Zoë Williams of The Guardian rues that many of us do not appreciate modern art, and believes that the reason for this disinclination lies in education: “Many of us think modern art is rubbish because our visual education ended at the age of about seven”. (Zoë Williams, “When a shed is not a shed” The Guardian, 18th October 2005.)
Ah, so that’s it! There was I thinking that my opinions of modern art were determined by my aesthetic faculties’ having not yet degraded into a thick slime of pretension which oozes through to disingenuous appreciation; and now I am told that these faculties have not yet been sufficiently formed! I shall get me away to a night-school for a class in special pleading; for though it seems that an appreciation for a Rubens or a Michelangelo requires no education, an appreciation for a bog-roll in a gallery does. Doubtlessly I should need to be taught to appreciate ugly tat; for I am yet to learn to appreciate that a turd on a doll’s house could express the patriarcho-fascistic nature of domestic life; or that a Peruvian peasant’s toothbrush stuck up a rabbit’s arse does indeed bring into question the whole legitimacy of Western Civilisation. Should I learn also that all those mumbling half-wits who produce such things, and all those rapacious merchants who sell them, and all those tasteless posers who buy them, have sensibilities beyond my scrutiny?
Of course not. These people do not love or appreciate art; they are philistines, and as such, art for them has value only in its utility. To the poser – the defender of such things – modern art has utility in its allowing him to pretend that he has aesthetic faculties that reach beyond common appreciation. After all, the aesthetic qualities of a Rembrandt or a Raphael are obvious enough that even the dulled faculties of the lower classes might appreciate them, even if not quite as highly as indiscriminate breeding or stone-cladding. And the staunchly conservative Colonel and the bourgeois housewife – they too might appreciate a Hogarth or a Holbein. Now, it would never do – would it, darling? – to admit that one shares the same faculties as they possess. Never at all. One must instead pretend to appreciate something that isn’t there – to pretend to find in artless rubbish a beauty, a form, a harmony and a meaning – for fear of appearing insufficiently progressive in one’s tastes and understanding.