My nephew Pedro is a member of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), so every time I visit him we emulate the three hours at the Prado de D’Ors in private podcast mode. From my conversations with him I have come to some of the most profound and honest conclusions in relation to art. I know that such a statement is judgmental and imprecise, so I will try to explain myself. Do not think that I am referring to the cliché that the gaze of a child with its capacity for surprise intact can detect what the rest of us do not notice, but to other types of more complex responses. On one of our outings, when he was about four years old, he had to measure me against what he would turn out to be the most demanding and reactionary critic I had ever faced. I was limiting myself to displaying a kind of ekphrasis of 0.60, explaining to him the intentions of the artists and showing him that he could tell him the author’s name before looking at the poster. But the hesitation of the aunt doctor in Art did not last very long. His complaints became more and more severe, to the point of driving him to anger.
It all started with Richard Serra. What I was calling sculptures, for him were nothing more than expendable architectural elements: walls. I could not continue advancing in my arguments because he never gave in. A wall could never be a work of art. Never. After lunch we stopped at some pieces by Dan Flavin. Here he agreed that they were “pretty”, that is, he glimpsed an aesthetic sense, but he made no further concession. That’s not art, aunty, it’s lights. Faced with its closure, I headed towards ‘Metropolis II’ by Chris Burden, so that I could witness the precise moment in which this colossal kinetic sculpture was activated that reproduces a crowded city, crossed by impossible circuits of trains and highways with dozens of lanes with vehicles miniature walking through it at full speed. I saw the fascination in his eyes and thought I had it. I was already preparing my little speech about the metaphor that it contained, about the author, whether he was the same one who had installed the lampposts in which we had played at the entrance, or whether a few years before he had had himself shot at the arm (even if it was actually a miscalculation). My intention was to take advantage of your ‘stendhalazo’ to make you understand that works of art are nothing more than cultural manifestations that help us analyze the world and that, although they can be very diverse depending on the moment in which they are made, we can always detect in them a series of differential features. What a mistake of mine. His verdict: it is impossible for something playful to be art. Even less when the author has not done it with his own hands. Neither his objective nor the years it took to design it matter, much less the millions he cost. That was nothing more than a large-scale toy. I then asked him to tell me what should be expected from an object to be considered artistic, since he had a folder where he kept his own ‘works of art’. His criteria focused – I translate for you – on visual pleasure, the use of color, the uselessness of the artifact, effort and manual work. Under this definition I tried to return to the analysis of one of the works ousted by his harsh judgment, a painted flag by Jasper Johns, and here my small victory: I was granted, at least provisionally and partially, that this was a painting, and that ‘ could’ be art. Oh, the mimesis.
Well, lately I see how my nephew’s tender –and sensible– discourse spreads to other supposedly specialized contexts that do not stop denouncing the eternal return of the tale of the emperor’s new clothes. Well, it is clear that in the world of art there is a lot of slop. Will Gompertz dares to quantify the insignificance or insignificance of contemporary works of art by 95%. It may fall short. The former art director of the BBC, who currently runs the Barbican, has just published ‘Look what you’re missing’, a very useful manual for making people see –pun intended– that some artists are those adults who, however, they still know where to pay attention and how to make us look at the world. It is just as important to question everything, to disagree, to submit it to the judgment of reason, as not to lightly dismiss or attribute bad intentions to those works that we do not fully understand, because Berger’s ways of seeing do not refer exclusively to the visual: art it is a way of philosophizing.