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What Is Art For?
[Opinion] Visit to Tate Modern raises questions with multiple answers
Claire George (aeogae)     Print Article 
Published 2009-01-06 11:28 (KST)   
Last Saturday I took two teenage friends to Tate Modern, an art gallery situated on the south bank of the Thames in London. It seemed like a good place to take two young people because it has an exciting and energetic atmosphere.

Since its opening in 2000, Tate Modern has become the most famous showcase for international modern art in the United Kingdom. It is also undoubtedly one of the largest. The gallery's home is a visually striking former power station designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott between 1947 and 1960. (He was also responsible for that other British classic, the red telephone box.)

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The building's size makes it possible to display large sculptures and installation works. At present visitors can see Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's TH.2058, which looks 50 years into the future and imagines that Londoners are sheltering in the gallery from a never ending rain. The exhibit consists of row upon row of metal bunk beds and scaled down reproductions of other sculptures recently shown at Tate Modern.

My friends liked TH.2058 and my sister tells me that it also captured the imagination of her five-year-old daughter. It is clearly a work that requires a level of mental engagement on the part of the viewer to make it accessible and meaningful. Anyone (like me) who is too lazy to read the label that explains what the exhibit is all about will just wonder why they are looking at a lot of bunk beds.

Indeed that is the problem with much of the art at Tate Modern. It contains many examples of works by living artists who seem to be incapable of communicating their ideas without the help of written display labels. In my opinion their works lack craftsmanship, novelty, recognisable iconography and even beauty. It makes me wonder, has modern art lost its way?

I'm not against modern gallery art. Back in the 20th century innovative painters such as Malevich, Mondrian and Kandinsky (all on display at Tate Modern) found new ways to explore form and movement through the arrangement of lines, shapes and colours.

Rothko, whose work is currently on display at Tate Modern, produced pictures that basically consist of patches of blurred colour yet have a strangely beautiful stillness about them. For the time that they lived in these artists were originals and trail blazers -- and they were attacked by critics who condemned their ventures into abstraction.

But what about the modern artists of today who hang straps of leather from ceilings and leave piles of bricks on gallery floors? Will they be remembered as equals of Rothko?

Any answer to that question depends on how we define art. What is art for? Is it a way for the artist to express his or her creativity? Or is it a method of visual communication that is supposed to deliver particular messages to the community of viewers?

If you believe that art is primarily for the expression of personal creativity then you could justifiably say that I am wrong. Gonzalez-Foerster's rows of bunks beds are representative of a deep and thoughtful exploration of the artist's creative imagination. If you take this line of thought the piles of bricks, twisted up chunks of clay, things hanging from ceilings and other strange objects elsewhere in Tate Modern are also marvellous creative products of the human soul.

If like me you think that art should be about communicating without words, then you are justified in saying that exhibits which rely on labels to explain their meaning have failed.

But still, the answer is not as simple as that. All works of art are given meaning by words. Any Westerner who looks at a Renaissance picture of Jesus cannot do so without recalling what they have read about Christianity. Anybody who looks at works by the French Impressionists will be influenced by what they know about 19th-century France.

Yet for young children who know little about the world and can't yet read, the works of the Renaissance and the Impressionists still have the power to communicate something. These are still pictures of men, women, fields and flowers. Whereas a pile of bricks is just a pile of bricks, a row of bunk beds is just a row of bunk beds.

Or am I wrong yet again? I have seen small children delight in simple household objects. Would they enjoy modern art because they still have the innocence to appreciate the physical world for its own sake?

©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Claire George

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