How Much Would You Pay for a Postcard?

Leeds Student sends Tom McGinn down to the Piano Postcards exhibition in our Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery to contemplate the true value of art in today’s celebrity-obsessed culture

The Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery, of which the permanent collection is well worth a look, is found just inside the Parkinson building. It is currently boasting a unique yet rather random collection of artworks by the likes of Katherine Jenkins, Alan Bennett and the massive Brian Blessed.

In total, 16 well-known figures from both Yorkshire and the wider art world have contributed to this special exhibition to celebrate the triennial International Pianoforte competition in Leeds. As you would expect, each artwork is based on the theme of pianos and approximately the size of a postcard. I say this roughly, as Jenny Éclair has gone to town with her submission and made a triptych.

The Leeds International Piano Competition was founded in 1961 and is dedicated to promoting the advancement of young professional pianists’ careers. In recognition of its longstanding association with the musical competition, the University of Leeds invited famous faces to create unique piano-based postcards. At the end of the exhibition, all artworks will be auctioned for musical charities.

Rather unsurprisingly considering only one of the invited figures is a professional artist, there are few virtuoso performances here. However, certain figures like Maureen Lipman (actor) and Dan Jacobs (musician) do seem to have fully engaged with the project, and it is interesting to see the creative results from those whose fields of expertise lie outside visual art.

But for those lacking in confidence, ability, or imagination, it seems a template of a caricatured piano has been provided. Olympic vocalist Emeli Sandé has, in particular, made full use of the template and simply quoted her own song and signed it. We can perhaps forgive her if we believe the deadline for these postcards clashed with the Spice-Girls’ set…

A big feature of the Piano Postcards exhibition is the biographical plaques beside each work. Whilst extra information surrounding an artwork is never a bad thing, these celebrity biographies seem too much. They only serve to suggest that it is more the straightforward pleasure of recognising the names and faces of vaguely known celebrities that makes the exhibition engaging. It is certainly not the art.

However, the show can be redeemed by the fact that all the works on display will be auctioned for two very worthy causes; the Nordoff Robins charity, which aims to transform the lives of vulnerable individuals through music therapy, and Live Music Now, an initiative dedicated to the delivery of music outreach programmes and the support of musicians.

It is just a shame that some of these famous faces haven’t been brave enough to submit a more considered response to a brief that funds such vital projects.

If the final result of this diverse outsourcing for an exhibition leads to disappointment, it is perhaps because our demands of art are actually rather specialised and high, and have been for some time.

As a society, we have somehow automatically equated technical proficiency with “true” creativity, a measurable kind that we can all judge, and one that we probably all strove for at school. Perhaps the reason why the public often elevates visual art like this above other endeavours is down to the fact that it is the most direct and self-evident in its skill. If we can recognise what something depicts, then ultimately that means it is a ‘good’ representation and therefore ‘good’ art.

If this is the case, and if we consider the Piano Postcards exhibition to be a competition in itself, then Sir Thomas Allen would win hands down. He has managed to draw a piano (in perspective!) and even sketched a shirt and trousers hanging from an attached washing line. Extra points for Surrealism!

But is this the only requirement for value in art? What about expression? What if the emotional impetus behind a work of art is enough to justify its creation or even qualify the work for success, over an absence of skill?

To be honest, most of the works produced for the Piano Postcards exhibition would potentially fall into this ‘expressionist’ category considering their emphasis on exuberance and play over ability. John Cameron has generated a cartoon piano with a creepy grin and arms, and Dame Evelyn Glennie has taken a photograph of feet playing a tiny piano (although last time we saw her playing the drums at the Olympic opening ceremony she certainly had hands).

Despite this level of ‘free expression’, it is still difficult to qualify the majority of these postcards as typically ‘good’ art. Good art can be difficult to find, but in my experience seems to always strike a balance between an interesting idea and its appropriate execution…Whatever that may be.

In reality we must face up to the fact that these works operate like signatures given out at press events and gigs.

One cannot fail to miss a sense of the Midas touch of celebrity here. It is not hard either to see the links between this exhibition and the Twittersphere, where the frivolous musings of celebrities receive scores in the form of retweets. It is not about the virtue of what they have said but who they are.

Ultimately, the gallery space itself should endorse these pictorial signatures of famous figures as ‘artistic’ pieces worthy of our attention, especially as they are for such a good cause. But exhibiting them right in the centre of a permanent collection of exciting and accomplished modernist artworks does nothing to save these postcards from being the art equivalent of your Dad running onstage to perform with Diversity.


Author: Tom McGinn
Image: Leo Garbutt


The Piano Postcards exhibition will be on display in the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery until 13 October, admission free.

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