The Turner Prize is for conceptual art without concepts. It reflects a distinctly British art form - accessible, slight and full of cheerful hedonismby Christopher Lord / December 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
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…