It should be child's play to accept that some modern art is rubbish

A Critical View: Some modern art is rubbish; All the oils you own yourself; Thank skeuomorphs very much

Share
Related Topics

I confess that I didn't start watching The Shock of the New, Robert Hughes's landmark 1980 series about contemporary art, with entirely pure motives. BBC Four have been rerunning it as a tribute to the art critic, who died last month – and apart from a desire to see whether it stood up as well in fact as it did in fond memory, I also suspected that it might provide a shillelagh with which to belabour some regrettable tendencies in modern art-television. In truth the results were mixed. It's very good, because he is, but it's also startling to discover just how patient audiences were assumed to be 30 years ago (or, possibly, how atrophied our attention spans have become now). Quite long sequences unfold as simple montages of illustration and music. And although this has its virtues, you'd be hard pressed to argue that it's a sophisticated use of the medium. I also discovered – a little to my surprise – that Hughes began with one of those "In this series..." intros which so disfigure modern partworks – though he had the courtesy to keep his to around 30 seconds and he wasn't filmed on a mountain top as he delivered it.

One thing made me cheer aloud though – and it came during that opening introduction. Hughes explained the start and end point of his 20th century (roughly 1880 to his present day) and then characterised it as a period which had left behind it "some of the most challenging, beautiful and intelligent works of art that have ever been made... along with a great mass of superfluity and rubbish". And it wasn't the first half of that statement that made me cheer, but the second. Absolutely anyone could come up with the first bit, after all. You've been hired to present an eight part series on modern art and you – or your producers – may be a little anxious that the audience will be wary. What else are you going to do but promise that there are treasures in store? That's the thinking that seems to prevail now, when the presenters of big intellectual series often open up by brandishing their greatest hits and highlights.

But the truth is that it's the second remark that really sinks the hook in you. It acknowledges, without any fuss at all, that the unavoidable corollary of any superlative is all the stuff it rests on. And it hints that this is a man who knows the difference between good and bad art, and won't be nervous about pointing it out.

Few things as empowering as the permission to discriminate.

My cheer was possibly a little louder than it would otherwise have been because I'd just been reading two newly published guides to modern art – Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That (which is aimed at adult readers) and What is Contemporary Art? (which is intended for children). Both of them are intended to bring the light of contemporary art to nervous or suspicious outsiders. And they're not at all unusual in assuming that proselytising in this field has to depend on praise and rapture. I don't think either of them contains a passage in which a work is criticised for its failings, or – indeed – any suggestion that work A might be of more value than works B or C. It's almost as if the acknowledgement that a work might fall short of its own ambitions – or achieve them and still be banal – would start a hairline crack that might eventually spread and bring the whole edifice down. They're wrong though. Nothing is more likely to put people off art than the feeling that it's impermissible to dislike it, few things as empowering as the permission to discriminate. It wasn't Hughes's enthusiasm alone that made him such a riveting broadcaster but the reassuring knowledge that not everything automatically received it.

All the oils you own yourselves

Next week sees the completion of an admirably quixotic enterprise of scholarship, the Public Catalogue Foundation. When the photographers pack up their equipment at the National Football Museum in Manchester next Thursday the PCF will have fulfilled the mission it set itself more than 10 years ago of recording and cataloguing every oil painting in public ownership in the UK. The final tally is 210,000 works of art from 2,800 institutions and galleries. And later this year they hope to have the entire collection online (via bbc.co.uk/yourpaintings), searchable by artist, title and subject matter. Take a look. They're yours.

Thank skeuomorphs very much

A skeuomorph, you may be interested to know, is an ornamental design element that owes its existence to a functional one. So, your vinyl satchel (say) includes press-moulded stitching lines, because satchels were made of leather and had to be stitched. I learned this word because Apple, while despising skeuomorphs in its hardware, appears addicted to them in its software, and this makes some design purists cross. I'm undecided. The scraps of torn-off page you can see on Calendar are kitsch and silly. But the little judder that some unsung genius programmed into the virtual second hand on the Apple desktop clocks? I'm sorry but I'd hate to lose that. Sometimes a skeuomorph isn't a fake. Sometimes it's literature.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The plan could lead to up to 15,000 people being operated on annually  

The obesity crisis affects the whole of Europe... apart from France

Rosie Millard
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'