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Page last updated at 15:50 GMT, Friday, 8 August 2008 16:50 UK

Art for art's sake

Saucy postcard in sand at Blackpool


Is an unmade bed art? How about a saucy seaside postcard - or even a slogan T-shirt? It's art to the person who thinks it expresses their life, says Katharine Whitehorn.

I don't know how many ordinary people will be piling into the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh this month to see the Tracey Emin retrospective. On view are her unmade bed, her confessional videos, and her photo display of all the works she smashed up as student.

Bed when first exhibited
Tracey Emin's unmade bed

Nor how many who do go will consider they've had an artistic experience. It used to be that people said "It may be pretty but is it art?" but when it comes to things like Brit Art or the Turner Prize, one sometimes feels it's more a case of "It may be ugly but is it art?"

Such shows, and the - to me - incomprehensible recent display of tangled lines by Cy Twombly at Tate Modern, are not what you might call popular culture.

The art we actually see most of the time is usually advertising something, in magazines, newspapers, the Underground; and highly original and even beautiful it often is. Some, I suspect, may be valued one day for their creativity, like decorated snuff boxes and tea caddies in the Antiques Road Show, or even Toulouse Lautrec's theatre posters, long after the product they were plugging is forgotten.

Passively gazing in galleries isn't always what we want. And there's a new tradition of pictures that seem to be gaining more ground every month, and that's the decorated card.

Greeting cards

We're used to Christmas and birthday cards. Valentine's Day has been plugged commercially to make something that actually sells in February, likewise Mother's Day, which was originally only "mothering Sunday", the day when teenage servant girls were allowed home to visit.

Katharine Whitehorn

Maybe it's not just that we're baffled by posh art, maybe we increasingly value something tangible, a thing

New baby, bon voyage, new job, house move, graduation. But now it can be just about anything. Happy divorce, maybe, or Congratulations on the insurance fire. And of course there are landscapes or flowers or reproduced old masters, or even new ones.

Felicity Green, inspirational assistant editor on the Daily Mirror and the first woman on its board - indeed on any Fleet Street newspaper - has always had her finger on the pulse of popular culture. She collects these things, saying "cards are the contemporary art comment on our scene". And more and more of them are simply funnies.

A good many are in the tradition of Donald Magill's rude seaside postcards of 50 years ago, with domineering women and cowed men - a child in a car asking "Daddy, before you were married, who told you how to drive?" - there are sexily suggestive ones, and a whole rather nasty genre of droopy boobs and lost hearing aids mocking the old.

A series of dotty penguins includes one who, instead of imitating the blonde celebrity, has turned up at a Paris Hilton lookalike contest with a hotel on his head (I've often wondered how she would have got on if she'd been called Brussels Travelodge instead).

Woman looks at saucy postcards, 1950
Very collectable today

My favourite of the black and white cards from New Yorker magazine shows a female leopard at the sink and a male leopard lounging in a chair. The female is saying "I'm not asking you to change your spots, I'm just asking you to take out the garbage." Another has a peacock with a huge and splendiferous tail, and a small, insignificant little female bird in the corner. The caption: "What do you MEAN, No?"

I can't say I care for the yucky range of dogs wearing policemen's helmets or cats riding motor bikes. Though I don't suppose the animals were too embarrassed, the gear would be applied digitally.

But I do like one of a cartoon dog talking to another: "I used to have my own blog but now I've gone back to pointless and incessant barking." There's a whole series of deliberately old-fashioned frumpy people in frumpy colours - one showing a grim-looking family captioned "Start the day with a smile and get it over."

To have and hold

Maybe it's not just that we're baffled by posh art, maybe we increasingly value something tangible, a thing, rather than just texts and e-mails. I sometimes get the impression that there are people who never read anything that isn't on screen unless it's a tea towel or a T-shirt - things again.

Deckchairs printed with artworks
Artists now have many and varied canvasses

Though you do tend to buy them and then wonder who you can tactfully send them to - you don't actually send to a single mother the one with two preying mantises pushing prams. "Life as a single mother is tough," says one. The other replies: "Yeah, maybe we shouldn't have eaten our husbands."

It's a new tradition that's gathering speed, as the Christmas card did in the 19th Century. By the way, robins were never a symbol for Christmas till there were postmen - who mostly brought mail at Christmas, who wore scarlet waistcoats and were known as Robin Redbreasts.

And you probably know we never had Christmas trees until Prince Albert brought his from foreign parts - it was just green boughs in the old English tradition. It all makes you wonder how long it takes to build a tradition - or even what counts as a tradition.

Fifty years ago the middle classes never thought they had to turn up at a dinner party with a bottle or chocolates or flowers. Well, we tend to get our manners from above - the aristocracy - and you certainly didn't bring a wilting pot of African violets when you went to dine off Sevres china with a Viscount.

It's quite recently, too, that people started laying sad and sympathetic flowers not just on graves but on the scene of a disaster. I've heard of a fatal bicycling accident honoured at the scene of the tragedy by a white-painted bicycle with the funeral service programme pinned to it.

An action becomes a tradition, I suppose, once everybody just assumes that that is what you do.

Instant traditions

Last spring I was lecturing on a cruise ship and we had a fascinating stop at Varna, Bulgaria. On a tour we were treated to traditional folk dances - very vigorous, beautifully danced in delicious intricately colourful clothes.

Cruise ship in German harbour
A new tradition for Western tourists

And I first thought "This is all a bit phoney, I bet they don't dance that well in those scrubby villages, would they really have clothes as fresh and bright?" But then I thought: "Yeah, but in 100 years time, some latter-day tour guide may be saying 'And in the last century, when they still had those huge cruise ships, the country folk every summer would come down to the coast and dress up in splendid clothes and dance for the tourists...'"

All this tourism itself is perhaps a recent tradition - at least the way we do it (the Victorians went abroad with massive leather trunks to drink the waters, our people go abroad in tiny coloured trunks to drink the vodka).

Tourism certainly makes traditions. I remember when my husband Gavin Lyall was doing some travel writing in Jamaica, and there was a contest of young men racing up a sloping series of waterfalls, the Dunns River Falls. The tourist man was very proud of this old tradition, which he later confessed he'd invented.

And I wish I could remember which South American tribe I read about, which happened to have a genetic quirk that made them marvellous at, of all things, projectile vomiting, and the men had a sort of Olympic contest in it.

A visiting anthropologist was entranced by this, and thought that it was obviously a fertility rite, an enactment of the gushing of seminal fluid prefiguring rebirth and plenty. But when he said this (through an interpreter), the tribal chief crossly replied that it was nothing of the sort, it was just a pleasant sport, he'd invented it himself and "you lot all have very dirty minds". Instant tradition in the making.


My great friend, Professor Jack Gallagher of Cambridge, the colonial historian, used to ask his students why do people obey? They'd first say "consent of the governed".

So he'd point to dozens of countries were they obeyed all right, with no consent; then they'd say "force?" But you can't, in practice, enforce all law by a gun on every street corner. So why do they, then? Jack's mundane answer - "habit".

Which ties in with what science writer Matt Ridley calls conformism in his book The Origins of Virtue, or just another way of saying that most of the time most people do what most people do most of the time. Which maybe makes most tradition just habit in a party frock.

Great art presumably transcends habit, unearths the guts of being, whether it's the horrors of war in Picasso's Guernica, the peace of Vermeer's Holland, mother love in a Bellini Madonna - or, maybe, the confusions of our age in Brit Art.

It's beyond most of us, we make do with small ordinary ways of expressing our lives, we like to take things into our own hands with cards and parcels, dances and flowers. They'll do.

Below is a selection of your comments.

An excellent piece of journalism in every sense, well researched, witty and well observed. I shall use this article for my research into Mbari shrines in Nigeria in reference to interpretation and cross cultural "mis-interpretation and re-interpretation". Great stuff......more of this elk please.
Dr Kate Parsons, Bristol, UK

By this logic, if an unmade bed is art, every child below the age of 19 must be an artist...seeing as they always leave an unmade bed behind them. I don't see them getting paid extortionate amounts of money for this. True art will stand the test of time. The unmade bed lasted long enough until the cleaner tidied it up! Classic!
Stephen, Caerphilly

I loved this article. I couldn't agree more - as a cartoonist who set off to paint like Kandinsky and wound up drawing talking dogs and mad old ladies - how much people feel art can take so many unexpected forms. Sometimes i feel a great deal of modern art makes us do a double-take, seeing ordinary things in a whole new light. Ever since i gave up trying to make Art with a capital A i've found a whole new world of possibilities, like designing T-shirts with an extra dimension (i hope). And i must add, i appreciate all the more what artists like Tracey Emin are trying to do - Jeannette Winterson once praised her as being an artist without pretension. Parcels, cards, flowers, cakes - whatever expresses your passion, why not?
Martha Richler (Cartoonist Marf), London

Everyone has an aesthetic sense. For some people it is manifest in the need to live a life dedicated to creative expression, for others, it is just a matter of rearranging the sofa cushions and straightening the throw rugs. But however it manifests itself, it is a part of the human spirit and human experience.
Paul A. Kachur, Oberheimbach, Germany

I became a fan of the seaside postcards in the 1960's and over the years have filled two large photo albums with them.
Dennis, Portland OR (US)

I agree that it is sometimes difficult to understand art. This is an excellent article. I find it very hard, or rather impossible, to understand what various paintings or works of art depict. The splendid objects or images seem to make absolutely no sense. It is very nasty indeed in my opinion to produce disrespectful creations mocking the old or depicting men/women disparagingly in the name of art.
Raj, London

This is a great article. I'm an artist, and have many friends who are, but I also know tons of people who "don't get it". I often say "you don't have to, we don't have to agree at all, because the world can maintain numberless conflicting opinions". I hope your article starts people thinking that way, instead of the posh art vs. commercial art. Thanks for it!
Jackie Webb, Vancouver, BC

I'm more than a little stunned that Ms. Whiteborn believes there is any such thing as an artistic experience or posh art. Is this 1958?
museumfilm, London UK

Hundreds of millions, a small portion of which could have raised the standard of the Queensland Art Gallery, was wasted on a new gallery of contemporary art in Brisbane - falsely called Gallery of Modern Art because of the recognition that most contemporary art is a turn-off. There was nothing to inspire in the opening exhibition. I often walk by; using it as a cool short cut in hot weather, I've seen no reason to linger.
Faustino, Brisbane, Australia

That was a bit self indulgent. Rambling, digressive and insulting to recent British art. Possibly as entertaining as a titillating seaside postcard, but not quite so intelligent.
Master D, Poole, Dorset

Lovely to read an elegant, classy, thoughtful, subtle piece by a real writer like Katherine Whitehorn. I used to love her articles when she wrote for The Observer. Would love to see more of her pieces published here.
Eithne MacDermott, Galway, Ireland

I strongly recommend the writer start reading the FT week-end excellent and accessible art pages onto which the both shows she mentions (Tracey Emin retrospective and Cy Twombly's) have been reviewed so that she can pick up a few clues from real criticism and share a more enlightening point of view than this lame why is art art babble. Or else abstain from name dropping just to diss what she's not even bothered given a thought.
A Oberson, Geneva

An excellent talk, beautifully delivered, and with a few wonderful bons mots and apercus. I'm only surprised at the remark that "Great art presumably transcends habit". No "presumably" about it: that is the whole point. As Matthew Arnold, I think, said, "The business of culture is to turn a fresh stream of free thought upon our stock notions and habits".
Barry Cusack, Hastings, UK

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