Modern art: I could have done that... so I did

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

After years of going to photography exhibitions and thinking he could do better, Julian Baggini gave it a go. But could he convince The Royal West of England Academy with his work?

Be honest. If thinking "I could have done that" while walking around a contemporary art exhibition is the mark of a philistine, aren't you a philistine, too? I know I am. Much as we may know that it's not as easy as it looks to create a decent artwork, there are times when we come across something so simple, so unimpressive, and so devoid of technical merit that we just can't help believing we could have done as well or better ourselves.

What perhaps makes me unusual is not that I entertain such thoughts, but that I did go off and try doing it myself. My medium was the most accessible of them all: photography. I've been a dabbling photographer since I was a teenager. When I was 16, I saved up money from a summer job at a burger bar to buy the then entry-level SLR camera of choice: an East German-made Praktica MTL5. I bought filters, collected a four-part photography guide from a Sunday newspaper and used the black-and-white 35mm film for the inevitable attempts at arty prints.

However, I've never turned my casual interest into a serious hobby and my greatest achievement was winning a photography competition run by my local WHSmiths. If you ask me now about ISOs and f-stops, I'll only have the vaguest idea of what you're talking about. These days, I use either a Nikon compact or an Olympus PEN, that uses SLR-style detachable lenses on a compact-like body. With both, I'm using almost entirely automatic settings.

There's no doubt that these incredible little machines can take great pictures. Some of the best serious photographers have used cheap cameras to take photos that stand up as works of art. But surely to pull this off you'd need to be very practised, with a deep understanding of how photography works?

Looking at many photographs in galleries over the years, I wasn't so sure. Immodest though it sounds, I did think that some photos I had taken were at least as good as the ones on the wall. I thought this again at last year's Open Exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol. The very nature of the show invited me to try to prove my point. As with the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition, anyone can submit a work for a small fee. It was irresistible. It didn't take hubris to believe I stood a chance. Three trends in art over the past century have opened the door for dilettantes to make their mark: technology, abstraction and conceptualism.

Before each of these developments, almost all of the arts required a combination of two kinds of ability, which for simplicity's sake we can call creative imagination and technical skill. Creative imagination is what enables a painter to conceive of what should fill the frame, a composer to hear things in his or her head before sitting down to transcribe them, or a sculptor to see what form a piece of rock could become. Such imagination does not generate a mental version of the exact result right from the start. But it provides the guiding vision for the creative process, one that is constantly shifting as new details reveal themselves in the mind's eye or ear.

To pursue this vision, however, used to require great technical skill. The world's best painting was no use in your mind if you didn't have the brush skills. A tune in your head would stay there if you couldn't write music. Even if you could plonk out the basic sequence of notes on a piano keyboard, you couldn't develop the melodies in your head into a complete work of music unless you could score the whole ensemble.

For some mediums, however, this is no longer a terminal problem. When we talk about the vision of the photographer, for example, we talk about his or her "eye": their capacity to notice something which, once captured, becomes a noteworthy aesthetic object. The technical aspect of photography is simply the means by which this vision is captured as it is desired to be. This requires control of lighting and focus above all else. But you can get a lot of this control in a simple point and shoot, so that anyone with a good eye can take very good photographs.

The main difference between dilettantes and the dedicated is that the former will often find themselves unable to exercise the degree of control necessary to achieve the desired result. They want to shoot a curious juxtaposition of stones on the cathedral ceiling, for example, but without a slow exposure and a tripod, the end result is going to be grainy and discoloured.

These limitations, however, simply result in a lower success rate, not inevitable failure. In good light with no focus challenges, it is enough to compose the frame and let the microchips in the camera do the hard work of making sure that everything is correctly exposed.

A similar change has come about with music. Now anyone with a computer on their desk can take a tune in their head and develop it as far as their patience will take them. It is now possible to score a whole orchestra while being unable to play any of its instruments.

It shouldn't surprise us that technology can take over the work of technique. They share the same Greek root – techne – and can both be routes to the same end product. Yet the replacement of one by the other strikes some as almost offensive, as though it is morally unacceptable that an untutored amateur could produce something to compete with the serious artist with his or her decades of training. But even setting aside technology, there are other reasons for believing that technical ability is not always and necessarily the key to artistic excellence. Many musicians and composers produce their best work while young. As they get older, they acquire more knowledge and experience of how music works, and yet they become less able to make it work for them. The difference between something so-so and really good is not always bridged by greater knowledge of how the medium works.

Nor does technical ability always require a specialised skill. Until the advent of creative writing courses, no major writer had to undertake wordsmith training to produce their masterworks. Practice is important, of course, but some disgustingly talented young souls produce better prose at first draft than experienced scribes manage only on their thirtieth.

Technology, however, is not the only reason why dabbling artists can sometimes compete with their more dedicated peers. In visual art, the rise of abstraction means that we now appreciate the aesthetic merit of what are, in formal terms, very simple arrangements of shape, colour and texture. Someone with a good eye can potentially come up with such an abstraction and need very little skill to execute it. The other key development has been that of conceptual art, where the idea is far more important than any craft. Andy Warhol only needed to have the inspiration: he could leave it to others, none of whom was more than merely competent, to execute them. Any one of us might come up with an equally strong idea that could be produced without the need for years of practice.

So, for many art forms, it is indeed true that "anyone could do that", in the sense that anyone has the technology or technique to hand to execute the idea. It has become possible for more and more people, often untrained, to express their creative imagination as doing so has become less and less dependent on technical expertise. However, not everyone can have the ideas, the eye or the ear to come up with something worth making real. That core of invention remains elusive, beyond most of us most of the time. The best answer to the moan "I could have done that" remains "but you didn't". No one else came up with the geometric lines and block colours of Mondrian before he did, not because they lacked the skill, but because they lacked the vision. Technology and trends in art have not, therefore, made really good art more democratic, they have simply widened the membership of the elite.

Given all of this, it should not be so improbable for someone such as myself to have work accepted by a major regional art gallery. So I submitted three of my photographs to the Royal West of England Academy's 161st Open Exhibition, competing with around 2,000 others. All of mine made the first cut.

That meant getting them framed and printed for the final judging. It also meant setting a price for the works, since everything in the exhibition is for sale. I decided on a limited edition of 25 for each one, charging £250 for an unframed print. That's not because I thought they were worth it but because I suspect, with art, pricing influences people's judgement of merit. It's as though people can't help thinking that a work selling for £50 can't be that good, while if it's going for £10,000, there must be something in it. So although I didn't see submitting my work as an attempt at faking it or pulling the wool over people's eyes, the pricing was an exercise in bluff.

Come results day, I was chuffed to find that the photo I thought my best had been selected. But there was a sting in the tail. There are always a handful of the 500 to 600 works selected that are not actually hung. Mine was among them. So although I can say my work was accepted by the Royal West of England Academy, you cannot see it there and nor is it listed in the catalogue. That has at least given me a name for what was originally submitted as "untitled". From now on, the work shall be known by the designation it was given by the academy: "Selected, not hung".

The Royal West of England Academy's 161st Open Exhibition runs until 26 January at Bristol, rwa.org.uk.

Julian Baggini's latest book is 'The Virtues of the Table' (Granta, £14.99)

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003