In Defence of Pretentious Art

In ART & FASHION, Commentary, HOME by Hannah Beer

Last week, an old Vice article by an art school graduate, calling themselves Glen Coco (brilliant) and confessing to not “getting” art, made the rounds once again. “Can you imagine how quickly they’d be skipping over this photo if it was their mum’s holiday snaps?”, the writer says of a group of people ardently assessing a picture of Tracey Emin on an armchair in the desert. You go Glen Coco – you have a point.

At the risk of revealing how under-qualified I am for my ART & FASHION editorship, I have to say that as someone who never even took Art GCSE, I was relieved to find out that even actual art school grads are sometimes baffled by some of the 20th and 21st centuries’ artistic exports. But, unlike the Vice writer, my bafflement is not (yet) contention. Yes, I struggle to really see the significance in Jeff Koon’s giant shiny balloon dogs, but that didn’t stop me paying the equivalent of £10 to see one of them in the Moderne Museet in Stockholm, and feeling it was worth every penny. I mean, it was a Jeff Koons! He did ARTPOP! And when Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” came to the Tate this year, I was practically jumping up and down at the prospect of seeing it, even though it didn’t look much different to my own during my first year of uni.

12285962_10156259613120553_823078284_nIn my History of Art class here in Milan, the lecturer opened with a 1973 quote from a man called Dino Formaggio, the translated version of which is: “Art is whatever people call art”. In one fell swoop infuriatingly pretentious and yet strangely satisfying, the quote is much like modern and contemporary art itself. Even though it’s everyone’s favourite game to wander around a modern art gallery pointing at a sculpture made of toast going “I could’ve done that”, the fact is, we’re wandering around that gallery because we like the way it makes us feel – cultured. Because let’s face it, it’s much, much more fun wizzing down Carsten Höller’s giant slides at the Hayward Gallery in the name of art than it is seeing the tip of the Mona Lisa’s nose from inside the swarm of tourists in the Louvre. And whilst the latter is simply a box to tick off in the collective human conscious’ bucket list, the former somehow lends you just a few of those most sought-after of credentials: the cool, arty ones, held mostly by actual artists and underground pop stars.

Last week, I took my Lancashire-born, no nonsense grandmother to the Fondazione Prada in Milan, which our revered Editor-in-Chief Sam described to me as “the most wonderfully pretentious place you’ll ever go”. “I think your friend under-described it,” my grandma said to me as we emerged from, I kid you not, a giant potato cave with the most bizarre clay animations projected onto its interior walls. The Venus de Milo it was most certainly not, but as Mr Formaggio inferred, if someone thinks this is art, who are we to say otherwise? Okay, I thought it was all kinds of ridiculous, but hearing my grandma’s no holds barred reviews of this and the other works on display at the Fondazione was endlessly entertaining. This, I think, is the true joy of pretentious art: it’s the pre-Purpose Justin Bieber of the art world – we absolutely love to hate it. We revel in ridiculing it quietly to each other as we walk, at a snails’ pace, from room to room of a gallery we’ve paid to be in (so that we can Instagram the most obscure thing we see to prove how cultured we are).

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Of course, I’m not speaking for everyone here. I’m sure there are real art experts out there who are flinching at my lack of insight about potato caves, and who actually do get the meaning of the art us mere mortals think is pretentious. But as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong with pretending you really appreciate the sentiment/effort/artistic skill involved in something like that photo of Tracey Emin on a chair – even if you are secretly and smugly thinking you’d skip past it in your mum’s holiday pictures. It’s like a little Super Mario mushroom to the ego every time you do so, because it puts you firmly in the cool club. And the best part is, as Vice’s Glen Coco points out, you won’t be the only one in the club pretending.

Hannah is the editor of ART & FASHION at PTL. After moving Milan she feels a lot less qualified to hold this position, but she’s doing the best with her non-Milanese genes. In her spare time, she can be found tending to her fringe, banging on about feminism and trying to find out whether Ruby Rose will return to OITNB season 4. Sometimes all at the same time if she’s had a lot of coffee that day.