Swot up on the big issue at dinner parties

An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Art
August 10, 2001

I happened to be at a high-society dinner party in London a few months ago. Our hostess chanced on the subject of "modern art" and its demise, mentioning Stephen Farthing's book, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Art . She thought it utterly riveting, and highly informative - modern art revealed, once and for all, from the horse's mouth. None of the other guests had read it, which accorded our hostess the privileged position of the only "intelligent person" in the room. The conversation swiftly moved on. I remained curious: what could my elegant hostess have found in the book?

Unlike hers, my approach to the subject is informed by years of studying, teaching and practising art in England. However, having been born in Italy and having spent a part of my post-graduate education looking at oriental art history, I do not think only of English or western examples of institutions and practices of art. So it was a little disappointing that Farthing's book assumes that modern art's model is English, and that English art courses provide the touchstone of art education in general. There is nothing wrong with focusing on one's own experiences - but it is misleading not to acknowledge that an account of modern art will be accordingly limited.

The book jacket tells us that the views put forward are those of a painter. So that said, I will approach Farthing's text not as a "guide to modern art", but as a guide to how modern art developed in the western world, particularly in England, viewed from an Anglo-Saxon perspective, through the eyes of a painter well established within British art institutions.

Farthing's argument is developed ingeniously and in a predominantly colloquial tone - with something of the character of the "in-yer-face" statements enunciated by artists in pubs. There are six chapters. "The identity of the artist" and "The work of art" begin with commonplace definitions of artists and art - or more specifically of "painters" and "paintings". The opening statement that "the best moments in the making of a painting are at the beginning and at the end: the middle for most painters is messy", hints at the predominance of formal analysis. In "The landscape of art", the problem with the art market is defined in words that could be those of a patronising dealer - regretting that the market in "luxury goods" is "struggling to do something equivalent to selling the contents of Harrod's food hall to readers of The Big Issue ".

The parallels between art, consumerism and the pop industry colour the rest of the chapter, with (English) art schools seen at the "centre of the art world", encouraging students to "reflect the current market place in their studio work" - a phenomenon that on design courses is defined as the "link to industry".

"The exhibition - collectors and frames" deals, historically, with the "space" for art. I would recommend part of this chapter to students as it offers a concise panorama of the art retail scene. On the other hand, the section devoted to museums is far too summary, as the institutional practice of collecting art is a complex business. "The young: to become an artist", returns to art production in Britain. In the short time since Farthing himself trained at "St Martin's" on the Charing Cross Road, art schools have changed almost beyond recognition. "For the first time since the Renaissance, artists are now using cutting-edge technology, the same technology that science and the commercial world use." Therefore, the curricula are no longer "craft-oriented", but provide a "shorthand for deciding what type of artist someone is".

The conclusion to this chapter poetically links the moment when Van Gogh took his own life, to that when "artists began to understand that to work alone and to be genuinely inventive and extraordinarily creative was beyond most of them". Van Gogh and Pollock are representatives of a "high-risk" approach. Risk-taking is clearly a necessary trait of creative individuals, in art and in business. However, personal circumstances and character play a huge role. It is more realistic to take risks if a devoted partner, normally a woman, provides the safety net. To give Farthing credit, he does point out that the model for the modern painter, progenitor of today's artist, was male, French, and a painter. Farthing's own "Words about art" concludes with a consistently formalist analyses of works of art by dead artists such as Van Gogh and Picasso, and living artists, one of whom, Brian Catling, was formerly a colleague at the Ruskin School in Oxford. Now, having emigrated to the United States, Farthing will have the chance to implement his views on modern art in a non-English context.

Marina Wallace is senior lecturer, Central Saint Martin's College of Art and Design, London.

An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Art

Author - Stephen Farthing
ISBN - 0 7156 2944 1
Publisher - Duckworth
Price - £14.95
Pages - 125

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