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Art is long [Oct. 7th, 2016|08:51 pm]
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This post has been gradually accumulating over nearly two weeks, now. It began in reaction to a television programme, Who's Afraid of Conceptual Art?, which we stumbled into while looking more or less at random for an hour of diverting television. But it seems to have turned into a hybrid, partly the sort of response - I won't flatter it by calling it a review - that says well, if I'd been in charge, it would go like this... and partly just a place to stash some of the links I gathered together while thinking about that.

The first of those two elements probably won't make much sense unless you saw the programme. But here's Lucy Mangan's review in the Guardian: she clearly starts from some strong ideas about what is and isn't art, and that's not the thing that bothers me. My working definition is, if the person who makes it says it's art, it's art. Then we can move on to the more interesting question: is it any good? And that's where I start to have opinions.

Art historian Dr James Fox, presenting, tries to offer explanations rather than definitions: before the 20th Century, he says, there were Things and there was Art, and Things were Useful and Art was Beautiful (and then we had Dada which is the beginning of conceptual art, and things just get untidier from then on). It's a neat way into the subject, but it doesn't leave a place for Things which are Beautiful (in themselves, and possibly because they are so well suited to their usefulness). There's no obligation to talk about Arts & Crafts, but if you ignore this possibility, you will hear me heckling from the moment we set off on our ramble through the history of conceptual art.

This approach also means that I don't entirely know what the term 'Conceptual Art' does and doesn't cover: perhaps there are reasons why some of the examples that I thought were obvious didn't, for some reason, qualify: what, no wrapped Reichstag?

I was cynical enough to wonder whether artists were more likely to be selected as worth mentioning if they were prepared to appear on the programme? So we start with Martin Creed: an artwork by Martin Creed has been purchased for - £180, I think it was. It arrives in the post, and turns out to be a sheet of paper, crumpled into a ball (and carefully packed in a cardboard box, with more crumpled paper, to protect it from - er - getting crumpled. Martin Creed was perfectly matter-of-fact about this, with a touch of humour and enough seriousness, and I thought well, £180 may be quite a lot to pay for a ball of waste paper, but it's quite cheap for ten minutes television1. Likewise, Bruce McLean was a sympathetic interviewee, and he brought his three plinths along. This item had me asking - and not for the first time (nor the last) "Does the photographer get a credit?"2 I was irritated by Christian Jankowski, of whom Lucy Mangan remarks: "And you could not help but warm to the completely charming (and wholly naked – 'I thought, 'What could I bring to this interview that was different?'') Christian Jankowski." Oh, please, could he have done anything more obvious, anything that was less 'different'? The naked Christian Jankowski explained to James Fox that he was now part of Jankowski's artwork, he had been reduced to the raw material of art, which seems to me an extraordinarily offensive thing to say3, but Fox seemed quite delighted by it.

These artists were discussed, and entered into the discussion. Others weren't. I've already mentioned Christo and Jeanne-Claude, whose work is probably the first I think of when I hear the term 'conceptual art'. What about Andy Goldsworthy? Some of his work certainly seems to qualify, but in fact there was no land art at all - yet for me it's the gateway drug, the accessible form of this kind of art - perhaps it doesn't fit the definition? Searching for enlightenment, I found this wonderful set of pictures - not all of them actually land art, if only because some of them are pure landscape, but some beautiful things. Is the big blue bear land art, or is he simply sculpture? Either way, he is wonderful. Because this is how coincidence works, I came across Tony Plant's beautiful meditative sand art while thinking about conceptual and land art, in a beer advertisement in the newspaper. I would class it as conceptual because it is so ephemeral: each day's work, however elaborate, is washed away by the tide (and survives only in photographs: once again, the photographer is the unsung hero of conceptual art).

You couldn't photograph Susan Philipsz's Surround Me (though I did include some photographs when I wrote about our day in snowy London exploring part of it: if placing sound recordings in a series of locations and calling it 'sculpture' isn't conceptual, what is it? But I see that the artist's biography makes much of the site specific nature of her work, and wonder whether that's the element that unites so much of the art that appeals most strongly to me.

One last example from Who's Afraid of Conceptual Art?: It got very excited about Katie Paterson's 'Totality', a mirrorball whose reflective facets are images of solar eclipses ("nearly every solar eclipse documented by humankind", it says, though whether this is simply a way of expressing the number of images - over 10,000 - or whether the different images represent some documented difference in the events... Oh, surely not, I don't see how they could!). The film showed James Fox, presenting, in darkness with the great turning sphere, while the tiny reflected lights played across him and around him. It was a lovely thing, and the images on Katie Paterson's website don't really capyure what I found so pleasing. These photos come closer -

- and I'm back to the skills of the photographer / camera operator again. Best stop now, or we'll have to go round again.

1This thought brought to you by the contrast with Fake or Fortune and its spin-off whose name I have forgotten (something about Britain's lost art treasures?) which concern themselves with traditional art, and whose presenters are forever discovering the need to visit the Prado or consult someone in Paris - and all the state-of-the-art scientific analysis doesn't come cheap, either.

2Apparently not. The Tate's note on the linked work says " The artist later had himself photographed, repeating the poses, to create three permanent works..."

3This is one of the things that baffles me about people's willingness to pose naked for Spencer Tunick, another name not mentioned.


[User Picture]From: pigshitpoet
2016-10-08 12:44 am (UTC)

Against conceptualism, hedonism and the cult of the ego-artist.


are you familiar with the stuckist movement with founded by billy childish and charles thomson
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2016-10-08 11:05 am (UTC)
I hope I can articulate some thoughts--currently on the move a lot, and short on sleep, but I really enjoyed this post. Especially since so much conceptual art . . . doesn't reach me as art--I have to think about what I mean by art. And suddenly I'm in a morass.
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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2016-10-08 03:32 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you got something out of my ramblings - morass is a very good word for it! Though thinking about it did help me gain some clarity about what is likely to work for me.
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From: cmcmck
2016-10-08 11:22 am (UTC)
Not me!

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[User Picture]From: shewhomust
2016-10-08 03:33 pm (UTC)
Yes, this was the example they offered of the breakdown in the boundary between Art and Things!
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