Populism or kitsch – does it matter?

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I don’t know why anyone should be surprised that when the nation was asked what its favourite work of art was the nation overlooked Turner, Constable, Gainsborough and even David Hockney and pointed to Banksy.

The national poll was conducted by Samsung among 2,000 people who were offered a long list compiled by a panel of art critics. The exercise, as you might have guessed, is a not very sophisticated marketing exercise to go with the company's new television set, The Frame, which has 100 images of works of art pre-loaded for users to pick from as their screen-saver, rather than have a blank screen when the thing is switched off.
We’re not told who the critics were or what was on the longlist, but the top 20 that Banksy’s most familiar daubing, Balloon Girl, tops are images no-one doesn’t know. The second choice is Constable’s The Haywain and he would have rejoiced to know that he had not only beaten his garrulous old rival Turner but that Jack Vettriano’s The Singing Butler pushed The Fighting Temeraire into fourth.
So the art critics had decided to go for populism in their long list, and included album covers (Peter Blake’s Sgt Pepper was eighth, and 20th is the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks cover by Jamie Reid). There is no Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst, but Anish Kapoor’s odd Olympic helter-skelter ArcelorMittal Orbit makes it at 16.
The question is almost “What birthday card images did you get this year”: it’s within an ace of kitsch, many art critics who were not on the panel would say, and maybe some who were.
Forget the fact that postcards, posters and prints of Balloon Girl have sold in their many thousands all over the world, and one version painted on the back of a picture frameboard was sold at auction for £73,000, this is street art. The image first appeared as a piece of guerrilla art on Waterloo Bridge in 2002, and the new democratisation of art had begun.
There’s nothing wrong with populism, Rembrandt, Hogarth and Durer would have starved to death if they hadn’t printed versions of their masterpieces for mass consumption, and where I live every street seems to be brightened by a very well executed mural, an initiative of the local art gallery. One of the most controversial and ultimately most successful actions of Blair’s first government was to make all national galleries and museums free to enter, with the problem now being how the institutions cope with the sudden upsurge in visitor numbers.
It turns out that people genuinely love art, it doesn’t matter how they come upon it, and the trend is spreading from the visual to the active, with free street performances of dance, theatre and especially circus being offered officially wherever money can be raised to pay for it.
You may not like Maggi Hambling’s Scallop on Aldeburgh beach or Antony Gormley’s Angel of North guarding the AI at Gateshead, but a lot of people who know what they like do.





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