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—
Needless to say, the picture was such a huge critical success that Jerdanowitch went on to produce several further well-received works before exposing himself as non-existent in the Los Angeles Times. Nowadays, I suspect our more enlightened society would hail his hoax itself as a creative masterpiece.
My usual rule of thumb is that, if the discourse explaining a work is more important than the work itself, you might as well throw away the work and frame the explanation; a few years ago, at a Chapman brothers’ exhibition, I found myself thinking that wittier and more provocative things arrive in my inbox on a weekly basis than much of their recent oeuvre. But I worry that I’m missing the point. Is concept-led art the only honest channel for many of the great talents of our times?
In any case, I’m reluctant just to sit back and let posterity sort everything out, which is perhaps why I find satire one of the most satisfying modes for debating current art and theory—from the Onion to Alan Sokal’s wonderful skewering of the pretensions of cultural theory. There’s even a competition named in honour of the great Jerdanowitch himself.