Wednesday, 25 April 2012

A Taste of Porridge

Taste in aesthetic matters is a personal thing, obviously, although the consensus around "good taste" is as rigorously policed by its self-appointed arbiters as that of its zanier cousin, fashion. "Tastelessness" is not quite the opposite of "good taste", however.  For something to be judged in poor taste it has to breach certain widely-held taboos about the suitability of subject matter, and its appropriate handling.  Sometimes, but by no means always, "tastelessness" is a marker of the new.  Satirical comedy is the obvious example, but John Keats, in his time, was another.

Of course, mention the word "taboo" and artists will start to swarm like, um, flies round a cow's head in a vitrine, scenting an opportunity for "transgression" (transgression has been the new black for some time, according to the taste police, hadn't you heard?).  But the taboos of taste are pretty flexible, really; genuine taboos, by definition, rarely get broken.  Images of what might be questionable in most contexts are usually rendered acceptable by the sanctifying cloak of art so that, for example, in the 19th century the likes of William Etty and Lawrence Alma-Tadema could make high-minded, high-end soft-porn into a respectable (and profitable) business.  Someone like Robert Mapplethorpe is their direct heir; his work is absurdly overrated by museums and collectors, in my view.

So I suppose one shouldn't still be surprised to discover super-expensive "good taste" and highly dubious camp imagery co-habiting, especially in the domain of self-declared fine art photography.  I recently checked out the website of an upscale photography publisher, for example.  Now, this is a very superior operation indeed.  They publish strictly limited-run books of mainly world-renowned photographers, with production values that are stellar.  Their productions are as good as it gets, the genuine white-glove, collectors-only experience, with no expense spared, no corners cut.  So much so, it is very difficult not to feel that perhaps one doesn't really belong on such a website.  There are no prices on display, for example, and there's nothing so vulgar as a shopping cart.  To be honest, I expect all the copies are sold in advance to subscribers, and the website is little more than a prospectus.

Now, I accept that taste is a personal thing, and that I am a cash-strapped nobody whose opinion on the matter nobody has sought, but I found the work being showcased so luxuriously to be, in the main, rather dull, and some of it, dare I say, a little tacky, though without achieving the glory of full-on tastelessness. It seemed remarkably staid in its aesthetic choices -- mainly monochrome, of course, with an emphasis on tonality and composition, and highly-crafted using alternative processes like platinum -- but that, presumably, is what collectors demand. But I also found the similarities of much of the tackier subject matter tedious, it was as if all the artists had been issued with the same kit of random parts and the same instructions. "Art photography junkyard challenge", perhaps.

Let's see: there are naked bodies in oddly contrived poses, nostalgic junk, dead flowers, candles, mysterious symbols, fruit, bits of taxidermy, and quite often "all of the above" in constructed surreal juxtapositions.  These are either carefully lit in "still life" mode or washed out with pinhole languor, generally with a brooding overlay of angsty sexuality.  Like Alma-Tadema, the work often invokes the support of classic texts, though I am curious to know which of Shakespeare's sonnets is illuminated by Flor Garduno's image of a naked woman holding a severed swordfish head over her own like an idiotic hat*.  Preposterous is too kind a word.  If the names Joel Peter Witkin, Jerry Uelsmann, or Eikoh Hosoe mean anything to you, you know what to expect -- the gang's all here, and it's dressing-up box time, complete with dwarves and suggestive fruit. It's simply not my cup of tea, but I imagine it must sell.

Why do I find this disappointing?  I suppose because I like the motivations behind an enterprise like this, and therefore want to like its products.  Although, at heart, I endorse photography's democratic nature (and am dubious about the value of editioning photographs and photo-books), I am nonetheless a sucker for the honest pursuit of craft values and premium quality.  Sure, I could never afford anything on sale here, but I love the look and feel of a well-made print, have strong views on the relative merits of papers, and adore the heft of a well-bound book; I would be happy just to press my nose against the show-room window for a bit.

But it is the disappointing truth that wealthy collectors drive the upscale market, and collectors seem to converge on the same work, portentous stuff plastered all over with every possible signifier of "art", but signifying nothing.  But I suppose there's no point in setting up a business without knowing your market.  In just the same way, the producers of cheap, lo-fi fanzine-style products all push an equally predictable "urban" imagery (apparently rescued from an all-nite film-processor's reject bin) and whatever "look" has been in vogue lately.

Whether excessively precious or eminently disposable, "taste" seems to be the driver.  And, as I read somewhere recently, there is a useful distinction to be made between the history of taste and the history of art.  The former is the realm of minor artists, typical of their time, briefly popular but quickly forgotten, the modish filler that serves as the matrix for the outstanding, untypical work of the true iconoclasts and groundbreakers.  But it's an undeniable fact that there's always money to be made from peddling "taste".  It's what people with money to spare want to buy.

It all reminds me of the poem "Popularity", by Robert Browning, which concludes with this verse:
Hobbs hints blue--straight he turtle eats.
Nobbs prints blue--claret crowns his cup.
Nokes outdares Stokes in azure feats--
Both gorge. Who fished the murex up?
   What porridge had John Keats?
In other words, originators starve, imitators thrive.  It surely takes a brave artist -- and an even braver gallery or publisher -- to choose the starvation route.  But then, you get the impression that true originators, poor devils, simply can't help themselves.

(OK, OK, but that's MISTER Nobbs to you....)

*  Let me guess:
Shall I compare thee to a Manta Ray?
Thou art more fishy and corniferous.


Paul Mc Cann said...

I think you are a little hard on Alma Tadema whose work I quite admire. Good draughtsmanship combined with strenuous efforts at historical accuracy, a good eye for composition and a visceral way with colour. The history of the nude in art stretches long before his arrival. May not be to the modern taste but chacun a son goute as they say in Wales

(Too much Starkey perhaps?)

Mike C. said...

Well, there you surprise me, Paul, but as you say, de gustibus non est disputandum.

John Berger, I seem to recall, has interesting things to say about "nude" vs. "naked" in Ways of Seeing. I do wish they'd re-broadcast that series, which changed a lot of lives (inc. mine) when shown on BBC2 in 1972.


Struan said...

I am always surprised how strongly my own taste will distinguish between work which is superficially very similar. Your description of Flor Garduno's work would apply just as well to Graciela Iturbide's portraits of women with animals in odd places, but the latter affect me in a completely different way.

I would like to think the difference is not just because I know Iturbide has already been canonised, although I'm sure, deep down, that is part of it. I tell myself that it is because there is less of the dressing up box feel, more of a sense that the scene might well have happened even if the camera were not there to record it.

Mike C. said...


The line between magnificence and absurdity can be very fine... A lot depends on how readily "willing suspension of disbelief" can be brought into play.

I'm afraid I have a giggle reflex to most of that post-Manuel Alvarez Bravo work from Latin America, especially things like the juxtaposition of naked flesh and cactuses -- it uses an iconography I just can't relate to (perhaps it's very Latin American Catholic?).


Martyn Cornell said...

Mind you, Mike, Alma Tadema did appear to paint a protrait of one of your ancestors.

Mike C. said...


Ancestor? Waterhouse? Ah, you mean he too has a beard, and a smile that might uncharitably be taken for a scowl?!

Mind, if he spent any time in Liverpool in the 1890s he may well be an ancestor, given my great-grandmother's profession.

Well, weirdly, a quick wiki reveals that he did, rebuilding the Liverpool Infirmary. Who knows?


Kent Wiley said...

As I understand it, "taste" is simply part of the market. An interesting read about the subject is The $12 Million Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art which shows all the pieces of the puzzle. The market defines what is of value or not, and the market is made mostly by extremely wealthy collectors. The book is a bit dated (2007), but deals largely with Charles Saatchi and what he has determined is worthy. Which of course is Damien Hirst and the YBA's.

An amusing item heard the other day somewhere claimed that Hirst has 10% of the art market.

The important point of the book is that artistic "value" or "taste" has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with what has been identified by collectors as valuable.