Friday, June 16, 2006

Is modern art off its head? You'd better believe it

Think modern art is a giant fraud? This will up your smugness quotient:
One of Britain's most prestigious art galleries put a block of slate on display, topped by a small piece of wood, in the mistaken belief it was a work of art.

The Royal Academy included the chunk of stone and the small bone-shaped wooden stick in its summer exhibition in London.

But the slate was actually a plinth -- a slab on which a pedestal is placed -- and the stick was designed to prop up a sculpture. The sculpture itself -- of a human head -- was nowhere to be seen. [....]
Then read this opinion in today's The Times:
HERE WE GO again, another art world fiasco born of the confusion as to what constitutes art. Surely we’ve all realised by now that no one, not even the Professor of Sculpture at the Royal Academy of Art, knows the answer to this question. Apparently — and isn’t it reassuring to know this? — Professor David Mach is just as flummoxed as the rest of us.

Let’s get this straight. There is no reason why anyone even vaguely familiar with the risible modus operandi of the contemporary art world should be surprised at what happened to David Hensel’s sculpture of a laughing head entitled One Day Closer to Paradise. He submitted it to the academy but, in the course of transit, it got mistakenly separated from its plinth. The empty plinth was judged on its own merit to be worthy of exhibition, while the sculpture itself was rejected.

The mistake is no different to that of the art critic who reviewed the air-conditioning in a new museum or, indeed, to the many cleaners who have swept up art installations because they weren’t recognisable as art.

When, in 1917, Marcel Duchamp [by signing a urinal] handed down his great commandment that, henceforth, anything can be art, he unwittingly kicked off a new religion. He supplied generations of talentless students (and professors) with a charlatan’s charter. The brainless fanatics of this simple creed are now teaching in every art school in the country. Indeed, we’ve been suffering this intolerant and prescriptive orthodoxy for decades because, under the auspices of the new faith’s high priests at the Tate and the Arts Council, this religion, state-funded needless to say, runs all aspects of contemporary art on our behalf. It has been the process by which the originality of the avant-garde has become authoritarian, institutionalised and dead dull. [....]
For the other side of the argument, read this opinion in The Guardian:

[...] David Hensel, a sculptor from Sussex, submitted to the Royal Academy summer exhibition a piece that consisted of a large bronze laughing head mounted on a plinth of slate and kept in place by a support shaped like a bone.

Pleased to have the piece accepted as item 1201 in the catalogue - One Day Closer to Paradise (edition of 9, £3,640 each) - Hensel was dismayed on visiting the show to find that his effort had been decapitated; he was represented in the exhibition by what looked like a dog's toy on a paving stone. It turned out that the head had become separated from the support during unpacking. [...]

The sculptor David Mach, a selector for the summer show, was even on record praising the "minimalist" qualities of the bone-on-slab display. [...]

Yet another bone thrown to the anti-modernist dogs is the fact that the plinth with the bit on top is now expected to sell for far more than the original price of the whole combination [if the artist has any honesty, he would refuse to sell--P] [...]

I wonder, though, whether the RA's embarrassment is quite the humiliation of modern art that it appears. The argument that the selection panel has been stupid -and fooled into elevating a mistake into art - rests largely on the fact that they were not seeing what the artist intended. But an artist's interpretation of his or her own work has only limited validity; it's outsiders who decide how it goes down. You can write a play and call it a comedy, but if theatregoers don't laugh there's no arguing with them.

Or imagine that the last chapter of a crime novel were accidentally omitted in a mix-up at the printers. Readers and critics who admired the ambiguity of the ending - and welcomed the author's departure from the convention that every loose end must be tied - are not wrong or stupid. They simply responded honestly to what they were shown and expressed a preference for work that was willing to ignore traditions.

This obscures the point. Namely, that what was meant to act solely as a base and support for an artistic piece was received as art itself. By experts in the field. Neither the artist, nor the writer (in the example) intended their work to be viewed in this way. Usually art requires some degree of training. And it certainly requires the intent to create. In these cases the person who misplaced the sculpture or the printer who lost the final chapter are the "artists." Neither one sought to create anything, they simply made mistakes.

In the same way, Mach's full approval of what turned out to be half a work is perfectly justifiable... the vast slate slab supporting its fragment of skeleton has a peculiarity and spookiness that makes it unusual; dismissable as art only by those who believe that good art necessarily requires heavy effort.

The great critic Professor John Carey caused some horror by concluding in his recent book What Good Are the Arts? that "anything can be a work of art. What makes it a work of art is that someone thinks of it as a work of art."
Right. Earlier in the piece the author uses the standard--but effective--line: a fart is art when the man in a bow tie says so.

Our inner aesthete flinches at this brutal reductionism, but the confusion at the RA proves Carey's point. There is nothing absurd about the idea that Hensel's sculpture became more appealing and intriguing to some people when half of it got left in a cupboard. [....]