If you gotta ask, you ain’t never gonna know

I headed to London for my Curiosity day and saw works by three quite different artists – the only link being that the art exhibitions fitted in with my schedule.

The three artists each asked questions about the nature of contemporary art and what it mean to be an artist.

José Damasceno – Plot – Holborn Library London

A site specific installation at Holborn library, this was interesting but slightly frustrating. The ‘art’ here came from the totality of the experience – sounds, images, objects, smells, even the locals just using the library.

Anselm Keifer – Retrospective – Royal Academy, London

Whether or not you like the actual ‘art’, it’s hard to ignore a canvas the size of a house. Not one to shy away from serious themes, Anselm Kiefer grapples with Teutonic mythology and legacy of Nazism. This show left me exhilarated and exhausted.

Richard Tuttle – I Don’t Know . The Weave of Textile Language – Tate Modern, London

Is it an aeroplane or a fabric spaceship? Maybe a giant fabric replica of an outboard engine? This was a beautiful, contemplative object that filled the Tate’s turbine hall and demanded that you just sit and look and think about light, space, colour, the stuff of the world, things rarely actually notice.

Back in Exeter I gave my presentation and inevitably we started to talk about those thorny old questions: ‘What is art?’ and ‘but a child could have made this…’

So how do I know if it is art?

Allegedly, when Louis Armstrong was asked what jazz was, he replied: “If you gotta ask, you ain’t never going to know.” whether or not its true, its a good anecdote that applies equally to art. Unfortunately if you ‘gotta ask’, its not very helpful. Luckily for folks who still don’t ‘know’, Grayson Perry has provided an easy to use checklist in his Reith Lectures to help confirm if you are in fact looking at art.

Check that the potential artwork passes as many of the following simple tests:

  • Is it in a gallery or an art context?
  • Is it a boring version of something else?
  • Was it made by an artist?
  • If it is a photograph, is it bigger than two metres and is it priced higher than five figures?
  • Is it part of a limited edition?
  • Is it being looked at by ladies with expensive handbags or hipsters?
  • If the art was on a rubbish dump, would people say, what’s that artwork doing on that rubbish dump?
  • If it is computer art does it have the ‘grip of porn without the possibility of consummation or a happy ending’?

Be careful though, most art galleries have benches, but benches aren’t usually artworks despite being in art galleries.


And what about your talented child? 

Can your child (or mine) make art? Yes, everybody can make art.

Is your child’s art any good. Maybe, probably not, but the important part is that you like it.

Is your child an artist? Perhaps. But just because you are an artist it doesn’t mean you are a good artist.

Can you get your child’s art in a gallery? Sure, take a leaf out Banksy’s book and sneak it in when nobody is looking.

Don’t get too hung up on questions though, just enjoy it (whatever it is).