I'd better establish my Northern credentials first of all – somewhat dog-eared and faded after three decades living in London but authentic for all that. I was born in Keighley, within sight of numerous factory chimneys (some of which were still actually smoking at the time) and educated in Lancaster, in a grammar school surrounded by red-brick terraces which had been turned a dark dried-blood by coal smoke. All my family come from Yorkshire and my wife grew up in Preston – which might be regarded as taking the whole Northern roots thing a bit too far. And when I drive up the M1 I don't think I've got even close to North until we're past Sheffield. If liking LS Lowry is a question of geographical destiny I think I'm pretty well qualified.
Liking LS Lowry hasn't got anything to with geography, of course – though you wouldn't necessarily know it from some of the mutterings that have surrounded Tate Britain's new exhibition of the artist's work. The gallery's previous neglect of the artist, it was suggested, sprang from Southern metropolitan snobbery. So although the gallery owned quite a few Lowry paintings these spent most of their time in storage. Only now, the implication runs, is Tate Britain putting things right with a show devoted to Lowry as an artist of stature, not just popularity. And the point of me starting with my pedigree is that I don't much like LS Lowry – and I just want to make it clear that it's got nothing to do with regional resentments.
I think I'd have to concede that a kind of snobbery is involved though. It certainly isn't that I mind Lowry's Northern-ness. And it isn't either that I mind his popularity. It's just that, having walked round the Tate Britain show, I can't fully understand it. What is it about these paintings that makes them crowd-pleasers? Oddly there's the occasional sign that the curators of the Tate show, TJ Clark and Anne Wagner, feel the same way. "The effect is grimly leaden," reads the descriptive label on one industrial landscape. Quite so – though I wouldn't use the phrase as praise myself, as they seem to be doing at this point. It's almost as if – in an inverted expression of the same snobbery that leads some people to be sniffy about Lowry – they're trying to put people off.
They are half-right, I think. Because the odd thing about these paintings, so often presented as warmly human and inclusive in their outlook, is their muted misanthropy. People, for Lowry, don't really seem to exist except as a decorative spatter on a municipal wilderness. They don't really have a life of their own, these individual figures – as every individual vividly does in a newsreel from the time. They're there as a kind of sociological abstraction – the working population. And that flat, white, polluted light that Lowry is so fond of spreads virtually undifferentiated from sky to foreground. And from painting to painting. See one and the vision is undeniably striking. See 60 in a row and a deep melancholy begins to set in. Lowry wasn't painting what he saw, you realise. He was painting the only thing he really could.
That way of putting it needn't be entirely damning. Some very great artists have become locked into one compulsive vision and made great work. But there is a less flattering interpretation of those words which sees the artist retreating safely within the bounds of his or her capacity. I think that's what you see in the Lowry show – a man sticking with a formula that he knows how to handle.
It's impossible to look at these paintings – with a very few exceptions – and think, "I bet he didn't know what he was going to end up with when he started this". The paintings aren't an expedition to somewhere new, just a return trip to somewhere known. And if that strikes you as snobbish, put it down to aesthetics and not geography.
A DVD player – the ultimate in retro
Sliding a DVD into the player the other night I experienced an unexpected sensation. It all felt a bit retro – I had to wait for something with gears and cogs to pull the disc back into the machine. And I don't think things would have been substantially different if it had been a Blu-ray disc. It was the physicality of the thing that suddenly seemed dated. I guess it's because virtually every TV company has now gone over to streamed previews, but it's also been exacerbated by the recent purchase of an Apple TV box (after a long campaign of filial nagging). How long before we start to feel nostalgic about swiping a touch-screen?
Now Amazon wants to sell art
The Art Newspaper reports that Amazon is exploring the possibility of launching an online art gallery – it's apparently talking to a number of American dealers about the possibility of listing some of the artists they represent with the online retailer. Two thoughts occur to me about what is, when you think about it, an inevitable development. The first is that both dealers and artists may find it painful to submit themselves to the rough and tumble of customer reviews. The second is that they're going to have to recreate online some of the upmarket froideur of real-world galleries, which can be so helpful in reassuring clients that their money is being spent on art and not old rope. Oh, and I'd better turn off 1-Click ordering.