The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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We
have a metaphor here to describe a situation, which is in the throes
of failure — u201CLast one to leave, please turn the lights off!u201D In
terms of the latest modern art item to win the annual Turner prize,
it is an apt metaphor.

Martin
Creed's winning entry consists of a large, empty white room with
a pair of lights flashing on and off every five seconds. That's
it and for this he collected the 20,000 prize from Madonna to mixed
reception from the art world.

What
does one make of this latest piece of minimalist artwork? The empty
room is the u201Cpinnacleu201D in a series of works that Martin Creed has
produced such as his neon sign flashing the words u201CDon't worryu201D
and his cunningly crafted piece of Blu-Tack.

The
latter work of art is titled Some Blu-Tack Kneaded, Rolled Into
A Ball, And Depressed Against A Wall and quite frankly, that
is all it looks like. One can only guess at the hours of agonising
and artistic angst as he toiled over the thumb orientation and pressure
to apply to his raw materials.

Moreover,
another u201Cinterestingu201D instance of his works consisted of a piece
of A4 crumpled up into a ball. The rumour is that he submitted this
labour of love to the Tate Gallery who, in a piece of cultural philistinism,
destroyed it by unfolding it and sending it back in the post!

But
going back to his latest piece, the communications curator of the
Tate Gallery said this of it: "What Creed has done is really
make minimal art minimal by dematerialising it – removing it from
the hectic, commercialised world of capitalist culture. His installation
activates the entire spaceu201D.

Moreover,
he added that the work was u201Cemblematic of mortalityu201D which made
me think that perhaps I had begun to grasp the meaning of this modern
art movement. I reasoned that, unlike classical art, this genre
was more concerned with symbols and signs pointing to an underlying
reality. So, whereas a classical work concerning New York would
consist of an oil painting of the famous skyline, a modern work
would merely be a wooden post with a sign pointing in a certain
direction with the words u201CNew Yorku201D on it.

I
then inferred that this minimal information was meant to make us
think of New York in a particular way relevant to us. Well, that
sounded fine in theory until Creed himself said this when asked
what the idea behind the room was:

"I
think people can make of it what they like. I don’t think it is
for me to explain it. The thing for me is to try and make things,
try and do things and show them to people – that’s what I get excited
about.u201D

So,
our signpost analogy remains, expect now the words u201CNew Yorku201D should
now be erased or replaced with hieroglyphics. In that light, the
curator's comments are no more than a guess and the majority opinion
that this work is a load of rubbish is just as good in that highly
relativistic world. One thing is for sure, just as a signpost to
New York should cost substantially less than New York itself, so
should the price be for anyone that feels brave enough to buy such
an item.

Nevertheless,
it has to be admitted that this is a niche market and that there
is a sufficient customer base in our increasingly nihilistic culture
to carry such a brand of goods. The advantage it has over classical
art is its dynamism and innovation, which continually evokes interest
and publicity. Irrational exuberance is not limited to inflated
stock markets as people queue up out of curiosity and a degree of
morbidity (as in the case of Damien Hirst's formaldehyde cows) to
view these comical items.

The
only good thing I could say about them is that they do not need
State grants to keep them going — which brings me to the ordinary
art galleries that inhabit many cities today.

I
made a visit to Edinburgh's National Gallery a few weeks back to
view rather more traditional arts stretching back to the Renaissance
and noted the fact that the museum entry fee was now free due to
State subsidies propping it up. Apparently, old paintings of religious
events and Greek mythology do not generate as much interest as bifurcated
bovines soaked in preservative!

The
argument thus goes that the State should intervene to preserve these
pictures for the Nation and public access, as the private sector
will not touch them. The fact is that the taxpayer is not interested
in these pictures and the customers had voted with their feet by
staying away. I do not doubt the good intentions of people who feel
that the public will benefit more from viewing more wholesome art.
But, as the free market learnt from day one, you can lead a horse
to water, but you can't make it drink.

I
would not presume to give a blueprint of how the private sector
would handle these old (and often boring) pictures. Building expensive
extensions to house relatively inexpensive paintings is certainly
not the solution. The dogma that they must be displayed because
they are our u201Cheritageu201D is a debatable point — hanging up a flaked
painting of the 25th chief of the Clan MacDuff has dubious
value except to a passing MacDuff and a dedicated academic.

The
worst should obviously be sold off or put into the artistic equivalent
of cryogenic preservation (museums have loads of items boxed away)
and the best shrink wrapped in a more appealing manner. Otherwise,
it is like selling music CDs to a deaf audience and will confirm
that the hush of the museum is due more to the absence of clients
rather than a studious demeanour.

December
17,
2001

Roland
Watson [send him
mail
] writes from Edinburgh, Scotland.

©
2001 LewRockwell.com

Roland
Watson Archives

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