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April 16 2012

Don't judge an artist by his bank balance

From Raphael to Leonardo da Vinci, artists have been getting big money for centuries. So why do we judge contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons on the fortunes they make?

The 16th-century artist Raphael once wrote a very frank letter to a relative. He wanted to explain how well he was doing in his career. The Pope was paying him thousands of gold ducats, he explained, as well as loads of gold scudi. He had also agreed to an arranged marriage with a cardinal's niece. Essentially, he was coining it in. He lived in a palace, and a visitor was amused to find it contained a statue of Philemon, an ancient writer famous for being money-grubbing.

Meanwhile, at the end of his life in France, Leonardo da Vinci was paid several thousand ecus a year by the French king and got a chateau thrown in.

It's worth remembering such tales of the wealth of the great artists when the subject of art and money comes up. There is no doubt that art and money have a crazy relationship in the 21st century. A picture of Cézanne's recovered painting The Boy in the Red Vest at a press conference in Serbia shocked me. This beautiful painting was stolen in 2008 and has now been found, mercifully unharmed. At the press conference it was flanked by two masked, armed men, just to be on the safe side. And why? The painting is valued at £82.8m.

Figures like that are hard to comprehend. The financial value put on art has become fanciful. Writing about art every day but never buying or selling any, in a way I am like a sports commentator who has never put on a pair of running shoes (you can probably think of better images). Yet in our straitened times, the money that art attracts is looked at more critically than it was during recent boom years. When people now see collectors' yachts at the Venice Biennale or a diamond skull at Tate Modern the money becomes the subject, and it may seem wrong and shameful, an absurd corruption of the creative spirit.

I beg to differ. Art has been a luxury good ever since people started to make "art" as such, and artists have been getting big money for centuries. If I say that Raphael was just as mercenary as Jeff Koons, a few answers are possible. One might be that he deserved his money and Koons does not: another might be that Raphael was more grasping than other artists in his time – but Michelangelo and Titian got just as rich. Another answer is that even the fortunes of these artists pale in comparison with contemporary artistic profits.

The last argument, that art's relationship with money today is more out of control than it ever was, makes little sense. Money itself is different. The economy is larger. The fact is that great artists in the past could earn sums that shocked their contemporaries just as they can today. Making a fortune from art is making a fortune from art.

The only honest reason to be disgusted with today's highly paid artists is that you believe their art is not worth the money. Thus opponents of conceptual art are not really appalled that a Koons makes so much money, but that he gets so much for doing what they perceive as so little. It is an argument about artistic quality disguised as an argument about morality. But some people can't see why painters should be paid, either. A footballer opined on the Guardian site last week that a Lucian Freud painting, although he liked it, wasn't worth the money paid for it. Er, how much do football players make again?

Personally I think art is worth a lot more than soccer. But that's just my opinion. Sports fans can presumably see why players are worth what they earn. Neither a sportsman nor a conceptual artist is a miner. Their work is "soft". We value it because we choose to.

The grimmest thing about these grim times is that everyone is more focused on money. It's better not to let that turn into envy. You can love or loathe this artist or that. It is, however, foolish to base that judgment on what you believe to be in their bank account.


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April 11 2012

Don't sneer at 'con art' unless you care about great art

Recent criticism of contemporary art doesn't stand up when it comes from those who falsely claim the mantle of tradition

This spring has seen a wave of scepticism unleashed against contemporary, or conceptual, art. We have been introduced to the pleasant term "con art" to mean, you guessed it, art that is conceptual ... and a con. Some reviews of a certain exhibition at a certain Tate Modern have taken a similar line and, even in a Guardian editorial, the contrast between current shows by artists who can make and others who get things made was pondered – Freud and Hockney being the makers.

I laugh with scorn at highfalutin attacks on today's art by people who don't actually care very much about the art of the past. I am going to pull rank here. I spent the Easter weekend writing about Raphael, examining his frescoes at the Villa Farnesina and comparing his work The Fire in the Borgo with a passage in Virgil's Aeneid. I reckon I give as much attention to the great art of earlier centuries as anyone around, and love it as much as anyone around, and I am quite happy to concede that some of my tastes are "conservative".

Anyway, I went yesterday, direct from early 16th-century Rome where my mind had been, to Tate Modern ... and was I appalled? Was I mystified by the idiotic fraudulence of it all? Er, no. I was fascinated and delighted by the art of our time. I contemplated Richard Serra's impossibly balanced slabs of steel and found myself thinking of Michelangelo's Prisoners . You can sneer at that comparison if you like... But are you sure you care about Michelangelo more than I do?

There is a lot to dislike in modern art. There are plenty of inflated reputations. There's a bland establishment vogue for it that grates on me – but perhaps what is happening is the end of that vogue. If modern art stops being respectable, that can only be good for it.

But polemics against it are so dull. No, I don't get all the aesthetic satisfaction I crave from the newest art. Why would I expect to? These are tough times, strange times. The best art of our age is bound to reflect that age. We are not imprisoned here. As human beings, we also have access to the heritage of great art going back through the centuries. No one is forcing us to sit around brooding about why Gillian Wearing is at the Whitechapel instead of Beryl Cook. Why not go and look at Raphael in the National Gallery instead? He is so perfect that it is as pointless to compare him with Hockney as with Hirst.

People who denounce con art are the true con artists, claiming the mantle of the great tradition while sometimes not really loving it, or knowing it at all.


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November 18 2011

Splitting image: Benetton's banned advert

So the pope-kissing-imam ad was shouted down? The Vatican has been carefully controlling the pope's image for 500 years

You can understand why the Vatican got so angry with Benetton for creating an image of Pope Benedict XVI kissing the grand sheikh of Cairo's al-Azhar mosque. After all, the modern church has such a pristine image to protect – it's not as if it's beset by widespread accusations of clerical abuse or anything like that. A plainly fictional image of the pope kissing a Muslim man was, clearly, the worst thing to tarnish the Vatican's image in recent years. Much more serious than anything revealed about such Catholic institutions as St Benedict's school in London.

Benetton's adverts are actually a homage to a renowned Berlin wall graffiti painting of Communist leaders Erich Honecker and Leonid Brezhnev kissing. Everyone finds it funny to see former leaders of the defunct Soviet bloc snogging, it seems, but when contemporary figures from the western world are similarly mocked the cannoli hit the fan.

Why is the Vatican so displeased, and why did Benetton so readily surrender? The image of the pope is one of the greatest triumphs of marketing in history. A church that is led by a venerable celibate might seem to have an in-built selling-point problem. How can popes, who necessarily take the throne of St Peter as old and often ailing men, be made to seem charismatic and glamorous in a world that values youth and physical vigour?

The papacy tackled this problem five centuries ago by calling in some of the greatest image-makers in world history. Today's advertising gurus have nothing on Raphael and Titian. One of the most influential images of power in the history of the world hangs quietly today in London's National Gallery: Raphael's portrait of Pope Julius II created a new paradigm for papal portraiture by showing age as dignity, inner wisdom and sad knowledge. The power of this portrait was emulated and refined by Titian, then by Velázquez. Popes were reimagined in the Renaissance and baroque eras as men whose age and restraint conferred great natural authority.

Even in Italy, this cultivated image has been mocked in modern times. Federico Fellini staged a clerical fashion show that travestied the Church in his film Roma. But the impression that was crafted by some of the world's greatest artists is still tremendously potent, in Italy and abroad.

Benetton's mistake was to underestimate how profoundly the church has succeeded in sacralising the image of the pope, in spite of every modern menace to its authority. No parliament on earth exerts the fascination of the Vatican as a power complex. The pope's image truly is infallible, and Benetton realised it had crossed an invisible line that has endured every onslaught of the secular world.


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November 22 2010

Making waves

Bridget Riley's paintings writhe with life – and paired with works by Raphael, Seurat and Mantegna, they create a kind of encounter with time

The circles fill the wall. I cannot count them. There is not one that does not overlap another. There seems to be a system to the clusterings and overlappings, but I can't grasp that either. It is like a word on the tip of your tongue. I keep getting lost; my eye won't be still. Each circle seems to have a relation to the body that made it – the radius of each circle might be the distance from the elbow to the fingertip – but I am not sure. The white wall is flat and smooth, as if painting began with the wall itself, and the circles on it are almost perfect outlines, perhaps as broad as a woman's finger. I look for where the line – so even, so dispassionate – falters, some human touch. There. But that's not why it doesn't feel mechanical, or a trick. It's more than spinning plates, or a conjuror with his interlocking metal hoops.

Getting up close, each open "O" feels like an invitation. Something more than pattern is inscribed here. Very often, Bridget Riley's art blows me away. Sometimes she stirs me and makes me want to sit and look for hours, just to be here, in this light with this work. The huge drawing that fills the white wall of the Sunley Room at the National Gallery is the high point of Riley's exhibition. Never mind that we have walked past Mantegna, Raphael and Seurat, these touchstones of Riley's thinking, to get here. Suddenly they are forgotten. Riley's exhibition, which juxtaposes her pictures with work she has picked from the National Gallery collection, is more than a confrontation with her forebears, or even with herself. She brings together works from all periods of her own career. There is 1960s optical art and 1970s stripes, the complex recursive scimitar, flame and sail shapes, and compound curves of the works from the last two decades, with their close-toned saturated colour and compacted compositions. Yet this is less a lesson in history than one of presence, and presentness, of being in the now. The confrontation is really between ourselves and Riley's work.

You don't so much look at Bridget Riley's paintings as watch them, as their configurations and forms jostle and shift and change before you. They refuse to settle down and resist easy assimilation. At their best, her works seem alive. Can the same be said of Raphael's St Catherine (1507), with her dirty fingernails, and the wheel on which she was martyred, that imploring big-eyed heavenward look that reminds me of Goya's dog, drowning in quicksand? Can it be said of the mythologies and ancient histories in Mantegna, or of Seurat's working-class loafers beside the Seine on an imaginary Sunday in the late 19th century? Don't they all speak of an elsewhere?

Riley is 80 now. When she was making her application to Goldsmiths college in 1949 she made a copy of Jan van Eyck's Portrait of a Man, which is presumed to be a self-portrait. Weirdly, it looks not unlike Riley herself in old age, and stares across at the Raphael and the three Seurat studies for his Bathers at Asnières (1883). Somehow all these works – which are as distant from one another as they are from Riley's own art – seem to form a diagram of some sort, a cat's cradle in which you are trapped between different ideas of presence, and between things that have mattered in different ways to Riley throughout her long working life. It feels such a generous, intimate moment. I hesitate there.

Riley would probably see it differently, and ask us to look for concordances of rhythm and colour and enduring formal preoccupations. Putting it bluntly, I cannot think like her. When Riley tried to understand Bonnard's colour, and attempted to analyse Mondrian's Broadway Boogie-Woogie, she encountered her own difficulties, and couldn't follow their logic. Riley's thinking has a kind of clarity I lack, which is why I admire what she does – in her art and her writing – as much as I do. Encounters with difference are important and instructive. But when you look, you have to read the work your own way.

Mantegna's frieze-like 1505-6 Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome hangs in a heavy gilded frame on an oxblood wall opposite a wave-like Riley from 1965, which is unframed and hung on a white wall. It's a face-off, not just between very different kinds of art, but between display manners – clarity versus gloom, heaviness versus light, mustiness versus Modern. The attendant guarding this moment told me he'd counted 14 figures in the foreground of the Mantegna, and 14 ribbon-like stripes in the Riley. But we're not looking here for one-to-one relationships, between stripes and figures, or even between the Mantegna, with its linear depictions of drapery and processional composition, and Riley's optical flows and counterflows. You look at the figures in the Mantegna as though you were walking along a carved stone relief. The Riley opposite has its own kind of relief-like illusion of sculpted visual space, but it sings and flows in a way that the Mantegna doesn't, and never could.

As much as anything else, it's an encounter with time. Looking at Riley is also an encounter with the activity of your own perceptions: the way a curve will torque and twist, the bright penumbras flickering at the edge between two simultaneously contrasting colours, the way sensory overload forces attention away from one moment in a painting to another, the way colours wince and blink as your eye slides across a surface. It is an existential as much as a phenomenological encounter.

Riley knows her art history, and treats the past as though it were present in her art. In her work, she tries to make it new every time. She doesn't always succeed, but that's also why, and how, she's good. Her paintings, uninflected and dispassionate, without trace of a brushstroke, a human twitch or slither, are completed by assistants. Those foolish persons who demand the human touch of the artist are looking in the wrong place. It isn't the object that matters so much as the artist's thought, their sensibility and culture. It isn't the artist's hand that writhes with life. It's the art itself.

The stone-sucking system

How far her art might appear from painting's history. It seems so distinctively modern and of our time. All those Riley paintings appropriated for optical-art dresses and T-shirts, with their stark black-and-whites, and as the covers of LPs (The Faust Tapes from 1973 springs to mind) located her works as an adjunct to fashion. But Riley didn't have to escape fashion. Her work was strong enough to do that by itself. And being used as album artwork never did an artist any harm (think of Gerhard Richter and Sonic Youth), so long as the music was of the right order – not that I really imagine Richter much liking Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation (1988), or Riley getting off on Faust. But you never know with Riley. She has written as brilliantly and perceptively on Bruce Nauman's videos as she has on Cézanne.

Artists make their own connections across history, cultures and civilisations, and create their own lineages and narratives, however apparently far-fetched. Riley has said she admires the stone-sucking scene in Samuel Beckett's Molloy, in which Molloy has to invent a system whereby he can suck the stones in his pockets equally. Riley invents her own arcane systems but she surely also admires Beckett's humanity. It is locked in the language and revealed in the imagery, in the jokes as well as the form of Beckett's writing. And so it is with Mantegna or Raphael, as much as in Riley's own art.

So many contemporary art shows at the National Gallery have been depressing, let's-get-down-and-dirty with history affairs, self-conscious and embarrassing suck-ups to the old masters. Riley's show is something else.

Join the dots: See images from the show, with commentary by the National Gallery's Colin Wiggins, at guardian.co.uk/artanddesign


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November 21 2010

Bridget Riley versus the Old Masters

A survey of her art draws parallels between her graphic style and classic works from the National Gallery's collection. Colin Wiggins joins the dots ...



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