This month’s piece on Damien Hirst by Ben Lewis reminds me of one of the most simple yet difficult to dismiss reactions which contemporary art can elicit: “I could do that!” Obviously, I can’t just nip out of the office and produce a skull studded with diamonds and, equally obviously, many of those who respond to art like this are seriously underestimating the skill or invention needed to produce it. But the underlying question will not go away, and it’s been around for quite some time now—how far does something’s value as art rely on an artist’s craft and invention, and how far does it rely on what it is said to signify (and by whom)?
Take the delightful “disumbrationism” hoax perpetrated by Paul Jordan-Smith back in the 1920s. In 1924, irritated by critical dismissals of his wife’s conventional still-life paintings, he adopted the pseudonym Pavel Jerdanowitch and created Exaltation, a deliberately awful picture of a Pacific islander lofting a banana skin over her head. This, he claimed in a suitably portentous blurb, was an example of the new disumbrationist school and symbolised “breaking the chains of womanhood.” Certainly, it’s a striking achievement—