Discussing art —
ONE is struck again and again by how keenly, and with what passion, are issues related to art discussed everywhere. (Everywhere else, that is, except in our own blessed land.) Three different things in three different countries that have been the subject of recent debate and discussion, might serve to make the point. It is naturally not possible to go into the issues — or cases — in any great detail here, but even their barest outlines should stimulate some minds.
In France, some time
ago, a cosmetics manufacturing company launched an advertising
campaign to promote one of its products, a "Retinol concentrated
anti-cellulite cream". Intensely figure-conscious women were the
obvious target, and it was in women’s magazines that the campaign,
consisting of a double-page spread, chiefly featured. On the left was
printed a celebrated painting by one of France’s foremost painters
of the 19th century, Gustave Courbet: a generously endowed woman
bather, seen from the back, folds of flesh clearly showing as she
holds on teasingly to a towel that barely covers a part of her ample
behind. At the right, as if walking past the painting, is a young
girl, obviously a model, also seen from behind, but nude and nubile as
today’s models are. The message, artfully brought out through the
contrast, was clear: cellulite like that seen on Courbet’s bather
can be taken care of, if only one were to use the cream being touted.
But the advertisement led to howls of protest, for a great painting by a national figure was being trivialised thus. Article upon article appeared in the Press, everyone pitching in, opinions firmly but civilly expressed. From this brief excerpt from an editorial comment in one of the leading papers, the anger aroused can perhaps be gauged: "How can this comparison be made? Granted, critics found Courbet’s bathing beauty a little too ample even by the standards of the nineteenth century, but to compare a mature, sensual woman, painted by a leading artist of the realist school, with a young model whose buttocks have been air-brushed into shape (at best) or surgically altered (at worst) is simply ridiculous. On the one hand we have this image of a sentient woman whose figure breathes life, human warmth and sensuality; on the other a pale replica of a woman, as cold and expressionless as a statue. It has frequently been demonstrated that art and advertising can add value to one another. Here, however, art is held up to ridicule; communication is stripped of value. Used so completely inappropriately, this marriage harms both cultures. It demolishes advertising as well as art."
From France to Russia. Hermitage, that great repository of art in the country, has been under attack for a while, a Parliamentary Committee having accused the museum of financial mismanagement and of losing objects in its collection. But the management of the Hermitage has not sat back, and quietly taken the allegations. Supported by the cultural elite of the country, it has issued a strongly worded, 78-page document, refuting the charges. The atmosphere is tense: the Parliamentary Committee is obviously powerful, but the Hermitage is no pushover either. One of the charges against the museum is that it failed to earn, from international exhibitions, the 2.4 million dollars it was expected to. Responding, the museum says that it is uncommon in international practice to earn money from exhibitions, these being of a reciprocal nature. We cannot be expected, the museum says with barely suppressed anger, to fill the state’s coffers from organising exhibitions: museums are not "commercial establishments". And as for losing objects, the management of the Hermitage says that it is trying desperately to recover objects that were taken away from it, in Soviet days, by the bosses of the Communist Party, ostensibly "on loan", for decorating state offices. The end of the controversy seems not to be in sight yet. But, clearly, forces are firmly ranged against each other, attack being met by counter-attack.
Finally, a quieter, but more thoughtful, debate from England. The newly set up Tate Modern, a gallery showcasing international art from 1900 to the present day, is the toast of the country, possibly the most successful among the many millennium projects launched by the Labour government. Appropriating, with great imagination, an old and obsolete building that was once a power station, a Swiss firm of architects has conjured into being a wonderful new gallery, gleaming on the inside if continuing to be outwardly sombre, and exciting in the manner in which it has put spaces to use. How well the Tate Modern has caught the imagination of the nation can be judged from the fact that, the first time I tried to enter it this summer, I had simply to abandon the idea: there was a serpentine queue close to a kilometre long outside, men and women, locals and tourists, patiently waiting to get close to the portals of the new sanctum of art. But, as far as the installation in the Tate is concerned, there is not much agreement. Under close, very close, scrutiny is the radical new format in which the collection is shown. The curatorial staff has opted for organising the Gallery’s great collection under four main themes: "Still Life/Matter/Environment"; "Still Life/Object/Real Life"; "History/Memory/Society"; and "Nude/Action/Body". These are new ways of looking at art, and not everyone finds them valid. A great deal has been, and is still being, written about linear and non-linear approaches to showing art. Among the most learned and sensitive minds in the country are engaged in the debate, discussing, among other things, whether the work of art is a " time traveller". For art matters to these people, are a visceral concern. Back Home
To come back home, briefly. One has to ask oneself the uneasy question: does art really matter to us as a people, a public? I doubt it. I wonder how many speople would give even a second thought to the philosophy of display in a museum here, or speak out when an art institution comes under attack. We are too wrapped up in our apathies, and too timid to join issue, when needed, with the establishment or the powerful commercial world. There is sadness in the thought.