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Thu 1 Apr 2010 04:00 AM

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Is it art?

There may be no cash, but beauty is creeping back in to the art world, says Damian Reilly.

Is it art?

It was hard, wandering around Art Dubai or the opening of painter Sacha Jafri's new Universe of the Child exhibition at DIFC in March, not to keep being struck by how less deliberately bad art is getting. These days, artists seem to be making a concerted attempt to delight the people who might lay eyes on their work.

Anyone used to looking at art over the last decade or so will recognise this is a massive departure. Today there seems to be less of the paint poured onto a canvas from a great height, or bricks scattered about on the floor masquerading as an artistic interpretation of the struggle of a young single mother in a ghetto, selling for a million dollars. Artists now actually seem to be trying to employ a little skill in what they do.

Good art is the silver lining of the great global recession. We all know great conflict breeds great creativity, but does it follow that times of too much, of gluttony, of bankers being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for merely turning up at work, breeds bad art? I think it does. Art's role as a financial indicator is much overlooked.

Can you imagine someone today, in these terribly straitened times, trying to pass off an unmade bed as high art, worth considerably more than a teacher or a nurse or most of the rest of us could hope to earn in a decade? Important art prizes only two years ago were being won by ‘exhibits' such as a room in which the light was switched on and off repeatedly - would anyone today take such nonsense seriously?

Throughout history art has been closely linked to the financial health of the countries producing it, and by extension to the mores of the people living in them. Decadent Weimar Germany produced incredibly decadent paintings of people carousing and indulging themselves like libertines.

Wealthy Paris in the early 1900s was the stomping ground of Toulouse Lautrec, and everyone knows the sort of stuff he produced. During the Renaissance the art world was controlled by powerful families and individuals who commissioned artists to create aggrandising, but skilful portraits - essentially propaganda art.

But what does the so-called ‘shock art' that has dominated since the mid-nineties say about us? I suspect whatever it is, is not very nice - something to do with attention spans and gullibility.

Since 1995 until very recently, the most lucrative sections of the global art market were controlled by a very small cabal of collectors and dealers - probably less than twenty people, the likes of Jay Joplin and Larry Gagosian and Charles Saatchi.

These people had the power to manipulate the market as they liked, buying young artists' whole collections - young artists who seemed to be doing nothing more than ripping off Marcel Duchamp - exhibiting them, and then watching the price go through ceiling on a wave of press outrage and scandal, while bearded intellectuals everywhere held earnest and circular "but is it art?" discussions.

The good news is that while the West is in decline, India and China are on the rise. There are more millionaires there than anywhere else, and the boom in numbers of the educated middle class is well documented. Both cultures place a premium on aesthetics. Likewise, art at art fairs all over the world is becoming cheaper in line with the recession - in other words it is becoming democratised.

And the masses want beauty; they want art that is pleasing to look at. Painters then, painters who can actually paint, are back in gravy, and if you go and look around any of the Gulf's flourishing galleries, many of which are filled with Chinese or Indian art, or art destined for those markets, you will see for yourself. The economic downturn, then, is not all bad news.

There may be no cash, but beauty is creeping back in.

Damian Reilly is the editor of Arabian Business English.

Marlow McGuinness 9 years ago

Turner prize winners are hardly a suitable barometer for the world's artisitc output. They are quite deliberately an extreme example. Art does not necessarily have to be associated with beauty, it is more about the 'emotional' reaction to a work... essentially whether you love or loathe it. If everything is 'beautiful' you'll soon get sick of it.

RBH 9 years ago

Just before you can judge me wrongly, this is what you should learn about art: it is a creative impulse - the definition ends here. Art is not a Mona Lisa, or a water lily Impressionist painting by Claude Monet - art is not necessarily a masterpiece. All masterpieces ar art, but not all art is a collection of masterpieces. Furthermore, all art that we acknowledge in the past like Toulouse-Lautrec's, Van Gogh's, Munch's, and even Duchamp's early Cubism were banged by a lot of criticism and people back then called them "no art." The Impressionists themselves went on to establish the Salon of the Rejected so as they could exhibit their works. Henri Matisse and his fellow Fauvists were called "Le Fauves" (French for "Beasts") because there style was wild and un-academic. Expressionists such as Kandinsky, Klee, Schmidt-Rottluff, Nolde, etc were all regarded as "Degenerate" artists by Hitler and the Nazis. The bottom line is, at every moment of time, anything new came as quite a culture shock or a perceptually negative thing/creation. After 20-40 years, these artists are looked back at and are regarded finally as "artists." Today's art era is nothing but concepual. The Conceptualist movement which started off in the early 1960's, of course got its major influence from Dadaism which was nothing but an anti-art movement protesting for the wars committed by the wealthy corrupt politicians at that time, is dealing with art as a conecpt or an idea which is more prevelant in any given artwork than the "baroque" appearance of an artwork as perceived by many. It is difficult to discuss Conceptual or even Contemporary art for a person who is not familiar with it; one should research, learn, and get more accustomed to it more to understand the basic essence of it: the concept. I know I will not change the mind of many, as art is like music; I might like one genre of music or one particular song, but not all people would agree with me. There are places for your type of art, and there are places for mine. And by the way, the Turner Prize award awards contemporary artists who are more than 80% Conceptual artists in general; very few realists remain today despite the fact that we have honorable mentions such as Estes, Close, Flack, etc (the Photorealists).

Barry Norman 9 years ago

Why does AB continue to let this man talk about high culture? This man sounds like a Philistine of the highest order who has read a Wikipedia page or two by way of research to back up his flimsy argument. Most serious lovers of art can appreciate the merit of installations such as Tracy Emin's 'My Bed' or maybe the Goya-like gotesque of a Chapman brothers work. Art is about conveying emotions in an original way much more than it is about technical brilliance. Art isn't just about being able to perfectly paint a still life or portrait Damien. Why don't you stick to 'classics' such as 'Dog's Playing Pool' and leave art to the adults?

Sgar 9 years ago

I disagree with the prior comments and I fully agree with Damien Reilly. I will say more: I'm an Art Student and many Artists in the West today - who work many hours, who continue to study to improve their skills so they can master their media of choice, share my disgust at "Concept Art". The conceptualists are, for the most part, boys and girls who CANNOT draw and paint to save their life, but rely on a network of their moms and pops to sell a few. The true professional, real artist actually has to make sure he/she has a quality product to sell. Whether it shows how my PMS affects my judgment in the use of color or not, it better be good. I'll save my emotions for when the work is done. That is my current emotional stance, though I'm not a pro. Eventually, yes, but I'm not in a hurry. I don't want a photo of a bucket of urine on my wall. If I do and if I find it beautiful, then I need psychiatric evaluation. Now, if you paint a bucket of urine with such skill as to show the brightness of the colors, the crispness of your lines and do it masterfully, then you have made your point that EVEN a bucket of urine can be painted and considered "beautiful". Art IS about Beauty, it's about bringing to the attention of the public something positive and of substance, and as such there are levels of beauty and ways to demonstrate it. Conceptual artists love living off the reputation of those who work hard at being good, and who pay dearly for every brush, every pigment, every yard of linen, clay, bronze and marble. Having said that, there is some work that doesn't fall into the trash category altogether, regarding conceptual. But that is VERY rare. That artist Must be in full control of his/her technique and the end result must be pleasing to my brain. True: not all Art is Masterful but,I think, it's a constant evolution for the artist because only with practice and making mistakes, will the artist improve. One day he/she will make a masterful rendition. There are artists who paint abstract but who have to work at mastering the techniques they chose to render their "emotions". But as of the last 40 years, it's been absolute lazyness. And as I said before...the good stuff is RARE. And one more thing: I think many contemporary artists don't need to go on full abstraction/concept to follow their religious beliefs. There is vast proof of artistry centuries old that you can use as guide to inspire you. Not to copy, I mean. But inspire. And if you copy, copy well so you at least learn something regarding technique. My opinion is known. If you care to see some great artists in the making, please visit WetCanvas. Many are established artists, others like me are students/hobbyists. The good art is affordable but with a good chance of their value being increased in the near future. I guarantee you will spend days looking through the art displayed there.

Sgar 9 years ago

The author is well known C.M. Coolidge. Please check out his other paintings at And anyone can see it took great skill to make those paintings, which were commissioned to advertise a cigar brand. The originals are worth many thousands of dollars. As you can see, even in the mundane, artists did great work.