Totalitarian states have an official art, a chosen aesthetic that is authorised and promoted at the cost of other, competing styles. In the Soviet Union, the official art was socialist realism. Working in any other mode was considered – and treated as – an act of subversion. In Britain, too, we have an official art – concept art – and it performs an equally valuable service. It is endorsed by Downing Street, sponsored by big business and selected and exhibited by cultural tsars such as the Tate’s Nicholas Serota who dominate the arts scene from their crystal Kremlins. Together, they conspire both to protect their mutual investments and to defend the intellectual currency they’ve invested in this art.
As chairman of the ICA, an institute that fervently champions concept art, I suppose I must be considered a member, or at least a “stakeholder” (in Millbank-speak), in the cartel that has organised this monopoly. I must confess that, for a number of years, I’ve had a nagging voice in my head telling me that it’s all hype and frequently no substance. By outing this opinion in public, I realise that there will be plenty of people waiting, like Madame Lafarge with her knitting needles next to the guillotine, for my head to roll into their laps. The “arts establishment” (what a weirdly oxymoronic phrase that is) is terrifyingly powerful and, like all centres of power, it is no friend to heterodoxy.
Before uttering the unthinkable, I’d like to say that I find Tracey Emin’s bed sufficiently clever (although possibly Charles Saatchi was the mastermind of this installation – anyone who has met Emin knows that she couldn’t think her way out of a paper bag). And yes, I acknowledge Martin Creed’s genius, even if, as Ned Denny pointed out in these pages some weeks ago, his Turner Prize entry was nowhere near as minimalist as Alighiero Boetti’s 1966 sculpture Yearly Lamp, a light bulb that illuminated itself only once every 12 months. But we’ve now reached a situation where a new generation of art students go to college with the idea of becoming rich and famous like their idols Emin and Damien Hirst, to act like rock stars instead of aspiring to artistic excellence through a tangible medium.
Conceptual art has always courted controversy. Indeed, when Marcel Duchamp challenged the New York Society of Independent Artists in 1916 by submitting Fountain – a urinal placed on its back – under the pseudonym “R Mutt”, he was insinuating by his ruse that the avant-garde modernists of the early 20th century could be as doctrinaire and exclusive as their supposed enemies, the academicians. The society declared proudly that any artist could exhibit, provided they paid their $6 fee, but the urinal submitted by Duchamp (himself a director) was excluded from the exhibition after his fellow directors voted against it.
The boundaries have been pushed further and further ever since, but, I wonder, isn’t it all now rather piss-poor compared to the brilliant and explosive interventions of our modernist forebears? Have we now gone so far in the other direction that, rather than just developing and broadening the contemporary arts scene, concept art has grown, like a virus, into little more than the dotcom of the art world?
The parallels between advocates of conceptual art and the dotcom pirates who plundered our pension funds are clear. The arts elite (and that includes the critics) who witnessed the conceptual revolution have invested so much of their reputation in defence of this kind of art that they find themselves unable to criticise it. Moreover, it is supported in so many ways and so thoroughly by the likes of Nicholas Serota and Charles Saatchi, as well as other, less high-profile investors, that those who speak out against it are derided as “past it”.
Concept art is so firmly “established”, it is no longer promoted through reference to any criteria of aesthetics, originality or intellectual challenge, but through spin and the clever exploitation of the fear of “missing out”. Frequently boasting “craftlessness” and “thinness” in terms of talent (the criteria of traditional artistic skill and excellence being replaced by philosophical or linguistic musings, the expression of psychological trauma, or sociological comment), current trends seem to have replaced the art with the artists. As for the artists themselves, they must be “glossy” – or risk being replaced by those who understand the celebrity game better. Last year’s Turner Prize was so dull that it simply became something to be upstaged by Madonna. Critics rallied to the Tate’s cause with the tired old argument that this makes people “talk” about art – but is contemporary art some kind of Richard and Judy chat show, to be judged in terms of a ratings war?
It seems sad that so many talented young artists, clawing to be noticed for their craft, are forced to ditch their talent and reinvent themselves as creators of video installations, or a machine that produces foam in the middle of a room, in order to be recognised as contemporary artists. In this, if nothing else, the arts establishment is guilty of conspiring to make concept art synonymous with contemporary art.
Yes, for a brief moment, concept art brought the UK a reputation for being cutting-edge (and Tony Blair duly jumped on the bandwagon, stuffing No 10 with works by Hirst, Rachel Whiteread and Angus Fairhurst) but, having made its point, broken the mould and, for a while, raced ahead of the international arts scene, the British arts world is now in danger of disappearing up its own arse. Most concept art I see now is pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat that I wouldn’t accept even as a gift. It is the product of over-indulged, middle-class (barely concealed behind mockney accents), bloated egos who patronise real people with fake understanding.
Thousands of young artists wait in the wings to see whether the taste arbiters will relinquish their exclusive fascination with concept art. It’s a crime. We need art lovers to tell artists that they’re not obliged to reinvent themselves into creators of piles of crap, or pass their work around like samizdat.
Why don’t concept artists go off somewhere and reinvent themselves, adopting a banner like “The New Age Social Commentary and Amateur Psychology Forum”? Quit telling us that art is the subtext alone. It’s not.
Maybe I just don’t get it. Or maybe, like the spurious business plans of the dotcom era, it’s all hype.