Reading Test Medium-4

The Truth About ART

Modern art has had something of a bad press recently – or, to be more precise, it has always had a bad press in certain newspapers and amongst certain sectors of the public. In the public mind, it seems, art (that is, graphic art – pictures – and spatial art – sculpture) is divided into two broad categories. The first is ‘classic’ art, by which is meant representational painting, drawing and sculpture; the second is ‘modern’ art, also known as abstract or non-representational. British popular taste runs decidedly in favour of the former, if one believes a recent survey conducted by Charlie Moore, owner of the Loft Gallery and Workshops in Kent, and one of Britain’s most influential artistic commentators. He found that the man (or woman) in the street has a distrust of cubism, abstracts, sculptures made of bricks and all types of so-called ‘found’ art, He likes Turner and Constable, the great representatives of British watercolour and oil painting respectively, or the French Impressionists, and his taste for statues is limited to the realistic figures of the great and good that litter the British landscape – Robin Hood in Nottingham and Oliver Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament. This everyman does not believe in primary colours, abstraction and geometry in nature – the most common comment is that such-and-such a painting is “something a child could have done”.

Lewis Williams, director of the Beaconsfield Galleries in Hampshire, which specialises in modern painting, agrees. “Look around you at what art is available every day,” he says. “Our great museums and galleries specialise in work which is designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. It may be representational, it may be ‘realistic’ in one sense, but a lot of it wouldn’t make it into the great European galleries. Britain has had maybe two or three major world painters in the last 1000 years, so we make up the space with a lot of second-rate material.”

Williams believes that our ignorance of what modern art is has been caused by this lack of exposure to truly great art. He compares the experience of the average British city-dweller with that of a citizen of Italy, France or Spain.

“Of course, we don’t appreciate any kind of art in the same way because of the paucity of good art in Britain. We don’t have galleries of the quality of those in Madrid, Paris, Versailles, Florence, New York or even some places in Russia. We distrust good art – by which I mean both modern and traditional artistic forms – because we don’t have enough of it to learn about it. In other countries, people are surrounded by it from birth. Indeed they take it as a birthright, and are proud of it. The British tend to be suspicious of it. It’s not valued here.”

Not everyone agrees. Emily Cope, who runs the Osborne Art House, believes that while the British do not have the same history of artistic experience as many European countries, their senses are as finely attuned to art as anyone else’s.

“Look at what sells – in the great art auction houses, in greetings cards, in posters. Look at what’s going on in local amateur art classes up and down the country. Of course, the British are not the same as other countries, but that’s true of all nationalities. The French artistic experience and outlook is not the same as the Italian. In Britain, we have artistic influences from all over the world. There’s the Irish, Welsh, and Scottish influences, as well as Caribbean, African and European. We also have strong links with the Far East, in particular the Indian subcontinent. All these influences come to bear in creating a British artistic outlook. There’s this tendency to say that British people only want garish pictures of clowns crying or ships sailing into battle, and that anything new or different is misunderstood. That’s not my experience at all. The British public is poorly educated in art, but that’s not the same as being uninterested in it.”

Cope points to Britain’s long tradition of visionary artists such as William Blake, the London engraver and poet who died in 1827. Artists like Blake tended to be one-offs rather than members of a school, and their work is diverse and often word-based so it is difficult to export.

Perhaps, as ever, the truth is somewhere in between these two opinions. It is true that visits to traditional galleries like the National and the National Portrait Gallery outnumber attendance at more modern shows, but this is the case in every country except Spain, perhaps because of the influence of the two most famous non-traditional Spanish painters of the 20th century, Picasso and Dali. However, what is also true is that Britain has produced a long line of individual artists with unique, almost unclassifiable styles such as Blake, Samuel Palmer and Henry Moore.

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