the things art does

Yesterday my mum came down to London. I like it when that happens – we get to go to galleries and exhibitions all day and then eat nice food. I’ve got Tate membership and she’s got Royal Academy membership and an Art Card, so between us we get to see pretty much everything.

Yesterday we started at the National Portrait Gallery for the Glamour of the Gods exhibition. It’s essentially three or four rooms of black and white pictures of movie stars of the 20s-60s. The trouble for me was that, whereas these were film actors that my mum grew up knowing (many of them weren’t quite her generation, but they were icons all the same), I didn’t recognise half the people there.

I mean, there is always some fun in looking at a good picture of Laurel and Hardy or the Marx Brothers. And Buster Keaton’s extraordinary face, of course. And there is no doubt that Clara Bow and Marilyn Monroe were beautiful.*

But generally, looking at black and white pictures of a bunch of faces not doing very much had limited appeal for someone who hadn’t seen the films. In fact, I think this is ultimately why I don’t go to the National Portrait Gallery very much; portraits of people I don’t know, without action, can’t refer to very much for me. They don’t do much apart from exist as images that refer only to themselves. As a result they are little more than pure form; and there is limited interest in that to non-Kantians.

And as for making me do anything – well, it takes a really really exceptional portrait of a really really exceptional face to have any kind of perlocutionary force (I’m talking Mona Lisa/Pope Innocent X exceptional), and without that, what’s the point of an artwork? Heresy perhaps, and I’m deliberately overstating the point. But even so, I don’t think portraits generally tend to do a lot. Which is why the best use of photography is not portraits, but reportage and invention.

The next thing we went to, the exhibition of Hungarian photography at the Royal Academy, is packed with both.

In particular, I stared for ages at Capa’s photograph of the Falling Solder. This is it:

Obviously there’s some debate about whether it’s staged or not, whether the soldier died at all, whether it was actually Capa that got him killed, etc. The Mail, perhaps unsurprisingly, ran this ridiculous piece not long ago.

But what that debate misses is that none of that matters. Capa knew that literal truth isn’t as important as what the photograph does; he knew it was art, and it was art that represented the fact that anarchists and republicans were getting killed – killed nobly – in the Catalan foothills. It worked to recruit support for the Republican cause and to make the rest of the world aware that something was kicking off in Spain that would spread throughout Europe, ultimately throughout the world.

That picture isn’t a good portrait. It’s blurred and you can’t see the soldier’s face clearly. But the point is that as well as provoking admiration, that picture terrified and it warned. Good art is not just there to be pretty or to be an accurate depiction – good art does something. That picture – there is no denying it – did something.

We finished the day at the Courtauld Gallery, which I have, unbelievably, never been to but if you have never been YOU HAVE TO STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING RIGHT NOW AND GO THERE. Why had nobody ever told me before that it is pretty much the world’s most perfect little art collection?

I mean, the exhibition we were ostensibly there to see – the Toulouse-Lautrec pictures of Jane Avril – was not very interesting (maybe because the intended perlocutionary force of those pictures were just a little too crude: “go and see this woman do the cancan,” they say, and that may have worked at the time but for obvious reasons doesn’t work now). But it was worth it just to see the rest of the gallery.

At risk of getting the intentional fallacy chucked in my face, I do wonder, when I see a lot of art, how much intention (conscious or otherwise) there was from the artist that the work does things. And I wonder how subtle those intentions need to be before the work becomes really good.

With stand-up, there’s such a delicate balance – the work is intended to get laughs. But what other things must it do – while still getting laughs – in order to be the really great artform some of us aspire for it to become?

—-

*OH MY GOODNESS CLARA BOW WAS BEAUTIFUL LOOK AT HER FACE!

Advertisements

Leave a comment

No comments yet.

Comments RSS TrackBack Identifier URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s