We Workers Do Not Understand Modern Art

In a culture obsessed with image, why has art has ceased to mean anything?


In London last week, advertising mogul and art patron Charles Saatchi and his girlfriend Nigella Lawson returned home to find their kitchen floor covered in a thick red liquid. The liquid, as it turned out, was blood.

Yet the gore was not evidence of a recent murder. The advancing pool of blood had in fact melted from a piece of art called “Self” by the artist Marc Quinn, a bust covered in nine pints of frozen blood extracted from the sculptor himself over several years. An investigation later revealed that workmen had turned off Saatchi’s home freezer during a kitchen remodel he had ordered to please Lawson, a popular television chef.

The same seven-day span saw the Tate Gallery pay £22,300 ($35,000) for a work of art that is quite literally canned shit. In 1961, Piero Manzoni packaged his own excrement in 90 individual “limited edition” numbered tins, selling each 30g container for the same price as gold. The stunt was done in a blatant attempt to prove the gullibility of the art-buying public. Since then, however, half of the original cans have exploded, supposedly according to the designs of the artist, who giddily foresaw shit splattered across the inside of glass cases of museums everywhere.

There is a certain amount of poetic justice in both of these episodes. For starters, it serves Saatchi right for storing a £10,000 ($15,000) work of art among his ice cream and frozen veggies, not to mention that he made enough money to indulge in such frivolous collecting by preying on the public’s fears and inadequacies – the stuff of modern advertising. But this is not an exercise in character assassination. What is more important is this particular work by Quinn, “Self,” an affront to the very notion of human creativity, and the quintessence of a pejorative trend that forces me to use the words “art” and “artist” in the loosest sense when describing similar works and their creators from this point forward. As for Manzoni’s canned feces, I would be a fool to try to elaborate on such a beautiful metaphor.

About one month or so before I read about the Saatchi incident on the front page of The Times and the Manzoni sale in The Week and Arts & Letters Daily, a press release arrived in the morning post at the newspaper where I work, a thrice-weekly regional situated in a town in southern England about an hour train ride from London. The press release enthusiastically informed me about an exhibition entitled “Jelly” at a local gallery.

At the top of the second page, the release read: “Daniel Benson’s installation is expressing the perception of the ego within the artist’s expectations, by working on the expedience of others becoming a consummating focal point for the artist and the viewer.” This smacks of bullshit piling up on top of itself, clause after miserable clause.

I gave the copywriter the benefit of the doubt and phoned the gallery to sort it out. The receptionist arranged for David Bedford, the organizer of “Jelly,” to call me back, and he did. When I put the question of its meaning to him, he stammered through a series of half-answers, eventually arriving at something moderately coherent about the effect of advertising on popular culture. To save time and frustration, I was obligated to interpret his words for him: “You mean it’s about television advertising and children – building their expectations up just to knock them down later on?” Yes, he said, that’s it exactly. So what was the reason for all the circumlocution? Why all the nonsense?

Pretense, plain and simple. It’s the reason why Saatchi bought the sculpture that later oozed over his kitchen floor, the impetus behind the creation of “Self,” the market force that sells Manzoni’s excrement, and the cause of garbled press releases promoting the rubbish.

At present, two major societal forces fuel this pretense, effectively corrupting and undermining the nature of art. The first is egalitarianism, a vehemently populist mode of thinking that holds that the artist’s intent is more important than the art itself; and that, by the same token, anyone who declares himself an artist, is. The second is perhaps a symptom of the first: an ahistorical approach to art – that is, a willful ignorance of all that has gone before, with the exception of the average familiarity with the work of Picasso, Monet’s water lilies and haystacks and Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” the sort of knowledge one would have to deliberately avoid in order to not know it.

That the concept of egalitarianism in art is fundamentally flawed should be painfully self-evident. To quote Dr. Johnson on the subject: “He who praises everybody praises nobody.” The beauty of art, even that which conveys something unpleasantly close to home, lies in its execution, the ability to express a vision, an impression or a mood. This is what makes the difference between good artists (i.e., those who can express a vision, an impression, or a mood) and bad artists (i.e., those who cannot). If I have a good idea but fail to employ it well in the form of fiction, sculpture, computer graphics, or even this essay, I have indeed failed. There is no “A” for effort, because failure and success are what separate the second-rate from the first-rate, the eminently talented from the incompetent enthusiasts.

What has happened, however, is that the second-rate have somehow established themselves as first-rate. London native Tracey Emin has recently seen her work “My Bed” nominated for a Turner Prize, one of Britain’s most prestigious honors. The piece is no more complicated than its title. Disheveled sheets are piled atop a mattress, all of which is then surrounded by empty bottles of alcohol and smoked cigarettes. This is hardly the hallmark of genius.

At the risk of citing a passage that does my cause more harm than good, I came across the following description of Emin’s oeuvre while researching her work on http://www.artseensoho.com. I transcribe it here in full.

“A significant segment of the contemporary art public is amused by forms of Confessional Art that are almost solopsistic [sic] in their focus on the minutae [sic] and intimacy of the self. Along these lines, value is determined more by press coverage than by accomplishment. Apparently, it is possible to get attention through a titillating mix of self-assurance and self-loathing, an interplay that processes itself in autocannibalism.

“The work itself is not as interesting as the effect it has upon the public. Our prurient juices might flow, arousing entanglements of distance, desire and voyeurism. We might dismiss it outright, incredulous that such a base and brazen display gets attention as Art. We might see the work as the necessary weapon of an heroic victim, the bloodied sword of a warrior in the sex and gender wars. We might stand aside as it incites the critics to criticize and the media to mediate, thereby establishing a market value for itself. Finally, the idea of meeting her at a party might make us nervous.

“The circular track we’re on here is dizzying and disturbing: the record of an intimate yet aggressive personal display that cannot, by definition, be for sale, is presented in a gallery as saleable [sic] art objects whose only value is based upon the public fascination created by the display. Life as performance as product supporting life as performance: a highly advanced form of self-perpetuating egosystem!”

Disregarding the author’s penchant for darling phrases (e.g., “our prurient juices might flow”) and affected non sequiturs (e.g., “the idea of meeting her at a party might make us nervous”), there are some accurate observations: “value is determined more by press coverage than accomplishment” and “the work itself is not as interesting as the effect it has on the public,” to name just two. There is also another trend here. “Self” is repeated four times in three paragraphs. This is crucial in describing Emin’s work because she is unconcerned with anything other than a celebration of her own twisted problems and meager thoughts, as if her own self existed independently of anything that has happened before. Back in the late 1800s, however, Walt Whitman was already eulogizing himself as an individual among brothers, complete with his share of flaws and assets, in an extended poem. Although one Emin bio was kind enough to list Egon Schiele and Edvard Munsch as influences, there is nothing of them in her work; there is just Emin and her love-hate affair with herself. Nothing could be more boring than egocentrism.


While we are on the subject, it might be appropriate to point out that Emin, like many of her contemporaries, fancy themselves to be extremely clever in their use of the ready-made – viz. “My Bed”. But this art form was first put forward by Marcel Duchamp in 1917 with his infamous “Fountain,” a lavatory urinal he acquired from J. L. Mort Iron Works. This was as far as the Surrealist statement and the frivolous joke went. These days, it is not new. It is not funny. And anything that approaches the same is unquestionably lame and derivative.

Enter the second problem, that of ahistoricism. Emin, if she is tuned in to anything, should know that “My Bed” is nothing more than the supreme ready-made. Failing this, the critics should call her bluff. But it doesn’t happen. Much to the contrary, the piece is nominated for a Turner. Duchamp must be turning in his grave, or rather in hysterics that nearly one hundred years after “Fountain” appeared, the art world would continue to be duped by shameless amateurish imitators.

Critics who overlook the unoriginality of Emin’s work have billed her brand – and I use “brand” instead of “genre” or “style” – of art as confessional. As I see it, the only confession she is making is that she is woefully untalented. Likewise, the most telling aspect of Emin’s critical appeal is a photograph taken by Tony Harris for the L.A. Times. Eighteen critics have gathered around the piece in a variety of modish poses, each dressed completely in black. Is this urban fashion show indicative of the superficial critical climate that allows art like Emin’s to flourish?


One of Emin’s peers is Damien Hirst, no stranger to those inside and outside the art world for, among other publicity stunts, his animal corpses sealed in vitrines, for example the shelves of fish entitled “Isolated Elements Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purposes of Understanding (1991)” and the lone sheep entitled “Away from the Flock (1994).”

To borrow a theory I first came across in Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, the society in which we find ourselves today rejects anything that cannot be immediately understood. One need only look at the newest season of television sitcoms or the latest Hollywood blockbuster for proof. The same, sadly, can be found in art. In the work of Emin and Hirst, there is no idea or premise and consequently there is no execution of such. The object is nothing more than what it is: a bed, a tent, a tank holding a dead sheep. They are calculated to provoke a reaction, not deep thought or even mild musing. Today’s art might be superficially memorable or unsettling or outrageous, but it does not achieve what is the primary purpose of art — that is, to reflect reality back to us, the viewers, that we might see and understand ourselves and our world in a different way. Instead the work of this particular pair has all the voyeurism of reality TV combined with all the shock of the latest celebrity scandal; in other words, it is no more than junk glorified by the attendant media buzz. The aesthetic value is nil. Worse still is the vacuity, the utter refutation of substance, posing as a form of sophistication.


Let us jump track for just a moment and look at a parallel in literature. In a June 26, 2002 article in The New Republic on the author Rick Moody, the novelist Dale Peck writes: “[readers] have long since forgotten what the modernist and postmodernist assaults on linearity were actually about, and as such have lost the ability to tell the difference between ambiguity and inscrutability, ambition and bombast; of writers who are taken at face value when they are being ironic and who are deemed ironic when they are telling it straight – assuming, of course, that they themselves know the difference. Assuming, I should add, that they actually have a subject.”

Substitute “viewers” for “readers” and “artists” for “writers” and you will have the same argument as it applies to visual art. What we are witnessing is a move toward a sensationalized form of arts and crafts, the kind you might find laid out on a table by old women and bearded men in overalls down at the local flea market. To my mind, there is little difference between Hirst’s embalmed animals or a fossil preserved in amber; or Emin’s bed and the seashell lamp at your senile aunt’s house. Finally, if they are indeed being ironic, then why do so many take them seriously?

So far I have confined my scope to artists from the UK, but I should take the time to add that the situation in the US is no different. Take, for instance, the “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art” exhibition at The Jewish Museum in New York, which has been the subject of some justifiable public outrage. Although it is hard to single out which object is the most tasteless, one piece from the exhibition has the misfortune of being both tasteless and vapid: Tom Sachs’ “Giftgas Giftset,” a collection of three Zyklon-B canisters with brand-name logos from Tiffany, Hermès, and Chanel on the label. To add the insult of stupidity to the injury of vulgarity, Sachs has the audacity to write: “Fashion, like fascism, is about the loss of identity • Fashion is good when it helps you look sexy, but it’s bad when it makes you feel stupid or fat because you don’t have a Gucci dog bowl and your best friend has one.” As one TLS reviewer wrote in response, “It is not fashion alone that should be making Mr Sachs feel stupid.”

Like the rest of his co-exhibitors, Sachs misses the gravity of Nazism and the Shoah entirely. To compare Hitler and the evils of genocide to shopping at the downtown mall seems to belie a misunderstanding about the horror of Nazi Germany. His talk about “bad” and “good” also seems to me a puerile way of looking at the world, as if it were governed by a Manichean black-and-white dualism. Yet it doesn’t take only the artist to see that life’s chromatic scale is far greater, and to know that art ought to present it to us in full color and in two as well as three dimensions.

To refute the egalitarian mentality as it concerns art, it is necessary to regard it as a highly selective undertaking in which the status is conferred only upon those who have something to say and are able to say it well. One does not simply declare oneself an artist any more than one can declare oneself a fireman, a nurse or a lawyer. Even with hard work, innate talent and the realization of both a method and style, there will still be art that succeeds and art that does not, and success is never guaranteed. Furthermore, by creating art, one pits oneself against all that has gone before and all that exists and all that will be. True, art is in constant dialogue with itself, but there is a clear division between acknowledging other art and artists and unabashedly stealing their ideas. If critics and buyers approach this profession bearing these facts in mind, I am certain that poseurs like Emin and Hirst will wither away and soon disappear. As a first step, I suggest that we address this new breed accurately. They are fabricators. And their output is mere fabrication. Proper art is something much more profound and far more graceful indeed.

My only regret in writing this essay is the amount of material I was forced to leave out in order to keep it to a reasonable length. It is only too tempting for me to explain why David Hockney and Lucian Freud are the two remaining exponents of a legitimate art culture, and how artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were a godsend to the untalented. I also didn’t find time to include the anecdote about the line of sand running down a flight of stairs that was almost swept up by the night janitor. But the artists I have included are here for a reason, as I see them as the persons responsible for trivializing art as a whole and, in turn, their status as artists. Now the Huns have stormed the gates, admitting graffiti and painting elephants and superhero comic books and so on, ad nauseum.

While Saatchi’s gruesome discovery was not forensic evidence of a murder in the conventional sense of the word, it is an uncomfortable reminder of an analogous trend. What Quinn, Saatchi, The Tate, Emin, Hirst and the “Jelly” group collectively represent is, on a larger scale, the systematic murdering of art, supplanting its beauty, its poignancy and its relevance with mere appearance. From the way things look right now, I fear that it will take nothing short of a miracle to bring it back. ◼

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