Getting ’em out for The Lads: Lee Horyon

(Thursday Rant.)

Lee’s work separates the vague relationship between image and desire.”

“Vague”?
Since when has the relationship between image and desire been ‘vague’? A vast porn industry is predicated precisely on the fact that  the relationship between image and sexual desire is very clear-cut indeed. How else would pornography ‘work’?

Take a look at Horyon’s work.

Am I the only one to find them offensive?

I am reminded of the old sexist ‘joke’:
“You don’t look at the mantlepiece when you’re poking the fire”.
Dress it up in meaningless, high-sounding sophistry as much as you like; the fact remains that images of headless/faceless women in poses ranging from the titillating to ‘softly’ (ha!) pornographic are, in my opinion, offensive to at least half the human race.

The last one, with her ass in your face, is veiled, for crying out loud.
This in a world where women the world over are struggling to throw off ‘the veil’, both literally and metaphorically.

Subjecting women in this fashion, reducing them, not to ‘objects’ (all art objectifies, as I’ve argued before) but to detached, depersonalised commodities purveyed to the male gaze is, in my opinion, not something to be tolerated in the name of ‘art’. There’s no denying Horyon’s technical excellence, but art is not just about how you make it; it’s also about what you choose to make. I’m all for freedom of expression – which is why I’m having my say here – but retrograde representations like these contribute nothing; they merely perpetuate the millenia-old view of women as little more than the means to male sexual gratification.
Strip-tease, burlesque, pornography, these works: they’re all the same in their rejection of an equal relationship between ‘viewer’ and ‘viewed’, and therefore equally deleterious.

Compare if you will Rembrandt’s magnificent Hendrickje Bathing:

The National Gallery, London

This is a woman, Rembrandt’s common-law wife, who was both desired and deeply loved. She has a name and a face; she is a person, not an idealised/air-brushed cipher, and is presented to us with all the tenderness and respect that Rembrandt’s matchless painterly skill allowed.
In her complete trust and lack of self-consciousness, she is very much an equal partner in this work.

That’s what it’s all about.

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Wake up, Boo!

Just a quickie to mark what feels like the arrival of a summer that knocked on the door in March, only to wander off and get itself hopelessly lost before I had the chance to say hello:

Henley Regatta by Raoul Dufy (1933):

Not the greatest artist – perhaps more correctly termed a graphic designer/ illustrator? – his works never fail to lift my spirits: sketchily light-hearted and optimistic, full of vibrant colour and airiness, to me they’re summer’s mood.

So off with clouts and cares! A glass of something long and cold?
Throw open all the windows and let the laggard in at last…

Oh, and England to win.
(On penalties. 🙂 )

Trouble at t’Tate?: ‘re-appraising’ Lowry

 “Lowry remains popular, rather than important; it’s hard to imagine Tate Britain, which has 23 Lowrys in its basement, mounting a survey of his work.”

~ Critic Philip Hensher, April 2011

“What makes Lowry so popular is the same thing which stops him being the subject of serious critical attention. What attracts so many is a sort of sentimentality about him.”

~ Chris Stephens, Head of Displays, Tate Britain, 2011

How times change! And so quickly!
Tate Britain show to reappraise Lowry” (Daily Telegraph, this week).
In 2013.
It’s not difficult to suggest a reason for this sudden volte-face: like Tate Britain’s up-coming, ridiculously pitched Pre-Raphaelite show, a Lowry exhibition demands little more than a quick trip Up North to Salford Quays with two big lads, a wheel-barrow, and a van.
It’s cheap.
‘Reappraise’? What they probably mean is ‘repackage’. Tate Britain are surely showing Lowry precisely because, like Rossetti and his mates, he is popular, and will, they hope, set the cash registers ringing; will it have anything at all to do with genuine, critical ‘reappraisal’?

It’s all very well to state (Guardian) that the exhibition will examine the influence on Lowry of artists like Pissarro and Utrillo (and, one certainly hopes, of his teacher, Valette), but if it were to be a true ‘reappraisal’, the gallery would have to confront, head-on, the very basis of of Lowry’s much-vaunted popularity – this absurd notion of ‘a sort of sentimentality’.
Lowry’s words:

“To say the truth, I was not thinking very much about the people. I did not care for them in the same way a social reformer does. They are part of a private beauty that haunted me. I loved them and the houses in the same way.. “

(My emphases.)

There is nothing genial and altruistic here.
And this is why I, descendant of clog-shod generations of West Riding mill-workers, have never cared a jot  for the ‘matchstick’ paintings: I never believed them. Far from being paeans to the ‘Grim-Up-North-but-Salt-of-the-Earth’-ness that brings a nostalgic tear to the eyes of otherwise hardened northern hunks, they are detached, gimlet-eyed works (nothing wrong with that; the vast majority of art works are), and thus the very  opposite of ‘sentimental’. Any ‘warmth’ in them is supplied by you, the viewer, reacting to that browny/red-toned palette, itself a fib; if you’re as old as I am you’ll remember the mucky, murky blacks and greys of smoke, soot and more soot. And reacting also to that faux-naïf style, which for me grates horribly: it lends a simple (simple-minded?) ‘folksy’ feel, but in truth that very self-conscious stylisation has a dehumanising effect which in the end is not only, as Lowry admits, unsympathetic, but downright patronising.

So how will Tate Britain ‘sell’ these works? Just by bigging-up, as with the Picasso/British Art show, the influence of much better European artists? (So what? All art is referential.) Will they focus on the ‘northern myth’, Kinkade-style, in the hope of shifting a shed-load of tea-towels, mugs and prints to a heart-warmed, grateful public? And if they do, how will they give due weight to the ‘real’ Lowry, the actually quite interesting stuff? Stuff like this, a self-portrait from 1938:
And this:

Hidden until after his death, this series of drawings sheds a somewhat different light on the public, ‘cosy’ Lowry. If the people of his industrial scapes are rendered as less than human, his girls/women here are fetishistic dolls, trussed-up, sinister automatons (his favourite ballet was Coppelia, allegedly), fantastical puppets, easily controlled; this private Lowry reminds me of no-one so much as one Everard Cunion, familiar to those of you who read the weekly ‘womags’ as the owner of a dozen life-size sex-dolls, dolls being much less “trouble” than real women, and one of which he ‘married’:

Disturbing, whichever way you look at it; some might say bordering on the sociopathic.

Of course it’s no secret that Lowry was a, troubled, lonely man with, thanks in no small part to an overbearing mother, a not entirely healthy attitude to women; I’m just wondering if and how Tate Britain will deal with this ‘darker side’ honestly and informatively, because that’s the only way a full-scale exhibition of this, to my mind, decidedly second-rank artist could possibly be worthwhile.
If the show does turn out to be just another re-hash of ‘nice’ Lowry, simply another cash-cow that doesn’t lift the artist out of our comfort zone, then frankly the gallery will have altogether failed at anything like ‘reappraisal’.

To end on a more positive note, because I know that very many of you will love and adore Lowry and disagree with me vehemently, here’s one of his seascapes, many of which I hope will feature; these I do admire for their almost minimalist near-abstraction, and for me, truth:

I have been fond of the sea all my life, how wonderful it is, yet how terrible it is. But I often think … what if it suddenly changed its mind and didn’t turn the tide? And came straight on?”

My thoughts and fears exactly.
On this and this alone, LS Lowry and I are as one.



We need to talk about Baby: Marlene Dumas

Nothing, but nothing, scares the bejaysus out of me like ‘Evil Kids’: the Grady Twins in The Shining; Toshio in The Grudge; The Exorcist‘s Regan when she’s at that ‘awkward’ stage between ‘normal’ and head-swivelling, mushy-pea-spewing grotesqueness which, while horrible, does not inspire ‘horror’.

‘Horror’ for me resides in what Freud viewed as an aesthetic quality and termed ‘Das Unheimliche’: the ‘unhomely’, the discomfiting, the ‘not talked about’; it inspires “dread and repulsion”; its essence is the uncanny, ambiguity, the awareness of the alien within the all-too-familiar; the sense that Something is Not Quite Right. And is there anything less ‘heimlich’ (cosy, familiar), more ‘dreadful’, more disquieting than an ‘Evil Kid’? Anything more against what we believe to be ‘nature‘?

Not for me.
Which is why Marlene Dumas’ Die Baba (The Baby, 1985) has been etched on my brain since I first saw it at the Saatchi Gallery some years ago.

Oil on linen, 130cm x 110cm

One of the four pieces which make up the series First People, the painting has been described as ‘repellent’. Why? because it subverts, trashes even, every cliché we hold dear about our beloved children and our relationship with them: it’s Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (great novel, not so great film) in one deeply unsettling image.

As always, the devil is in the detail.
First off there’s the scale – ‘man-size’ – so we’re already way beyond contemplating dandling this little treasure on our laps like a plaything; in fact, we’re not being asked to contemplate him as a ‘thing’ at all, but as a person (First People), not merely a self-indulgent version/extension of ourselves, the ‘parents’. This is a sentient, willful being who engages us directly through eyes which seem to have seen just about everything ever and not been entirely thrilled about it: the casually presumed ‘innocence’ of childhood is replaced with a confrontational ‘knowingness’, in that horribly arched eyebrow, that looks right through us, and, more disturbingly, judges us.

So used are we to being presented with images of happily gurgling, tousled-haired darling moppets, that the sight of a tight-lipped (what is that smeared on his mouth? Chocolate? Or something much, much worse?), Hitler-haired mini-man is a shock to the system. No bouncing, rosy-cheeked cherub this: the greeny/yellow-tinged palette is sickly and alienating, just plain wrong,  and, for me, it exactly conjures up what Freud was getting at.

Of course, Dumas is not out to simply scare us for scariness’ sake; she has a very serious point to make, like Shriver’s novel, about the clashing dichotomy between personal and societal expectations of parenthood and the actual, lived experience of it: the little angel can be just as often the little monster; sometimes we hate, or at least resent, our children, but it would never do to say it out loud, in public. What kind of parent would that make us?
In this brave, brilliant painting fear of the child is reflected back on us as fear of ourselves, of what we, supposedly rational, caring grown-ups, are both capable and incapable, despite what we like to believe, despite the images and conventions with which the world at large surrounds us.

Now there’s something to be scared of.

What a beast, what a man! Meet Mackie, artist

Looking at contemporary art is like panning for gold: once in a while, amidst the drift and dribble, you stumble fortuitously on the shiny stuff, on someone like a Katie Paterson or a George Shaw, say.
On someone like Mackie.

Romeo’s Return, oil on canvas, 153cm x 92cm

Mackie’s subect is “the very average man”, “the frailty and silliness of everything”. There is black humour aplenty: his world is peopled by what look like distinctly shady types but are in fact just men, caught in the act of simply being themselves, ‘blokes‘ ”: the innate slobbishness; the casual aggression; the tribalism; the testosterone-fuelled menace; the unconsidered lusty lip-curl of a lecher. But, as with all work of any worth, it cannot be reduced to simple cartoonish mockery; there is an empathy at play here, a fellow-feeling, an all too honest recognition (in himself?) of the ‘manly’ foibles and ‘frailty’ he so ruthlessly and starkly depicts.

Binge Drink, oil on linen, 100cm x 70cm

This empathy reveals itself formally.
With a background in illustration and design, it comes as no surprise that Mackie’s working process is painstaking, involving detailed preliminary sketching and 3D modelling before committing oil to canvas. His claim to classical Flemish influence is backed up by his realism, his measured palette, his meticulous attention to detail, his observation, his refusal to idealise or romanticise, his concern with the world as it ‘is’: he is a Bosch, or, perhaps more so, a Pieter Bruegel for our times.

Whose Round Is It? oil on canvas, 150cm x 90cm

All of which raises the work, as I said, above mere cartoon or caricature. What we are dealing with is not the stereotypical but the archetypal; a huge difference: moralising versus moral. (Easter Island heads, anyone?) Rather than putting on show a gallery of grotesques, Mackie is, perhaps, asking us to look within. And that includes you too, lady. You may not visually present, but you’re there by implication, in every single time you’ve looked at him and thought, “Bloody idiot!”. Men without women revert effortlessly to type.

A Convenient Streetlamp, oil on canvas, 153cm x 92cm

But what I really like about Mackie is that he loves art, he knows art. The references in his work are myriad, yet completely subsumed and assimilated, made totally his own: the Flemish, yes, but what about surrealists like de Chirico, film noir, Otto Dix (as a very percipient friend, Paul, suggested)? And, of course, with his spot-lighting, his ‘down and dirty’ naturalism, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio? I can’t and won’t speak for the artist, but this is what I see, and I love it.

Mystery and Melancholy of a Street, Giorgio de Chirico

A final word: Mackie may love art, but the modern art world is, maybe,  something else. His take on Champaigne’s Last Supper (1648) : Simon Cowell as Christ, and from left to right, Lucien Freud, Dinos Chapman, Richard Hamilton, Francis Bacon, David Hockey, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Jack Vettriano, Rolf Harris, Banksy, Grayson Perry, and Edouard Paolozzi: the Big Boys, the Money Men. A scathing diatribe against the ‘celebritisation’ of culture? Or just a world-weary acknowlegdement that this is simply how things are?

Who’s Judas: The Final 12, oil on canvas, 184cm x 122cm

Vettriano (gah!) appears to come in for some serious flak: see this subversion of (or perverse homage to?) Vettriano’s  Billy Boys, itself a ridiculously romanticised, glamourised, even sexualised take on tribal macho posturing:

Silly Boys, oil on canvas, 168cm x 127cm

The Billy Boys, Jack Vettriano

So there’s Mackie: a man with something to propose and the skill, knowledge and honesty to do so.
I hope you like him as much as I do: he doesn’t give pat answers, he asks questions,  and the ambiguities in his work allow us to take from them what we will: recognition, outraged censure, amusement, or, if not quite pity, at least a kind sympathy for these ‘blokes’ who, amidst the modern pressures of ‘political correctness’, fail so epically at being anything other than their ‘unreconstructed’ selves.
In today’s art scene that makes Mackie, it seems to me, a rare ‘beast’ indeed.

_________________________________

Mackie is showing at Hayhill Gallery, 5a Cork Street, London W1S 3NY, until 28 April 2012.
Mackie’s website: http://www.mackieart.co.uk/

Kitsch in Sync: Tate Britain’s Pre-Raph Rads

What the hell is Tate Britain on?

We’re currently ‘enjoying’ Picasso and Modern British Art, a cobbled-together show that, unsurprisingly, serves only to emphasise the inferiority of the home-grown, and now we’re about to be treated to a major exhibition of the Pre-Raphaelites, sold to us as the work of ‘revolutionaries’, of ‘radicals who did nothing less than change the world’.
Now I’ve nothing (much) against the PRBs – the work is nice to look at (mostly) – but to cast it in this light really is Utter Bollocks.

Rossetti’s Wrestler

The ‘medievalist’ reaction against rationalist neo-classicism and rapid industrialisation began long before 1848, and was already embedded in the post-Romantic mid-Victorian sensiblity: the popularity of the Gothic novel, the great medieval epics and romances, Scott’s Waverley novels; the Pugin-led Gothic Revival in architecture and the rise of Tractarianism which sought to re-introduce pre-Reformation ritual and liturgy within Anglicanism; etc, etc. If one should doubt the essentially conservative nature of this ‘taste’, one should remember that in 1844 Pugin won the competition to design the Palace of Westminster, the Houses of Parliament, the very heart of the British establishment.

Holman Hunt’s Gah!

Meanwhile in Vienna, as early as 1809, a group of artists, the Nazarenes, had already proposed a return to the values and practices of the Quattrocento:
“The principle motivation of the Nazarenes was a reaction against neo-classicism and the routine art education of the academy system. They hoped to return to art which embodied spiritual values, and sought inspiration in artists of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, rejecting what they saw as the superficial virtuosity of later art.” (Wiki.)
Sound familiar?

Far from being the Che Guevaras of Victorian England, the PRBs were band-wagon-jumpers, late-comers to a party that had been swinging for decades. Tellingly, the Tate sees them as “the equivalent…of Damien Hirst today”; I do, too: essentially opportunists who squandered whatever talents they had in the creation of kitsch. Kitsch is not about the imagination or allusion, it’s about fantasy where everything is acted out; it’s sentimental, falsely nostalgic; it’s “the trappings of belief rather than the thing believed in”, (Roger Scruton).

Burne-Jones’ Wallpaper

As I said, I like some of the work, Rossetti’s in particular: gorgeous to look at, even if his women are built like all-in wrestlers. Holman Hunt I loathe with a passion: lurid, moralising, literal to the point of banality. Burne-Jones is nothing more than decoration, finely-worked wall-paper. But like them or not, noone can seriously consider them artists of the first rank, much less as ‘avant-garde’. Oh, the exhibition will do well; as the Tate cheerfully admits, it will be full of ‘crowd-pleasers’, and this is the point: people will go in their droves, however the show is sold to them – the sine qua non of kitsch is its mass appeal; so to sell it, the show, as something it’s not strikes me as at best disingenuous, at worst downright cynical.

Get a grip, Tate Britain, you’re beginning to tick me off.

_______________________________________

Where I first saw the ‘news’:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/apr/16/pre-raphaelites-exhibition-tate-britain?CMP=twt_fd

To my eyes, the most beautiful ‘Annunciation’. Ah Botticelli, what joy you give.

My Eyes Have Seen

In one of my classes this semester, we’ve looked at often overlooked forms of theological work. Through art, music, the memoir, (even blogs!), we’ve been discussing the ways form impacts theological content.

This week we looked at different depictions of the Annunciation, Gabriel‘s announcement that Mary would give birth to Jesus. I found this pairing particularly beautiful.

The Botticelli Annunciation is an iconic depiction of the moment Gabriel informs Mary that she will give birth to the Son of God. In keeping with medieval and renaissance convention, Mary is depicted as a pious, self-assured, pure young woman; gracefully bowing to Gabriel as an assent to his announcement.

Andrew Hudgins reimagines this painting, emphasizing the terror Mary must have felt by her encounter with the other-worldly Gabriel. He stresses the contradictions in the scene: Mary is pure yet sensual, withdrawing yet advancing, determined yet uncertain. This perfectly describes the…

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“…bada bing, bada boom…”

So. The Caravaggio story gets better yet: according to the  scholar Vincenzo Pacelli, the artist did not die of malaria or of anything as dull as that; he was taken out by hitmen from the Knights of Malta in a Vatican “state-sponsored assassination”.

Crikey.

I know what you’re thinking: why isn’t someone, anyone, making a movie? (You are, aren’t you? Well, you should be.)
Relax, already. I’m on it.
All I need is my favourite director, my favourite art critic as consulting ‘expert’, and someone who isn’t sodding Julian Fellowes to turn the most thrilling, rambunctious, bloody tale in the entire history of art into a screenplay.
Here are two of the above, Martin Scorcese and Andrew Graham-Dixon, expressing their Caravaggio-love:


A perfect match, no?
And their film would be a huge improvement on Jarman’s 1986 Caravaggio, surely? A worthy enough take but mired in an effete British ‘arty-ness’ which was, for me, somewhat undermined by an 80s-coiffed Sean Bean playing ex-Spandau Ballet member Ranuccio while emoting in a Sheffield accent thick enough to spread jam on.

No, Caravaggio doesn’t need ‘arty’ or effete, he needs foul-mouthed, brooding, trigger-happy grit.
He needs The Sopranos, where, just as in the shady back-streets of Baroque Rome, everything is a point of ‘honour’ and a ‘funny look’ will get you your face sliced.

So there’s our writer: Sops creator and and script-man-in-chief, the estimable Mr David Chase. Imagine if you will a scene exactly like this, in italianate ‘Noo Joisey’ accents, but with tights and a horse:


Works for me.
I’m also tempted to audition Christopher Moltisanti (can’t think of his real name. Who cares?) for the role of the man himself, but if I’m honest he’s second choice. Top of the list (it’s my film, remember) is Aidan Turner, most well-beloved for his Byronic turns in Desperate Romantics and Being Human:

Like Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, he looks fabulous in black.

Finally, of course, I need a capo dei capi, an alpha male whose authority is unquestionable, a wiseguy with a finger in every pie who’d have you topped as soon as look at you: I need a ‘Pope’.
Yup, in the absence of Brando, and with sincere apologies to Gandolfini, there can be only one: Big (not literally) Al:

Seems to me I’ve done all the hard work.
So c’mon, Martin. What’re you waiting for?
A little ‘persuasion’?

(Still working on a title: all suggestions gratefully received. Try to include the word ‘badass’.)

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Nick Squires’ Telegraph article on Pacelli’s theory:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/9181383/Caravaggio–was-killed-by-the-Knights-of-Malta.html

Yet another plug for AGD’s totally marvellous life of Caravaggio:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Caravaggio-A-Life-Sacred-Profane/dp/0241954649/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1334139698&sr=8-1

this is suburbia

Really like this post by Ryan on an artist I know very little about. Great to learn stuff and get pointed in a new direction. 🙂

simply marvelous

A sham. A disgrace. A poor excuse for art, a soulless example of surface without substance. When I first saw a reproduction of Howard Arkley’s Stucco Home 1991 like the one above, years ago, that’s what I thought of it. Flat and without depth, it may serve the architectural profession well, but not the art gallery.

Oh the folly, the arrogance, of youth. Tsk tsk, angry young man. What would have made this worthy of being ‘art’? If he applied the paint with wild, angry brushstrokes? If he depicted the light in softer and subtler shades of light? If the forms and colours were all distorted? Would it then be worth of the prodigious title ‘art’? And why? What makes something art?

Arkley’s work is art, and very good art at that, in my opinion. I didn’t realise this fact until I wandered through the Queensland Art Gallery some time later and saw…

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Kinkade and Corrie: the Ugly Truth

The demise of Thomas Kinkade at the stupidly young age of 54 has forced me, screaming, to grit my teeth, brace myself, and have another look at his stuff. (I say ‘stuff’ ‘cos I can’t quite manage to make my digits type the ‘a’-word in this context.)

Ghastly, isn’t it, this Disneyfication of nostalgia, this cynical selling of a dream that never was, of ‘home’ and ‘family’ (complete with faithful spotty dog), to, especially, evangelical, conservative ‘God-bothering’ folk who we (I) feel should really know better and get a grip. And all the more contemptible to an art snob (me) because, as my pal reminded me, Kinkade actually could paint:

Yes, they’re both by that same, now sadly stilled, fair hand.
SELL-OUT!! TRAITOR!! PHILISTINE!!

But then, as we say Up North, I caught myself on.
The painting at the top of the post is called Home Is Where the Heart Is. Coincidentally (not really), that is also the title, pretty much, of a recent(ish) Sunday evening schlock-fest on UK telly – you know the type: vets, doctors, posh folk, midwives, village policemen, all set in a lazy-hazy version of long-gone ‘good old days’ and designed to make us forget for an hour the fact that in 12 hours we’ll be grumpily going off to a job we loathe.  Both painting and TV series are operating from exactly the same basis (note the central church tower in each) : as a palliative against present, here-and-now dissatisfaction and discontent. (This is very much a political issue, but if I go down that route now I’ll bore myself to death, so I won’t.)

But more disturbing for me, a rabid fan, is the gruesome admission that Coronation Street, that very finest of soaps, operates from, gulp, this basis too. (Eastenders sucks: not enough jokes, and where else, other than in Corrie, would you get actors like Ian McKellen and Nigel Havers ripping the piss out of themselves?) Corrie offers us a vision of a tight-knit northern community (it’s always about ‘community’), centred around a ‘real’ pub, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and where, eventually, everything comes right in the end. It’s a place which I, born amongst the cobbles, think I know, but it’s no more ‘true’ than Kinkade’s ‘cottage fantasies’.
I love it.

So where does that leave me? Admittedly I’m not one of those who conflate the actor with the character and shout abuse in Asda at ‘Richard Evil Twat Hillman’ and ‘Sally Daft Cow Webster’, but I do buy wholeheartedly into Corrie (ask my husband) and its premise; like Kinkade’s paintings are for some, for me Corrie is comfort food, a place to escape to, somewhere (unless Ken’s having one of his perennial, kimono-akimbo, stomach-turning affairs) better.

So there you have it. If I diss Kinkade I’m not only an art snob, I’m a hypocrite. And that, my friends, would never do.
My Dalmatians would hate me.