Is Art Sometimes A Wank?


Have you ever gone to a gallery to ponder the artwork of a celebrated master and found yourself spectacularly unimpressed?

I have a confession:

For years, I’ve been faking it. I have, on occasion, pretended to be interested in revered artworks. I’ve nodded my head at hideous installations. I’ve lingered for the expected number of minutes on famous pieces of art with my face arranged in a mock-intellectual expression: lips pursed, brow furrowed, one eyebrow arched.

Meanwhile, I’m screaming inside, What the hell is this?

Don’t get me wrong, I adore art. I feel the same way about art that Sarah Silverman feels about cheese. I have a BA in Visual Communications and I studied art history for five years. This officially qualifies me to dress in leopard print, stroke my chin, and engage in art speak using words like chiaroscuro, juxtaposition, esoteric, and en plein air.

In other words, I can artwank with the best of ‘em.

Recently, I went to an exhibition at the Heidi Gallery featuring a pivotal Australian artist named Albert Tucker. As I walked around, I kept wondering to myself: Why this guy? Of all the artists who have slapped paint on canvas, why is this guy’s work celebrated? Was it the times he lived in? Was it his circle of influential friends? Perhaps his highbrow collection of books – displayed in a glass case – made his child-like paintings credible? (And when I say ‘child-like’ I mean a child with a fond interest in drawing prostitutes that look like lumps of flesh with alarmingly oversized genitals.)

Anyway, I was bored. The art didn’t touch my soul, or inspire me, or make me ponder anything deep apart for whether or not the Heide Gallery café had nice food. (It didn’t.)

But I kept quiet about my lack of enthusiasm. Clearly, I was missing something and I needed to work harder to grasp it. This respected artist had hundreds of his paintings on the wall, and I – a mere mortal – simply lacked the class to grasp the deeper message. I wasn’t experiencing the social commentaries, the ugly truths, and his raw expression of wartime urban life. Even after reading a floor-to-ceiling thesis on his work, I didn’t get the hullabaloo.

Then I remembered how, in 2009, a gallery in my neighborhood hosted an exhibition by an emerging artist named Aelita Andre, who painted vivid abstracts in oil that were compared to Jackson Pollock, Salvador Dali and Wassily Kandinsky.

After the work was hung, the Brunswick Street Gallery director was tipped off on one tiny-but-oh-so-important detail about Andre. She was two.

Scrambling to retain its credibility, the art world tossed around terms like ‘child prodigy’ and the gallery director continued with the show, justifying it using the standard arty Klingon along the lines of: Andre has a free-form approach depicting the esoteric nature of all things juxtaposed en plein air in the scintillating sphere of the human experience. Hey, look over there! *Takes off running*

So then … what the hell is art?

Art is created from intuition, and it should be experienced that way too. Do you want to dive in and explore the world inside the canvas? Or does it leave you standing there, bored, thinking about café food?

Whether you’re looking at it or creating it, it’s a personal experience. For some, it’s a walk through the past, for others it moves the soul, and for Aelita Andre, it’s for the pure joy of using her little baby fingers to push squidgy colors around on a big square.

No matter how many big words you use to describe it; no matter how many scholars jump on the bandwagon of the next genius, fine art is only one thing: human animals sticking stuff to other stuff.

How we respond to it is personal, and we shouldn’t feel intimidated by wanky art snobs tripping over their own verbosity. And really, it doesn’t matter if it’s created by a two year old, or a celebrated ‘master.’ If it doesn’t turn you on, it doesn’t turn you on.

Do you visit galleries when you travel? What does art mean to you? Do you pretend to respect art that you don’t understand? Have you ever stood before a revered artwork and thought: “What the f@&# is this s*%$”?

Ron Mueck’s work needs no explanation – it’s utterly captivating.

Torre DeRoche is the author of two travel memoirs, Love with a Chance of Drowning (2013) and The Worrier’s Guide to the End of the World (due out September 2017). She has written for The Atlantic, The Guardian Travel, The Sydney Morning Herald, Emirates, and two Lonely Planet anthologies.

Leave a Comment

  • Leslie July 15, 2011, 1:47 pm

    Love this! I think all of us have been to a gallery show where we scratched our heads and thought, “Really?” It must be frustrating for talented artists who haven’t made it yet to see these exhibits. I’m sure connections and buzz has a lot to do with success in the art world.

    • Torre DeRoche July 16, 2011, 1:09 pm

      I suppose connections and buzz is what it’s always about, even in the art world.

  • Benjamin July 15, 2011, 2:06 pm

    I know exactly where you are coming from except I don’t have an art background (other than life-like drawing classes) therefore the art lingo is lost on me. I think a lot of art is like a poor method of communication: there was a message intended, but most people don’t get it. I don’t know if I can think of a single time where I was moved by a painting or a sculpture but I know I have been moved by music and writing plenty of times.

    • Torre DeRoche July 16, 2011, 1:12 pm

      Me too – I’ve never been moved by fine art in the same spine-chilling way that I’ve been moved by music or writing. Fine art makes my soul happy, but it has never made me cry.

  • The Travel Chica July 15, 2011, 4:15 pm

    I had never heard the story about Aelita Andre. That is great!

    I really enjoy seeing art when I travel. I enjoy contemporary art, and I always seek out photography and street art. I have never studied art, so I am not afraid to say, “I don’t like that,” or even a more snarky, “That’s not art.”

    Art is such a personal thing. I have no idea how the art world thinks they can decide was is worthy of displaying and what is not.

    • Torre DeRoche July 16, 2011, 1:13 pm

      Street art is always a fun way to experience a new place.

  • Meg July 15, 2011, 5:05 pm

    I have not been to as many galleries as I would like. But I do enjoy hitting them up when I get the chance. There have been many occasions where I have thought… Really? How? I look at it like fashion, sometimes I may not like the current trend or what they are selling in the stores but the creator made it for a reason. Someone is bound to enjoy it and be inspired by it. I don’t know if you are interested in street art at all and this movie is not just about street art but you should check out the movie: Beautiful Losers. It’s really awesome and very inspirational!

    • Torre DeRoche July 16, 2011, 1:14 pm

      I haven’t seen Beautiful Losers, thanks for the recommendation. You’re totally right that all art is valid. Calling it ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can be confusing, though. 🙂

  • Annie Andre July 15, 2011, 5:28 pm

    Wow, i actually thought it was just me who went around stroking my chin at art galleries and using words like esoteric and juxtaposition.

    One incident that sticks out is a painting at the SF MOMA. There was a huge Canvas, probably 12 feet tall by 6 feet white and it was just White. YUP, just white. i read the description and it said every few month’s it is repainted white to ensure that it stays this bright white. I think it was called white.

    i did a search on it and found another white painting that was at the SF Moma but this was a three panel painting. i think someone purchased it. But here is a picture of someone looking at it.

    My husband and i chuckled at this and inwardly thought WT? But i guess to each his own right?
    Funny post. i love your style..


    • Torre DeRoche July 16, 2011, 1:16 pm

      Hmm, I think I’ve seen ‘White’ before. Oh yeah, I have! On my easel. Wouldn’t you love to imbed a camera inside of ‘White’ and see the faces draw back into their chins as they pass? I’m sure it makes some people ANGRY. Thanks for your comment (and compliment!)

  • MummyinProvence July 15, 2011, 6:12 pm

    What a funny post! I actually have a degree in History of Modern Art and I spend a lot of time in galleries wondering WTF? A lot of contemporary art goes way over my head and it makes me question what goes through the mind of the pretentious fools who rave about it … there is only so much meaning you can attach to something that is a pile of crap!

    Love the story about Andre – that is awesome!

    • Torre DeRoche July 16, 2011, 1:17 pm

      You said it. From an outsider’s perspective, the art world is a strange culture indeed. Thanks for your comment.

  • Ekua July 15, 2011, 8:52 pm

    I think a lot of celebrated art is not sometimes, but very often a wank… bs and bandwagons. I typically go to SF MOMA a couple times a year for their special exhibits, but always spend time roaming around the other exhibitions and often have to roll my eyes at things like the aforementioned white painted canvases. I think people get a kick out of thinking they are part of this exclusive set of people who “get” and appreciate an exclusive piece of art that someone who they deem important has said is good. I think art is a very personal thing… I only get a kick out of art that I find to be beautiful or art that seems to be created with real emotion and makes me look at it a long time and think about what it’s saying.

    I do visit galleries when I travel because they are easy to stumble on when you’re wandering around and it’s a free activity. I think you can get more of a feel for a local culture by seeing what local people are creating right now. Some of the most interesting galleries I’ve found have been in smaller cities where the art was clearly created to be visually appealing and/or send a message that most people could get… the artists weren’t tied down to the need to be esoteric or exclusive. Also, I have a huge distaste for a lot of the Vegas culture, but I was really surprised to come across a couple of great and somewhat flamboyant galleries there.

    • Torre DeRoche July 16, 2011, 1:25 pm

      I do wonder if the white canvas artists are going for the ‘WTF?’ reaction. The funny thing is: I see ALL art as both 100% valid and ALL art as a wank. It’s a contradiction, I know. For me, that’s what makes it great: it’s simultaneously pointless and beautiful.

      Great that you take the time to visit galleries, it’s definitely a good way to experience a new place. Interesting about Vegas!

      • Ekua July 17, 2011, 12:48 am

        I definitely think the white canvas piece was created to create a WTF reaction… but I’m still not impressed. I don’t remember the artist’s name, but I remember on the bio that the artist was a friend of John Cage, someone who I studied in a 20th century classical music class (I’m a music nerd with B.M.). John Cage created the musical equivalent of white canvases – 4 minutes and 33 seconds, a “composition” where he sat on stage for that amount of time and played not one single note. I understand what people are trying to do with this kind of thing, but I wouldn’t call it art or music and I think there are much more clever, creative, convincing, and thoughtful ways of making people think about what you want them to think about. And it really annoys me that people with clout validate such a gimmicky lack of effort. I also don’t think that art in general is pointless… it’s obviously not something that’s a requirement to stay alive, but it kind of its.

  • Beware of Falling Coconuts July 16, 2011, 12:09 am

    Love the story about Aelita Andre! Illustrates a deeper truth about our pretentious yearning for deeper meaning, false elitism and the groupie-like pedestalisation of hardcore creatives. Not to mention the fact that, yes, true art is simply something we’re moved by, something that pierces the soul, and that can come from a 60-year-old master painter … or a plastic bag fluttering in the wind. Even Ron Mueck – no one could argue that his works aren’t mind-blowing. Yet, are they a creative expression or just really, really big hyperrealist replicas of ordinary human beings?

    • Torre DeRoche July 16, 2011, 1:28 pm

      You should know … you were married to a hardcore creative. So true about Mueck – his works are impressive from a technical point of view, but the mind-blowing aspect comes from the impeccable craftsmanship, not the commentary he’s making.

      • Beware of Falling Coconuts July 16, 2011, 2:00 pm

        Yes, I was astounded by how many people put my ex on a pedestal, simply because of his creativity, and ignored – or indulged – all the accompanying behaviour. Become a recognised artist and get a free hall pass for social accountability. I hope little Andre isn’t primed for a lifetime of overindulgence. Although perhaps her parents staged the event because they were in on the joke.

  • Leif July 16, 2011, 8:07 pm

    This is great Torre, I totally agree. I think the same can be said about wines and cigars. It’s up to the person, its completely subjective. My cousin is a big cigar connoisseur and he always finds a cornucopia of flavors and aromas in his cigar. Cousin: “Citrus, rose petal, oak, …. Hey Leif, what do you taste.” Me: “Well… it kinda tastes like chicken shit.” lol ><.

  • Debbie @ European Travelista July 17, 2011, 5:03 pm

    Oh yes I have visited museums and galleries and wondered what the heck is this? I really didn’t appreciate art until I discovered the Impressionists by visiting Auvers sur Oise. Learning about Van Gogh really opened my eyes to his work. You can feel his depression in his creations. I think learning about the artists and the meaning behind their art really helps understand it.

  • Nomadic Samuel July 17, 2011, 11:46 pm

    This is a brilliant article! I’ve often wondered if those with a strong background in art ‘faked’ it at times & now I’ve realized indeed that’s true 🙂 I think that beauty, art & photography is brutally subjective. In other words, what’s incredible to one person might seem like a hunk of trash to another. I think you got this point across well here.

  • Kim July 18, 2011, 12:30 am

    Torre, you’re smart! Most of the time, when I’m looking at art, I’m wondering what the hell I’m looking at. I’m generally moved by the written word- that’s the kind of art I take to.

  • Kelsey July 27, 2011, 4:24 pm

    As an artist who is a child of two artists…yes, art is sometimes a complete and utter wank.

  • Denise August 3, 2011, 5:40 am

    My feelings exactly. I thought most of the Tate modern in London was complete crap…

  • Charley @Secret_Water August 6, 2011, 11:20 am

    Ha Ha Ha! I flatted with a now dear friend who did a masters in fine art and she used to say the same. I love going to galleries but hardly ever do. I’d never go because I “like art” but rather becasue i knew there would be art there that I’d enjoy looking at, for example paitings of amazing seasacapes that have successfully captured the motion of the ocean. I remeber going to the launch of an exhibition with a friend. It was her sister in laws art, up there with a few other artists. My friend, not known for her tact but rather her honesty and blunt sense of humour said very loudly as we walked around (amongst friends and family of the exhibitors) “I just look at it and say “”could I have done that myself?” and if the answer’s yes then its not really art”. Harsh but probably fair!

  • Carol November 5, 2011, 11:15 pm

    Great blog. Tucker’s work has never been well understood and the way it is presented often doesn’t help. Re: great art though, you certainly know it when you see it. For me, the work of masters like Velazquez and Mantegna for example is amazing as is that of Matisse, particularly when seen in a gallery room devoted this work; or the humour of Picasso taking off other masters in his wild and multiple variations of their themes; as well as artists like Arman putting together amassed consumer items with hilarious titles – this brings the fun to art appreciation. Great art makes us think and can move us. Photography is also a great medium for the latter (and another source of debate on ‘is it art’?!) As for little Andre, it is interesting her artist parents found it more lucrative to devote their time and efforts to supply her with paints and ‘put one over’ on the public, and one gallerist too it seems. Listening to the little ‘protege’ explain her ‘work’ in an interview tells the whole story. You have done well in linking her to the idea of art appreciation – it is often the story that sells the work or the entrenched ideas that something is significant for some reason and therefore we should look at it in exhibition whether or not it continues to hold any relevance for us and the other comments indicate.

  • Lulu September 1, 2012, 6:06 am

    Oh , phew! Holy balls, you scared me. I saw “artwank” and a work by Ron Mueck under it and I pissed my pants. I thought this wonderful new writer I found was dissing ron muecks amazing work. Thank goodness I read on…
    Ps I totally agree. If you google enough you can see this is nothing new. I saw art from the 50’s that was a scungy briefcase with a bottle of jam taped to it…

  • Gary from Livefreedietravelling June 7, 2013, 8:01 am

    ARTWANK….. what a fabulous expression. I try to paint a little myself but find myself in exactly the same place as you when it comes to critiquing other works. Your sentiments match mine completely.
    I know that you are an artist yourself but I haven’t seen anything on the site…or perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough? If your art comes close to some of your photos then maybe we should get a glimpse??

    Great post…thank you

  • Scott April 11, 2015, 1:50 am

    This is a compelling discussion. I’m a first year Arts student UTAS [Tasmania] and your questions resonate considerably. I’m writing a short paper on large -scale immersive works and soon found myself inadvertently diverted to a consideration that must be at the head of any discussion on Art. A Question that asks about ‘art wank’. i.e. Do art theorist take this indirect criticisms onboard- or are they in a Thomas Kuhnian sense oblivious to other ways of seeing and thus thinking?. Perhaps the answers are decades away, but what seem critical is for the Arts fraternity to take this phrase seriously if it is to evolve and we are to see the next pages of what Art has install for humanity. For example image the publics confidence in a discipline that had the ancillary badge as art does in ‘Art Wank’.

  • caroon davis June 17, 2015, 9:30 pm

    Hi, I really enjoy your writing and so am inspired to leave a comment. I found you by searching for albert tuckers picture ‘Victory Girls’. I am also a visual artist and I needed to use this image to express similar feelings in a painting I’m starting. I must have seen this picture years ago and it has stayed in my subconscious because it moved me. Like you say, that’s how to appreciate art; when it moves you. I can understand alberts work seeming childish, but then other of his images are so concise, mature… I think the childish ones are aptly so to give us the unadorned, unrefined emotion; colours, shapes and expressions that hit (my) most basic awareness.
    I love that art will reveal and conceal depending on our personal needs. Thanks for your blogs