Art awards, BP Portrait Awards, Art for Art’s Sake

Award winning portrait of 2009
Award winning portrait of 2009

I like art – I enjoy a trip to the National Gallery, Tate Modern and many other places besides. I must confess though that I never really understand what I am looking at.

To me, a piece of art is good because I like it. Like a good wine – there may be plenty of people able to tell me why a cheap wine is no good, but when I taste it, if I am not offended, I carry on drinking and possibly enjoy the flavour and how it combines with my meal… to me a cheap bottle of plonk could be every bit as good as a fine wine hailed the world over. It depends on how I am feeling, the circumstances surrounding the moment, the company I am with and so on. Finery, it seems, is within the taste buds of the drinker!

Art is a complex issue for me. There are days when I enjoy looking at a painting, and days when the same painting seems to draw indifference from me. I love portraiture, for example (probably because I enjoy photography and particularly capturing emotion in people’s faces). I don’t tend to think too hard about it, I look and see the qualities I have captured and consider it a photo worth keeping and showing, or one to sit deep inside a folder somewhere on my hard drive, probably never to see the light of day again. Occasionally I delete them too.

What has baffled me ever since I began looking at art is the language surrounding the subject. This is what I never really understand. To me, it is as inaccessible as the jargon that surrounds many professions, often guarding the divide between being a lay person and being in the profession. Academics are good at this, talking with a high level of language that mere mortals can’t usually follow very easily. This protects the status of the profession, by making sure that only those who can access the language are able to rise to the highest levels. In many ways, the language used is a tool of the trade, and seems to get further away from the way most people talk. Perhaps it will soon be recognised as a different language entirely, when only a minority can master the complexities.

So it seems to be with art and me. I am unable to understand the language of the artist and struggle to see the relationship between what is often a beautiful image and the short sentence or two that goes with it. Take for example the announcement of the BP Portrait award on the BBC news web site today. Fantastic image, lots of detail and interesting lines that keeps me looking at it, and enjoying it. The artist, a 44 year old art teacher (uh oh… mixing art AND academia now), has this to say about his work:

“I challenge the fixed notion of an idealised image of childhood and substitute it for a more unsettling, complex representation that exists in its own right as a painting.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but this baffles me. I don’t have a fixed notion of idealised childhood. I am not sure that there is one – yet here is the winner announcing there is, and so I am lead to believe there must be, and that I have somehow overlooked it. I then look at what is unsettling in the image – perhaps that the age of the person is slightly imperceptible – could be 12, could be 30. It’s the clothing, the stance, the look in her eye, perhaps. None of this is unsettling really. If you met the person in context you would know the age more readily, but in the abstract world of portraiture, we have to rely on clues the artist gives us. Perhaps this is why it is unsettling – there are few clues. The clothing certainly seems to suggest an older person…

But it exists in its own right as a painting? What does it mean? It certainly *is* a painting, and it certainly exists. Could it simply mean that even if it wasn’t trying to challenge or unsettle you, it is still quite a nice painting? Is what he says reminiscent of the way I critique my own photography? It’s a nice image…

And how I wish this was the only example of such tom-foolery that seems to adorn the world of art. Why not simply say something along the lines of “A lot of people may not see the age of the child in this image, which can be confusing, and start to challenge your ideas about what your stereotypical child might look like. However, it also is a nice image, so enjoy it for that if you don’t want to think about the deeper meanings that you can draw from it…”

I suppose even that is going to cause concern with some folk. I just wish I could understand art a bit better, or more specifically, the language that artists use to explain their work to those of us without a clue.

5 thoughts on “Art awards, BP Portrait Awards, Art for Art’s Sake

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  • 27 June, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    Thank you for the very thoughtful comments on my painting, I am pleased it has provoked a response. Art remains a mysterious thing to me as well and often the written language and explanation arises after I have made the work. The work grows intuitively using a visual language and a gut response to the subject; in this case my daughter (age 12) ‘Challenging idealised images of childhood’ comes from my research into the sentimental images of Victorian children in photography and painting (think Singer Seargent and G.F.Watts ) My work takes this genre and gives it a slight twist making the image more ambiguous. In other words it is not a straight forward portrait of my daughter, it is as if she has taken the stage and is acting out an new role for anyone to interpret.
    More could be written, but in the end it is important to not read too much but enjoy the more emotional response.
    Peter Monkman (BP Portrait Award exhibitor of Changeling 2)

  • 28 June, 2009 at 8:53 am

    Peter – I am over the moon that you came here and took the time to comment on my observations! For me you have created a lovely image, which I will make a point of looking at ‘in person’ because I believe it would reveal so much more than I get from an electronic reproduction.

    Your explanation also helps a great deal – it is very hard to know from a news web site what is taken verbatim and what has been distilled from a wider narrative. I am pleased to say I saw the ‘acting out’ in your portrait, making it harder for me as a viewer to understand precisely who the person is. As I said, she looks as if she could be 12, or she could be 30. The response I wrote after seeing it confirms your point about interpretation.

    It remains a beautiful piece of work for me, too. Thank you for creating it.

    One thing I notice from the image the BBC shared, compared to that on your own web site… there is a distinct lack of red in the BBC image!

  • 29 June, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    Simple interpreation is further obscured by the way the images is printed and transmitted. The National Portait Gallery for some reason printed my image with slightly cooled down flattened tones in the face. In real life Changeling has much more depth of tone with more reds and pinks. On my web site I kept the saturation higher as if the painting is observed in subuded light. Go and see the real thing. The painting is beautifully lit in the NPG and often spectators feel it is much better in the flesh.
    Watch out for Changeling 3 which is being exhibited at the Mall galleries 2nd – 19th september as part of the threadneedle prize exhibition….also Changeling 4 at OVADA Oxford through July – August.

    All the best ,

    Peter Monkman

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