New Internationalist

Mona Lisa Chalks Up

Issue 144

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ART [image, unknown] Culture clash

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Mona Lisa chalks up
Cousin Mandy loved art — so when she came to
stay there seemed only one way to entertain her.
Christine Hughes relives a very damp weekend.

I hadn’t seen Mandy for over a year and I hardly recognised her. When last I’d seen her she’d had long straggly skirts, long straggly hair, desert wellies and a dirty neck. Now she had a leather mini, studded belt, leopard skin tee-shirt and a dirty neck. She recognised me, though. Unfortunately.

‘HI MAND!’ I said, exuberantly.

‘Relax’, she mumbled, dropping her suitcase neatly on my foot. Thinking of high art, perhaps? I looked at her out of the corner of my eye. No middle-class tweeds, no arty-farty beads. Was she still interested in art?

‘Look up there,’ I said, pointing to the station’s improbable statue. ‘It’s called Liverpool Resurgent. It’s an Epstein. It represents Liverpool’s rebirth after the destruction of the war.

Mandy looked blankly at it and at me.

‘Why?’

‘What?’

‘Why?’

I was stymied. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Boring.’

I felt a familiar stirring of irritation. This was going to be fun.

Next day it was pouring with rain — so I took Mand to the art gallery. ‘This is one of the best art collections outside London,’ I said, trying to sound proud. I thought of the galleries she had taken me to see in London with their seemingly endless rooms and corridors. Why couldn’t someone shunt a few choice items our way? Might help bring in the tourists. We need the money as much as London. More, if anything.

Mandy and I dripped up the stairs while a whey-faced Napoleon in St Bernard’s Pass gaped down at us disapprovingly. He didn’t intimidate Mand. though; she took one look at him and pronounced her informed opinion: ‘Boring’. The same applied to everything, it seemed. The pictures didn’t interest me, either — I didn’t understand them and I’d never heard of most of the people who’d painted them. I remembered now why I’d never been back here since that one visit from school — it bored me rigid. And for some reason I didn’t under- stand, I was hostile too. I wanted to kick somebody’s teeth in. Preferably Mandy’s; it was her fault I was there.

But Mandy didn’t seem to be enjoying herself either— and she’d spent two years at art school. We traipsed glumly around, brollies dripping, until we found ourselves in Modern Art. I looked at her studded wristbands, the huge earrings, the spiky hairdo. Would this be her cup of tea?

‘Look at that’ I whispered, squinting through my misty specs and pointing at a three-dimensional object. ‘Don’t you think that’s good?’

‘Why?’

‘What?’

‘Why?’

Stumped again. ‘It’s a nice colour; I said limply. ‘It’s a fire bucket; she replied.

She was right, too. I felt soft, but how was I to know? Of all incomprehensible art modern is the most incomprehensible of all. If 40 bricks on the floor is a sculpture because someone says it is, why not a fire bucket? What was it that turned junk into art? Damned if I know.

We ambled round a little more, I on tiptoe so that the click-click of my heels wouldn’t break the holy silence. Nothing pleased Mandy. When she sat down in Renaissance Icons to wring out her woolly tights under the shocked eyes of all those simpering Madonnas and ugly little monsters of childs, I felt I’d had enough.

‘What’s the matter with you?’ I croaked. ‘You’ve been a wet blanket all day.’

‘I feel like a wet blanket! I wish I had a wet blanket! I’m dissolving here!’ The unprecedented length of this speech, plus the fact that I concurred with its sentiments, was stunning.

‘But you always used to like this kind of thing.’

‘Well, I don’t like it now. What I’m interested in is living art, not this precious stuff that has to be kept in glass cases so no one can touch it and leave a dirty mark. This place is an anachronism. Who knows or cares what this art is trying to say. You bloody well don’t.’

‘But I’ve never claimed to understand art. All we did at school was draw fruit.’

‘There are other types of art besides painting and sculpture.’

‘Well, yes, of course, but, well, music, for instance. I like pop music, but it isn’t art, is it? I learned the National Anthem on the recorder, but it didn’t seem to spark off much interest. We didn’t do drama at all. Anyway, art isn’t something you get into for fun, is it? It’s not that I don’t like art, but it has nothing to do with life, has it?’

‘What you think of as art has nothing to do with life!’, she shrieked. ‘People are like sheep! So willing to accept the judgements of the anonymous few at the top —"This is good, that isn’t; this is art, that’s commercialism. And when a binful of middle-class tack like this doesn’t move them, and the music at the Philharmonic leaves them cold, they think art has nothing to do with them, because that’s all the art there is. Well, I say different. Millions and millions heard the music of Lennon and understood. Here we are in the town that made him; do you say his work wasn’t art?’

I daren’t.

‘You’ve got to broaden your mind. There are no facts about what’s good and what’s not. Only opinions.’

She stood up.

‘This,’ she eyed the treasures with scorn, ‘isn’t all there is to art. Art is alive out there. All you have to do is look for it.’

She marched victorious from the field and I trailed miserably in her wake.

I thought the worst was over — but it was yet to come. We set out after tea, still steaming slightly. A friend of Mand’s from London had told her about a pub with ‘alternative’ music. It was the sort of dump you have to do up before it’s fit to pull down. The bar pulsated. One group belted out a song about American imperialism, followed by a blue-tinted maniac ranting about working conditions on tea plantations in Sri Lanka. Everyone shouted and stomped, and the air smelled very suspicious. But Mand was finally happy.

‘That’s living art; she said as we left, jabbing me aggressively. ‘That’s about real life.’ The tension of sitting for three solid hours in expectation of a raid by the Drugs Squad caught up with me.

‘Whose life?’ I shouted. ‘Not my life! What do I care about American exploitation of God knows what when my Dad is unemployed, my brother has never worked and my firm is making redundancies? We’re being exploited, here and now! What about us? What do I care about tea pickers or nose pickers or nit pickers on the other side of the world when our bloody council house is being held up by the rising

damp? If that’s living art it’s as irrelevant to me and my life as Chaucer and Shakespeare and Wordsworth and all the other dead people I read about at school and didn’t understand a word of. And didn’t want to! And don’t want to!’

For once I had silenced her. At least temporarily. She gave me the fiercest of her

scowling looks and damned me in one bitter word.

‘Boring.’

Perhaps it was this that convinced Mandy that her crusade to convert the bumpkin northerners from ale and clogs to alternative culture had failed and next day she beat a strategic retreat. It was with real warmth that I bade her farewell. I walked from the station with springs on my soles. Everything was beautiful! The break-dancers in Church Street looked graceful and enchanting, the buskers played sweet music of heaven and the giant Mona Lisa in chalk on the pavement and the murals on the outside of the Caribbean Centre looked as good to me as the sardine tin on the bin lid that the Arts Council paid £5,000 for. They could have had my whole bin for a tenner.

I thought about the Arts Council and wondered what exactly they were. I seemed to remember hearing the phrase ‘Bring the arts to the people.’ Which arts to which people? Break dancing to Belgravia as well as ballet to Brixton? Did they want to paint Park Lane with pictures? Did the buskers and the pavement artists get Arts Council grants, I wondered? I supposed not; it would probably interfere with their dole money. And it isn’t art, is it? It isn’t culture. It’s just common. But at least it’s fun.

Christine Hughes is a freelance writer living in Liverpool.


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