That time I had an epiphany in the Tate St Ives

Cornwall is full of artists, and a lot of them are concentrated in St Ives. There’s a lot of, like, heritage and stuff. I swear, I went through galleries and galleries worth of work today, and while I’m not clear on exactly what drew lots of artists there in the first place, that’s just the way the cookie crumbles now. There’s just art everywhere.

Yesterday there were a couple of arty (and, crucially, free) events I wanted to go to, and they all happened in St Ives. I got the train over from Falmouth, and headed to the Etsy Made Local fair, via a Christmas dinner pasty, because it’s December and I live in Cornwall now and I assume that’s what we’re supposed to do.

I spent an enjoyable hour or so mooching around the stalls, avoiding eye contact in case anybody actually wanted to sell me things. I hemmed and hawed over a necklace I really liked, before I eventually got overwhelmed by the crowd and the fact that I was wearing three layers under my winter coat, and decided to call it quits.

My next stop was the Tate St Ives. They were having a winter festival, which meant free entry (you normally have to pay), children’s choirs (very much avoided), and Christmas tree decoration crafting. I was very concerned with getting some bang for my zero bucks so I headed for the crafty bit first. It wasn’t until I got fairly close that I noticed the pipe cleaners and crayolas and realised I might be in the wrong age bracket. At the last moment I had to abort and swerve into an exhibition hall, pretending that was where I wanted to go the whole time.

The exhibition was by Rebecca Warren. As soon as I got inside I was taken aback by how, for want of a better word, stupid it was. The giant exhibition hall was dotted with a few lumpy, brightly-coloured sculptures (not the word I would necessarily choose, but the word that the Tate likes to throw around with abandon), with people standing around earnestly discussing them. Or, at least, the people who weren’t listening to the kiddies singing.

One sculpture that particularly sticks in my mind (and craw) was a block of clay garnished with a twig and a pink woolly pompom.

This is the work of a Turner prize nominated artist.

In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I went to Goldsmiths back in the day, which is quite well-renowned in itself for producing some very questionable and/or cutting edge artists (depends on your point of view), so I should be used to this by now. In fact, a quick google has revealed that Goldsmiths is also where Rebecca Warren went, because of course it is.

At first I was annoyed. On any other day they would be charging people a lot of money to come in and see this pompom sitting atop a pile of clay. Where is the effort? I know there’s a lot of interpretation involved in pieces of modern art, but I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that I could scribble on a sheet of paper, invent a meaning, and – if I shouted it loudly for long enough – convince somebody it was a deep and meaningful piece of work.

And that’s when it hit me.

The only thing standing between anybody and a place in the major exhibition hall equivalent for whatever their thing is (I don’t know peoples’ lives but you know what I mean) is the person doing a thing declaring loudly that the thing is a thing we should all take seriously. This all makes sense in my head. I mean, I’m sure – more sure than ever now that I’ve seen the exhibition – that people must have said ‘But is it art?’ to or about Rebecca Warren a thousand times. Or most of the other artists in the Tate, I realised, as I walked back through the galleries. But they declared that it was and stuck to their guns, and now people walk past their work and nod vaguely in order to look intellectual before moving on to the next piece. An artist’s dream.

One other example I saw in the gallery is Alfred Wallis, who was a Cornish nautical type. He never had an art lesson and only took up painting very late in life. His work is – and I quote directly from Wikipedia, so you know it’s accurate – seen as “an excellent example of naive art”. Which is basically art by people who can’t do art. That is because he literally did not how to paint because he wasn’t an artist until he decided he was one and then he just was one because he did it with conviction so people paid attention.

These people got where they are today by just continuing to do their thing and calling it art until people went ‘Oh, well, they’re still saying it, so I guess we should give them this £25,000 prize and talk about them like they’re serious now.” Anybody can just say they’re doing something important until somebody agrees with them. Which means that nobody with their work on display in the Tate, or anywhere else, is special.

And isn’t that kind of nice? There’s hope for all of us yet.

(In the interest of full disclosure I should also mention that I did manage to twist my epiphany in the Tate St Ives to such an extent that I also went back to the Etsy fair and bought the necklace I was perving over earlier in the day. My reasoning went something like “If these people get thousands of people admiring their work like it’s not just squares on a canvas I definitely deserve a necklace”. So whether this was a genuine learning moment or just some hyper-sophisticated Inception-style marketing on the part of Etsy remains to be seen.)

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