Thursday, November 03, 2011

Art wronger, vita brevis

A cleaning lady at the Ostwind Museum in the German city of Dortmund has destroyed a work of art which had been insured for $US 1.1 million by mistaking it for a stain on the floor and cleaning it up, according to a Dortmund city spokesman.

If I were a shareholder of the insurance company who are going to have to pay this sum, or if I were the private collector who lent the artwork "When it starts dripping from the ceiling" to the museum, I would probably be having a serious sense of humour failure about this. And whichever member of the museum management and that of the contract cleaning company which employed the cleaning lady concerned was responsible for ensuring that the cleaners were properly briefed should probably be preparing to spend more time with their families.

A work of art is worth what someone is willing to pay for it. But honestly, can any artwork which it is possible to mistake for a stain on the floor really be good enough that in a rational world it would be worth a million dollars?

This is not the first time that a work of art has fallen victim to zealous cleaners. In 1986, a "grease stain" by Joseph Beuys valued at around $US 550,000 was mopped away at the Academy of Fine Arts in Dusseldorf in western Germany.

And last year Melbourne City Council workers inadvertently painted over a piece of street art by famous stencil artist Banksy while removing graffiti in Hosier Lane.

I can't help thinking that our attitude to art has gone from one extreme to the other. In the 19th century a whole range of great art was dismissed by contemporary critics who were scathing about what we would now consider masterpieces, such as the work of Monet, because it was different.

The trouble is that for about the past century, critics have been so scared of looking daft to posterity in the same way that those who dismissed masterpieces as rubbish did, that nobody dares to criticise the work which really is rubbish.


In fact so much like rubbish that cleaning staff clear it up by mistake!

(For the benefit of anyone who doesn't get the title of this blog post, "Vita Brevis" is latin for "Life is short" and is the second half of the translation into latin of a comment by the ancient greek doctor Hippocrates, "Ars Longa, vita brevis" which is usually rendered in English as "Art is long, life is short."

Ignoring the inconvenient fact that whoever translated Hippocrates' original greek comment into Latin was refering to art in the sense of skill or technique rather than fine art, my alternative version is meant to mean something along the lines of "Art which is rubbish may not last long.")

1 comment:

Tim said...

At last, something that I can totally concur with you on. Some would argue that the slippery slope started with Impressionism - for me this is a bit too harsh, but........ Jackson Pollock !? Tracey Emin !? No Thankyou !