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15 years of laughing at ‘Art’

Critic (and diarist) ASH Smyth reflects on the pitfalls of modern art, the vagaries of friendship, and the comic role he’s always wanted.


‘My friend Serge has bought a painting…’ 

1997. Ish . See ‘Art’, Yasmina Reza’s comedy of mannerism, for the first time (Wyndhams Theatre, London). Show has hit the West End running: goes on to sweep the board(s) in awards ceremonies.

Serge spends a small fortune on a ridiculous modernist artwork; Marc has kittens about it, and what it says about their relationship; Yvan – the stationer – just wants everyone to get along.

Struck by sharpness of social observation (Reza’s stock-in-trade), or minute emotional calibrations of tragic-comic script (the highest echelons of the craft)? No – the simplicity of the whole business. Contemporary Art is ridiculous! The canvas is white!! Blank!!! (And she has got there first? Astonishing.)


‘What do you mean, “this shit”?’

1998. The history of contemporary art begins with a urinal and ends with ‘a piece of shit’. According to Yasmina Reza, anyway. And now Chris Ofili, who has won the Turner Prize with an artwork made substantially out of, er… dookie (he is entering his ‘post-digestive’ phase, no doubt). The logic of modern art has reached its inevitable extra-logical extreme.

One hopes.


‘Look at it from this angle.’

2001. ‘Art’, second viewing. A more calm-and-collected Serge, in the face of Marc’s aggressive conservatism.

My own tastes are also, I admit, fairly conventional. But fairly in both senses: I don’t mind seeing the other side – if there’s something to see. When you get the impression, though, that the artist isn’t so much seeing what he can achieve as what he can get away with… Well, that’s the intellectual equivalent of having your pocket picked.

To wit, at the newly-opened Tate Modern: Damian Hirst’s life-sized chemist’s shop installation; some lifts going up and down (white?), and pretty much every angle on Tracy Emin’s sexual anatomy, as crudely [sic.] rendered by… Tracy Emin.


‘Are you taking the piss?’

It’s no surprise that our less-guarded outbursts to this junk incline towards the scatological.

Alternative evolutions of Tate Modernism have included (to name but a few) a ripped-off Buster Keaton movie of walls falling over a man (another Turner Prize-winner), and the tragically ‘democratic’ fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, as once occupied by Marc Quinn’s grotesque Alison Lapper Pregnant. Further afield: a procession of fibreglass cows that tour the world’s capital cities, and a Dutch popular art collection which consisted of several thousand un-critiqued exhibits, curated and stored at great expense to the taxpayer, and never looked at since.

Sneering is, of course, a Great British pastime (‘I was born sneering’, says the awesomely mandarin Poo-Bah in The Mikado), and especially where art is concerned. The art establishment types have only brought it upon themselves. They made Tracy Emin’s Bed; now they can bloody well lie in it.

And the British bullshit-detector is differently attuned from the French. Or, rather, it’s attuned to the French. My favourite bit of art jargon is ‘giclée’: it means ‘computer print-out’. French. Naturellement.


‘You know how many Antrioses they have at the Pompidou?’

No. But I do know they have a squashed car hanging on the wall.

Flashback. 1996. The Pompidou. My father and I stare into a large room, in one corner of which stands a locked safe with a roll of security tape on top. Gentlemen murmur contemplatively. Ladies spool through audio-guides. After about fifteen minutes, the curatorial lads turn up with a sack-barrow and return the ‘exhibit’ to an office which is undergoing renovation.

It’s no accident that ‘Art’ was born in France. No English playwright would have dreamed up three (straight) men wrangling emotively over contemporary art.


‘If you call something shit you have to have some criterion to judge it by.’

Art or not-art? is pretty easy to answer. Good art or bad, though? Impossible! It’s ‘I know what I like’, or the emperor’s-new-lingo of the art critics and gallerists.

One man’s Mark Rothko is another’s mass-produced bathroom print (cf. ‘kitsch’ – from [because I’ve always wondered] verkitschen etwas, ‘to knock something out’), and even an intelligent defence of what we ‘like’ tends to degenerate pretty quickly into articles of faith. With such inflexible tools does our hero, Marc, dig his own grave.


‘My friend Marc’s an intelligent enough fellow…’

2004. ‘Art’ revisited. A girlfriend with a penchant for Oxford’s Museum of Modern Art has done little to shake my suspicion that the modernist wool is being pulled over my eyes. The Chapman brothers’ caravan macabre cluttered with McDonald’s imagery; a show made up entirely of neon signs; more Tracy Emin (needlework, this time).

The play, I realise, charts the emotional trajectory I follow almost every time I am confronted (‘affronted’) by a piece of contemporary art: laughter, anger, argument, offence, resignation.

One day, I think, I rather fancy playing Marc.


‘I knew your relationship was under strain and I wanted Finkelzohn to explain.’

2011. A decade and a half after the play’s British debut (or three ‘waves’, if you’re an art dealer), three of us are rehearsing‘Art’: two teachers, one lawyer – and no director. (What do you call three egos in one room? Theatre!)

Of course, the play isn’t really about art. Not in the sense of having anything meaningful or new to say about it, anyway. No, it’s about relationships; balances of power; the consensual but tacit ducking and weaving that we all indulge in to keep the -ship of friends on an even keel. And what’s not funny about three friends trying not to fall out over artistic differences regarding ‘Art’, a play in which three friends try not to fall out over artistic differences regarding art?

That, and trying not to ding up our ‘priceless’ blank canvas. (It’s gotta be all white on the night.)


‘- In his way, Yvan is a man of his time.
– How can you tell? Certainly not from that daub hanging over his mantelpiece!’

Last week. The production needs a daub (‘v. to paint unskilfully; to smear, soil, or defile). Keen to limit expenditure – esp. on purposefully ugly paintings. (Yes, we considered Vihara Mahadevi Park. No, they’re not that cheap.)

Producer says: ‘I have this?’ Photograph attached. Dilemma! How does one put it to a dignified lady of no particular personal acquaintance – that she has, in her personal art collection, the perfect ‘daub’? ‘Yes, that’s awful. We’ll take it! By the way, um, how much was it?’



Two days ago. Testing a theory in my Theory of Knowledge class the other week I found myself down in the basement, working up a horrible sweat by painting a white canvas… white. Then I signed it, dated it (to make it ‘art’, you see) and asked the assembled Philistines for a valuation.

Two-hundred rupees, they said, SL: autograph included. Significantly less than the cost of my not-so-dark materials. Who says there’s no accounting for taste?


‘It’s a canvas about five foot by four: white.’

His name is Robert Ryman, he’s 81, and he’s been turning out white squares for decades (several of which are famous largely for the brackets that hold them up). He’s exhibited all over the world, and presumably made rather a lot of money. His rationale: ‘White has a tendency to make things visible.’


P.S. ‘If you’re touchy about it, it means you’re too caught up in other people’s opinions.’

In a 2004 poll, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the last century by 500 British art-world professionals.

Robert Ryman is often classified as a ‘minimalist’; but he prefers to be known as a ‘realist’.

The spiritual home of contemporary art in London is a gallery called White Cube. That’s a white square, squared.

ASH Smyth, Jehan Mendis and Shanaka Amarasinghe appear in ‘Art’ at the British Council auditorium, July 1st-3rd (7:45pm). The production is presented by Broken Leg Theatre Company in partnership with the British Council, sponsored by Lankem, and produced by Nisrin Jafferjee. Tickets available from Barefoot, from June 15th.

For – in an unreadable edit The Sunday Times (SL)

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