Here I am, gentle readers, in Paris on a little vay-kay, as they say, with the parents. We’ve rented an apartment just behind the Pompidou, that wonderfully designed modern art gallery with all the coloured plumbing and electrical piping on the outside of the building. Which means that every day, when we emerge from the apartment and head for a morning café and pain au chocolat (why does even a chocolate croissant sound sexy when it’s in French?), the Pompidou is the first thing we see.
And you know it’s got modern art inside, because in the vast cobble-stoned entrance, there is a giant column about ten metres tall, on top of which sits an enormous gold flower pot.
When Saffy saw the pot a few years ago on our first trip together to Paris, the first thing she said was, “Seriously? An empty flower pot? Painted in gold? Someone got paid to make this?”
That’s the thing about modern art. It always excites such extremes in opinion. In most cases, you either love it, or you hate it with a passion. Which is not the case with something like the Mona Lisa. I’ve yet to come across someone who’s said, “The Mona Lisa? That piece of crap? Seriously? Someone got paid to paint that?”
I remember once wandering around an art gallery in London and found myself standing transfixed before one of the pieces for at least ten minutes. After a while, I looked around, searching for a hidden camera, or just waiting for someone to pop out and sing, “Smile, you’re on Candid Camera!”
Because the exhibit in question consisted of a little plinth on which was balanced a scrunched up ball of white paper. That was it. It wasn’t folded into a delicate origami. It wasn’t painted. It wasn’t festooned with holograms or painted with tiny images of the Mona Lisa. It wasn’t anything. Just a scrunched up ball of what was probably photocopy paper. It was the stupidest thing I’d ever seen.
Just then, two people came up behind me. One of them gasped. “Oh my goodness!” she said with the kind of accent you don’t normally hear outside of a Merchant Ivory movie. “That’s astonishing!”
“Isn’t it?” her companion said. “I think it’s one of his most moving works! His grasp of motion is just flawless, I think!”
I had to check that they were looking at (and talking about) the same exhibit I was looking at. Again, I glanced around with a nervous smile for the hidden cameras. Mentally, I berated myself for not seeing why that bloody ball of paper was so moving. I felt like an artistic Neanderthal.
That’s why modern art makes me nervous. I find myself unable to express an opinion about anything just in case I expose my horrible ignorance about the subject. What if I say I like something only to find that all the arty farty people think it’s revolting? Or, worse, what if I really hate that oil painting and it turns out to be one of the most important pieces in the artist’s catalogue?
And now, years later, I found myself in the Pompidou in a state of nervous artistic tension. Saffy SMS’d me from Singapore: “I can’t believe you’re putting yourself through all that rubbish again!” One thing you can say about Saffy is that she never has any doubts about herself. If she decided tomorrow that the world was flat, she’d have no trouble sleeping.
I stopped in front of a painting and I swear, I had a mini nervous breakdown. I use the word ‘painting’ loosely because there was – how do I put this precisely? – nothing on the canvas. Not a scratch. Not a daub of colour. Not a pencil dot. It was just a white canvas.
In my mind, I imagined the artist going down to his local art supplier, picking up a fresh canvas frame and then going straight to his art dealer. “Voila!” he says, as he hands over the canvas. “My latest work! It’s called ‘The Transition of Volatility’. It’s my best work so far!”
The art dealer looks at it and whispers, “My God, this is revolutionary!” before he slaps on a $1m price tag on it. A few days later, some sap from an art gallery comes along, takes one look at it and declares, “My gallery simply must have this! It’s such an important work!”
And so here I am standing in front of an empty canvas hanging in one of the world’s most prestigious art centres, and I’m still waiting for someone to tell me that it’s all a big fat joke.