It’s All Good: Reclaiming The Art Hierarchy

In his most recent whinge in The Guardian, art critic Jonathan Jones laments Banksy’s Balloon Girl being voted Britain’s most loved work of art, claiming this to be proof of our collective stupidity. From a survey of 2,000 people by Samsung to promote a new TV. Literally who cares.

So a small group surveyed about a TV picked Banksy as their most-loved work of art? In 2015, The Society For All Artists (SAA) declared Monet’s Water Lillies the winner. Ten years earlier, a BBC Radio 4 poll put Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire in the top spot. Let’s all agree that polls are entirely subjective and irrelevant and move on.

Time and money are the real dictators in this popularity contest. The most visited exhibition last year was ‘The Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse’ at the Royal Academy, with nearly half a million paying up to see lovely easy paintings of gardens (snooze). 2016 was also a bumper year for Georgia O’Keefe at the Tate Modern, Hockney at the RA, and Goya at the National. If institutions are still the gatekeepers to taste, 2016 wasn’t hitting the popular zeitgeist.

Vincent van Gogh,  Sunflowers , 1888

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1888

Nonetheless, popularity follows where institutions lead. Van Gogh (his Sunflowers the best-selling print on was infamously un-loved until critics in Paris and Brussels began to posthumously shine a light in his direction. Banksy is adored namely because his work so ubiquitous, endlessly printed and reproduced, showcased in galleries, or used as political propaganda for Syrian refugees in 2014 and anti-Conservatism in 2017.

In my very first art history lesson I rolled my eyes as my tutor declared that art is institutionally defined, swatting away our doe-eyed declarations that ‘art is beauty!’ ‘art is joy!’ ‘art is EVERYWHERE!’. Hubris is a bitch, and alas, she was right. Art is distinguished from visual imagery via the institutions that tell us so, but the institutions are changing, and the popularity contest is increasingly irrelevant.

Full disclosure, I don’t like Balloon Girl either. I think it’s simplistic and boring to look at, but I also once hung a Matisse print upside down for an entire year, so who I am to talk. I was lucky enough to indulge in an art history education, but don’t resent those who can’t traipse the Tate every weekend and find something more interesting to look at. The art world needs to look beyond the old rules of the establishment and allow a new kind of popular to emerge.

Polly Nor,  Babe You’re Going To Be Fine,    2016

Polly Nor, Babe You’re Going To Be Fine, 2016

Thankfully the digital age is closing the gap, and the internet has become a democratising force in art, particularly on social media. Polly Nor made her name on Instagram with works such as Babe You’re Going To Be Fine, exploring ‘women and their demons’. She now has over 700,000 Instagram followers, and her show in London this month has the juicy title ‘IT’S CALLED ART MUM, LOOK IT UP’.

Over in the increasingly dark tunnel of Twitter, the babes at @TabloidArtHistory are providing some pop culture light. Living under the mantra that ‘for every pic of Lindsay Lohan falling, there’s a Bernini begging to be referenced’, Renaissance painters have never been so cool. In 2017 it takes more than a blockbuster show at The National Gallery to bring in millennials – we want smart comparisons of Beyonce to Botticelli, Kim Kardashian to Valàzquez, Grace Jones to Michelangelo. These new digital institutions are redefining art, and opening the gates to a larger audience than ever – of course what’s popular is undergoing mass changes, and this can only be a good thing.

@TabloidArtHistory¸ 2017

@TabloidArtHistory¸ 2017

Jones might enjoy telling his readers that popular art is stupid or illegitimate, but this dated and elitist take on the art world is drawing to a close. Love art that says something to you, hang it upside down because it looks better that way, and don’t be afraid to enjoy something you find on Instagram, juxtaposed with a Spice Girls poster, or god-forbid, in a quiet corner of The National. It’s all good.

Follow Sarah on Twitter @sarah_margetson