Posted by: okathleen | October 9, 2008

H2CO; Formaldehyde innit?

Two weeks ago I took my son to London to finalise his launch into the ether of studentdom. We spent the first day wafting through the dreamy spires and kebab shops of Bloomsbury. His digs are equidistant between the British Museum and the British Library – what bliss – although it is questionable whether he will ever darken their doors (he was at his most animated realising Spearmint Rhino was a 10 minute walk away…). However not to be squashed by his lack of bibliophilic willing I snuck in a fleeting visit to the Royal Academy and the Galleries at Sotheby’s on Bond Street the following day.


Sotheby’s was buzzing. When I lived in London I preferred their viewings to any other gallery. For two reasons I think, first it warmed me that all that stuff might never before have seen the light of day, a tiara, a bottle of Petrus, a Van Gogh. And for one week only these pieces would bask in the light of day before being shipped off to any corner of the world, when they might never ever ever be seen again. I liked the romance of that. Buried treasure. Elusive.


Secondly, the people.  A very different crowd to the hoards at Tate Modern or the V & A. No tourists, no whining school boys, unwillingly dragged, no feeling of I should be here because the Curator said I should. At Sotheby’s the randomness of the objets is reflected in the randomness of the punters.


So, with those memories of romantic randomness, I dragged my poor whining offspring around the Galleries. Actually, that’s not strictly true. He was mesmerised. I was glad about this because I was hoping to use him as my first stooge/victim/interviewee for my Independent Study. I want to know what a teenage boy thinks about art. What impact would this have? Construct some thoughts, what do you think? What did it make you feel?



The galleries were crammed to the gills – ha- with dead animals and fish. This was no ordinary sale, this was Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, Damien Hirst’s huge pile ’em high, sell ’em extortionate sale of the century. Dozens of bored security guards looked on as Golden Calfs, Zebras and Butterflys were dissected by an intrigued audience. My son wandered around. A bull’s heart pierced by a huge dagger, suspended in a glass cage took his fancy. Flies stuck on to canvas didn’t. I watched him watching. He didn’t get it. He wasn’t alone. ‘What a crock of shit Mum’….


We mulled it over at the Wolseley. Eggs and muffins, silver teapots, aloof waitress. I was the only woman. My son the only chap in jeans. Buy buy, sell sell, all around.


By my wonderful powers of persuasion and bribery I managed to get five minutes in the Royal Academy on the way back to Euston. Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator and me ascended to the Sackler Wing. At the end of the corridor, quietly suspended behind glass is the Academy’s greatest treasure – the Taddei Tondo.

This marble sculpture is the only piece by Michelangelo in the UK.



I had explained a little of what we were going to see. He wasn’t impressed. ‘Is that it’?

‘It’ didn’t really stand a chance. Not sexy, not hyped, not dipped in gold. But stunningly simple and soft and seductive? He didn’t answer.

However, the next day, he came to me asking for money – what’s new there then?

He wanted to buy paints. He had googled the Hirst skull paintings and was going to have a go…



What does this mean then? My son looked at a piece of art and was moved to take action.

Action – reaction. With hindsight I observed him as he took a great deal of interest in how the Hirst piece was manufactured. He asked what paint had been used, what process? He was interested enough to follow it up after he left the gallery. Can art do this? Can art move people, rally them, stimulate or trigger an impulse? The ramifications are fascinating. Take 20 teenage boys who at first sight might appear to be more interested in knives and dope, and expose them to a piece of art. Art therapy has been used for years. The chemical chain of events in the brain following exposure to paintings and music has been well researched. Primeval man indulged in cave paintings, millennium man indulges in graffiti. Is art useless? Obviously not. Public money would not be pumped into the art sector without reason. How could it be used to a better purpose? Should it have a purpose? This article cites Klein and Langer, and looks at the Freudian approach to aesthetics and art criticism.



  1. Nice writing style. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Chris Moran

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