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Art in the media: The people’s painting—only what we deserve

Komar and Melamid reveal what we like, Tory politician Jeffrey Archer speculates in Warhols, fictional Bacon somewhat censored, and Britain’s own intellectual, Jonathan Miller, on reflection

A few years ago, a British tabloid newspaper conducted a survey to discover the country’s favourite painter. Those preparing to sneer at the people’s enduring love of Constable as evidence of our national aesthetic impoverishment soon had the name Rolf Harris ringing in their ears. And we thought these surveys only told us what we already know.

Just as the implications of that revelation had begun to sink in, and as a degree of tolerance and understanding began to replace pity and prejudice, along came Vitaly and Alexander, two amiable Russian conceptual artists, bent on discovering The people’s painting (BBC2, 16 September). With the help of a MORI poll, which surveyed 801 British adults for their taste in art (two years ago they did the same for the US, and recently also for Austria), Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid canvassed a vague cross-section of British society on its colour preferences, whether we favoured abstraction over figuration, large pictures over small, the human figure nude or clothed, our landscapes populated or deserted, our brushstrokes calm or energetic. Ultimately the findings would allow the Russian pollsters to execute “The people’s painting”, a composite image aspiring to incorporate all of our national aesthetic ideals. A phone call to Rolf might have saved them a lot of time and petrol, but clearly Vitaly and Alexander, now resident in New York, but looking like two refugees from Haight-Ashbury in its heyday, had nothing better to do.

It soon emerged that this was to be yet another variation on the now all-pervasive fly-on-the-wall documentary format, with the Worcestershire Women’s Institute, Merthyr Tydfil Arts Society and the odd penurious aristocrat among the willing stooges. Being principally voyeuristic in its appeal, such television rarely generates productive debate, although it invariably feels an obligation to go through the motions. Patrick Boyle, Earl of Glasgow, invited the hirsute Russians into his Ayrshire castle to bemoan the dwindling role of the aristocracy as arbiters of taste, observing, as though by way of explanation, that “in Britain at the moment almost everything connected with tradition is unfashionable.” How right he was: 58% of those polled preferred “traditional styles in art”, proving that the majority cannot, by definition, be fashionable. A suitably salty rejoinder from the director of Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, Elizabeth MacGregor—“Art is a living thing, not a heritage thing”—got lost in the snow.

What emerged most clearly from this programme was that few poll findings in the post-Rolf period can tell us anything very startling about our mean national taste, and indeed the fact that 67% prefer paintings that are realistic, 80% prefer outdoor scenes, 51% prefer expressive brushstrokes and 70% chose blue as their favourite colour, was of little consequence and of only marginal interest. Vitaly’s attempt to mine a more existential seam—“Perhaps we don’t know what to believe in any more”—sounded as if it had strayed from another documentary.

Thus it was left to the marginal voices, the tattoo artists and the provincial clairvoyants, to steer us into the weirder waters and thereby to redeem the show. Steve Hartnoll had turned his body into a gallery of international tattoo art, Ganesh crawling over one shoulder, Krishna peeping round his inside leg, while tarot-reader Carol Temple rang a little bell to “clear her crystals” and spoke of “the astral light” and the wish to be lifted off the planet. Astral travel began to seem like an attractive alternative now that the poll findings had drifted into the background, but finally the Russians returned to the Royal Festival Hall to unveil the product of their labours—Britain’s “most unwanted painting” alongside the most wanted: “The people’s painting.”

The former, Vitaly explained, was “a small painting, Jesus Christ in cubist style in colours you don’t want—fuchsia, white and grey”, while Britain’s most wanted was an Arcadian landscape boasting a “historical figure—a kind of Churchill, a nice ideal family—Papa, Mama and two kids—wild animals, a lot of Constable...and violent brushstrokes!”

The result was indeed, as Vitaly helpfully pointed out, “a bad painting”, and evidently only what we deserve, but perhaps this also explains why low-grade Russian Realism is currently the most sought-after genre at auction and a pretty hot ticket in British commercial galleries. Needless to say, no-one had thought to inform Vitaly and Alexander of this fact.

Archery

If a vigorously brushed landscape containing wild animals and a nuclear family is the painting Britain deserves, what might it deserve in the way of fiction? Look no further than Jeffrey Archer, some might say, and doubtless Jeffrey would be only too happy to oblige, although recent attention has been focused not on his literary output but on his art collecting.

It was entirely fitting that Lord Archer would emerge as a closet collector of Andy Warhol and particularly of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. According to Victor Bockris’s biography of the artist, when the soup cans were first exhibited at the Ferus Gallery in California in 1962, the underground film actor Taylor Mead declared himself “a great admirer of Andy’s because everyone was making fun of his Campbell’s soup cans and I thought they were what the United States deserved.”

People have been making fun of Jeffrey Archer, not because he collects Warhol, but because he seems to have treated the pictures as an investment commodity to be bought up at favourable prices, only later to be offloaded at a financially propitious moment.

Radio Four’s excellent arts magazine Front row (28 September) strayed briefly from its usual cool trajectory to join those bleating about Lord Archer’s carnivorous approach to collecting Warhol. However, moral outrage has never worked with Jeffrey Archer, who can blunt the most pointed questions with a mixture of disarming candour and jaw-dropping naiveté. Sure, his own account of obsessively tracking down a complete set of the soup series could be interpreted as Philistinism of sorts, but acquisitiveness is a virus infecting all collectors to varying degrees and is particularly virulent where money and taste are present in inverse proportion. As for the real source of Front row funk, the commodification of fine art, Lord Archer hardly invented it and is in illustrious company. More to the point, Andy would not have disapproved. If Lord Archer becomes Mayor, London will have the mayor it deserves.

Devilry

With a handful of notable exceptions, cinema has failed miserably where fine art is concerned. John Maybury’s recent “Love is the devil: a study for a portrait of Francis Bacon” can be counted among the successes, for despite its many longueurs it contains moments of inspired bleakness. Essentially a slow meditation on Bacon’s doomed love affair with George Dyer, poignantly captured by Daniel Craig, the film is at its strongest on the grim domesticity they shared between their first meeting in 1964 and Dyer’s death in a Paris hotel room in 1971. Predictably, much is made of the Colony Club, the nocturnal zoo frequented then and now by aspiring bohemians, but here too the film veers dangerously close to parody. The principal mistake, though, was a hapless attempt to produce, through a variety of post-production image-manipulation, a cinematic analogue of Bacon’s painterly vision. The resulting optical distortions are wholly bereft of the signifying power of their painted equivalent and eventually seemed like an irritating way of disguising a more general poverty of content.

That said, one should not, perhaps, have expected anything genuinely revelatory about Bacon that we did not already know from biography and anecdote, for Maybury had already revealed that the most piquant material had, of necessity, been excised prior to release for reasons of funding or censorship. Ironic, isn’t it, that the pungent aromas that lure film-makers to such subjects in the first place so rarely end up in the final mix? What a film this could have been.

Sophistry

Finally, Jonathan Miller has once again demonstrated his unerring ability to think innovatively about familiar matters. Being that thing for which the English reserve a special sort of suspicion—an “intellectual”— and, worse still, a versatile and ubiquitous one at that, Dr Miller is something of a big duck in a short gallery. The gallery on this occasion is the National Gallery where his “On reflection” exhibition (The Art Newspaper, No.85, October 1998, p.41), exploring the representation of mirrors and reflections in art, has been pulling considerable crowds.

Notwithstanding the rather clunky exhibition installation, “On reflection” is a brilliant idea and, like all brilliant ideas, one cannot help wondering why no-one had thought to do it before. It can only have been a mere formality to bolt on a series of ten-minute television programmes (On reflection, BBC2, 15, 22, 29 September and 6 October, produced and directed by Patricia Wheatley) which the good doctor has delivered with this usual casual geniality, leaving some of us to reflect on how rarely television is used with intelligence and wit to deliver meaningful art history. Don’t even mention Rolf Harris.