The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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