Great art

Why do people go to art galleries? For me, it’s to improve the taste of a cup of tea.

This is something my mother taught me, early in life, about buying clothes. If you make a successful visit to a clothes shop, you can have tea and cake afterwards.

Some people evidently consider clothes shopping a pleasure in itself, but my mother was not of that school and neither am I. There’s no joy for us in schlepping up and down crowded high streets, squeezing in and out of silken disappointments. The experience is hot, dull and demoralising. (Less demoralising for my mother than me, because she’s slender and everything fits, but, like the guests at Jay Gatsby’s parties, she is both slender and easily bored.)

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So I was not brought up to believe that shopping is a viable leisure activity. It can be hell, my mother explained, but it’s a hell mitigated by the presence of cafes. I would trot happily behind her round the Brent Cross shopping centre, knowing we’d soon be sitting in Lindy’s with a cup of tea and a cheesecake (in my mother’s case, a cigarette) (and in my case, a cheesecake and a cigarette), rewarding ourselves for acquiring whatever lay in the C&A bag at our feet. Owning new clothes was, and is, exciting; the problem was the acquisition bit.

That’s all fine. I’m happy to declare it openly. Being bored by clothes shopping feels smart and intellectual: “Ooh, get me, insufficiently entertained by racks of skinny jeans; my mind is on higher things.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t on higher things. Privately, I feel the same way about art galleries. The best thing about them is the cup of tea afterwards. Its taste is improved by a sense of achievement, of a well-earned rest, of something done.

I’ve been thinking about this because of a certain Stephen Ellcock. He’s been in the news after being banned from Facebook for “breaching community standards” with a Holbein drawing of Erasmus’s hand.

Whether the disembodied hand was considered too sexy for Facebook, or too grisly, nobody knows. Facebook admitted it was a mistake and lifted the ban. The whole story has been rather useful for Mr Ellcock, as it has drawn attention to his bigger Facebook project: he is posting myriad images of artworks in an attempt to create a fully accessible cyber-gallery. Most major galleries put their collections on the internet these days, but Mr Ellcock says he hopes to build his own “online museum, in the same way Uber is a cab company without any cabs”.

I’ve had a look at the museum so far. He’s certainly energetic. On the evening of 28 August, between 7.15pm and 10.07pm, he posted a different Japanese artwork every three minutes.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of them. I liked the one of the frog. The one of the plum tree (“spans nearly sixteen feet across four sliding panels”) sounded like it would be quite impressive if you saw it in real life. On my computer it’s 5cm across.

Not that I would’ve had a more profound experience if I’d seen the original. Here are some things I have thought while standing in front of the world’s great artworks:

“So that’s the Mona Lisa. She’s got one of those flat faces like people have in old paintings. I thought it would be a bit more lifelike, more eyes-followey. I wonder what would happen if I ran at it with a marker pen. Is it someone else’s turn to stand in front of it? Shall I move? Or does that look like I’m not appreciating it properly?”

“Is Judas meant to look guiltier than the rest of them? They all look guilty! If that was a poker game I’d pick my money up and get out fast. What are they having for this supper? I can’t make it out. Is it bread rolls? It looks like bread rolls. I’d have thought bread rolls were a more recent thing. I’m hungry. I wonder if they do sandwiches.”

“Small cock. I wonder if you could do that on a 3D printer? Those veins on his arms really look like veins, I must say. I suppose while I’m here I should go round the back and look at the bum. Yes. There it is. Now what? You’re supposed to admire sculpture from all angles, otherwise people think you’re a philistine. But maybe it’s creepy to stare for ages at a nude one. I’ll go round the front again. No that’s worse.”

Is this happening in everyone’s heads? It can’t be. I can’t believe that 100% of the people who stand in art galleries looking at art are thinking: “Well, here I am, looking at art.” They must be having some sort of other, unselfconscious experience.

It’s not that I can’t find art beautiful. I just don’t know what to do, standing there in the gallery. I don’t know what to think about. Once I’ve seen it I’ve seen it; that takes about two seconds. I am interested and then immediately bored, immediately.

I think other people must have an inner calm, a serenity, which makes it possible for them to stand there without thinking about how they’re standing there. Me, it’s like I can hear a giant comedy clock ticking. It’s awful.

But I want art galleries to exist. It would be even more awful if there weren’t any. And they will close if people think they can get the same experience online. So I have to hope Stephen Ellcock’s great project is a failure: that his virtual gallery won’t do for art what Uber is doing to cabs.

I need people who love looking at art to keep going to art galleries, because otherwise I’ll have to go myself.