Dave Barry On British Art

March 3rd, 2009

I admit that I’m a peasant when it comes to “art.”  For example, take Jackson Pollock. (Please.) He was, I’ve read, a master of “working spontaneously with liquid paint.” He would take big canvases and throw paint at them. Or drip paint on them. Or splash paint on them. The artsy glitterati would then ooh and aah over them and pay huge amounts of money to own one. 

What happened to artists who painted things that looked like, well, art? Even Picasso and Dali (a certified fruitcake) painted pictures that were worth looking at.

Which brings me to this Dave Barry column about goings-on in the British art world:

It’s time for an update on the British art world, which, as far as I can tell, exists mainly to provide me with material.

As regular readers of this column are aware, British art institutions have taken to paying large sums of money for works of art that can only be described as extremely innovative (I am using “innovative” in the sense of “stupid”). Here are two examples that I’ve written about: An artist named Martin Creed won the prestigious Turner Prize, plus about $30,000, for a work called “The Lights Going On and Off,” which consisted of a vacant room in which the lights went on and off.

The prestigious Tate Gallery paid about $35,000 of British taxpayers’ money for a sealed can containing the excrement of a deceased artist.

It’s hard to imagine art getting any more innovative, but I am pleased to report that the British art community is doing its darnedest. According to a London Times story sent in by alert reader Ronald Thurston, the prestigious Paul Hamlyn Foundation has awarded one of the biggest art prizes in Britain — about $47,000 — to an artist named Ceal Floyer, for a work of art consisting of a garbage bag.

Really. The work is titled “Rubbish Bag,” and to judge from the photograph in the Times, it is a standard black plastic garbage bag, just like the ones you put your garbage in, except that you have to pay people to haul your garbage bags away, whereas Floyer got $47,000 for hers. There is a compelling reason for this: Floyer’s bag is empty. That’s what makes it artistic. Floyer is quoted by the Times as follows:

“It’s not a bag of rubbish, it’s a rubbish bag. The medium is clearly portrayed: It says it is a bag, air and a twisted top.”

Got that? It’s NOT a bag of rubbish: It’s a rubbish bag! If THAT’S not $47,000 worth of innovation, then I don’t know what is.

The Times states that “Floyer’s sculpture is displayed by a doorway; the intention is that the viewer wonders whether it is full of air or rubbish.” Actually, what it makes me wonder is whether the folks writing checks at the Paul Hamlyn Foundation have been smoking crack. …


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7 Responses to “Dave Barry On British Art”



  1. Kevin |

    I’m definitely with you on this, Tom. I’m mystified at how some of this stuff can even be termed “art.”

    Personally, I would define “art” as aesthetics tempered or filtered through an observable skill or set of skills, both compositional and in terms of application (think: Monet’s heavy brush strokes or Fabergé’s insanely extravagant eggs).

    Where things like the flashing lights, canned crap and garbage bag go off the rails, IMHO, is precisely at the point that they forsake aesthetics for phenomenology or something along those philosophical lines. It is at that point of divergence that it ceases to be “art” IMHO.

    Now, far be it from me to deny someone whatever pleasure they might derive from a formalized approach to experiencing irony, as the garbage bag seems to embody – although, I would argue that the keenest irony was to be experienced at the point that the $47K was handed over for it… But I digress. Different strokes for different folks, I say. But don’t call it art because it fails the most basic test of what “art” is.


  2. Tom |

    I suppose everyone has his own definition of “art.” Mine is pretty close to yours. Like the man said about something else, I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it. Even better, I have a pretty good idea of what art isn’t.

    Here’s one working definition: Art is something created by a human being that doesn’t exist in nature. A sunset is sometimes beautiful, and so is a field of bluebonnets, but they aren’t art. A painting or a well-done photograph that captures that beauty forever–now, that’s art.


  3. doris |

    I totally agree, unless they will pay me 47,000 or 2.00 for pictures of my trash, air, or even my scribbling on paper. I think all 3 year olds could do a great job of the picture you show?? Ya think! It’s crap just like the huge salaries they pay athletes, it’s crap, unless you are the one getting the money, then it’s art!!!! I really miss pictures of flowers, and mountains and horses, now that’s art. My definition–a thing so beautiful you cannot describe it, only try to paint or sculpt it, and if you succeed-ART.


  4. NikkiO |

    Why does art always need to be beautiful? The function of the artist can sometimes be to critique society, which might result in some unpleasant-looking objects. In my research on several contemporary art pieces, they are usually based on an examination of a larger issue, such as race, democracy, the relationship between industry and nature, etc. Often, viewers dismiss an art object without taking the time to understand what the artist is trying to say with his or her piece. Taking the time to think about WHY the artist made this work (usually it’s not simply to be “stupid”) might help you find it more worthy of attention or even payment.


  5. Brianna |

    Are you honestly going to sit here and try to argue that someone’s excrement, an empty garbage bag, and someone flipping the light switch is an attempt at anything except scamming people for money?

    (At least, I sure hope that’s all they’re trying to do. They belong in a mental hospital if they think what they’re doing is actual art, or even just some sort of social commentary.)


  6. NikkiO |

    I’m not excusing all art; I’m simply noting that some art takes a bit longer to understand, especially if you start with the hindering view that contemporary artists belong in mental hospitals.


  7. Tom |

    Not to belabor the Jackson Pollock example, but he was definitely crazy — crazy like a fox. He threw globs of paint at huge canvases, and idiots paid him huge amounts of money. You can call it art and I won’t object, but the folks who paid for it were fools.

    Have you noticed that as time goes on, the art world gets stupider and stupider?


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