February 13, 2008

What Good Art Is Not

On day two of our London adventures we traveled to the Tate Modern. I don't know if you could guess it, but I am not actually a great fan of most modern art. There is some I like and I am very willing to appreciate the use of color and movement in a painting and admire what is good in even the least of realistic pieces, I do tend to prefer a good work by Reynolds or Sargent, when push comes to shove.

Still, off the kids and I went to the Tate Modern. Although they had some lovely works, a few of which we all loved, the main object lesson was indeed one in understanding what good art is not. Our tour boat guide a few days later, described the place as one to stay out of saying, "There's nuthin' but a load o' rubbish in there." I only slightly disagree.

Children are always very good judges of what I like to call the "emperor's new clothes" phenomenon. Adults pose and like to appear civilized and cultured. My five year old, when presented with a large canvas painted entirely grey, was not impressed at the "non-statement" the artist wished to make. She wanted to know why a hoity-toity museum would hang a painting up that wasn't nearly as nice as her drawings. We all thought the pile of bricks was amusing, noting that we hadn't realized we had such fine art lying around our backyard at home. And the guy who had rolled around in barrels filming his trip -- well, must art make you dizzy? My five year old was also appalled by a Jackson Pollock and thought her baby brother could scribble just as well.

My eight year old, who is very much an art lover, loved early works of Mondrian and Picasso (an artist he particularly loathes in general). He was pretty appalled that the same artist, Mondrian, who had painted one of the favorite works in the place (a church dabbled in orange light by a setting sun) would have fallen into painting squares in primary colors. We had a lovely chat about the trap of ego and the fortune of a sort that comes to some artists, allowing them to sell anything they make for large sums of money, even when it is not worth hanging.

One thing I particularly dislike about modern art museums, though this has only made an impression on me since I had children is the number of works I have to hurriedly shuffle the children past. I don't think I'm particularly prudish. I don't think there is anything wrong with viewing naked people in art, a Rubenesque nude doesn't shock us and none of us are too bothered by seeing gamboling nymphs and cupids. My oldest loves Michelangelo's David. But in modern art the art is not about nudity, nor the portrayal of the beauty of the human form. It's almost always perverse. There are some things children and even grown ups do not need to look upon -- and I don't feel any less sophisticated for believing that.

All this led round ultimately to a discussion of how we would define good art. The "I know it when I see it" definition, fits of course, but we tried to define it a little more, though not much. We decided ultimately our personal definition of good art begins with the question, would I put this in my house? There is, though, good art that falls outside this definition. The second question should be -- did this take actual talent to create or was it merely a somewhat clever idea carried to fruition?

I don't think any of my children would choose any time soon to venture back into a modern art museum, some of them would prefer to never darken the doors of any art museum, but at least one is developing a strong sense of his own likes and dislikes and was almost as happy as I was to spend another morning of our trip gazing in fondness at The Wallace Collection -- a polar opposite to the Tate Modern.