Last week I discovered that some artists make all their work by cutting paper with scalpels and that this, unknown to me, has been going on for thousands of years. Well, you can't know everything but perhaps I have become too focussed on mainstream forms of culture - those which have a more popular appeal, or are more titillating, or have access to top PR, or a combination of all three. I became aware immediately, for example, that Quentin Tarantino had released a new film and that my favoured reviewers had awarded it - after the fashion of the hotel-rating system - four stars.
Paper-cut art has a lower profile than blockbuster movies but a Chinese acquaintance recently presented me with a lavishly produced book of bird illustrations made from finely cut-out coloured papers - a traditional Chinese technique - just at a time when there was an exhibition showing locally which featured the work of half a dozen artists who use paper-cutting techniques to create their pieces. While the Chinese book, on its own, was interesting, my appreciation of it was limited to admiration for the skill and patience that must have gone into its production. But the coincidence of the exhibition inspired me to give the subject more consideration and curiosity obliged me to investigate lest the profundities of paper-cutting should pass me by: after all, "you don't know what you don't know".
Assuming she might be interested I persuaded my Chinese acquaintance to come with me to the exhibition. She straight away scanned the gallery for anything resembling the traditional Chinese form before telling me that she didn't understand the purpose of abstract art. This was not a good start and I was afraid I might have insulted her by implying that the revered traditions of Chinese paper-cut art could in any way be compared with the upstart, frivolous hackings of western imitators. But she showed polite interest and took some photos of one or two of the large-scale works while I attempted to explain the play on words implicit in the show's title, The First Cut, in so far as it relates to a popular song from the 1960s. It was a bad idea. I suggested we might go for coffee. After we parted, I went to see the Tarantino film.
I've seen a couple of other films since then (winter being a good time for retreating indoors for an hour or two of fantasy) and have taken to star-rating them, as the critics do, only to find that it's not as simple as it may appear. Whereas, in the case of hotels, ratings may be fixed by assessing measurable factors such as location, cleanliness, efficiency of service and quality of fit-out, with movies everything is more subjective. Expressing an opinion on the calibre of cinematography, direction, script or acting represents the opening of debate rather than the fixing of status. One critic's "beautifully shot" might be another's "poorly lit", for example, and my personal assessment of Marvel Heroes Assemble, awarding it an impressive four stars, does not mean that I (or anyone else) should eagerly anticipate its sequel.
And so, having realised that the star-rating system is inadequate to the purpose, I have rejected as glib my initial urge to apply it to either The First Cut or the book. Let's just say the exhibition revealed some astonishing skills and presented some interesting artistic ideas while highlighting a few differences of perception as to the nature of art. As far as the book is concerned, it wouldn't feel right to put it on Ebay too soon, so it will probably gather dust on a shelf for a while.