IS IT ART?
These are the notes on the back of my
Gallery collecting box. This is not a particularly intellectual analysis, but it just
about summed up my attitude to the art world at the time (2001).
The idea for this donations box was inspired
by a newspaper article a couple of years ago. Nicholas Serota, accompanied by a photo of
himself looking impressively arrogant, pronounced that Brit Art was dead,. It reminded me
of my own brush with the fine art world in the early 80s, when I was
discovered and then dismissed by the ICA.
The photo of Serota which accompanied the article
about him pronouncing Brit art dead
I sent in the proposal for the collection box almost as a joke, never expecting to be
asked to make it. After I had actually started work, I realised the problems involved. I
didnt want it to be an in-joke, funny only to people in the art world. (I had a
horror of appearing as pretentious as the KLF or the Stuckists, two groups who had
previously campaigned against the absurdity of the Turner prize.) The other major problem
was that visitors dont generally carry bits of art round with them, so any art
expert would be quite right in dismissing the detritus from their pockets or
handbags as not art.
Eventually, after building an over-elaborate version,
I realised the two problems could cancel each other out. In order not to be pretentious
the box had to be obviously silly - so pocket detritus was fine. Not the most
profound solution but I think visitors will be entertained and get the general idea about
This is the show, madam (New
Theres something absurd about the question
what is art ? and something equally absurd about the fine art experts who give
the impression that they know the answer. The definition of art has changed greatly
through history. The ancient Greeks had seven minor goddesses called Muses to represent
their arts. There were three Muses of poetry, one of oratory and one of astronomy, but
none of any visual art form. Only 100 years ago needlework and flower arranging were
considered to be art - while photography and film were definitely not art.
Joshua Reynolds, Self Portrait
There has always been an elite who have attempted to
be arbiters of artistic value. In Britain, this became obvious in the 18th
century with the artist Joshusa Reynolds. Reynolds, a talented portrait artist, was a
terrible snob. To elevate the status of his trade, he championed the idea of the artist as
the inspired genius, and of paintings as intellectual exercises interpreting classical
myths. To promote his ideas he founded the Royal Academy, together with its
self-perpetuating succession of royal academicians. Traces of his snobbery remain in the
art world, where people often still speak with an old fashioned upper class drawl.
"Frightening the enemy with impressionist
About 100 years ago the visual arts were forced to
go through a period of dramatic change as photography took over the role of making
representational images from painting. When the first challenge to representational art
was made by the impressionists in the 1860s, their work was ridiculed by the art
experts of the day. Though to our eyes impressionist paintings look peaceful
and tasteful, the paintings were dismissed as outrageous. European appreciation of the
impressionists came twenty years later. (An american dealer who collected the
impressionists work staged a successful show in New York in 1888 and triggered the
European experts reassessment.)
"Youve got a long, long road ahead of you
(New Yorker 1951)
Traditional art was ingeniously reinvented as
modern art. The ideas behind works of modern art were often not at
all obvious, but curators and dealers could explain the works to their wealthy customers.
The customers could then hang the works on their walls and explain them to their friends.
The artists and the dealers made money and the customers gained instant intellectual
credibility, so everyone was happy. Though today modernism has been replaced by
post-modernism, this successful system of producing difficult art carries on
"This is the most completely futurist painting:
It is only signed now and I will never paint it"
(Journal Amusant 1912)
The art establishment of today is probably just as
stuck as the art establishment was in the 19th century when the impressionists
were doing their work. The annual fuss over the Turner Prize has changed little in 90
years. In 1912, long before the prize had been invented, the fuss was about a futurist who
painted and signed a blank canvas. In 2001 the fuss was about a gallery space that is
alternatively light and dark.
Its an attempt to realise in terms of
three-dimensionalism the sentimentality inherent in the structure
of bourgeois emotionalism (Punch 1952)
However, even though I dont have much respect for the art
establishment, I think its harmless unless taken too seriously. There are many more
important things to campaign about in the world. Also some artists manage to use the
system to their advantage and produce wonderful things. And for those like me who do not
fit in, there are all sorts of creative opportunities outside the current boundaries of
Looking back, I now feel a bit
ashamed of myself getting so involved in the subject.
While doing a residency at the Tryon centre, North Carolina a couple of
years later, I showed slides of 'Is It Art' to the group of american artists
working there. They felt I was attacking art and artists and they just couldn't
understand why - they all felt so poor and powerless. America has no
equivalent institutions to the UK Arts Council or the Tate Gallery, no
equivalent figurehead to Nicholas Serota, and little of our deep rooted
class divisions and snobbery. The UK system is really just a bit parochial.
I also now realise
there is much more healthy disrespect for posh art in the UK than I thought at
In 2004 a warehouse containing most of Charles Saccchi's collection of
Brit-art burnt down (destroying Tracy Emin's tent amongst many other
things). What was remarkable was the media's lack of angst at the loss. All
the papers seem to regard it as a bit of a joke - I think even Tracy Emin
said it was no great loss.
Maybe Iím getting feeble as I get older, but Iím even starting to feel sympathy for the ICA where I had an exhibition in
1981. It was their policy to give young
artists a chance. When starting out its great to be offered a solo exhibition. Obviously if thatís their policy, they canít
continue supporting those who have previously exhibited - its just
unfortunate that they didn't tell me directly. Its
sad that in East Anglia (where I live) most public money for the visual arts
goes into expensively importing artists from all
over the world rather than supporting young local artists.
Within a week of writing this
postcript I received two notes from ex art students outraged that I should now feel ashamed of
making 'Is It Art'! Besides being amazed that several people a day
read this page, it reminded me how seriously art students take the subject.
Art colleges continue to indoctrinate their students about the importance of 'the art world' and all it stands
for. So particularly later in life, ex students are justifiably disgusted if
decide they've been conned. So perhaps the contraption still has value for
this particular audience, and I now formally dedicate it to all disgusted art
Art is still a good
subject for jokes, see Art