My View, Mel Hewitt: Puzzled and amazed by modern art

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The Turner Prize this week has created a certain amount of controversy, reopening the debate ‘what is modern art’?

A regeneration scheme for derelict housing in Liverpool delivered by Assemble, a group of architects and designers, has won the prize.

I only caught the coverage of the awards ceremony on Channel 4, so I am no expert on this year’s entries. But, as it invariably does, the shortlist puzzled and amused me.

This year’s list included an installation of 10 chairs with coats hung on the back of them and what appeared to be a room full of documentation and interviews about people, the paranormal and conspiracy theory.

Past prize-winning work has included a bisected cow and calf suspended in formaldehyde, a room with the lights going on and off and a full-size cast of a Victorian house.

At the very least these pieces of work do get us, well, thinking. Even if the thought is on occasion, what an absolute waste of space. As open- minded as I hope I am about all creative processes, there are times when I have to confess I’m baffled or at worst irritated and dismissive of some of the projects that carry the label modern art.

Yes, I know the Impressionists, creators of to my mind some of the most beautiful paintings the world has ever seen, were once derided and their work marginalised. Art by its very nature innovates, challenges us and never stands still.

We all know what we like when it comes to art but there are some works that transcend mere liking. The work of some artists leaves with us thoughts, feeling and emotions that stay forever.

Something magical happens, whether it’s a sculpture, painting, music, architecture or perhaps piece of embroidery. It becomes greater than the sum of its parts as a kind of alchemy takes place.

I always, when I visit the National Gallery, go straight to a painting by Joseph Wright of Derby called Experiment on a bird with an air pump. As disengaging as this title is I am in awe of this work, which to me has a beauty beyond itself, beyond the canvas, linseed oil and paint that in a material sense it is made up of.

A programme about the restoration of Warsaw on BBC Four this week, presented by Dan Cruickshank, showed how a city mostly destroyed during the Second World War was recreated.

Old plans, original architect’s drawings and carefully collected rubble, combined with the support, and hard work of the city’s people brought back most of what was lost. Now the effect is more remarkable than ever – it looks as though it has always been there. I hope the work by Turner Prize winners Assemble will have a similar longevity. Then art truly will be for the people.