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Common ground

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’s Memorial 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

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12 Responses

  1. I share your perplexity at some modern art — the word ‘audacity’ comes to mind when I think of Warhol’s soup can–it has always made me laugh, and I think he is still laughing at us. As for the ketchup bottle–I have to admit I had a ‘political’ reaction to it: hmm… a ketchup bottle, no matter how you look at it, and whether or not it says ‘ketchup’ on the label, even if it’s 15 feet high and looks like it belongs in a kiddie park. My thought/question: So… did somebody get sued for ‘copying’ a convenient shape that facilitates a simple function? In the spirit of Common Ground, here are a few slides of 6 Apple patents ‘violated’ by Samsung http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/tech/itslideshow/15681324.cms

  2. I too share your confusion at modern art. In fact even some of the classics have me wondering about the artist. That is until I see the original. The ketchup bottle should have been a Heinz bottle. At the very least the artist would have been sued for copyright infringement. That would have been a worthwile statement. By the way Bloomberg aint such a bad guy. I remember 2 statemants he made early on in his first term of office. On Continuing welfare: “I was taught from an early age that sometimes people need a helping hand.” On continuing funding the Brooklyn museum: “If you don’t like the display don’t go see it.” Of course that belies forcing the art on the public in very public place.

    1. True – while I could have wandered through the garden/park without noticing the other exhibits really, the ketchup bottle is ever-so-slightly ‘in your face’. Wonder if that comment of his (if you don’t like the display, don’t go see it) was what the artist had in mind?

  3. I once realised I was nodding appreciatively at the light switches at a Tracey Emin exhibition. After quickly looking round to see if anyone noticed, I too found myself pondering art- a human compulsion that is essentially meaningless, and yet it contains, to borrow from Milan Kundera on the art of the novel, the secrets of God. Moments of thought and emotion captured and presented for interpretation. I think, therefore I am, and all that.

    Have you ever read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing? His is a refreshingly prosaic take on looking at anything from Canaletto to Cornflakes. To clumsily precis he argues that art developed to fit an economic need- mostly the need of rich men to show off how well they were doing by displaying women’s wobbly bits surrounded by rich silks. A visual language has become hardwired in us so that we recognise concepts such as luxury, or freshness, through representative shorthand.

    I must admit I would see a ketchup bottle when I looked at the Daddy’s installation too, but I guess that with John Berger specs on, it is quite a cheeky little number. It speaks to the cynics, the disenfranchised, the poor huddled masses in the city that once welcomed them and now, arguably, is as closed a shop as any old world country.

    PS To any offended Americans, I once got dumped by an American guy, its mostly sour grapes.

    1. ‘captured and presented for interpretation’ – this is what I struggle with Alex. Far from contemproary art opening itself for interpretation by the masses, it seems as if the critics and a small circle of elite ‘know’ exactly what the artist was intending and so rather than a free-for-all, we have a set interpretation that I just simply don’t get…

  4. This is an interesting piece indeed.

    Even the effort to understand art and evaluate it is essential for cognitive thinking.
    Sure in today’s modern art there can be confusion in a way’s people co-relate with the piece of art. That is because of 2 things.
    First – most of the contemporary (and post contemporary) art is strictly conceptual. What it means? Well, basically that the artist is putting the concept of artwork before the actual content (shape&style, ‘beauty’). Almost every piece of contemporary art firstly needs to be put into the perspective of social/art context, the artist’s personal context, and in these days, often in political/global context. That brings us in a position where art audience needs to be, let’s say, ‘trained’ and prepared for consuming such art., which is a paradox as that same art (‘liberated from content’) is using common day objects to personalise and form itself. The theses that ‘anyone can be famous only if he had some concept to put on himself’ brings us here where art-public is crippled in observing, evaluating and enjoying the contemporary art-work. To be straight, they (the public) don’t have to be aware of all these concepts that come prior to the art work, so they turn to popular substitutions instead, in order to satisfy ‘need for art’ which every person has. That makes even wider gap between public and (contemporary,’proven’ by art circles) artist and it needs to stop. Because it alienates people from the art and marginalize the artist.
    Second – most of that conceptual art has a contrast for its main subject/concept (that is a case with a giant ketchup bottle). Contrast is one of the key triggers for the ‘idea’ to spark. I would say that 70% of today’s art carries that concept since we became so aware of it trough the mass connectivity and globalization. Sure, all of that contains the artist’s personal concept and reflection as well (co-relating with the Oscar Wilde quote). So when you see a modern art work and you don’t get any direct feedback, it is probably some kind of distinguished contrast that co-relate 
    Ground breaking art never comes from central position in society (royal courts, academia, musseums, art galleries…) It always emerges from peripheries, from the restrained and distant, from the margin of society, and never stops to re-invent itself.

    1. ‘It alienates people from the art and marginalizes the artist.’ While I might feel alienated (i.e. not part of the in crowd that appreciates certain forms of contemporary art), I am at a loss to see how the artist is marginalized. I saw an exhibit today in Budapest and was stunned at the sheer naivety of it all – like something an eight-year-old could have done and yet this artist is getting prime wall space. Where’s the marginalization, Arvin? Am at a loss here.

      1. Sorry for being unclear here.
        Marginalized by own public. That’s what I meant, not marginalized from art circles or art establishment. My opinion is ‘If I need a pre-knowledge to understand your art – I don’t want to see and understand your art’ that comes more like a science (since you need to have some pre knowledge) not Art. Artists are on the loss, and a society is in a loss of common sense (ground in this case) I’m with you on this one. Conceptual art does not deserve so much attention given trough the main art channels! But as I said earlier real art is never at the major art shows. Even when you unravel those ‘You don’t understand’ wails and ‘get’ to conceptual art, one finds out that is basically hollow and shallow. Combined with such an autistic approach to the public you get one hell of a mess.

        1. Okay – now I get you – and agree with you, too.

          ‘If I need a pre-knowledge to understand your art – I don’t want to see and understand your art’ – nicely put.

          I can cope with having my own interpretation – I just don’t want to have to ‘match’ it up with the official version.

          Mary Murphy http://www.stolenchild66.wordpress.com

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