It’s clever but is it art?

Kipling’s rather mannered poem “The Conundrum of the Workshops” asks “it’s clever, but is it Art?”

Most of the time, it isn’t.

We don’t send teenagers to writing school, get them to live exclusively self-referential lives once they graduate, and expect them to produce work that is either interesting or thought-provoking. However we send our artists to art-school when they are still high on hormones and coherent thinking, expose them to nothing other than cheap drugs, grubby sex and their peers, and expect them to produce art. It’s no wonder that most of their pieces are self-indulgent wank-fests: self-indulgent wanking is what teenagers do, and with some artists you see no evidence that they have grown out of their adolescence.

These past two weeks I’ve some superb imagery by graphic masters and some deeply-felt and hard-won experiences expressed as narrative paintings and I’ll let you know about them in a minute. Let’s start with the wank-fests. Three spring to mind.

The first was a series of films of a bloke in a bear-suit wandering around an empty Berlin art gallery several nights in a row. I cannot remember what it was supposed to be about. Alienation, probably. (There is a reason why the perpetrators of such self-indulgence feel alienated from the rest of us: it’s because they are so self-obsessed. It isn’t us. It really is them). Apparently the bear-suit referenced the fact that the symbol of Berlin is a bear. Presumably the fact it was in the Berlin kunstgalerie references the fact that the artist is a c**t, otherwise why not do it in Warwick, which is also symbolised by a bear. I’m sorry, but if an installation needs a page of A4 to explain itself, then what we have is a writer who embellishes their writing with really complicated illustrations. The woman who put the crack in the Tate Modern would have been an artist if she’d left it at that, but the explanation that it was about alienation (dur) and racism reduced her work to mere illustration. Shame really. As a crack in the floor it was really cool. Unlike Bungle in Berlin, but there you go.

The second was more fest than wank, but precious little of either. The artist’s page of A4 burbled about sensuality. Essentially she tried to eroticise food. However, a pair of melons with a couple of vine-eye bolts and a chain is no more than a visual pun: it’s not even as if nipple rings are that outré any more. It isn’t Mapplethorpe’s Robert having his Nipple Pierced. The rest of the photographs would have made good magazine shots, but they weren’t witty, nor erotic, nor particularly clever and certainly not art. Nice production values, though.

The third was just cheap sensationalism in a Hirsty kind of way: dead animals enlivened with fluorescent paint. There was a mounted head of an Aberdeen Angus, where the nose and horns had been painted the sort of orange you get in highlighter pens. There was a stuffed fox snarled up in a bunch of brightly coloured bailer twine which was almost interesting. And a pair of white rats turned into salt and pepper pots which were, well, a pair of white rats turned into salt and pepper pots. You get the idea.

By contrast, the one I go to art galleries with and I saw some Modiglianis, a Mondrian and a couple of Picassos the other weekend. Now, they were boys who knew how to put colour and shape onto canvas and who knew what they were painting about. The reason they produced master-pieces is not just that they had mastered their craft (though they had) it is that they had progressed beyond their apprenticeships and journey-man days as people too.

The idea that war is hell is trite. It’s a cheap non-idea, like the cheap non-eroticism of the fruit. However, if you’ve experienced atrocities, then that will come through in your expression of them, which is why Guernica is so powerful and the Kandinskys I saw last summer, come to that. And why, based on her art, sex with the melon woman would be banally predictable while she thought it was exotic and edgy. Rather like sex with Rik from the Young Ones. Which confirms my point about dull adolescent thoughts expressed as dull adolescent art, really. (You want eroticism on the edge? Check out Buck Angel’s transsexual porn. Not likely in a provincial art gallery, I’ll admit.)

Experience informs art, and I am coming to think that the way we put our artists into art school actually hamstrings them.

The final exhibition I saw yesterday was a series of narrative paintings of coal-miners mining coal. The artist was himself a miner, though had he been a different generation and class, maybe he’d have spent his time wrapping up aubergines in wire or wandering around museums in animal costumes. Instead he went down the pit and then went through the miners’ strike. The paintings are illuminate the world that George Orwell described as being “like hell, or at any rate like my own mental picture of hell. Most of the things one imagines in hell are if there–heat, noise, confusion, darkness, foul air, and, above all, unbearably cramped space.” The paintings, like Orwell’s essay, bring out the physicality of the men and the work: “the fillers look and work as though they were made of iron. … It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realize what splendid men, they are. Most of them are small (big men are at a disadvantage in that job) but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere.” I found the paintings of the coal-mines powerful and moving, and full of purpose and integrity which was not even slightly ridiculous.

So, if you want to do art that’s worth doing, then you have to have something to say that’s worth saying. And if you have to have a page of A4 stuck on the gallery wall in order to say it, then you aren’t an artist at all. You’re an illustrator.

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3 responses to “It’s clever but is it art?

  1. We have a very unworthy art museum that has exhibits whose individual pieces each require an A4 page explanation. Needless to say, we are always very disappointed and very often feel that a joke is being played on us. No, it is not art and no, it is not even a craft, it is just a bunch of nonsense. I am open to all sorts of good art and appreciate abstract as well as realistic art, but I don’t like to be told in an A4 page explanation what it is that I am supposed to be looking at. Something has to hit you in the guts when you look at it. Art is about emotions, after all. I need to be moved when I look at it and think, “Oh wow.”

  2. Oh, I agree. I expect Art to make me think or feel (or both). And to let me figure out what I think or feel.

    Showing me something while telling me “here’s what it should make you feel/think/do” – is somewhere in the field between, as you say, illustration and marketing.

    Now, marketing obviously is close to my heart as I live from it, and decently too. But art is isn’t.

  3. I agree wholly with you, art has to have substance rather than purport to have significance, “if you think about it like this, as I did, when generating it.”

    Too, art has import beyond the form or structure it’s generated from. But this doesn’t need to be clever or esoteric with half an abattoir and a highlighter.

    By accident I chanced ‘pon a potter, when taking my kids out. I’ve done pottery myself, for a while, I was rubbish at it. She drew shape and form and purpose from clay in a way that was mesmerising (and I was there an age). But, too, her glazed work was captivating. Some was utilitarian, the sort of craft for a ship’s boiler room. Some was crockery evoking notions of family, community. Skill and vision realised through her work, I’d see that as art.

    A few weekends ago I made a visit to Yorkshire sculpture park with friends. Sculpture really doesn’t do much for me at all but these huge works, set outside in the landscape powerfully draw out thoughts and musings.

    I’d agree that with quiddity of good art is substance and meaning. To have something meaningful to convey requires life experience. Rupert Brooke died in the Agean at age 27 and, although young, I’d argue was our best British War Poet. But his sexual confusion and war experiences in the Navy gave emotional and practical maturity beyond his years. As such, I’m not averse to bright young things generating art. 8)

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