more reactionary mainstream press hitting the “be outraged” key for the chattering classes. Over the years the media used by nominees has included elephant dung (Chris Ofili); concrete (Rachel Whiteread’s internal cast of a house); bronze (the Chapman Brothers’ Death which was painted to look like the blow up dolls and dildo that they had cast); a bed (Tracey Emin); and pottery (Grayson Perry). Not, “provocateurs” Chapman Brothers. Not, “shocking” Tracey Emin. Not, “challenging” Grayson Perry. I’ll be the one to decide how provoked, shocked or challenged I am by a piece of art.
The best critics, those that I look up to and hope to emulate (rip-off, plagiarise, imitate, fail to get near to) have forthright opinions that they present to and not foist upon readers – let’s face it, as consumers of their words readers are unlikely to need to be told what to think. Just by being attracted to an article of this nature, the reader is demonstrating a certain intelligence or at least an inquisitive mind – only a pseud needs telling what to think. One critic who often, but not always, pulls off the feat of presenting and not foisting is Jonathon Jones, in the UK’s Guardian newspaper (http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog). The joy of his writing is that anyone can comment – he defends his position, sometimes as an elegant fencer, epee-ing contributors easily. At others times, he snarls and swipes like a cornered tiger. He doesn’t always win, but he never shies away from a fight. I’d suggest searching for his May 2011 article on Mark Leckey. Not only does he defend his current opinion, he also (quite remarkably) has to defend his right to change his mind.
However, even those who like to think they live outside “the system” or recognised art establishment aren’t immune to shouting their opinions at us. Protests about the Turner Prize are not limited to the playfully ignorant press. Happily, this is done with a wit and knowingness that words alone cannot convey. Banksy had one of his finer moments when he stencilled “Mind The Crap” on the steps of the Tate before the prize-giving one year; something which might have already come back to haunt him, in the derivative, dull and ultimately pointless Exit Through The Gift Shop, may mark him down as a hypocrite as he expressed a desire to support his nomination at this year’s Oscars ceremony, or perhaps it’s one more example of his searingly post-modern criticism of art. You decide.