How big a part does context play in determining aesthetic merit? Not the conundrum I expected to consider on a morning’s North Beach ramble with Bella my seashell-crunching terrier. And all because of a discarded chocolate bar wrapper.
Tail wagging furiously, Bella led the way down the narrow sandy path and soon I could feel my tension dissipate with every scrunching step on the familiar carapace of crushed shells and sandy grains.
Part of the routine is finding suitable shells for Bella to chase, flick and paw at until they are positioned just right for her to crack open with her busy little canines. Forget your scallops, conches, spirals or oyster shells, it has be a perfectly weighted limpet. Too heavy and she can’t break it and she ignores it; too light and there is no challenge and she ignores it. Just right and the ritual cracking of the shell pinioned between her front paws begins.
Looking ahead for her next shell, about thirty metres away I caught a vivid gleam of the most royal blue at the top of what looked like a long concave fragment of a razor clam. As I drew closer, the white of the clam’s ribcage seemed to providing a perfect contrast with what appeared now to be melded shades of blue that had come together to form this one fantastic hue.
What a beautiful addition this was going to be to the shell and sundry washed up curiosities I have long been scattering over the two narrow strips of gravel either side of our front entrance.
As I got nearer again, I thought I could discern what looked like stars, in a slightly lighter shade of blue, against the greater royal blue surface. Wooohhh! How fantastic!
A few metres later the penny dropped: I was looking at part of a Milky Way bar wrapper!
The bottom part was turned inside out, hence the gleaming white, and the rest was the familiar light blue stars on royal blue one sees on either side of the main logo.
So my beautiful shell was nothing but a mass-produced chocolate bar wrapper!
Not alone that, far from being a beach find I could treasure and honour with a place in our seaside terrace, it was a discarded piece of litter which I was going to pick up and throw in the next bin.
So, the context had changed my view of this object totally.
But I began to wonder and ponder: did that beautiful shade of blue lose all value and aesthetic resonance because of what it had turned out to be used for, and how it was fabricated?
Is it all about context, intent, the skill of the artist?
Maybe the original design of that wrapper, hand-painted or selected by computer programme, should be considered as art. Or does the fact it was done explicitly for commercial gain somehow devalue it?
Maybe there was a time when the skill of the artist was the main determining factor in its worth But that didn’t seem to work out too well for Van Gogh and a thousand artists starved of commercial or art establishment recognition.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder but artistic success is more often contingent on canny curation and marketing. Artistic merit would appear to be closely tied to patronage gained or denied.
As for intent, one thinks of Jackson Pollock, and wonders how a bunch of random drips and splashes of paint on a canvas can be so sought after and highly prized? And highly-priced.
Once upon a time figurative art ruled and we knew where we stood, more or less, when it came to the measurement of artistic merit: the artist was a skilled person who made beautiful things, and did them better than lesser artists. We the public stood and stared and admired. They inspired desire and wonderment. Stirred up more base instincts too.
There was still room for debate, but when it came down to it, great artistic talent was obvious, as produced by Rembrandt, Leonardo, Michelangelo or any of the great masters, Just like the football genius of Lionel Messi is beyond opinion and politics. The merits of lesser practitioners are open to debate and marketing skill.
Photography, perhaps, made the figurative artist redundant, in a way, and our discerners and purveyors of public taste eventually found their metier in the world of abstract art. But only when it started to sell: remember the opprobrium that greeted the early impressionists?
The trick with successful marketing seems to lie in identifying a bandwagon early, and having the swagger and dagger — and financial muscle, provided by self or others — to leap on board and claim the reins. The artist creates but the dealer creates the market. And claims the major cut.
Now artistic merit is much more open to opinion, persuasion and fashion, and the best, or at least the most persistent and well-connected opinion-shapers capitalise on it. Hence we have art as investment, as a barcoded commodity to be sold like any other market product.
Maybe if I got a pristine Milky Way bar wrapper and hung it up it would be art, or maybe I could paint it, like Andy Warhol and his Campbell’s Soup cans, and it would again be of artistic merit, and maybe even valuable? Better get on to the marketing department first.
PS: Have any of you read the Sunday Times article from October 8 on artist pals Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp? Here’s the link (long form only, I’m afraid) https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/dali-duchamp-surreal-art-royal-academy-london-7r7qz0bls?t=ie.
In it the writer, Laura Freeman, talks about Duchamp, “the man who put a moustache on the Mona Lisa, who submitted a mass-produced urinal for exhibition, calling it Fountain (1917), and started the merry dance that has brought us Carl Andre’s Bricks (1966) and Tracy Emin’s My Bed (1998). It is “art,” Duchamp declared, because the artist says so”.
So, you know who to blame!
Freeman refers also to Dali’s reputation and showmanship having detracted from proper appreciation of his sublime draughtmanship, technical elan and attention to the tiniest detail. Yes, we’ve maybe seen too many melted watches but I’ve always loved his stuff.
For me, Emin’s bed and Damien Hirst’s half cows and diamond-beaded skulls have always epitomised this emperor’s new clothes aspect of artistic merit as sales and marketing bullshine. Nothing to do with demonstrable talent, skill or that old-fashioned thing of doing something so fantastically well that others just gaze on it in wonder.