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Friday, July 18, 2008

From The Archive: Conceptual Art

From The Archive is a special Friday feature. It features posts from my earlier (now-deleted) blog: Stuff & Nonsense and a few items from previous versions of A Tangled Rope that I feel deserve reprinting here, mainly as a way of archiving them. The dates are only approximate, I’m afraid, and there is a possibility that some links may no longer work (although, I will try to remember to test the links before republishing the piece).

Conceptual Art - 16/05/2005

Is there anything more tediously annoying than someone who constantly repeats catchphrases from comedy programmes?

Well, yes, there must be.

But, at the moment, I can't think of one, so this will have to do.

I refer, of course, to those annoying tossers who somehow think that by repeating some word or phrase far from the original context like some amphetamine-fuelled parrot (Norwegian Blue, obviously - beautiful plumage) somehow marks them out as some great and original wit.

Conceptual art is a lot like that. It began - more or less - with some French bloke taking the piss out of the art business.

Marcel Duchamp's fountain - an inverted urinal he signed then exhibited (There you are, squire, genuine original work of art - to you a few thousand quid - a genuine bargain).

Now, as art jokes go, I suppose it isn't that bad. It does - as all good jokes do - raise some interesting questions about its subject matter such as: What is art? What makes us call one piece a work of art and another a piss-pot? Who is that tosser and why is the Arts Council giving him so much money for a pile of dried hamster shit on a cornflake packet? and questions like that.

Now, don't get me wrong (well, you can if you like - whatever turns you on and all that), this is no tirade against modern art. I'm not one of those and what the hell is that suppose to be - a five-year-old could do that! Philistines. After all, all art - including representational art - is abstract, a blend of line and light and shade and colour. In representational art it just happens that this blend of things happens to correspond to a greater or lesser degree to what we see in the world (See Gombrich's Art and Illusion for a good discussion of this, or even Berger's Ways of Seeing - if you can put up with its dated late 60s/early 70s grooviness).

No, conceptual art is about the idea of art - going back to Duchamp and his piss-take - rather than the thing itself. All the other arts tried this thing - novels without stories, music without tunes, drama without, well, drama, and so on. They all dropped it when they saw it was a dead end.

But modern conceptual art just goes on repeating Duchamp's catchphrase over and over again. Not only is that itself tedious enough, but each time the catchphrase is repeated it has to be yelled louder and louder to overcome people's boredom and indifference. And the only way that Duchamp's catchphrase can be made louder is by increasing the 'shock' factor, the yuck factor: first they sculpt shit, then they use shit to 'sculpt' - then just plain shit is no longer shocking enough - they use endangered animal shit, or AIDS victim's shit, or the shit of tortured children or - well, you get the idea. And, for each manufactured 'shock' the same Daily Mail-esque howls of manufactured outrage are flung out in response like the forced polite laughter of those long tired of the same worn-out catchphrase.

Normally, I wouldn't want to be seen quoting Morrissey in public (as it will do nothing but damage to my carefully cultivated anti-hip image), but this time I have no choice. Conceptual art - That joke isn't Funny anymore.

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