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

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
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.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?