What’s the point of art?


Once a year I go to London to apply for my Japanese visa. I usually spend the time between my buses there and back in the National Gallery or Tate Britain. Both are free and both have good toilets.

I’m not very interested in art and I quickly get bored in galleries. Still, looking at paintings for an hour makes a nice change from walking aimlessly around in the rain. I stroll around, look at the paintings, read the descriptions but really my heart isn’t in it so I sit down on a cushioned bench, rest my legs and look at one of the bigger pictures. Yet I soon get distracted and instead watch the other visitors and try to guess where they are from.

My problem is that I just don’t see the point in looking at paintings. What am I supposed to be looking at? Here’s a picture of two blokes in frock coats having a picnic with a slightly flabby naked lady. And here is ‘Dionysus and Ariadne’, two mythical Greeks, I suppose. And this is a biblical scene full of people I have never heard of. What am I supposed to do with it all?

Sometimes a painting really does take my fancy, like the one at the top of this page. The girl herself is beautiful which helps. Also the treatment is beautiful: she is an individual yet also an idealised type: a generic girl. Quite how the artist managed to create something both particular and general is a mystery to me but I like it. And I like it more than I would just a photo of the girl.

If the point of art were always to produce beauty then I would get it. Or if it were to show off the technical virtuosity of the artist then I would get that too. After all, human talent can be very impressive. I feel the same way about circus performers and orchestras. Yet I am now so used to the idea that some people are very good at painting that I no longer marvel at it, just as I am no longer amazed that planes fly and telephones ring.

Some paintings are neither beautiful nor technically difficult, like Tracey Emin’s alleged ‘work’. And Picasso? I’m really not convinced he saw people, horses and things as fragmented angles. Nor do I think he even thought of them in those terms. More likely is that he once heard someone say that modern conscious was fractured and got it into his head to paint this idea. That’s fine, but to do it more than once? It’s like telling the same joke over and over again.

Pointillism? As far as I can grasp the artist, rather than mix the colours on his palette, leaves the mixing to the viewer’s eye. This requires that the viewer stands some distance from the painting or all he can see are varicoloured dots. What’s the point? Why not just mix the colours on the palette? Sheer laziness?

Impressionism? Two parts objective reality and one part what your subjective mind makes of that reality when it’s in a hurry. I quite like that idea, and the result. In Expressionism the measures are reversed and the subjective is overwhelming the objective reality. It’s okay but I prefer Impressionism. In Abstract Art the real world has disappeared altogether and all we’re looking at is patterns and colours. Nah, not for me.

Surrealism? Painting a dream might be interesting but did Dali really dream about sagging clocks in deserts? If not, why did he paint them?

And so an hour goes by, I consult my watch, go to the toilet for the last time, find the exit and then slowly wend my way down the Mall or along the banks of the Thames to Victoria Coach Station. This is my once-yearly routine.

So why do artists paint? Joseph Conrad once wrote that his task as a writer was, ‘by the power of the written word…before all, to make you see.’ What did he want us to see? Presumably whatever it was he wrote about which was mostly life on board a ship or some far-off, hot, exotic place. Perhaps this is also what artists try to do: tear the veil of custom from our eyes, make the stone stony again and make us really see again.

Anyway, next time I’m in London I’ll linger a little longer in front of the paintings in the hope of getting an inkling of what the artist is trying to say to me. Unfortunately I have never stood in front of any paintings by my favourite artist, N.C. Wyeth. In his illustrations there is always enough meaning for me and I never find myself asking, ‘What’s the point?’

n.c. wyett

2 thoughts on “What’s the point of art?”

  1. Interesting point of view. Personally I like walking around art galleries, although a lot of modern art is of course awful and not worth looking at. But I think most traditional art is worth spending a few hours viewing in galleries whenever I get the chance. The truth is everyone probably has something that they’re not interested in which many other people are. For me it’s golf. I don’t know how people can watch it for more than 10 minutes. Actually when I’m in London I also like to play the game of trying to work out where people are from. Quite often you can do it just from their body language.

  2. Yes, every man to his own. Even so, I am curious as to why I don’t react to art in the same way many others do. I would hate to think I was a bit autistic in that respect, like people who just don’t respond to music. Of course there is probably a certain amount of intellectual snobbery involved in art appreciation but that can’t account for all of it. Perhaps, like blue cheese and jazz, art is an acquired taste and I just need to persevere. (I have already given up on trying to like blue cheese and jazz).

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