Is contemporary art overrated, or simply a load of c**p? What do the people in the know really think? citizenM decided to find out.
To many of us, art critics are smartly dressed academics found roaming art galleries, glasses at the end of their noses, peering snootily at the latest paintings to face their unduly harsh judgement. Intrigued to find out how true to life that well-worn stereotype is, we caught up with Tom Jeffreys, a freelance art critic who has written for Frieze, Monocle, The Independent and The Daily Telegraph, among others. From revealing what he really thinks of contemporary art to sharing an unexpected anecdote involving poo, it’s fair to say he surprised us….
Hi Tom. If art is intrinsically subjective, what makes your opinion more valid than anyone else’s?
The critic’s opinion isn’t necessarily better, but it might be better expressed. Ideally, they have seen a lot of art and will therefore have more knowledge. Really, though, it’s up to the reader to decide whether or not a person writes interestingly, has interesting opinions and can justify those opinions.
How do you explain contemporary art to someone who thinks it’s a load of crap?
I’m not sure if I’m totally convinced by all of it myself. There is certainly a lot of modern contemporary art that I don’t understand, but the more you see, the more you can refine your own judgement and appreciation. If something doesn’t excite you, that’s a legitimate response, but ask yourself why. If it’s just because you hate sculpture, then don’t go to any more sculpture exhibitions. but don’t dismiss all contemporary art just because you don’t like a certain aspect of it.
Onement VI, Barnett Newman
Barnett Newman’s “Onement VI”, a blue canvas with a white line down the middle, sold for nearly $44 million in 2013. Does this not amount to fraud?
The contemporary art world is a bit of an all or nothing economy, but I don’t think the art itself is to blame. Maybe a child, machine or monkey could do it, but it’s not necessarily the object itself that is worth the money, it’s what the artist was trying to do and say at the time.
So what makes something art?
If I put something in a gallery, and the gallery thinks that’s a good idea, and a writer comes along and writes about it as art and a collector comes along and buys it as art and all these people with certain roles within the art world decide that it’s art, it’s art.
Martin Creed, The Lights Going On and Off, 2000
But did Martin Creed really deserve to win the Turner Prize for turning the lights on and off?
I'd struggle to defend Martin Creed’s art in any way but I don’t like most of the stuff that wins the Turner Prize. There are tons of artists producing art that involves far more interesting and important processes, techniques and ideas than those weird, conceptual pieces.
Has the shock factor become more of a necessity in art then?
I was once at a debate when a guy took umbrage with the panel pontificating theoretically about how controversy can be powerful and decided to intervene. He went up to the front of the room, dropped his trousers, did a poo in his hands then plopped it into one of the speakers’ jugs of water. Unlike most “controversial” art, that was actually shocking and there was an interesting logic to it. He got kicked out but he was testing the boundaries of what they were saying.
Damien Hirst, God Alone Knows, 2007
Which other famous artists are the most overrated?
Damien Hirst and the Young British Artists. Their art is pointless, boring and really expensive. Most people would probably agree with me, apart from the people buying it.
Do you ask an artist what their art is supposed to mean before reviewing it?
There is an important piece of art theory stating that the artist is not the final arbitrator of what a piece of art means. It’s legitimate for people to respond and interpret things in their own way. Sometimes it can be brilliant, enlightening and exciting to speak to the artist but really, if the artist has to be there to explain their work, then it’s probably not succeeding.
“if the artist has to be there to explain their work, then it’s probably not succeeding”
What contemporary artwork would you most like in your own home?
The endlessly fascinating “Penelope” by Nadine Feinson. It's essentially abstract but it pulls you in with the promise of something figurative, only to frustrate that desire for one clear meaning.
What do you enjoy most about being an art critic?
The freedom that writing about art affords me. Being an art critic has also changed how I look at art: I’m more open-minded and constantly challenge my instinctive response to things, rather than just looking at things I know I’m going to like.
How has the internet and social media changed the role of an art critic?
Everyone has the ability to voice their opinion nowadays, whether they're the big shot art critic at The Times or simply someone who's interested in art, and that’s got to be a good thing. The internet has eroded the role of the expert somewhat, but somebody who can write well with contextual art knowledge is still useful. Social media has changed art itself, too. There’s definitely been a rise in artworks produced for exhibitions with a specific eye to Instagram. They’re often boring, but they look nice.