Who cares if we can't tell Monet from Rolf Harris?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Whether it is exactly news that most people are not interested in art, I don't know, but for some reason a busybody at the Encyclopaedia Britannica has taken it upon himself to discover and propagate this fact. Five hundred British people were stopped in the street by harridans with clipboards and asked if they could identify several extremely famous paintings - or rather, if they could identify the authors of them.

The results, you will not be surprised to learn, were that some people hadn't a clue. Half the people asked didn't know who painted the Mona Lisa. Hardly any could identify works by Klimt or Munch. Quite a lot of people said that one of Hockney's paintings of swimming pools was probably by Botticelli - I don't know, perhaps there were some bottoms in it, leading to a disastrous association of word with name. And, the headline-grabbing statistic, 7 per cent of those questioned thought that a painting described as "Monet's 'Waterlilies'" could be by Rolf Harris.

This last one I suppose is funny in its own way, but it doesn't really surprise me at all. And somehow, the way the story was reported makes one think that, despite what they believe, the perpetrators of this supercilious scam are actually on the same side as the gormless Rolf Harris view of art history. Certainly, it doesn't seem to add up to much more than a ludicrous assembly of famous paintings, and sometimes very dubiously famous. Knowing who was responsible for a famous image is not a bad start in the understanding of art, but it doesn't really get you anywhere at all; and to suppose that there is a group of celebrity paintings which everyone should know the authorship of displays a sort of ignorance more deplorable, in my view, than not recognising a Klimt.

What, for instance, is "Monet's 'Waterlilies'", reported as an incredibly famous painting? What, exactly, were they shown? There are dozens of paintings by Monet of waterlilies from his last period, some more famous than others but none, I think, possessing or embodying the celebrity of the group as a whole. Despite a long time looking at Monet in his last period, I don't think I could confidently identify and date more than three or four without prior warning.

So to pick on one, describe it as "Monet's 'Waterlilies'" as if it were unique, and then ridicule people for not knowing it displays total ignorance of the context. All they were showing, really, was an example of Monet's late style, and people probably guessed that that was what it was. In reality, it might have been a piece of wallpaper, or a pastiche by Rolf Harris, or anything at all.

Some paintings, of course, do acquire a massive celebrity, but I completely fail to see, as in all these clipboard tests, that knowledge of a few incredibly famous pictures amounts to a fundamental knowledge of the subject. Nor, frankly, does it matter in the slightest whether individual people know anything whatever about art, or take any interest in it. Of course, it would matter if nobody did, but it seems to me rather admirable that half the people stopped on the street knew who painted the Mona Lisa, and that anybody at all had heard of Klimt.

And one really can't complain that so many people thought it likely that Rolf Harris could have painted a late Monet, or that, in another survey, people stopped at random on the street and asked to name an artist, any artist, came up with Mr Harris's name. After all, he is the one artist foisted on us by the BBC as the keystone of their arts coverage these days, the heir to Lord Clark. Nobody can be surprised if the casual viewer grows a little confused.

One watched Rolf Harris's art programmes with amusement, shading imperceptibly into despair. They are certainly very curious. An artist's life is sketched out very briefly, and some cheery but somewhat superficial observations made about the artist's characteristic style. Then the programme moves on to the real meat of the exercise, watching Rolf himself paint an execrable imitation of the poor artist's manner, talking merrily about himself and his own struggles with the paintbrush all the while. They are apparently very popular, these programmes, and there can be no surprise at all if, afterwards, some viewers take away the impression that the whole of Western art was leading up to Rolf Harris, and he probably painted most of it in reality.

Ludicrous as these programmes are, they do seem to me to share a great deal with these supercilious surveys from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The assumption behind both is that art is the product of the struggle of the towering individual genius; that great art exists in a vacuum, embodying the artist's own very special style; that this style is more important than anything else; and that the history of art is a matter of famous artists producing famous paintings, and that all we need to do to understand it is to match the two up.

None of these propositions is obviously true, and taken together, they reduce the study of art to a parlour game. We all have the sort of tiresome pseudo-cultivated friend who, on being taken into a gallery, rushes to beat everyone in identifying the Perugino or the Crivelli from 50 yards. That's the level of curiosity which arts surveys, arts coverage, and arts discussion stop at these days. Famous paintings which look like this, famous artists who paint - look! - like this, spurious titles and sometimes spurious painters; nothing more than that.