OK, Do It: Teach Me How to "Get" Art

I got an art student to help me understand.

Glen Coco

A while ago, I wrote a piece about how I don't "get" art. For some reason, a lot of people have been looking at it lately. After reading through the several hundred really really fucking boring comments that were left on it about why I'm wrong, I thought maybe it would be a good idea to give art yet another chance. This time enlisting the help of someone who claims to know what they're talking about.

That chappy up there in that photo is our friend Alex, who is currently studying at the Courtauld Institute of Art which, from its Wikipedia at least, seems very important. We went to "First Thursdays", which is the night of the month that galleries in East London stay open late to show off their new collections.

I recorded his critical thought-storms and told him I'd respond to them later. Let's see if Alex can help me to finally "get" art.

I don't know what this one was called, there was no sign.

Alex says: "It's the Jubilee soon. The idea of monarchy is back in fashion as a way of reorienting the national spirit. A way of shoring up the shortcomings that Britain is feeling, a sense of crowning icons, or creating a cult of saints. As such, these seem timely. That banal, Nicki Minaj-type-celebrity just doesn't resound as much with people in the way the true male icons of the 60s did. People hark back to the 60s as a time when masculinity and sexual attraction could be found in its icons. In James Dean, in Elvis, in Hunter S. Thompson."

Glen says: "Eugh. Somebody subverted an image of Elvis again. I get it. There's some kind of statement being made about celebrity culture. Which, sure, whatever, valid point. People DO care about celebrities as though they're royalty! But is it not a point that's been made a billion times before? Or a point that could be expressed verbally? Just because an idiot has a very obvious opinion on something, does he really need to create an artwork to let the world know about it? The thought of these prints hanging on the exposed brick wall of some Shoreditch warehouse conversion is making my butthole hurt."

"Night Angel", by Ben Young

Alex says: "The childlike element of scrawling is a spontaneous reaction to what you find around you. Often the problem with people's expectations of art is that they're expecting something ingenious – the journalistic value of art isn't enough. They want surplus value, they want sweat off the brow, a unique, new and seductive aesthetic. But I quite like this canvas. I think there's palpably a lot of labour in it. I like the colour. It has a nice aesthetic correlation, and in that sense, it's considered. I think historically, it's particularly novel."

Glen says: "Not 100 percent sure what you're saying here, Alex. Maybe I'm just uncultured, but I don't think something can be both 'spontaneous' and 'considered'. All I'm seeing is a pile of scribble that is worth thousands of pounds, that people are going to come and stare at, in a gallery in East London that probably also costs thousands of pounds to rent per month. I can see that it might aesthetically please some people, but could they not look at a photo of it? Or give a baby some crayons and create their own pile of scribble? It all seems very wasteful."

"L.H.O.O.Q.", by Kate Hawkins

Alex says: "You say these are both Ikea shelves? Look at his witty little moustache. It's supposed to be a comment on how this combination of items is very infantile, low labour. It seems to be a humour comment on the middle class, or a certain type of nostalgia, perhaps for the Swedish modernism that Ikea used to be known for before everything was mass-produced. It's meant to be a sort of art naive, in that anyone can produce it."

Glen says: "Anyone can produce this? For realsies? I am SHOCKED. So the point of this is that it's possible for it to exist? Is that really something that needs to be pointed out to people?"

"The Last Huzzah of the Hoxditch Pleasure Pirates", by Robert Rubbish and Steph Von Reiswitz

Alex says: "The noughties have been a time of great hedonism, but it seems they actually lack the kind of hedonism of the 80s or 90s. Those decades had a trademark drug or music, whereas the noughties has been a melting pot for all, open for anyone to establish their own grand hedonism. As such, the late noughties are "The Fall of Rome". Hedonism and decadence have come to their own inevitable conclusion – people don't drink to support a debauched or romantic lifestyle, like Oscar Wilde or Jim Morrison. It's quite masturbatory, isn't it, this one? Like a comment on how much fun they are having within the confines of their own little group. Maybe I'm being cynical."

Glen says: "The late noughties? You know it's 2012, right? You been on the sauce [does drinky-drinky motion with hand]?"

"The Orchard" by Yves Beaumont

Alex says: "I'm looking through the literature that accompanies these paintings. A lot of the words they use are just empty. For instance, it describes the work as stopping 'a hairsbreadth away from the abstract' – what does that even mean? It's an abuse of language to make up for abstraction. What you should do with work like this is not describe it. To describe it, is to limit it. I mean, they're quite considered. I actually find them quite satisfying."

Glen says: "This is a series of plain white, or almost plain white canvases. Regardless of whether the artist is abusing language in telling me how to perceive them, these will always be plain white canvases. I don't even know where to begin in explaining that this is totally fucking idiotic. I suppose there was a point in human history where it would have been acceptable for someone to present this in an: 'But is it art!?!?!' kinda way. But now, in 2012? Can you imagine how many people must have displayed plain white canvases before?"

"The Riverbank", by Yves Beaumont

Alex says: "The art that the layman likes is vulgarised. In a vulgarised, visual culture with adverts on every corner, every 15 minutes on their digiboxes, they're used to a very loud, brash aesthetic, and the subtleties of something like an abstract painting are very hard to convey. It's an acquired taste – people actually have the chance to make distinctions, and distinctions tend to exist to make distinctions where distinctions ought to be made, and distinctions ought to be made within the kind of traditional tendency within which the artist is placing themselves, which should be kind of announced, really."

Glen says: "I just read that like, 30 times, and I have literally no idea what any of it means. So I'm not really sure what to say. I don't think you even know what you're saying, do you?"

OK, that's enough, I've come to a conclusion. And that conclusion is that art, as represented here by a guy named Alex, has failed to defend itself. And I have a headache from transcribing the four hours we spent talking about it. I guess, ideally, everyone should just stop talking about art. Or at least stop talking about it to me. If you want to look at something, look at it. If you want to pretend that a pile of papier-mâché vases is more visually entertaining than the new The Fast and the Furious movie, great. Good for you.

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