|Tate of the Art|
|Written by Michael Claxton|
|Wednesday, 03 March 2010 15:16|
One of my first introductions to the world of art was watching “The Joy of Painting” with Bob Ross on PBS. Some of you may remember the mellow man with the afro who painted “happy trees,” always going from blank canvas to cheery landscape in 30 minutes. With his soft voice and light touch, he made art look easy. A sort of Monet-meets-Mister-Rogers-meets-Mister-Kotter, Bob Ross soothed a generation of viewers into thinking they, too, could paint.
From Bob Ross I learned two things about art. First, that paint strokes were deceiving. In the middle of almost every episode, the laid-back artist would appear to ruin his own handiwork. He would start by painting a lovely meadow or mountain, luring viewers into a sense of serenity. Then, like a mischievous vandal he would dash a black streak right down the center. As a kid I remember shouting at the TV that Mr. Ross was spoiling the happy river. Even then I was a tough critic.
And yet with a few careful strokes, that intrusive streak would turn into a tree, which would turn into a forest, which looked like it was meant to be there. Then all would be right with the world, which leads me to the second thing I learned about art. When Bob Ross painted trees, they looked like trees. His art was representational; it helped viewers appreciate the beauty of the world around them.
He clearly wasn’t into modern art.
During my semester in London (and now I’m down to starting sentences that way only four or five times a day), I was surrounded by more art than you could throw a Yorkshire pudding at. The National Gallery, the Royal Academy and other museums display stunning works from the world’s greatest creative minds. From medieval religious allegories to about a million portraits of Henry VIII, England is one of the places to go for visual culture. As an art lover, I was positively giddy.
Then I went to the Tate Modern. Since 2000, this museum has housed art produced since 1900. Located in an abandoned power plant which has all the charm of a Soviet prison¸ the Tate Modern does not feature a single happy landscape. In fact, there is nothing happy in the entire place. Visitors who are caught smiling are asked to leave.
Despite my dislike for contemporary art, I decided to “give it a go” and take a proper stroll through this famous collection. With a dark tower that reaches ominously into the sky, this clinical structure looks like a cozy place to store radioactive waste, which is how some people might uncharitably describe the contents within.
When I went in, I was directed to a giant box with a ramp where visitors could walk inside. So in I went and stood in the dark. That was the art. I stood there for a minute, dutifully feeling oppressed, which is a big theme with modern art. Then I peeked into a room filled with red things: red dishes, red toys, red furniture. It looked like Clifford the Dog was having a yard sale. Later in my visit to the Royal Academy, the home of classical art for generations, I saw an exhibit in which the artist had filled a cannon with red paint and fired it at the wall. And he was charging people twenty pounds to see what paintball fans can see every Saturday somewhere in Arkansas.
Back in the Tate there was the room occupied entirely by a giant table and chairs, three times normal size (Wonderland, anyone?). Another room contained a series of silver trinkets that had each been run over by a truck and suspended from the ceiling by wire. Yet another exhibit featured a classical looking sculpture buried behind a pile of used clothing. The Venus de Thrift Store, I suppose.
One anecdote encapsulated the whole dreary experience. During my visit I noticed two people staring at a blank spot on a wall. After a minute they looked at each other and laughed. They had been looking at a door, thinking it was one of the exhibits. That told me all I needed to know about modern art. In a world where anything is art, why not a door? In fact, I thought the exit was the best exhibit in the joint.