Ever since I saw Andy Warhol’s rendition of a tin of Campbell’s soup in the San Francisco MoMA, modern art has confounded me. For the most part, my singular lack of appreciation for modern art doesn’t come between me and my sleep. I know what I like, and, better still, I know what I don’t like. Yet I was struck again by this inability to ‘get it’ when I stumbled across the Common Ground Exhibit in New York a couple of weeks ago.
In yet another attempt to understand where I’m going wrong, I consulted the great minds that have gone before me: Napoleon’s A picture is worth a thousand words. Yes, and most of them are unprintable. Oscar Wilde’s A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. That I can identify with – if unique is a polite way of saying ‘completely bonkers’. Albert Camus’ A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession. Isn’t that what confessionals are for? Van Gogh’s If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced. And you can still keep them in your attic! Finally, I hit on Aristotle’s The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance. Now we’re getting somewhere. Inward significance.
But how to find the inward significance of this giant ketchup bottle (2001) by Paul McCarthy? According to the New York Times, ‘Mr McCarthy’s ketchup bottle, aligned with the dome of City Hall, makes a kind of Neo-Pop-psychoanalytic connection between patriarchy and power, with Mr Bloomberg playing the role of a creepy authoritarian rather than a benevolent daddy.’ Now I ask you, how would I ever have come to that conclusion on my own? How many years of education would I have needed to recognise the significance of this piece? What would I have needed to have experienced in my life so far to make that giant ketchup bottle more than just a giant ketchup bottle?
Christian Jankowski’s granite slab was more up my street. This I could get. Or so I thought. A simple expression of the artist’s wish to be buried ‘somewhere on common ground’. The inward significance in this case is very much mirrored in the inscription. A case of it being what it is and no more. And I checked with the New York Times… and I got this one right!
In Thomas Schütte’sMemorial for an Unknown Artist (2011), I can see the angst of not being recognised. The frustration of no-one knowing your worth. The tragedy of great talent remaining undiscovered. The hands-to-head feverish clutching seems vaguely familiar. Do I recognise it as something I have experienced myself? Is this inward significance thing more about my innards than those of the artist or the art form? Do I feel as though my talent is unrecognised? Am I hiding my light under the proverbial bushel? Sweet Mother of Divine Jesus… do I need therapy?
Stop! Enough! Give it up, Mary, and admit that you have neither the wherewithal nor the inclination to be arty. So most of it goes over your head… that’s not a bad thing. Just think of the damage it might do if it actually got into your head!
‘Common Ground’ continues through Nov. 30 at City Hall Park, Park Row and Chambers Street; (212) 223-7800, publicartfund.org