Once upon a time ‘art’ on hotel bedroom walls was idiosyncratic. Sometimes a valuable heirloom. Sometimes worthless tat. Sometimes: the photograph of a long-dead beloved animal or a faded out of focus landscape; a drawing made by a child, treasured and proudly presented in double matted frame by doting parents (who had sold the hotel when they retired leaving the relic behind); a sampler suggesting wise ways in a bad world; a foxed watercolour by an unknown hand; an antique regional map; even religious iconography to comfort and assuage guilty souls as they fell asleep; and of course – hay wains, gambolling peasants, cattle (bereft of flies and dung) standing in picturesque slow moving rivers, wagons and dray horses trundling endlessly on, autumn leaves and enigmatic Asian ladies dressed in green cheongsams. Every room was unique – not any more.
Now we have corporate hotel chain art and it has as much resemblance to art as bananas do to fork lift trucks. And why is it there? I’d be happier with some aerosols and marker pens so I could do my own thing and the next occupier could do theirs and so on – there is even wallpaper that you’re supposed to colour in! Why not have that? But no, far too anarchic.
There are two types of ‘hotel bedroom chain art’: ‘reproduction’ and ‘original’. Let us leave aside questions such as: what is a reproduction, and what original, or even – what is art? Trotsky wrote, ‘Art is a hammer and not a mirror’ (the original quote is often incorrectly ascribed to Brecht – an example of revolutionary plagiarism perhaps?) but either would have seen hotel bedroom chain art as a mirror of societies fixated on style over substance, appearance over purpose and conventions devoid of conscious thought.
Walter Benjamin, in his seminal essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Introduction’ (1936) says: “In principle a work of art has always been reproducible … artifacts (sic) could always be imitated … by pupils … by masters for diffusing their work … by third parties in the pursuit of gain. Mechanical reproduction of a work of art … represents something new.’
The bedrooms in hotel chains – from the cheap to the expensive – represent an entirely new universe where chain art exists in a state that not even Benjamin could imagine.
How is it possible for an ‘original’ painting of a sunflower in a field of poppies or golden barley against an azure sky be said to be an original when it will be found in exactly the same condition of originality in one hundred and fifty identical bedrooms? Its/they are obviously original because each canvas (yes they are on canvas) has been signed by the artist as the final part of laboriously painting all one hundred and fifty not quite identical, therefore original, canvases manufactured on a Fordian production line. This is at the top end of the market where such original art is commissioned by an interior decorator.
Lower down the market the hotel chain’s accountant has used catalogues to buy print runs of pastel shaded romances where Bavarian castles, lakes, ladies in crinolines and denizens of Barbara Cartland-like imaginations preen and pout in representations of Panglosian worlds where all is well in this best of all possible worlds and we all know our place. A hotel in Heraklion, Crete, boasted such fantasies – I couldn’t understand why. But then again there is Knossos.
I suppose what bothers me is the confusion between original and reproduction; that chain art is decoration just like wallpaper or those hundreds of bloody useless cushions that now cover hotel bedroom beds (where does one put them when you go to bed?); that it suggests that what is on these walls is art.
The meaning of such objects is not inherent in the work; there is no unity of head, heart and hand (no matter how romantic a notion that might now seem). Chain art signifies someone imagining that we need to be elevated to connoisseurs by being in the presence of art on our bedroom wall thus enhancing our visitor experience.
Bring on bare walls!