The sprightly 10-year old merrily ran through the contemporary art centre. In each room she halted and gazed around intently before turning to her mother with the imperious question: “qu’est- ce qu’il y a à regarder?” - “what is there to look at? ”
An excellent question indeed! Because, as John Berger famously remarked in his Ways of Seeing, we only see what we look at.
And of course, we do need a minimum of guidance for our gaze. As to ancient art, being an avid reader of art history may have helped me to better look at old paintings, appreciating style, understanding iconography. At contemporary art exhibitions I come less well prepared - armed merely with my status of a contemporary – and a reluctant & inadequate one at that. So I faithfully read the accompanying exhibition leaflets, searching for clues & meaning amidst the convoluted jargon (the west does love complicatedness! be it in theological tracts or in contemporary art discourses.)
But in the end, whether you love a painting (an installation, an object, … ) or not – is a matter of personal taste and affinity. Affinity with the expression of some purely human emotion – be it a longing or an elegy, a meditation or an accusation.
For instance, what I love in Lili Dujourie’s sculptures is the melancholy tension between gravitas & vanitas . The remembrance of the rich draperies in old master paintings, the tangible sensuousness of heavy folds, the fleetingness of an image in the mirror.
And I do intensely feel for the paradoxical theme of this exhibition “Unexchangeable” : the exchange value of art bought on the art market by collectors versus the supposed singularity of art works - our age of infinite reproducibility contrasted with a bygone era of artefacts whose value was vouched for by masterly skills, precious materials and a sheer irreplaceable material uniqueness.
I find it heart-wrenching how little our contemporary artists can count on a durable shelter for their ideas. Their use of discarded objects and perishable materials (ah, an almost decomposing matrass 25 years after its première ) – their ephemeral performance art … It does make me want to cry out with Ruskin “now, lastly, will you tell me what we worship and what we build? “ (1)
(And now, how is art still to preserve some of its singular, communal bonding power amidst the avalanche of images & videos & words massively unleashed by each one of us on social media?)
(1) Let me confess
I’ve been reading a lot of Ruskin lately – I love his 19thC style of writing, his erudition (encompassing bible & hymns & ancient writings). I do love his unflinching belief in holding up the highest standards for aesthetics and morals – which he sees as linked. It’s lost (forever, I suppose) that belief.
As a 21st C sceptic I may be unable to share his convictions, but I can still envy him for the following sentence - however exalted & sentimental, however denounced now as a privilegedillusion :
“[…] a picture of Titian’s, or a Greek statue, or a Greek coin, or a Turner landscape, expresses delight in the perpetual contemplation of a good and perfect thing. That is an entirely moral quality – it is the taste of the angels”