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Pondering Over Jane's Breasts

Sunday, 20th May, 2001

Quite some time ago I wrote about the most divisive issue that affects the world today. That's abortion, for those of you who couldn't guess. As it seems as if I have managed entirely to keep away from any resulting controversy, I can safely assume that it's time to raise the second most divisive issue.

Euthanasia? Globalisation? Religion? Just how anyone can tell the difference between one boy band and another? Nope, sorry, you just ran out of guesses. Here's what you could have won...

For those of you who realise that I'm talking about modern art, have a coconut.

A small yet substantial percentage of the world's population believe that modern art is a vibrant progression of artistic history that ably confronts all the issues that plague us in the modern world. The rest of us think it's utter crap. Whichever side you subscribe to, I can almost guarantee that you subscribe to it wholeheartedly. There are simply no waverers when it comes to modern art.

Except typically untypical me.

Wandering round varied galleries I've found examples of modern art that I found fascinating and thoroughly uplifting; yet I've found other examples that must surely be nothing more than a joke perpetrated by the so-called artist on we paying customers. Even so, I tended towards the opinion that some was art and some was crap. I didn't differentiate as far as technical classifications. I'm no art scholar; to me, it's either art or it isn't.

Surprisingly, what opened my mind a little was music. I started listening to more and more avant-garde music, classical and otherwise, and gradually I started to hear subtle and inventive tones and melodies where before I only heard toilets flushing.

If I was wrong about music, then why couldn't I be wrong about art?

There are extremes, of course, which must be mentioned.

John Cage's infamous composition entitled '4:33' is performed somewhat like this: a pianist in full costume walks out from the wings, seats himself at his piano, stretches his fingers and proceeds to play nothing at all for exactly four minutes and thirtythree seconds before disappearing backstage. The point is that music is inherent in everything around us and that the background noise that we hear when the pianist isn't playing is as much music as the foreground noise that he plays.

I can understand the concept of this, and even agree with it, but I have no wish to pay money to sit there and experience it. It doesn't make for good radio, naturally, but it does sum it all up for me as far as music is concerned. Nowadays, I often understand the point made whilst not necessarily enjoying the piece created to make it. Mostly, however, this doesn't apply to art.

A painting entitled 'Rodeo' hangs in the modern art wing of the Arts Institute of Chicago. It is a large rectangular piece, with the upper half entirely coloured red and the lower half entirely coloured white. I can't remember the artist's name or whether I'm even mistaking which half is which colour, but you get the picture. Do you, however, get the point? I don't. I stared at it for a while, but like those Magic Eye pictures, I couldn't see a damn thing. Is the artist really making an astute comment on society at large or is he just pulling a fast one?

I just remember John Cage's pieces for prepared piano and withhold judgement for now.

For some reason he was once commissioned to write pieces for full orchestra that could be played in an incredibly confined area. His innovative solution was to insert blocks of wood, screws and washers or other household implements behind the hammers of a piano. My first impressions were not good ones, but gradually I became hooked on a sound that is very akin to a Javanese gamelan orchestra. The music is there, but unlike the Spice Girls, you do need to listen to hear it.

If I can understand and even grow to love prepared piano music, who's to say that I won't eventually understand and grow to love 'Rodeo'. I don't really believe that I will, but I can accept that it's within the boundaries of possibility. My mind is now open.

The reason I bring all this up is because I attended an exhibition of modern ceramics on Friday night. It was given by a bunch of second year students who were obviously proud of their work. I was there mostly to show support for a friend of mine who was one of the exhibitors, but I did have a genuine interest in what these students had produced.

So I wandered round the small exhibition and tried to come to grips with the point of the various works. One lady had become intrigued as to the effects that bricks had on pottery, and exhibited a variety of spherical objects complete with brick indentations. Another lady had extruded ceramic pipes to the point that many had broken and carefully threaded them together. My friend, Jane, was exhibiting two ceramic breasts, positioned far enough apart for me to wonder more about how wide a cleavage can be than on what the point was.

Quite why this constitutes art, I'm not sure, but I'm glad for her that the exhibition was a success. Certainly the attendance was unexpectedly high and there was plenty of volume in discussion. Whether they were discussing Jane's breasts or the exhibit in which some gentleman had demolished a large piece of pottery with a sledgehammer. I nearly trod on the damn thing. Given that this is England, many were probably talking about the weather.

Ten years ago, I'd have wandered round with an open mind and wandered straight back out with either a suppressed giggle or a suppressed sigh of resignation. Nowadays, I'm reserving my judgement.

So for now I'm standing against Jesse Helms and the people who try to censor what artists create. He's merely to art what Tipper Gore is to music, which is to say roughly akin to the Antichrist.

I have no clue where my quest for personal religious insight will take me, but I'm pretty damn sure it won't be to the claws of the Antichrist. If I extrapolate back, it suggests that Jesse Helms and Tipper Gore both aren't too likely to end up on my Christmas card list.

Let's just create, exhibit and view. If I don't like the stuff I'll walk away from it. Maybe that giggle might make an appearance. Certainly I'm not going to lose any sleep over seeing something that makes no sense.

After all, I'd rather ponder over Jane's breasts than how the Backstreet Boys landed a record deal.

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