Journal Column: Modern Art – Talent or Con?

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Last month the art world was taken aback when a painting, by the reclusive artist known as Banksy, was sold at auction at Sotheby’s for $1.4 million.  No sooner had the hammer struck, to seal the deal, when a packed auction house were left aghast as the painting mysteriously began to be shredded by the frame it was housed in. Amazingly, despite this, the buyer decided to keep the painting and although now part shredded, the piece has supposedly increased in value.  Such is the weird world of art.


And weird it can be. As someone who isn’t particularly artistically dexterous, I have great admiration for those who are, and enjoy admiring the various paintings, sculptures and artefacts created by those people more talented than me.  On a recent trip to London, I took the opportunity of visiting the Victoria and Albert museum, the world’s leading museum of art and design, housing a permanent collection of over 2.3 million objects spanning over 5,000 years of human creativity.
Of course, you don’t have to go all the way to the capital to see some truly talented art.  Closer to home, located in Newcastle, there is the Laing Art Gallery and the Biscuit Factory, which is the UK’s largest independent commercial art, craft and design gallery.  Also, take a walk down the Quayside on a Sunday and you will see many regional artists displaying their own amazing artistic work. Indeed, over the years I’ve bought several paintings by local artist, Roy Kirton.

I’m intrigued as to why certain artistic creations are deemed more valuable than others; why, for example, is the landscape painting ‘The Lock’ by John Constable, considered so much better than the similar ‘Pool on the Leader’ by John Surtees?  Constable’s work sold for £22.4 million, more than 4,000 times the value of that by Surtees.  Yet, to me, the Surtees painting is nicer. It’s always fascinated me what makes a particular artists work a masterpiece and thus so desirable and valuable. There really is no answer, even in the art world, the question is hard to solve.  But then art has, and always will be, in the ‘eye of the beholder.’ Which it should be. Whether it be paintings, sculptures, drama or music, people will have their own personal view of it.


It was probably the likes of Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol who first introduced the concept of alternative art with creations that were more abstract and conceptual than the traditional landscapes, still life and portraits of their predecessors. Over the years there has been an increase in more artists displaying what is now commonly referred to as ‘modern art’. Often showcased through the Turner Prize.

Established in 1984, the Turner Prize is named after the 18th Century English painter J. M. W. Turner. It is an annual prize organised by the Tate Gallery in London and presented to a British visual artist.  Increasingly, over the years the Turner Prize has attracted and crowned winners of ever more bizarre artistic pieces.   It is a controversial event, mainly for the exhibits, such as a dissected shark, pickled in formaldehyde, by Damien Hirst and a dishevelled bed by Tracey Emin. Other notable pieces of contentious modern art includes Carl Andre’s pile of house bricks and  Simon Starling’s, prize winning, decrepit shed.  Perhaps the most famous and funniest, is artist Gustav Metzger ‘Bin Bag.’ This masterpiece of artistic ingenuity was a transparent bin liner filled with waste paper and was set to be displayed as a work modern art at the Tate Gallery.  Sadly, the evening prior to the exhibit, one of the galleries cleaners picked it up and, mistaking it for real rubbish, threw it out with the rest of the garbage. I believe the poor cleaner was chastised by management the next day for not being able to distinguish between real and artistic rubbish! Indeed!
My personal view is that a piece of art, no matter how surreal, must also be something exuding a skill or ability few people can undertake. Given that there are thousands of dissected rodents, bottled in formaldehyde, in almost every school biology lab, and messy beds, bags of rubbish and decrepit sheds in homes and gardens up and down the land and piles of bricks in hundreds of DIY stores, I simply cannot fathom why stuff like that is considered artistic, never mind talented.

Apparently Hirst, when replying to criticism his art was simply pickled animal carcasses, said it was creative and talented because no one had thought if before. Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong, maybe I should enter next year’s Turner Prize by submitting a bucket of coal and title it ‘Industrial sacrifice to save a planet.’


While Banksy’s picture shredding stunt is the latest example of an art world seemingly fixated with bizarre artistic folly, it won’t be the last as it seems the world of modern art is fast becoming less about creative talent and more about PR and spin.

To have true value, artistic prowess ought to be something only a select few can do. Summed up perfectly by Michelangelo who, when asked how he sculptured his iconic ‘Statue of David’ said, “every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”
Indeed it is, and wager in a thousand yeas time his Statue of David will remain revered art, long after Hirst’s pickled shark has rotted away and Emin’s bed has been turned down.

This article first appeared in the Newcastle Journal newspaper 5 November 2018

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