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Sunday 28 October 2007

Naked truth of ludicrous contemporary art scene

Ruth Dudley Edwards keeps hoping that we will learn from our neighbour's errors

"Is Ireland going down the rubbish-strewn path of British contemporary art?" I asked a Dublin friend who knows about such things. "Not yet," she said. "But we're on our way." I was still reeling from the experience of the ludicrous Frieze Art Fair in Regent's Park, London, where around 150 galleries from Europe and America exhibit the work of those they think are their brightest and best.

I was there not because I expected to have my aesthetic side tickled, but because I was doing research for my next satirical crime novel (working title Killing the Emperors -- as in Emperor's new clothes). I originally intended to kill off a batch of contemporary artists, but, post-Frieze, my knife is being sharpened for the gallery owners who encourage young people to create worthless items for the uneducated monied.

In a sea of mediocrity and much, much worse, I gave the palm to a piece of cardboard, around 6ft by 2ft, into which the artist had punched around a dozen holes. Most of such garbage comes with pretentious gibberish titles inspired by Damien Hirst -- the daddy of meaningless modishness -- who came to fame with a dead shark in formaldehyde which he called 'The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living', but this was untitled. I asked the young blonde in charge to tell me about it. "It's by Gedi Sibony," she said reverentially, "a young artist with whom we are working closely." "And how much is it?" I asked. She let me down gently. "I'm afraid it's sold," she said. "It went for $14,000."

Young Gedi, I learned later, is noted for his "sensitive handling of hollow-core doors and commercial carpet". (Note to self: kill some critics.)

Now I know that in a world where Tracey Emin's filthy bed went for a quarter of a million (sterling) and a Hirst medicine cabinet with rows of coloured pills was bought by some fool with stg£9.7m to chuck away, this is a piffling sum. But even $14,000 could buy a wonderful sculpture or a fine painting.

Recently, as we reflected on what the nouveau riche are doing with their money, my friend John and I pretended we had a commission to spend a City banker's million-pound bonus at the Grosvenor Art and Antiques Fair. When we reached £100,000 we already had a perfect Roman mosaic, a magnificent Chinese carpet, a heart-stopping 4ft medieval oak carving of Jesus and elaborate and exquisite table-silver for the Georgian dining table we were seeking.

But most City bankers wouldn't have thanked us for what we were pretending to buy. Their ignorance and gullibility make them slavish devotees to a cult of celebrity culture that makes them lob obscene amounts of money at cynical rip-off merchants like Hirst and his followers, most of whom couldn't draw a house, let alone create a thing of beauty or artistic worth. But then their generation has been so betrayed by the art establishment that they've had little opportunity to acquire any skills.

A young Irish friend who wanted to go to art college in London to learn to draw and paint had to give up when he discovered that his notions were old-fashioned and that what was on offer was an opportunity to do nothing except discover his inner conceptual artist. (NB: add teachers to the hit list.)

I keep hoping pathetically that -- despite following blindly in the wake of great British disasters like awful architecture and content-free education -- Ireland will learn from her neighbour's mistakes on issues from immigration to cultural vandalism.

I checked the scene out in Sotheby's as the exhibits in its modern and contemporary Irish art sale went on show. The modern art, like British modern art, was fine (Louis le Brocquy, Charles Harper), but my cultivated Dublin friend was right. There were more decent pieces than you'd find in the British equivalent, and less of the utterly ridiculous, but the trash is there too. Take Dubliner Sean Shanahan and his blank canvases. We are told that 'Bud', which is red, demonstrates 'a marked development' because Shanahan no longer leaves the edges of the board unpainted.

The other day I met Roger Kimball, author of The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art and a general in the American culture wars. He related that after he and his eight-year-old son James had gone around the National Portrait Gallery that day, the lad had asked to see some contemporary art. "Why, James?" asked Kimball. "So we can laugh at it, Daddy."

That's the spirit, James. Eight-year-olds were always good at spotting that emperors were naked.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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