Saturday, April 11, 2020

About conceptual art

This week, I unearthed something that I wrote in 2003. To put it in context, it was an entry for a competition run by the Spectator magazine, seeking essays on the subject of conceptual art. It was shortlisted but didn’t win; as a result I was invited to a pleasant champagne reception at the Speccie offices, where I made the acquaintance of the bizarre and ultimately tragic writer known as Fergus Gwynplaine MacIntyre and, less interestingly, one Boris Johnson.

It’s a bit dated, from the reference to a long departed dog to the casual references to Young British Artists as if they were copper-bottomed celebrities; and some of the observations regarding Magritte, Duchamp et al will seem pretty well-rehearsed, tired even, to anyone who’s spent any time on this blog. And right now, its insistence on seeing art close up, in all its flaky analogue glory, is too poignant. But overall, it’s less embarrassing than I’d have guessed. What do you reckon?

From Troglodytes To Tracey: The Concepts Of Art 

The desktop of the computer upon which I type this essay bears the image of my dog, Bert. Occasionally, in whimsical moments, I pick Bert up, and place him nose-to-nose with his alter canis. Bert, of course, is unimpressed. Dogs do not seem to respond to two-dimensional images, even of themselves. In a similar vein, there is the story of an explorer who transported a Polaroid camera into the heart of Papua New Guinea, where he took photographs of the tribespeople. But when the locals saw their own images, they did not register the connection between themselves and the shiny rectangle. These may be the same tribespeople who regard the Duke of Edinburgh as a manifestation of divinity, but I’m not sure.

Neither the perplexed Papuan nor my dog is stupid. They were, or are, simply unaware of the concept – and I choose the word deliberately – that a combination of coloured marks on a flat surface is meant to represent a moving, breathing, multi-dimensional entity. Representational art is something that we all take for granted, from The Very Hungry Caterpillar to the finest works of Titian and Velazquez and Delacroix and Stubbs. We see a picture of a jolly man in an unfeasible hat, and we say: “That is the Laughing Cavalier”. But, of course, it isn’t. It is some paint on a canvas, intended to convey to us the idea, the concept, of a laughing cavalier.

When Magritte painted the image of a pipe, then wrote underneath “Ceci n’est pas un pipe”, he wasn’t being cute. He was telling the truth. It isn’t a pipe. It’s a picture of a pipe, and the link between the two is something that we have learned.

“All right, already,” you sigh. “Enough of the Gombrich manqué. You’re supposed to be convincing me of the merits of bisected cows, of grimy bedspreads, of Madonnas constructed from elephant dung.” Patience. I’ll be getting into bed with Tracey shortly.

Every so often, A Big Idea shakes the art world. The initial reaction of most people is a dodgem ride between outrage, contempt, incomprehension, and indulgent amusement. The Big Idea might become the norm, but some people continue to hold to those views. So, Picasso and Braque saw that most shapes could be broken down into geometric forms. Today, most people have got the hang of Cubism, but plenty still think it’s infantile doodling. Five centuries before, Brunelleschi noted that big things look smaller when they’re further away. He was instrumental in defining the Renaissance standards of perspective. But that doesn’t stop some people preferring those delightful medieval landscapes and allegories, where everything seems piled on top of everything else.

And why should it? Some of the earliest surviving examples of representational art are the cave paintings of Lascaux, discovered in 1940. In our terms, they are not realistic depictions of men and beasts, but they are close enough for us to see the connection. However, imagine the anonymous daubers of Lascaux being transported 15,000 years or so into their future, and a wee bit north, to the Louvre. Consider what they might make of, say, The Apotheosis of Henry IV and the Proclamation of theRegency of Marie de Medicis on May 14, a characteristically flamboyant everything-but-the-kitchen-sink work by Rubens. Perspective, shadow, the illusion of a third dimension, the rich palette, the classical and religious references, the wobbly chins and bosoms – Messieurs Ugg and Ogg would, one suspects, see it as a meaningless pattern, no more than gaudy wallpaper. They would be as receptive as the Papuan with the Polaroid, as comprehending as my dog. Or they might have the same reaction that the Pope had when Giotto, with an arch-conceptualist masterstroke, communicated his genius to the pontiff by drawing a big, red, plain, but perfect, letter ‘O’.

It was a similar sense of confusion that posessed the aesthetic arbiters of the Paris Salon in 1863, when they refused to exhibit works by Edouard Manet. It was not just the impropriety of a female nude in the company of males in contemporary dress (Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe) that befuddled them. It was the combination of blotches and flecks, the almost mask-like countenances of the subjects – damn it, it was simply a bad painting. And yet, less than 150 years on, Manet and Monet and Renoir are ubiquitous on posters and tea-towels, almost to the point of tedium. We have learned them. We have grasped the concept.

“OK, you smartarse sophist. So all art is conceptual. So far, so glib. But you know the stuff I’m talking about. Chaps from Goldsmiths who roll their own cigs. Lights going on and off. Surely you can see they’re different from Renoir and Monet? Splodgy Parisiennes with cherry lips, and nice bunches of flowers, I can hang them in my living room. I wouldn’t put that head made of frozen blood in my lavatory.” Talking of which… If that whole Goldsmiths/Saatchi/Jopling/Turner Prize/Tate Modern posse has a single starting point, it is Marcel Duchamp’s exhibition of a pseudonymously signed urinal, in New York in 1917. “It was the idea that mattered,” Duchamp said later, and he expressed his disdain for the precedence of execution over concept by knocking up so many copies of his definitive works, that, in some cases, nobody knows where the original is. Duchamp’s rejection of “artistry”, his reaction against what the critic Robert Lebel called “the senseless glorification of the hand” succeeded in the sense that it annoyed people. As part of that mighty rush of bourgeoisie-baiting that included Stravinsky, Pound and the Dadaists, his work is a crucial emblem of the 20th-century aesthetic credo, where cosy popularity equates to second-rate mediocrity.

But the Great Conceptualist, and his little tadpoles, the Hirsts, Quinns, Emins, Chapmans, Turks, Muecks, Wallingers, have not managed to kill art. Maybe accidentally, they did it a great service. You may well not want Quinn’s head, or the grotesque mannequins of Jake and Dinos, or Tracey’s absent Christmas tree, above the telly. But you might not want a life-size replica of the Sistine Chapel either. The “glorification of the hand” that Duchamp so hated, combined with the cheapness and accessibility of modern printing and other reproductive technologies, has rendered many fine paintings into clichés. By the time I saw my first real Dali, in New York’s Museum Of Modern Art, its ubiquity on the walls of moderately intense teenagers created an inevitable sense of anticlimax.

With the shark, and the bed, and the sheep, and the tent, however, we knew that a reproduction could never do justice to the original. We can only appreciate the grisly impact of Marcus Harvey’s Myra Hindley portrait when we see the thousands of tiny hand prints that form it. We only shudder at Ron Mueck’s sculpture when we almost trip over it. Jake and Dinos Chapman’s fantastical rendering of the Holocaust only makes sense when we walk around, blending into the crowds of mutant Nazis and staggering skeletons. Duchamp’s urinal only makes sense because of its setting – it shocks simply by being in a gallery. And so we go to galleries. In our hundreds of thousands. Now, it would be foolish to argue that only conceptual art can pull in the punters. Monet was so popular that the Royal Academy turned into a 24-hour waterlily fun palace. But I would contend that it was Sensation, at the same venue a couple of years before, that made going to art galleries an essential activity. If people cannot sate their aesthetic appetites on calendars, postcards and novelty erasers, they’ll just have to flippin’ well enter the belly of the aesthetic beast. They’ll have to get into the habit of looking at art. 

Conceptual art is not always pleasant, or easy on the eye. Neither is the work of Bosch or Goya or Géricault. Conceptualists can be tiresome. I doubt if Michelangelo was always fun to wake up to. If sheer niceness were a condition of artistic worth, we would have forgotten Swift and Waugh, and the latest Mills and Boon would win the Booker Prize. But there is another reason that lovers of Giotto or Rubens or Manet should at least look kindly (if not fondly) on the conceptualists. Lovers of Proust are sniffy about Harry Potter. But the myopic warlock gets the X-Box generation reading books for pleasure. Which, surely, is a good thing? By being loud and media-savvy and ugly and iconoclastic and rich, the children of Duchamp – Marcel’s new wave – are dragging people into looking at, arguing about, loving, hating, doing art. All art. From the Lascaux cave paintings, via Giotto or Rubens or Manet, to… well, whatever comes next.

Which, surely, is also a good thing?

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