There’s a video I linked to this morning on the Story So Far that’s going around the Twitterwebbiverse of Joey Barton visiting the Lucian Freud Portraits exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The going narrative in some circles is “Look at the pretentious twat footballer try and sound smart about art,” but I actually don’t see that in this video, in which he describes to Guardian contributor Alex Clark his take on Freud’s various sometimes surreal portraits.
While Barton is clearly aware he’s on camera (as indeed any veteran footballer must be in similar situations), he doesn’t attempt to step outside his own skin. He admits he’s not really a connoisseur of visual art and takes issue with the cost of an original painting in what is admittedly a wildly-inflated art market, perhaps aware of the delicious irony in light of his own profession, perhaps not. Barton merely looks at a work of art and gives his opinion, just like—surprise!—a normal human being.
In fact, there is another, deeper irony at play. The inflated market price of the original art that Barton takes issue with is driven by the same cultural forces that make this video “funny,” i.e. that art appreciation is a closed circle left to intellectuals and wealthy collectors, and excludes plebes and working class naifs like quote-a-minute Joey. Art can be appreciated by the unwashed masses (and indeed must be to keep the museums in business), but it cannot be understood “as well” as a self-appointed expert.
Barton’s ability to see to the core, unique characteristics the German-born British painter’s work without the added gauze of officially accredited interpretation undercut all that, and he knows it. He maintains a disinterested gaze and thinks the art is interesting enough, even beautiful, even if its esteem is faintly ridiculous—which basically largely sums up the state of visual art in the early 21st century.
In any case, why put the walls up? There is a lot of bad art that attempts to speak to sport of course, and their forced overlap veers into the gimmicky and—yes—pretentious. But they often draw on each other in more subtle ways. For example, I’m in a production right now of a 17th century French opera, Armide, by Jean-Baptiste Lully. The show is done in “baroque” style, which emphasizes almost grotesque excess (it’s derived from a word meaning “rough or imperfect pearl”); as such, it calls for exaggerated expressions from the performers.
So what did the choreographer choose to use as inspiration for the cast? Photos of various athletes in various states of ecstasy or agony on the field of play.
Some of the biggest football nerds I know are very accomplished opera stars, a respect reciprocated by more than one footballer, including Fabrice Muamba.
Barton also interestingly strikes on something that reminded me of one of Kuper’s criticisms of the English game in Soccernomics—it is still driven from within by tabloid, populist so-called “working class” sentiments (although I find that expression odious and misleading). So, within the art world, snobs clink glasses and wonder at Barton’s attempt to understand art, and within the football world they laugh at Barton as a poseur in the extreme.
Which, to be fair, Barton’s often been. But I don’t see it in this case, and footballers shouldn’t stay out of the galleries because of it, any more than art-lovers should avoid football stadiums.