The Turner Prize is for conceptual art without concepts. It reflects a distinctly British art form - accessible, slight and full of cheerful hedonismby / December 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
The basic idea behind conceptual art is simple enough. Rather than producing a concrete work of art, the artist produces a concept, and documents it with drawings, texts, photographs, sheep or whatever. The artist then meets the plebeian mockery of the incredulous with a superior glance-after all, he remains the sole curator of his concept and who, in this egalitarian age, is to say that it is not a thing of sublime beauty? As a historical phenomenon, conceptual art is as legitimate as anything else, and its practitioners are not charlatans. Quite the reverse: since its emergence in the 1960s, conceptual art has been deadly serious, defying doubt with industry and self-sacrifice. However, it is time to realise that we in Britain have at last moved beyond all that.
For an emblematic (foreign) contemporary conceptual artist, let us consider the oeuvre of Alexander Brener, a Russian now domiciled in Vienna. Brener labels himself an “action artist” (conceptual art is a broad church) and his actions beggar belief-defecating in his pants in front of a Van Gogh in the Moscow Fine Art Museum while shouting “Vincent! Vincent!”; masturbating publicly on a swimming pool diving board. What gave him art world recognition, and retrospectively washed these questionable activities with the miracle soap of respectability, was his 1997 masterpiece: sponsored by an artistic fellowship, he went to the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art in Amsterdam and spray-painted a dollar sign on a valuable abstract painting- Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematisme 1920-1927. As the room was empty at the time, he had to fetch a guard to explain what he had done, but it was a well-considered move. The explanations reached the glossy pages of Flash Art International, a commercial but stylish Milan magazine specialising in contemporary genius.
In court, Brener seized the chance for some high-class documentation. “The cross is a symbol of suffering, the dollar a symbol of merchandise,” he said. “On humanitarian grounds, are the ideas of Jesus Christ of higher significance than those of money? What I did was not against the painting. I view my act as a dialogue with Malevich.” In a similar vein, his defecatory piece in Moscow was “a dialogue with the beginnings of modernism, where Excrement in Pants had a double meaning-both of great pleasure caused by the work of art and of excrement as a symbolic materialisation of the monolithic ideology that Van Gogh was placed in as its founder.”
Brener, while preserving his minority status with opaque pronouncements like these, is now able to have his works-or rather, his documents-appear alongside those of Andy Warhol and Joseph Beuys in smart little galleries purveying Art with a capital A to Collectors with a capital C. He has made it. His work has the puzzling dichotomy we have come to expect in conceptual art: wild, absurd behaviour on the one hand, and dense, intellectual justifications on the other.
It is not entirely British, though, is it? Russian, German, European, even American-but British? There was a time when Leeds Poly and Nottingham College of Art and other unlikely places seethed with committed conceptual artists, some of whom, older and admirably determined, are still going; and we have our own little band of public masturbators and bowel-movers doing their bit for humanity. But there are some aspects of this kind of thing that are just not going to wash in the land of Romeo Beckham and Juliet Bravo. That unblinking madman’s stare, for one thing; that insistence.
For comparison, let us move to the engaging Martin Creed, winner of the Turner Prize in 2001 for The Lights Going On And Off, described at the time as a work of conceptual art, and a work needing no further explanation than its title. No prolix courtroom pronouncements for Creed. Charmingly tongue-tied, he refused to be drawn on the significance of the piece, appearing instead like a proud father whose son has won the lottery, at a loss to explain the miracle. But he did say what a laugh he thought it was, watching it on the telly. Here was an icon of British art: young, classless, self-effacing, cheerful. A different proposition from Mr Brener, no?
One peculiarly British element that fatally punctures the balloon of conceptual art in this country is the insertion of the word “irony” into the conversation of a generation of university students in the 1980s. They thought that reading The Face was as legitimate a means of self-enrichment as struggling through Dostoevsky or Husserl. If they haven’t exactly grown up, they have grown older, and the self-enrichment has paid off admirably. The same stereotyped ironic grin is fixed on the faces of a comfortably-off cultural elite that still sees things in terms of fashion and fun. This is the sophisticated way to respond to The Lights Going On And Off. It is plainly not a profound examination of capitalism or the human condition. It is deliberately empty-minded. British art, in its approved, successful form, is about being more ironic than the public.
The victim, though, is the conceptual aspect of this brand of art. If what is being produced now in Britain is indeed conceptual art, then why does it have nothing to say, least of all about itself? Even Damien Hirst’s elegantly-constructed titles seem to be all tip and no iceberg. The most constructive way to explain it is in terms of social development. The hip British artist bows to the rush of progress, and sees that there are people better qualified than he or she to do the admittedly difficult job of explication. While the artists retreat into ironic silence, it is left to critics-ironists too-to guess gleefully at what was meant by their enigmatic production. It is conceptual art minus the concepts. Indeed, it is post-conceptual art; an appropriate medium for a society that has not merely abandoned ideas, but giggles knowingly at the very thought of them.
It is relatively easy to see how this post-conceptualism has come about. The “classic” conceptual artists-Joseph Kosuth, Sol Lewitt, Terry Atkinson-unwittingly created a style that could be imitated by anyone who put their mind to it. It is a bit like Malcolm McLaren trying to form a pop group that couldn’t play their instruments and creating, in the music of the Sex Pistols, an instantly recognisable style that has become as much a classic in its way as tartan or marbling. There is something seductive about strolling, nose in air, past the Leonardos and Rembrandts, Modiglianis and Picassos, Dal?-s and Warhols; and stopping to gaze in dull apathy at the senseless scribbles and ugly photographs in the conceptual art section of the gallery.
No art is bad if its intentions are honest, and British post-conceptualism has much to recommend it. It is up to date, fresh, young. Is it really a defect that it expresses nothing coherent? That its practitioners are at a loss to explain what they are doing and why? This is the zeitgeist in action. Society celebrates a few, picked out more or less at random, because society sees its own reflection in this cheerful hedonism, this absence of conviction. There is, I’m afraid, a kind of irony in the fact that this is the geometrical opposite of what conceptual art originally set out to achieve and what people like Brener are presumably still working at: smashing the system, that sort of thing. In Britain, these people are the system. Their work is not a denial of the values of gallery art. Rather, it epitomises a kind of junk-shop chic, and might decorate a gloomy little restaurant with delusions of grandeur.
While Martin Creed gives the impression that he is prevented by lack of vocabulary from expressing much (other than through subtle manipulations of the light switch), post-conceptualism is nothing to do with being inarticulate. Will Self, for instance, is clearly another post-conceptualist, for all his euphuism. The novelist has declared that he wants to “take on the conceptual artists on their own ground.” In 2000, there was a much-publicised endeavour involving Self sitting in a gallery in Soho, writing down whatever occurred to him on a computer. The Independent on Sunday solemnly published the results, in straight imitation of the documentary technique of classic conceptual art, though with more luxury of circumstance. This September, Self moved into a 20th-floor flat in a condemned Liverpool tower block for a week, allowing the public to peek in at him as he worked. The London event, a one-off practical joke, had a hybrid quality-part literary, part art world, part stunt. But the Liverpool Housing Action Trust, in their publicity for the festival of which the tower block event was a part, describes Self as a “world class artist.”
In a BBC interview, Self explained, “There will be an actual narrative generated and people can come and read it and enjoy it as it takes place.” “Enjoy it”? Yes. Enjoyment is the name of the game. There are no concepts. There is only a misappropriated style of performance and its documentation that legitimate conceptual artists have unwittingly supplied to their imitators.
Attacking the weakness of the ideas behind the works on the Turner Prize short list, as tourism minister Kim Howells did, misses the point. Once you have accepted the principle that the artists are curators of their own ideas, who is Howells or anyone else to judge which collection is better or worse? In the context of mainstream contemporary British art, “conceptual art” is a commercial label, a style, a branding term: a fiction.
If the concepts have been removed, a new X factor has been added to replace them: the sparkle of celebrity giving the whole thing a much more popular range of flavours. Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Martin Creed (and Will Self, as artist) are qualified as important people not by what they do, but by how much it is talked about. If they are lucky, they can, like the Sex Pistols, go to deeply un-ironic America and be taken very seriously. There is a formula for it: be outrageous. But, since real outrage is not available to our jaded society, an ironic simulacrum of outrage is an acceptable substitute. Mock outrage and fun, and the chatter it generates, are part of the cultural routine of the sleek, sophisticated people the British now imagine themselves to be. We need art, but not an art it is necessary to struggle to understand. We need art that is accessible and slight; for our society is post-conceptual too. Who needs Brener and his foreign pretensions? We in Britain can embrace the post-conceptualist aesthetic with our consciences clear, our minds on the money and our judgement not clouded by too much thinking.