Richard Ingrams’s Week
The Independent, Saturday 11 July 2009
'Ordinary' works are far harder to explain
So-called great art – music, writing, painting – is only for the elite. The "ordinary people" have no special liking for it, and it is pointless to try to help schoolchildren appreciate it.
The sculptor Antony Gormley, famous for his massive Angel of the North (which bears a strong resemblance to a Nazi memorial to the Luftwaffe), is only the latest to articulate what is now the general consensus.
Gormley is currently enjoying a huge amount of publicity as a result of his Trafalgar Square stunt, allowing punters to pose on the famous empty plinth and enjoy 15 minutes of being miraculously transformed into a work of art.
What a difference in this lively scene, Gormley says, to the nearby National Gallery, which is to most people "off limits", and where "you need background to know what a picture means and to access emotional content".
It will be news to quite a lot of people that you need background in order to appreciate, say, Constable's Hay Wain, above, or Van Gogh's Sunflowers. As for accessing emotional content, I don't know what that means and I suspect that neither does Gormley.
If you think about it for a moment, though, you realise that the truth is exactly the opposite to what Gormley suggests. You don't need any background to appreciate those great paintings in the National Gallery.
But what requires considerable subtlety of mind and philosophical expertise is to explain to those so-called ordinary people how a boring-looking man in a suit standing on a plinth sending text messages is a work of art. That surely is a very obtuse intellectual concept well beyond the capacity of most of us.