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Sunday, September 8, 2013


In 1996, after seeing the Cézanne exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London, my wife told me – in no uncertain terms – that she would never take me to another art exhibition as long as she lived.

Let me explain: she was very excited about the exhibition as Cézanne was one of her favourite artists. I knew a bit about the development of modern art but I wasn’t really that familiar with Cezanne’s work – in fact I’d never seen any of his pictures – or at least ones that I could remember.

I really wanted to enjoy the exhibition – honestly I did. I walked round with groups of people all ooooing and aaaahing at each picture, but all I saw were too many paintings of bowls of fruit (mainly apples and oranges) and a distinct inability to paint hands.

“These paintings are rubbish,” I said rather too loudly to my wife as we entered yet another room stuffed full of fruit-based paintings, “I used to paint this sort of stuff when I was at school – and he can’t paint hands.”

My wife glared at me for a few moments – it was the special glare that she normally used when she needed to freeze some water – before she informed me that it was Paul Cézanne (1839 – 1906) who formed the bridge between late 19th-century impressionism and the early 20th century's modernism and that if it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t have Matisse or Picasso or any of the modern art we have today.

“That’s as maybe,” I said, “but he still can’t paint hands.”

“You . . .” my wife began, before she stopped and turned away from me. She didn’t speak to me again until we walked out of the exhibition, and it was at that point that she said, “I’m never taking you to another exhibition as long as I live.”

The thing is – I’ll bet a lot of the people at that exhibition were thinking the same as me. While they were oooohing and aaaahing and proclaiming Cézanne as a genius they were probably thinking to themselves, “Look how he’s painted those hands – they’re absolutely crap.”

There are a lot of art snobs in the world today and before I say any more I must make it perfectly clear that my wife is not one of them. She knows what she likes and is also a very talented artist herself. In fact the pictures that are included in this article (apart from the two obvious ones) are all examples of her work.

A few years ago a television programme (I can’t remember which) carried out an experiment to expose art critics for the snobs that they were and that when they wrote their reviews they were all talking a load of utter bollocks.  

A group of kids were employed to ride their bicycles through trays of different coloured paints and then ride over canvasses that had been laid on the floor. Once the kids had finished the canvasses were left to dry and then they were framed. An exhibition space was booked and invitations were sent out to a number of art critics announcing the arrival of a major new talent in the art world. 

Champagne and canapés were served on the night of the exhibition and virtually everyone who attended oooohed and aaaahed their way around the paintings, marvelling at the skill of the unknown but obviously immensely talented artist. Some of those attending saw things in the paintings that didn’t exist. “I can see what he means here . . .” began one art critic.

One critic even bought one after it had been announced who the real artists were, which really begs the question: What is art? 

This is art.

This is NOT art.

The art critics in that programme reminded me of an English tutor I once had who tried to explain to me what Shakespeare was thinking when he was writing Hamlet. Clearly no one knew what Shakespeare was thinking except Shakespeare who was probably thinking, “Needs more sex, violence and maybe a touch of incest.

Back in 1984, way before I’d met my wife I was studying with the Open University and on the third year I foolishly decided to take a course on 17th Century Philosophy. Don’t ask me why I took that course – almost thirty years have gone by and I still don’t know why I made that ridiculous decision.

The summer school for the course was held at Bath University and on the first day there I met a guy called Mike who, like me, was a kindred spirit, a person so bewildered about why anyone would want to learn stuff about 17th Century philosophers that he suggested the only way to enjoy ourselves over the coming week was to spend as much time as possible getting pissed in the student bar and not really learning anything of any value.

Conversely all the tutors were very excited about their chosen specialist philosophers – especially Mary, a rather well-spoken middle-aged woman with large spectacles, who took us for Spinoza.

Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677) spent his whole life philosophising that God revealed himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, and did not concern himself with the fates and actions of human beings.

For my eighth birthday I told my grandparents that all I wanted was a budgie and a bible. On the morning of my birthday I awoke to the sound of trilling and I rushed downstairs in my blue striped pajamas to find a cage containing a yellow and green budgie. By the side of the cage, wrapped neatly in brown paper, was a bible. Like all children who want some form of living creature as a present, I quickly became bored with cleaning it out and ruthlessly left it for my grandparents to look after – it outlived both of them and was eventually taken in by my grandma’s next-door neighbour.

I opened the bible at page one and read every single word of it. It took me a year and by the time I was nine I was a committed atheist.

As an atheist I don’t believe in a God of any kind and so Spinoza’s philosophical arguments were meaningless to me.

When I told Mary this she looked at me as if I was an amoeba with learning difficulties. “What do you mean by meaningless? He's an artist, for God's sake,” she barked. It was more of a statement than a question and she may as well have tagged the words “you ignorant bastard” to the end of it.

I wasn’t overly keen on her attitude and the overprotective way she had reacted to my argument.

“Well, the way I see it,” I said, “is that Spinoza is saying two times two is four, four times four is sixteen, sixteen times sixteen is three billion two hundred thousand one hundred and forty six – therefore there is a God.”

As the word ‘God’ left my lips I noticed the expression on Mary’s face change rapidly from disdain to anger to outrage and as the neutron bomb in her head went off, she gestured to the door of the classroom and shouted, “Get out!”

I looked at her in astonishment; her face had turned bright red and the veins in her forehead were beginning to bulge out and visibly throb. I half expected her head to explode and shower me and my fellow philosophy students with the contents of her skull, but instead she clenched her hands into fists and, with her eyes welling up with tears, roared, “Get out of my classroom now, you . . . you ignorant . . . f . . . fucking philistine!”

I left the classroom before she decided to murder me and waited in the coffee shop on the campus until the session had finished. My fellow philosophy students thought the incident was highly amusing, explaining that it took Mary, with her delicate aesthetic sensibilities, a full ten minutes to recover from my unexpected full frontal assault on her beloved Spinoza.

You don't have to be that crazy to be an Open University tutor, but apparently it helps.

I’d like to point out that I’m not a philistine any more. I do actually like art and artistic endeavour, although dance of any kind still escapes me. I remember going to the ballet once and thinking, “Why?”

And of course I still think philosophy is just another word for bullshitting.

My wife does now take me to exhibitions because she has shown me how to look at art in a different way – she has instructed me on how to behave at exhibitions when I don’t appreciate what I’m looking at and she even taught me the correct words to say when I think the artwork in front of me is a pile of old shit.

A couple of years ago we went to an art exhibition at the British Trade Officer’s residence in Al-Khobar. There were several artists exhibiting their work that week and there was some fine work on display, particularly from the Saudi artists. One artist’s work, however, was not at all to my taste. It wasn’t that her paintings were badly executed – it was just that they were so twee that they made me feel physically ill. The artist was in attendance and talking to one of the dignitaries on the other side of the room, when I saw a woman looking at one of her pieces that I particularly disliked. I sauntered casually over to the woman and as I looked at the painting with her I was about to say, “This is a pile of old shit, isn’t it.”

Luckily the only word that had left my lips was, “This . . .” when I felt a cold shiver run down my spine. I looked to my left and saw my wife, who was in a nearby group of friends, using her special glare on me. I immediately recalled her training and said, “. . . is a very interesting work. Do you see the way the artist uses a combination of blues and yellows to create the illusion of light?”

“Yes,” said the woman. “It’s lovely, isn’t it? My friend over there painted it and I’ve just bought it.”

“Lucky you,” I said, before moving away and blending in with the other guests.

“And what did you learn from that experience,” my wife asked me later that evening.

“That different people like different things, and that what I may think is a pile old shit, somebody else may incorrectly think is beautiful.”

“That’s right,” said my wife. “Well done.”

And so, as the great Spike Milligan once wrote: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder – Get it out with Optrex.”

1 comment:

  1. I really love the way you laid the words out on the page here xxx