Art with a Capital F

 by Mary Jackson (August 2008)

Once or twice I have gone along to a “Sing-it-yourself Messiah”. The drill is as it sounds: you go to a public building of some kind, usually a Church, but sometimes a theatre or concert hall; you bring your own score of Handel’s Messiah, pick a part and – you’ve guessed it – sing it yourself. Same drill with Sing-along-a-Sound-of-Music by the lake near Kenwood House. You turn up, and you sing. Usually you pay, and the proceeds go to charity. All good fun.  

Now suppose you attended, as I did last Christmas, a performance of Handel’s Messiah at London’s Barbican Hall. Expecting to hear The Sixteen, conducted by its founder Harry Christopher, you find that the stage is empty, there is a photocopied score on your seat, a CD stands in for the orchestra, and you must “sing it yourself”. That wouldn’t be fun at all. And even if it were, would it be art?

When did modern artists get so lazy? Tracey Emin is famous for not making her bed. Martin Creed, of whom more shortly, is famous for not getting his light switch fixed. And then there was Yoko Ono and her painting party:

Ono is also exhibiting new works called Add Colour Paintings — white panels that visitors can finish with the paints and brushes provided.

Suppose Michelangelo had said (in Italian) “That ceiling’s a pain in the neck,” and got some of his mates to help out? You’d see the join, that’s for sure, and perhaps rather too much of the ceiling would be in “metrosexual” pink or eau-de-nil. And suppose Leonardo had said, “I’ll do the hair, but I’m not good at mouths”? Then again, perhaps he did.

Martin Creed, of dodgy light switch fame, has certainly mastered the modern “conceptual” art of delegation. In fact he’s got a whole army of runners working for him. From The Times:

When Martin Creed won the Turner Prize six years ago, visitors to his exhibition at Tate Britain could have been forgiven for thinking that one of the galleries had faulty electrics.

The artist had arranged for the lights in an empty room to flicker on and off every five seconds, but the white-walled space was as bare as the emperor in his new clothes, and only an exhibition label revealed the presence of a work of art.

The gallery announced yesterday that it was commissioning a new work from the artist, something to fill its sprawling 300ft-long (90m) Duveen sculpture galleries — or not, in Creed’s case.

The Telegraph provides an update:

The artist’s new installation, Work No 850, consists of a runner sprinting the length of Tate Britain’s neo-classical sculpture galleries.

Every 30 seconds between 10am and 6pm, an athlete will make the 86-metre dash from one end to the other – for four months.

Tate visitors are strongly advised to look both ways before crossing the hall, although a high speed collision between a runner and a member of the public could perhaps constitute an artwork all of its own.

For anyone struggling to see the artistic significance of the work, Creed was on hand at the unveiling to explain all.

Running, he said sagely, “is an example of not standing still”.

Sage butters no parsnips: others are doing the running. Sorry, Martin, that’s just bone-idle. Say what you like about Tracey Emin’s unmade bed – at least she didn’t make it herself.

This is an artist who is no stranger to controversy. He made his name by scrunching up a sheet of A4 paper into a ball, above, attaching a blob of Blu-Tack to a wall and placing a few tiles next to a lavatory. His work — which sells for up to £100,000 — is about the qualities of “nothing”, the artist has said. He makes “things” rather than “art”, as he puts it.

Except he doesn’t. He gets other people to make “things” for him.

News of his Turner Prize win divided the art world, with some critics saying that the work left them in the dark and others praising his subversive wit.

While David Lee, the editor of the satirical art magazine The Jackdaw, said that “a light being switched on and off is not a good work of art”, Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times’s art critic, hoped that Creed would win. “His flickering installation may mean everything or nothing,” she wrote.

Well, which is it? Everything or nothing? Damn nothing or damn all? I can’t make my mind up. But here’s an idea – I’ll get someone else to make it up for me, and call it art. 


For sheer laziness, Work No 850 can’t hold a candle to Work No 401. (What happened to Works 402 through 849?) Holding a candle to Work 401 is, in any case, ill-advised. From The Times:

CURATORS defended their decision to include a tape of flatulent noises as part of the rehang of Tate Modern yesterday, despite complaints from staff that it drives them mad.

Martin Creed’s Work No 401 is a recording of nine minutes of the artist blowing raspberries into a microphone, which is played back on a loop. It can be heard throughout the new Material Gestures wing, which contains works by Claude Monet and Mark Rothko.

Vicente Todoli, the Director of Tate Modern, said that Work No 401 was a case of art reflecting life. “This kind of acoustic — you hear it every day of your life,” he said. “This is not a cathedral with the relics of a saint in which you’re supposed to kneel down in front of it.”

Frances Morris, the permanent collections curator at Tate Modern, said that she expected Creed’s tape to draw ridicule. “Many of these great works of art were originally deliberately provocative and were met with utter derision. We wanted to rough it up a bit and keep it like real life.”

This is art with a capital F. Creed should combine the flatulence concept with his dodgy light theme and bring in a gas ring with an intermittent flame. The work – call it “Fanny By Gaslight” – could be explosive. At bottom, failing to control your flatulence is about as lazy as you can get, trumped only by listening to a tape recording of that failure. The least Creed could have done was to try to pass it off as real.

I’m not sure what “conceptual” means in the context of art. From what I’ve seen of it, it seems to mean bad, boring, lazy, possibly smelly – and above all cheap. Cheap to produce, that is, not to buy. How much does it cost not to make a bed? And Creed of the faulty light switch actually saved money by not getting it fixed. Another artist, Simon Starling, saved the cost of a boat by combining it with a shed. As for the flatulence, this comes free if anything does, although you may have to factor in the price of a curry.

Conceptual art may be twaddle, but it is democratic twaddle: theoretically it is open to anyone with a lazy disposition and a functioning digestive system.

Damien Hirst doesn’t like the cheapskate upstarts getting in on the act. Recently he tried to price them out of the market with a diamond-encrusted skull:

Getting your hands on a skull is easy enough. Skulls are ten a penny. I’ve got one of my own, although it’s in use at the moment. But all those diamonds are another matter. How can a poor conceptual artist compete? Is he allowed to use costume jewellery instead, or better still marbles? Now there’s a thought. A skull with the marbles on the outside. Surely a metaphor for our time.

The Telegraph commented that death sells:

Would you spend £50 million on a platinum skull encrusted with 8,601 diamonds? If so, Damien Hirst might like your telephone number, for the object, called For the Love of God, has just been bought from him by a consortium of which he himself is a member, and it is still for sale.

As with a garage bill, it is interesting to see the breakdown. Materials cost about £10 million, labour a few thousand. The rest is profit. If the skull were made of cheese, it would only cost about £40 million. Unlike cheese – or sharks – diamonds do at least endure.

The £40 million profit is the price of Damien Hirst’s inspiration. He did not make the object, nor is he capable of doing so. You could always get a craftsman to run you up another for £10 million. Or you could commission an effigy of Damien Hirst, say, composed of 8,601 gold dollars. The title? In Art We Trust.

“In Art We Trust” is a good title, but can we trust in art? Can an artist’s reputation remain watertight? An alarming story from The Telegraph a few months ago suggests not:

Damien Hirst has established a permanent place in the annals of art history. But some of his work is proving to be less long-lasting.

One of his bisected and pickled cows has sprung a leak and is undergoing emergency repairs amid growing worries about the integrity of the work produced by modern artists, The Art Newspaper revealed yesterday.

Staff at Oslo’s Museum of Modern Art were alarmed when formaldehyde started dripping out of one of the four glass tanks containing parts of sliced cow and calf that make up one of his most famous works, Mother and Child Divided (1993), a piece that helped him win the Turner Prize.

All four glass cases have had to be returned to Hirst’s studio in this country and Oslo, which says that Mother and Child Divided is its most popular work with visitors, does not expect repairs to be complete until next year.

Last year Hirst’s famous preserved shark – which goes under the title The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – was found to be rotting soon after it was bought by the billionaire American hedge fund investor Steve Cohen from Charles Saatchi for a reported £6.5 million.

Perhaps such accidents are an occupational hazard for conceptual artists. Unlike paint or clay, your material can turn against you: a light can stay off in a power cut; a well-intentioned cleaner can make the bed; or a tank can leak. But do not despair, Damien – simply make the leak part of the art. The leaky tank and rotting meat can conceptualise man’s failure to conceptualise within his own conceptual framework. You can charge double for it.

News just in: someone threw up all over Jackson Pollock’s “drip” picture, which was bought for $140 million last year.

It’s now worth $280 million.

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Mary Jackson contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.



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