[Image courtesy of Esther Westerveld at Flickr Creative Commons]
A couple of weeks before Christmas, I got into a spirited debate about art with fellow members of my book club.
“It was so strange,” said N. “When we stood in front of that Mark Rothko, I didn’t feel anything. But my friend S felt an immediate connection. She said there was a sort of energy coming off it, and it left her moved.”
Which left me moved too – but by disbelief.
Perhaps I’m just too set in my ways, and too conventional, but blank canvases and undifferentiated blocks of colour just leave me scratching my head.
What’s it all supposed to mean? How do you even begin to understand what it is when it doesn’t look like anything? Where’s the skill and mastery in just dripping paint on canvas (Jackson Pollock) or creating rectangles with blurred edges (Rothko)?
I should have kept my thoughts to myself. Having sown the wind of doubt, I reaped the whirlwind of indignation and before I knew it, the Christmas spirit had evaporated.
But we’re a civilised bunch, and it was all very polite. And when H said she was going to catch the show before it closed, I wondered if I should accompany her to confront my prejudices and feel the love.
A couple of weeks later, we headed to Burlington House in Piccadilly to get down and dirty with the Abstract Expressionists.
So what did I learn from my gallery visit? And what can marketers learn from artists?
Plenty, as it turns out – here are my top three takeaways.
“It reminds me of music that you can just about hear,” said the young chap to his girlfriend, as they stared at a muddy painting. “The melody is barely discernible above the hum, but it’s there. Those lines in the painting are like faint notes that rise and fall.”
For a moment, I thought she was going to laugh. But no. She was deadly serious as she turned to him and said admiringly, “You know, you’re so right. That’s exactly what it is.”
I moved on, and continued eavesdropping.
And without fail, in front of every work of art, people were talking in similar vein to their gallery companions. Telling each other stories, embroidering detail and building up a picture that they both felt comfortable with.
It was incredible to listen to. Through story after story, I realised they were connecting with the paintings. Most of these stories were inspired by what they already knew of the works, from the catalogue, audio guide and accompanying captions.
So somebody else had framed it for them, but they were doing the rest.
“What makes that a great work of art?” I said to H. “In fact, what makes it a work of art at all?”
It was a large canvas entirely covered in black paint. I was tempted to say “a five-year-old could have done that”, but thought better of it. I knew that would be a red rag to H.
So instead, I took an oblique swipe.
Would this painting be as good if we unhooked it from the wall of the RA and went outside to Piccadilly and hung it on the exterior wall? Or stuck it on the railings next to the brightly coloured works of the Sunday artists on Bayswater Road?
“That’s not the point,” she said. “It’s here. It’s art. That’s all.”
I held my tongue, and tuned into a conversation between a little French boy and his parents.
“I don’t understand it,” he said frustratedly. His mother looked down at him and smiled.
“There’s nothing to understand,” she said. “Either you like it or you don’t.”
Personally, I was with the kid.
Rothko, de Kooning, Pollock, Gorky. What do they all have in common – apart from being Abstract Expressionists?
They’re no longer with us, which means that there’s a finite supply of their works of art on the market. And that means only one thing: soaring prices.
If you caught the fascinating BBC documentary on auction house Christie’s a couple of months ago, you’ll have marvelled, as I did, at the phenomenal prices that are now paid for art.
And it’s all down to artists’ reputation and popularity (which ties back to storytelling, of course) and the number of works on the market. Good old supply and demand. And when reclusive collectors snap up rare works never to be seen again in public again, the price goes even higher.
When they put them back on the market years later, as one eccentric Chelsea collector did in the programme, they make a killing.
So was my visit to the gallery a success? Yes, but a qualified one.
There were some works of art I really liked, much to my surprise. I have to admit I’m still struggling to think a Rothko is as good as a Rembrandt, or a Pollock as good as a Pontormo. But as the French mother might have said to her little darling, il n’y a que les imbéciles qui ne changent pas d’avis – only fools don’t change their minds.
And if I learned nothing else, I found out that storytelling, positioning and scarcity work. But then I knew that already.
And so did you. So get to it.
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