A lifetime ago I journeyed to Toronto for a taste of modern culture, having been told that we hadn’t any in the west. I lived with a trio of filmmakers in a neighbourhood crowded with brooding, swarthy men and verbally flamboyant women.
Down the block was a street lined with stores that spilled onto the pavement with exotic-looking vegetables and fruit, racks of sausages, loaves of bread, beer, wine, olive oil, herbs and spices, lamb, chicken, and beautiful dark-eyed children minding the stall while their parents sat in cool darkness at the back, talking with friends and visitors.
For a time I just walked the streets, experiencing the ambience and rejoicing in the modern culture — until I realized that it wasn’t modern culture at all. It was ancient culture. That part of Toronto was made up of immigrants from the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It was my pale friends and I who represented the modern culture, and we had less idea of who we were than these new Canadians who surrounded us.
My friends were unusual in that, calling themselves filmmakers, they had actually made films. One I saw was a surrealistic tale of death and disillusion, with the city as prevailing metaphor. Another film had got stalled in post-production while its creator tried to juggle the responsibilities of being an artiste with the exigencies of having to wait on tables at a fashionable restaurant. When I asked her what her film was about, she replied, “Doors used as spears.”
That, at any rate, was what I heard her say. For some reason my mind conjured an image of pygmies racing through the rainforest with slabs of rolled mahogany held aloft, ready to hurl. It seemed an odd subject for a film, but my sophistication was such that I didn’t bat an eye.
Some days later I learned by indirection that the film was in fact about Doris Eustace Speers, a noted art collector. It seemed a valid alternative to my first impression, so once again I didn’t bat an eye. The story didn’t even strike me as funny until years later. Then one night I related the incident to a friend as I was driving him home, and we both laughed so hard that I nearly lost control of the car. Either the story had improved with age or I am considerably less sophisticated than I used to be.
Some 14 years after my Toronto experiences, I found myself one afternoon at the Royal College of Art in London, England, viewing what was purported to be the best work of the best students of the best art schools in the city. What I saw was hopeless — literally, without hope. They were huge canvases, the abstracts seemingly thick with blood and exploding bodies and violent death. The representational works were deliberately distorted — not surrealistic; surrealism has a sense of the human, of the absurd, and a sense of humour.
There was no humour in this. There was a self-portrait of an apparent paranoiac. There was a view of the back of a man’s head, grossly squat, with water dripping through his hair like globs of grease. There was a painting of an enormous ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts, a grotesquely foreshortened hand adding one more as the glowing coal burned his flesh.
I gagged, and my heart began to race. I fled from the room in a state of nausea and anxiety. No works of art had ever affected me so profoundly as these desolate visions of horror and pain.
A mile or so south, at the Chelsea Library in the King’s Road, was another gallery, a modest affair occupying a hallway outside the reference room. For some time this space had been occupied by the baffling pieces of a disgruntled feminist in tandem with the multi-media (hair, tin, plastic, human teeth) works of a young Iranian who was evidently not in sympathy with the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was then very much alive.
No one had told them that being oppressed did not give them the right to make bad art. I found little to choose between these works and the graffiti in the men’s toilet across the hall. Then one day I found that their disturbed and incomprehensible visions had been replaced by the works of one John Catlin, and a blessed relief it was. Catlin had an obvious love of beauty which the Barclay’s finalists and the previous tenants of the hallway had equally obviously lacked.
One might suppose that a love of beauty would be a prerequisite for becoming an artist in the first place. But the modern artist is much too sophisticated for that. Art in the secular society has journeyed inward in search of divinity. Inevitably, without faith, it has found only blood and bones. Many artists are no longer concerned with conscience or with making things better. They don’t bat an eye at beauty, or even at culture. They each have their own personal vision, and it’s not their fault if the rest of us can’t understand it.
The best one can say of some modern art is that it is interesting; the worst one can say is that it is demonic. But the majority of it is like a Monty Python skit. The only thing missing is Graham Chapman, dressed as a brigadier, arriving in a huff to arrest the galleries and everyone in them for being silly. Very few of them, I think, would get the joke.