Sean Scully and the mess of art

“My success is now like a fucking runaway train”

As well as doing my own paintings I watch most art programmes on TV and read the Guardian arts pages, plus visit art galleries from time to time, so I have an idea what’s going on, especially in painting. I have heard of Sean Scully for instance, which most people in Britain apparently haven’t, and Sean Scully grew up in England. He calls himself the Donald Trump of the art world, which doesn’t say much for him as an artist – or painter as he actually is, and one of the world’s richest. He paints abstract so with me he isn’t off to a good start. The nearest I come to appreciating abstract is Joan MirĂ³, and perhaps Bridget Riley if that is abstract.

Some of Scully’s pattern paintings from the 1970s are quite clever as geometric designs but don’t come close to, say, a persian carpet. What he does now seems to consist mainly of large panels with a few coloured stripes slapped on kung-fu style with a decorator’s brush in a huge studio somewhere in the USA. They’re a mess, and so is the art of painting, illustrated by the fact that he is now so wealthy. Somebody must like it, I don’t. If I did I would do it myself, and better.

I don’t disapprove of abstract art; it’s better to paint than not to paint. I’m simply unimpressed by it, most at least. There are some dazzlingly beautiful patterns and abstract paintings with gorgeous surfaces which required enormous skill and experience to create, so I can appreciate that in the same way as the beauty of polished walnut or oak. Scully just slaps the paint on as if he was throwing rocks in a pool. It creates, but nothing much. The only meaning it has is what he says it is, which is not of the slightest interest. He stood on a cliff and admired the view, then threw some paint on a huge canvas in a few of roughly the same colours. Big deal. And this rubbish has earned him a private jet. It shows how the art of painting is such a mess.

The best painting is never abstract. Abstraction is pretence. Figurative painting is real. It gives a universal basis for judgement regardless of what the artist has said about it. In any case nothing needs saying – it is what it is. By real I don’t mean the artist is not pretending. I mean it’s based on something real and whatever is pretended is the art. With abstract there is nothing real to begin with. The only reality (if that is the word) is the artist, not the art. There is no reason to be interested in the character Sean Scully any more than the character Mozart. They are irrelevant. Only the art matters and Scully’s doesn’t.

A much worse mess is the public perception of which art is great and which is not, which is worth collecting and which isn’t. There is no way in the world that Sean Scully’s stripes will ever be great art. Centuries from now it will be forgotten (if it still exists) except perhaps for its curiosity value to art historians. It doesn’t stop people paying a fortune for it now. It’s because the art market doesn’t discern between good and bad but only what is going up and coming down. Unless you are a dealer or a collector you can safely ignore it. Actually, you should ignore it.

Watching Scully in a recent TV documentary was like watching Alan Partridge taking the piss out of ridiculous artists. He would do exactly what Scully did in the film – take the piss out of himself taking the piss out of J. M. W. Turner and Vincent van Gogh (whose paintings are so simple “even I could do it”). I’ve no objection to this though. It’s almost funny.

May 9th, 2019


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