By MICHAEL BLACKBURN.
Britain’s Grand Old Man of Art, David Hockney, has shown that age has not dulled his ability to cause a stir by proving to the traditionalists yet again their claim that modern art is pretentious, childish, empty and insulting to the intelligence of the general public.
His crime is his digitally modified version of the Tube sign for Piccadilly Circus. In keeping with his use of the iPad it’s in bright colours, imitative of the handwritten, as opposed to the black Gill Sans of the original, but most provocatively, with the final “s” hanging off the end as if he’d underestimated the space required for the whole name.
Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, describes the sign as “brilliant”. He has to, really, doesn’t he, since he commissioned Hockney and others for his £7 million “Let’s Do London” tourism campaign? London’s a great city to visit – quickly and without loitering – especially these days under Mayor Khan (diminutive in stature, diminutive in achievement) and after all this time of being sequestered under the global coronapanic its businesses will need every pound sterling they can squeeze from visitors.
Anyway, the good news about Hockney’s Tube sign design is that he did it for free. It’s not going to dent his reputation since he is, as Waldemar Januszczak has described him, Britain’s “Sargent” artist, the equivalent of the Poet Laureate, so he’s safe for now. I like a lot of Hockney’s work and am happy to dismiss this as merely a temporary little connerie.
The same cannot be said for this year’s Fourth Plinth offerings, whose entries are conneries on a grander scale. The project, which is an annual competition to find an artwork to place on the empty fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, has already established its own tradition of preening correctness and cautious irony, having become, in the words of the Mayor’s own website, “known around the world for its diverse commissions and commentary on complex and contemporary issues” (diversity klaxon).
Among the current hopefuls is a warty man sitting on a log (I can’t help feeling there’s a disturbing obsession with excremental matter among these artists), a rocket, a sculpture of two blokes in hats, and a block of plaster casts of murdered trans-women in Mexico. I assume you, too, have been stimulated into a state of unbearable, self-critical, intellectual excitement by all of this, having become aware of the racism, transphobia, postcolonial guilt and whatnot in which you are immersed? No? Never mind, there’ll be more along soon.
Sitting on the plinth at the moment awaiting its replacement is “The End” by Heather Phillipson. This looks like a giant dollop of cream, topped with a cherry on which clings a drone that transmits a live feed of the square. Also clinging to one side is a huge fly, reinforcing the suggestion that this may as well be a gigantic stool.
Ms Phillipson has kindly explained that the original piece has been “scaled up for its ultimate size and context — one in which the surrounding architecture and its population are participants in a mis-scaled landscape, magnifying the banal, and our cohabitation with other lifeforms, to apocalyptic proportions.” No wonder the phrase public art acts on the soul like a metaphysical dose of castor oil.
The end of The End will most likely be to be stashed away out of sight in one of the various warehouses around the country where artworks are stored by wealthy owners waiting for a good time to unload them on the market. For once we should be grateful to the greedy pretentiousness of the art world’s collectors.
Occasionally a famous contemporary artist whose work is characterised by its blatant superficiality and flashiness turns out something amazing. I’d never liked the work of Jeff Koons, for example, but when I saw a photo of his “Cracked Egg” sculpture (the blue one — it has to be the blue one) I was impressed. I wanted it. I can’t explain why but there was something about its size, curvature and reflective surface that attracted me. You can keep the rest of his oeuvre, past, present and future.
The truth is that tradition does not guarantee quality. It may show better brushwork or technical skill but often it’s just as tedious as the modern stuff. I remember when I visited Chatsworth House many years ago and being struck by how dull and tasteless so much of its contents were. And we know that a large amount of such work was really soft porn for the rich; all those naked breasts and buttocks.
I sometimes wonder what it was like to be an apprentice to one of the great classical painters, working on bits of paintings the same way people work for Damien Hirst and others. Botticelli, for instance. Imagine you’re Ugo from Bologna being given the task of putting in the waves at the bottom of “The Birth of Venus”. You don’t like doing waves; you think they’re boring; they don’t stretch you technically; they don’t give you the chance to explore your individual creativity. You argue but the Master will have it no other way – it’s waves or nothing.
Ugo’s waves are awful. Was he just bad at painting them or did he do it deliberately, out of pique? You won’t have noticed, though, because you were too busy looking at the naked lady. Pervert.
Currente Calamo columnist, poet and writer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire. A Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Lincoln University (2005 – 2008), his poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent book is Albion Days (perennisperegrinator press). Sucks to Your Revolution is a collection of his Fortnightly columns.