Reviving the classics. Robin Gilbert-Jones on why art has ceased to matter.
It was 2001 and Martin Creed had just won the Turner Prize for ‘The Lights Going On and Off’, a piece which enjoys a dubious endorsement by Madonna as a statement against political correctness (I have not been allotted enough space to discuss everything that is wrong with that sentence, so I’ll save that for another day). I was in London on an A-level art trip and, having only been in England a couple of years at that point, I was looking forward to taking in the grandeur of the galleries. Sadly, my most vivid memories from that trip are of my incredulity at what was, not only being allotted sought-after installation space, but winning, arguably, the most prestigious award in the British art world.
My initially nonplussed reaction to Mr Creed’s ‘installation’ turned to annoyance fairly quickly as it dawned on me that this was tantamount to an insult. I walked out, went to the gift shop and bought a Monet print (actually I can’t remember what I did then but I hope it was something like that). My day only got worse at Tate Modern where, don’t get me wrong, I saw some impressive pieces as well but I was baffled by, among other things, a video of a naked man wearing a gruesome mask repeatedly punching himself in the face – no doubt this was intended to be ‘confrontational’ and to elicit a ‘strong emotional reaction’, well it certainly succeeded. I felt a very genuine twinge in my social conscience when I considered the fact that a constant supply of electricity was being expended for the entirety of the gallery’s opening hours in order to keep this fatuous human puppet show on a perpetual loop. Moving swiftly on from that spectacle, I traversed a series of rooms containing neat piles of bricks, giving the impression that the room was under construction by an autistic contractor. Even more disturbing to me was that many of these pieces didn’t even credibly count as sculpture, as anything that needed to be physically built in was generally outsourced.
Let me just lay some groundwork here, lest I be labelled a cultural philistine. We are all aware of the “but, is it art?” cliché. My answer to that would be yes, if you want to call it art and have it occupy some much-needed gallery volume then I suppose it is, but that does not make it good. I take issue with the notion that there is no such thing as ‘bad art’, if that is true, then by what authority can you call anything ‘great art’? I would not allow anyone to begrudge me the right to say something is great or worthy and, as such, I was irked by the idea that some were trying to deny me the opposite view. By this I mean the reaction of my classmates at the time (and others since then) whereby they employ a couple rhetorical sleights of hand, that I have come across time and again, in order to silence criticism.
The first and most predictable of these is that you “just don’t understand it.” The idea is to make the dissenter feel uncultured in his or her lack of appreciation, in other words, the Emperor’s New Clothes defined. This is not only insulting, but also denigrates the power of art to unify and uplift – a listener may be moved by the sound of a lone violinist in a subway station without the need to interrogate him about the meaning and intention of his work. Art should be open to anyone and using impenetrable language as a tool of obfuscation robs anyone who doesn’t speak pretentionese of the life-enriching qualities of art. If you wish to produce or admire this kind of work you are free to do so, but excluding those who see through it is narcissistic. There is therefore a political and moral aspect to this as art matters for the same reason that this kind of art is bad and even harmful.
The other piece of verbal artifice frequently employed, which probably irritates me even more than the pseudo-intellectual masturbation described above is: “well YOU didn’t think of it.” Yes, that is true, there are many things I haven’t thought of: it has never occurred to me to throw my computer out of the window but I don’t feel compelled to do it in order to confirm whether it is a good idea or not, but who knows, if I wrote a good enough blurb for it I might win something. So here we are back to whether art can ever really be defined as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The problem with this kind of reasoning is that it suggests that anything that hasn’t been thought of before is automatically worthy by virtue of it being ‘original’, often backed up by a narrative designed to intimidate people into believing it has some meaning.
This loophole seems to have arisen largely as a result of the physical dexterity and creative instinct of the artist being passed over in favour of conceptual pomposities. Staying with Turner for a moment, if I look at Dido Building Carthage his raw talent is obvious to me (he was dazzling eminent artists at the age of 12). It’s worth noting that skill without originality and imagination is not very useful (unless you want to be a restorative artist or a counterfeiter), but when raw talent and originality is evident in the form, it needs no justification. In this sense, great art matters for the same reason that bad art is worthless: greatness speaks for itself, mediocrity thinks it is great and insists upon trying to convince everyone.
What worries me about the form dissolving in favour of the concept is the evolutionary dimension. I recently watched Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams a film about the cave paintings in the Ardeche Valley, the oldest ever discovered, and very beautiful they are too; here is the very birthplace of the artistic form and, if you concur with Herzog’s slightly tongue-in-cheek comment, the human soul. This is why art matters; its inception was a critical stage in our evolution to sentience. It occurs to me that we have, for some time, been approaching a full circle and if Martin Creed gave us anything, it was an empty cave with the paintings wiped away.
Postscript: A few short weeks after writing this piece the art world has surpassed itself in an act of self-parody that renders my critique above a gross underestimation of the depths to which it has sunk. London’s Hayward gallery will be hosting an exhibition on ‘Invisible Art’. Believe it or not this is exactly what it sounds like (which, to its meagre credit, is a rare comment to make on conceptual art). According to an Irish Times article which was forwarded to me, “A leading British gallery is to push the boundaries of visual art with an exhibition of works which cannot be seen”. Evidently, Mr Creed’s legacy lives on to go forth and multiply. Just to give you a lack of flavour for this non-corporeal exhibition, it is to include a blank piece of paper at which the ‘artist’ has stared at repeatedly over the space of five years – so the point is to stare at nothing because someone else has stared at it – and an empty space which has been ‘cursed by a witch’. The gallery director Ralph Rugoff is confident that there will be “plenty to see”, well that rather defies the point, Ralph, but hopefully your gift shop has fetching Gaugin calendars for our delectation.
I noticed, in particular another manifestation of the usual rhetorical nonsense I previously described; “This exhibition highlights that art isn’t about material objects, it’s about setting our imaginations alight, and that’s what the artists in this show do in many varied ways.” That, sir, is a cop-out. A statement devoid of meaning designed solely to lay the career foundations of the talentless. Art will always, in some sense, be manifested in the material world because that is the realm which we occupy and which forms the basis of our experience. I am tempted to attend just to watch the credulous flock thoughtfully stroking their goatees as they gaze at yet another empty cave.
Featured Image Credit: The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up. (1839) J.M.W Turner Source: Wikicommons