Christina Patterson: I had to go to China to find some decent art

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The Independent Online

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," said Keats. "That is all/ ye know on earth and all ye need to know." If only, mate. It may be poetry's job to universalise from the particular, but what applies to Grecian urns does not, alas, apply quite so neatly to the visual arts 2,000-odd years on.

I have tried. My God, I've tried. I have joined the black-clad hordes at Tate Modern, peering at purple triangles or wriggly shapes which might be the shadow of an amoeba – or perhaps a sea slug. I love the building. I love the restaurant. I love the wobbly bridge and I love the view. It's just the art that leaves me cold.

It was the same at Frieze. Room after room filled with bulbous shapes on plinths, Heath Robinson-type "sculptures" of bicycles balanced against chairs, photographs of middle-aged men staring grimly ahead – all, no doubt, "interrogating notions of selfhood, space and identity", "subverting expectations" and "raising questions" about our old friend, "capitalism". The one question these "bold", "innovative" works never raise, of course, is how capitalism is "subverted" by lumps of plastic sold for the price of an extra bedroom.

If this makes me sound like some kind of a philistine – the kind who thinks that art should be the visual equivalent of Pam Ayres or Patience Strong – then listen to this. "When I walk through Frieze," said Dave Hickey, "I say, is 99 per cent of this bullshit?" And who is Dave Hickey? Just one of America's best-known art critics, speaking in the keynote lecture at Frieze.

His answer to his own question, by the way, is "yes".

Which leaves about one per cent that's worth a second look. Yes, I suppose it might be as much as that. In the sea of banality that passes for contemporary visual art – a sea muddied by a market fuelled by hedge-fund managers with huge wallets and small brains – an infinitesimal percentage is genuinely interesting. But, my God, the dross you have to plough through first.

At China's first eArts festival in Shanghai this week, it struck me that this is not a universal principle. The festival, funded by the Shanghai government in association with a range of international partners – Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Pompidou Centre, Ars Electronica and the British organisation Made in China – brought together a massive range of visual, digital and electronic artists from around the world in a packed programme of exhibitions, outdoor installations, concerts and performances.

Some of it was superficial, some of it was bland, and some of it was just plain dull. But some of it was intriguing, some of it was fascinating and some of it was stunning. And nearly all of it – the brilliant and the bland – displayed a degree of technical skill that many of our aspiring YBAs appear to lack.

In a gallery in Shanghai's Hoxton, Moganshan Road, I saw an exhibition documenting the work of seven avant-garde Chinese artists whose performances, four months before Tiananmen, were crushed by the government. In a studio in a house whose other rooms were inhabited by entire families, I met Sun Liang, an artist whose work in the Eighties suffered a similar fate. His haunting paintings, now beginning to gain an international profile, are shot through with the shadow of death.

I left Shanghai reminded that conceptual art can be powerful if it has something to say, and that abstract art can be interesting if it's well executed, and that sometimes, just sometimes, an artist can do both. Beauty and truth. Yes, you can buy it, but you have to recognise it first.

Stating the bleedin' obvious

Gosh, it's a tough life being a saint. First we learn that Mother Teresa, the diminutive Albanian who devoted her life to the poor (and who's still stuck on the slow road from beatification to sainthood), felt abandoned by God. And now we learn that Padre Pio, a saint whose popularity is matched only by the Virgin Mary, is suffering the indignity of a biography accusing him of being a fake.

According to Sergio Luzzatto, Padre Pio's stigmata – which, miraculously, did not interfere with his active sex life – were created by judicious use of carbolic acid. Italian Catholics are outraged, but they needn't worry. Canonisation, as the president of the Anti-defamation League reminds us, "involves the infallibility of the Pope".

* We all know about the challenges prisoners face when leaving jail: how to find a job, pay bills and manage the details of their daily lives. We tend, however, to give less thought to another struggling sub-sector of society – our politicians.

According to a new report, about half the MPs who lose their seats take more than three months to find a new job. One in seven take a year. And almost all find it hard to match their perks – free parking, expenses, 91 days holiday – with a suitable package. Sue Doughty, a Liberal Democrat MP defeated in Guildford in 2005, even found herself registering at the benefits office she had opened the year before.

"It's a hard, cold, unforgiving world outside Westminster," said one MP in the report. And not that forgiving inside it, either. You would, in fact, have to be a bit of a nutter to take it on. And, if our glimpses of the baying, eye-rolling, manically nodding creatures in the Commons are anything to go by, many, sadly, are.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

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