MYour parents are the owners of what I’m pretty sure is a bad painting of Neath Abbey. I can’t be completely sure because I don’t know anything about painting and have never seen Neath Abbey. But it doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen, so I’m willing to believe it looks like Neath Abbey. While it doesn’t look exactly like Neath Abbey – it is not credible to me that a medieval ruin (Neath Abbey is a medieval ruin) could, in real life, look so closely like a vertical shot of dried paint.

My best shot at an objective conclusion about this is that someone with painting skills above average for a human, but below average for a professional artist, rendered shapes on canvas which, if you knew Neath Abbey, would remind you, but wouldn’t go wrong thinking you were really watching him.

These are deep waters, I realize. Even though I’m ignorant of art, I’ve always heard of some paintings that didn’t have to look exactly like their subjects, or anything, to be considered good. I understand – this is not photography. Everything is valid in a certain way. Unless that’s not the case.

Because, of course, there is another category: paintings that don’t look exactly like their subjects, but were meant to. They look fake, but not in a two-eyed Picasso way on the same side of the nose that prompts applause. It’s a narrower chess: away from the triple 20, but he hit the board so the pitcher can’t get away by claiming he wasn’t playing darts in the first place. I think that’s what we’re dealing with here.

The artist, moreover, is long dead. I don’t know his name but the story in our family is that about 100 years ago he gave the painting as payment for a bar bill to an ancestor of my mother who ran a pub. Obviously he didn’t owe much.

For all that, I love it. It’s tall, dark, and old, and it has a thick golden frame. It is extremely pictorial. It’s a big old painting and, deep in my middle class soul, I know there is nothing better to make a room fancy than a big old picture hanging on the wall.

So I was interested to see that it was reported last week that the big old paintings are falling out of favor. Sir Nicholas Penny, former director of the National Gallery, wrote in the London book review that art investors and collectors suffer from “a sort of collective drunkenness” with contemporary art and that the institutions founded to house “old art” are now “determined to welcome” new works.

It appears that the market for high-end modern artwork is booming because, according to Penny, they are “bought as investments, more than ever before; they are deemed to constitute a secure “alternative asset class”. This trend receives “a strong institutional support from museums which hope to receive, or at least borrow, part of this art” and is further reinforced by “a base of popular enthusiasm”. This last point is illustrated by the fact that attendance at Tate Modern is much higher than that of its older sister Tate Britain.

Illustration: David Foldvari

Now that he’s just mentioned it, I think I’ve noticed what’s going on. Everything seems more and more modern-arty. It goes with that clean, spacious interior design style that magazines and hotels insist so much on. All in glass and marble and exposed brick. Large expanses of floor or wall, perfect for an interesting ‘room’: maybe a pair of giant neon lips, or a glossy floor-to-ceiling acrylic interpretation of part of the word ‘February’, or a half. Fiat Uno with Marilyn Monroe head hopping through the sunroof on a spring.

I probably let myself down with these dated or inaccurate references. Maybe it’s not Marilyn Monroe anymore, although vaguely Monroeish imagery seems to have been a resilient feature of this kind of clobber since Warhol started it all. So maybe I mean large sticks of noble mole, or a giant aluminum fish, or a huge voluptuously whipped eye with a little golden ear in the very center of the pupil, or a giant piece of cheese marked “chalk.” , or a little watercolor of the front in Sidmouth with a swastika smeared with dog poop.

I’m not fair, but I’m not really talking about art, which I don’t understand and will never understand. I’m talking about the “modern art” domestic look, as opposed to the “old pictures” domestic look. For those purposes, I put Constable in the same group as the guy from the bar bill at Neath Abbey, and whoever does modern art unmistakably does good with one who unmistakably does bad (and if there isn’t consensus on who is on which camp, please don’t tell me, as I will find it frustrating).

You see, to me modern art generally looks vulgar. Not in a gallery, where it seems appropriate – I mean at home. I don’t really like it, I find it shocking and it’s often an attempt on the part of its owner to project both taste and originality. In my opinion, you have to choose one. To opt for the double is pride and the physical manifestation of that pride is a horrible salon that you claim to love. Put up shelves and a bunch of old paintings, maybe a small table covered with family photos and trinkets – it will look much nicer.

I’m now yelling at hippies to get their hairstyles cut, and sure enough people can do whatever they want with their house (and who cares about my approval anyway? I love a bad old board. from Neath Abbey), but I find it liberating to admit all of this. All my life, culture has driven various versions of a “designed” environment in which it is advocated that we live. To me, it still looks basically the same, from the 1950s to the present day – it’s all part of a massive and relentless reaction to the grim clutter of the Victorian era.

I like the mess and I don’t think it’s unusual. But I think the lure of cozy old stuff is one of those feelings that people are wary of themselves. They think they’re supposed to want to “declutter,” so they dutifully replace their shelf of dusty, chipped porcelain dogs with a single gray bowl of silvery pebbles. And they think it’s much better.

Meanwhile, the gallery sends another truck loaded with golden frames to storage so they can clean an entire wing for the self-referencing Perspex.


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