Friday, March 17, 2006

Mad correctness gone political?

Art still has the power to shock, it seems. A mental health charity has been criticised for displaying a statue of Winston Churchill in a straitjacket. His grandson, Nicholas Soames, has described the statue as "offensive and stupid" (hmmm, kitchen utensils, Nick), and the object has now been removed from the gaze of the good burghers of Norwich, but the job's already done. Publicity has been raised, and the whole affair has also provoked some significant questions. Most significantly, is it offensive to draw attention to the fact that Churchill spent most of his life jousting with manic depression (not to mention alcoholism, obesity and a cleft palate) and still pulled off the not inconsiderable stunt of facing down Hitler? And, if so, doesn't that just prove the charity's point, that mental illness still bears an unwarranted stigma?

Stepping aside from the rentaquote MP's uncharacteristic yearning for taste and decency, it's interesting that the offending work is that archetype of 'proper art', a statue, rather than some conceptual installation or happening. Maybe if artists want to get their messages to a wider constituency, they'll have to couch them in more conventional forms. Although you've still got the problem that critics will focus on the form, not the idea; witness Marc Quinn's statue of Alison Lapper in Trafalgar Square. Many critics felt able to sidestep the significant issues raised about the visibility of disabled people because, let's be honest, Quinn's statue was rubbish.

Of course, if we buy Sol LeWitt's definition of conceptualism, that "the idea becomes a machine that makes the art," rather than vice versa, the Churchill statue clearly is conceptual first and foremost; albeit in a form more likely to appeal to Jo(anna) Public than, say, Tracey's mucky bed. Not that it was conventional enough to appeal to Winston's wobblebottomed kinsman, of course.

But, just when you thought you thought the real, thinking-out-of-the-white-cube, Turner-Prizey, a-child-of-five-could-do-that conceptual stuff had lost its plums, here's Santiago Sierra and his protest against the banalisation of the Holocaust: converting a synagogue into a gas chamber.

Nicholas Soames was not available for comment on that one.

No comments: