A clock in reverse

The mind of the master is as clear and focused as in any of his finest paintings. The bleak yet characterful lives of the women of Algiers are explored deeply just as their bodies are thrown onto the canvas almost neglectfully, Picasso’s binary view of the human female creating a vivid portrait of the dualism of 20th century life.

A hundred and fifteen million quid? Are you taking the piss?

Les Femmes d’Alger by Pablo Picasso was recently purchased for upwards of a bob or two by a former Prime Minister of Qatar. They’ve run out of football tournaments to buy so they’ve moved onto paintings by a man whose artistic talents resembled those of a 14-year-old boy with all life’s enthusiasm driven out of him by a job on a paint pot production line. If corpses could laugh there would be a constant low rumble in the graveyard of the Chateau of Vauvenargues near Aix-en-Provence, and yes I did just look that up.

Apart from religion there’s probably nothing I understand less than ‘art’. I specifically mean art as in the type they tried to make me do at school, wherein I was told to draw a bowl of fruit using crayons and I proceeded to draw a bowl of fruit, using crayons, unspeakably badly. I don’t mean film, I don’t mean music and I don’t mean literature. I mean paintings, sculptures and the various other forms of creation you’re told to look at, have no interaction with and admire because somewhere down the line someone’s decided on behalf of everyone that it’s fucking brilliant.

Perhaps my biggest problem with art is one shared by all who’d be called philistines. Who gets to decide what constitutes good art? If I see a painting, I’ll evaluate it based on whether it looks like it took talent to produce, whether there’s a good idea behind it and whether it makes me happy when I look at it. This, apparently, makes me an artless wanker because I can’t see hidden meanings, I can’t claim to see the true motivation of an artist in their work and I can’t be fucking bothered spouting nonsense about it involving words not heard since Dr Johnson made them up.

The finest recent example has just been unveiled at a station I pass beneath most days of the week. St Pancras includes a pleasing statue of its saviour John Betjeman, a plain, non-art clock for people to tell the time with, and a statue of two lovers entwined. The latter looks fairly dreadful to my eyes, but it does have an idea behind it, and obviously took a degree of talent to make it. Fair enough.

But now it has a new rival. Another clock. A black and white version of the original clock – identical to the current clock, right down to the manufacturer’s name on its face – sitting a few metres in front of the real clock. And this is art.

“A terrible, schmaltzy, sentimental piece of kitsch” is how the two lovers sculpture was described by a man the newspaper called a ‘senior Royal Academy of Arts figure’. In the same breath, Tim Marlow described this new clock as ‘beautiful’. “It makes you think of all sorts of things: time being synced, being eclipsed. The shadow side of time, a clock in reverse, the mirror image.”

Meanwhile, back on Earth, it makes me think of someone who has spent the decade since they left art college wearing a questionable hat and scarf throughout the baking summer months, looking wistfully into the middle distance in cafes, panicking internally while failing to have a single idea for anything approaching inspiration. Someone has written ‘artist’ in the occupation slot of airport landing cards without irony, in the interminable build-up to the crowning glory of their creative endeavour: a replica of a clock someone else built so people wouldn’t miss the 12:58 from London to Lille. It is described by the man from the Academy as ‘amazingly simple on one level’. The level of downright cheek it exhibits, presumably.

Paintings fly off the auction house shelves for millions and public art gets commissioned that makes no sense to man nor beast. Anyone who chimes up that these works are of dubious quality is met with the sneers of those who thrive in an industry that feeds on its perceived intellectual superiority. I have no doubt that critics who raise a solitary objection to a lauded artwork are gradually shamed into retreat or acquiescence and eventually learn that their future in the business depends on protecting the huge secret that art is basically an absolute bloody pantomime.

Who decided that the Mona Lisa is such an amazing painting? Christ knows, but if you disagree you’re just wrong, simple as that. Dare you admit you know Monet from Manet, but reckon they’re both bog average? Consider your National Gallery membership revoked. Think the bloke doing sketches outside Baron’s Court tube is easily a match for Rembrandt, Rubens or Renoir? Wait three centuries and someone might agree with you, but until then your critical opinions are as welcome as a paintbrush up the Aris.

What constitutes good art is something everyone should be able to decide for themselves, safe from the malignant influence of a collection of chancers without a single objective, factual or indeed consistent idea to base their views on. There is not one single reason an art critic’s opinion of a piece is more valid than anybody else’s. Whether something is worthy of praise is utterly in the purview of whoever is looking at it – but of course it’s damnably hard to make a multi-billion pound industry out of something so flaky as personal opinion.

Most galling of all is that the £115m Picasso was actually ‘inspired’ by a painting of the same name by Eugene Delacroix a full century earlier. Picasso took someone else’s painting and cartooned it in his usual risible fashion, and poor old dead Eugene was from then on fated to be remembered only as a footnote in the catalogue at Christie’s.

Whichever random clockmaker tossed off the design for the original at St Pancras, they must be fucking fuming.

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