Masterstroke of brilliance that questioned our beliefs about art

Richard Farleigh

AS I sat in my apartment in Monaco and opened the package, my excitement quickly turned to disappointment. Friends were visiting and they were unanimous. “That’s not a painting, that’s a print!” someone said, with nods of agreement all around combined with pitied glances.

I was very confused. The work of art was expensive and I had bought it unseen through a reputable dealer. I looked closely and there were no visible brush strokes or blobs of paint. “I’m sure it’s a painting. Well, it was supposed to be.” Time to call the dealer. “Er, hi mate. I must have made a mistake; I thought I was buying a painting, not a print.” “Yes, don’t worry Richard. It is a painting. It’s acrylic and ink, and so looks very flat.” “But no one will give it a second look. Surely it would be better to buy a cheap print that looks like a painting, rather than an expensive painting that looks like a print?” But he assured me that it was an exciting piece of art that would also be a good investment. I hoped so, because I didn’t particularly like it anyway. It is basically a sign saying The End and I didn’t think it was very profound, even if the artist Ed Ruscha was world-renowned. Soon after, another friend, who fancies himself as an expert, urged me to sell it. “Just try to get your money back, Richard. It’s nothing special. Even I could have done that.”

So faced with conflicting advice, I tried to art-educate myself. I knew that, before photography, portraits were important and technical ability was paramount. But why did that change, so that even “something a child could have scribbled” could become valuable?

This led me to the story of Marcel Duchamp. In 1917, he submitted a work to the Society of Independent Artists exhibit in New York. It was a urinal, and he called it the Fountain. Despite being open-minded, the Society refused to display it, insisting it was not art. A very bad call – the Fountain achieved notoriety, and was recently voted the most influential piece of modern art ever! Duchamp had for the first time redefined a “ready-made” object as something oddly beautiful in its own right, and in doing so redefined conventional ideas about art. Technical expertise required? Zero. Brilliance? In abundance. He invented a genre and made us think. Tracey Emin’s unmade dirty bed and Damien Hurst’s pills in a box might annoy some people, but they too forged new frontiers.

With this newfound respect for the creative process, I kept my painting that looks like a print, and have grown to love it. So has the market; it has soared in value. And Duchamp? Eventually he gave up art to play chess, and became one of the best in the world. He believed that real beauty lay on the chessboard. But his wife tried to stop him – by gluing his chess pieces to the board! I wonder if Marcel thought that that was art.

Richard Farleigh has operated as a business angel for many years, backing more early-stage companies than anyone else in the UK.