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Art and Contemporary Art

Many years ago when I was at University I did a module on history of art and we had a trip to the Tate Gallery, Liverpool. On display was a concoction of conceptual art and after taking a look at it the group was asked, amongst other things, "is it art?". The general consensous was yes, it's art, but acting like the little boy in the Emporers New Clothes (or, indeed, The Maverick Man) I offered an alternative position: no, it's not art. Art, I reasoned, was about the creation of beautiful things, and whilst the conceptual 'art' in the gallery might well have been clever, interesting and intellectually stimulating in some capacity, one could never claim it was beautiful, or stimulating to the senses in a visceral way. Most of it was, in fact, a load of crap, but the point I was making still stood. In fact myself and some friends went to a nearby pub and came to the conclusion that a fine pint of beer was a work of art because it is designed to be enjoyed and has no further purpose other than that.

A masterpiece by Michelangelo might also be clever, interesting and intellectually stimulating, and might have so much detail in it that only a seasoned art observer could point it all out, but aside from that most of his works just look good as well. They are interesting and beautiful at the same time. A lot of conceptual art is only beautiful like a mathemtical equation might be said to be beautiful; that is, in an intellectual way and not one of emotion or sensoral pleasure.

In my opinion something can only claim to be 'art' if the intention of it - however successful or not - is to stimulate the senses on an emotional level. Much contemporary art and music is not, by my definition, art at all, but is something else that has yet to be given a title.

The same is true of much contemporary classical music. A lot of composers today seem to think that classical music is to be endured rather than enjoyed. Despite fifty years of churning out tuneless atonal noise the general public has never taken to this 'contemporary' music in any great way. Some of it is very good with interesting sounds and structures, but the fact that I describe it as "interesting" rather than with words of emotion highlights that it is not written with the intention of moving the audience to emotional highs and lows, or if it is then it doesn't have much success of delivering it. A lot of it requires dedicated and repeated listening to be fully appreciated. And whilst some of it is interesting I've never wanted to listen to much of it more than once. Very little of this 'contemporary' music has a rhythm or beat, it is quite static and doesn't take you on a journey like a Beethoven symphony. This description of Bartok I once read sums it up nicely: "there's nothing actually pleasant about his music but putting up with it gives one the same satisfaction as bathing in a rough and cold sea or watching a test match".

I think it's about time that audiences pushed back against all the contemporary music drivel that is being churned out today. There's nothing original about yet another piece of noise masquerading as music given that composers have been doing it for half a century or more, and whilst some composers of the past took time to be appreciated it didn't take as long as fifty years. During my time at University someone showed me an article entitled "All We Like Sheep Applaud" which ridiculed contemporary classical music. It gave the example of a horn concerto where during all the rehearsals and the first few performances the soloist was playing in the wrong key and even the composer didn't notice. And a lot of contemporary "conceptual" art is, frankly, a load of pretenious nonsense. There is much great art and sculpture around today that is beautiful, interesting and original, so it is high time that art enthusiasts and the wider public alike stop believing something bizarre is worthy of attention just because it has been praised by self-publicising snooty critics and art gallery curators. A composer like Harrison Birtwistle wins award after award and yet his 'music' is pretty much ignored by everyone outside a tiny aloof clique.

Without public funding of the arts I suspect much of this stuff would never be produced, and whilst I support public funding of the arts I feel it could be better directed elsewhere than to the production of yet more non-art that the public neither understands nor likes. Art, in my opinion, has to have the intention of being moving, pleasing or charming on some level that does not require the exercise of the intellect, to be able to carry the definition of being art.