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GIVING AWAY THE COMMON SEAMUS NOLAN’S DOCKS TOURS

2008 Tim Stott
… I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into today, and you may have the antique and future worlds.

Ralph W. Emerson, ‘The American Scholar’, 1837

I never had chance to listen to Mr Michael McCarthy, the ex-docker employed by Seamus Nolan to conduct horse-drawn tours of Cork’s docklands last autumn. I hear that Mr McCarthy did not always hold court with grand tales as he drove his passengers through the area, that occasionally he seemed rather to hold something back, making his exchanges opaque, sometimes abrupt; ambiguous, at the very least. Although the greater part of passengers appear to have thoroughly enjoyed their time in the company of Mr McCarthy, some were bound to be disappointed, especially if they brought with them expectations of a familiar, if perhaps more personable, version of the guided heritage tour. Whatever the quality of the exchanges between passengers and guide, whatever the dynamics of their performance before one another, we who were not party to these local and short-lived conversations know only further tales, recounted afterwards, no more nor less trustworthy than tales generally are. Docks Tours turns upon the complexity of such primary conversations, even on those occasions when they are lacking – the quality of the work is indexed to the quality of conversation – yet it makes no attempt to represent them.

Establishing a frame to facilitate conversation is widespread across collaborative arts practices. As Grant Kester notes, artists are now required more to provide context than content. Once judgement no longer has its locus provided by a physical object, it moves to ‘the condition and character of dialogical exchange itself,’ entailing a shift in an artist’s role to one who is now required to listen, to open his or herself to ‘dependence and intersubjective vulnerability,’ to ‘exchange territories,’ to work in the interstices between participants, and to engage in, or encourage in others, non-competitive forms of exchange.

As he frames a section of the everyday life of Cork city, Nolan demonstrates with admirable astuteness and economy the skill of providing a context and setting something aside for the playing out of exemplary problems. Unlike most of those artists advocated by Kester, however, Nolan does not employ conversation towards the realisation of projects of reconciliation, problem resolution, or the representation of marginal and otherwise unheard voices. Strictly speaking, Nolan does not employ conversation at all. With Docks Tours, conversations remain an obscure and possibly duplicitous figure at the core of the work. Although they are framed and staged to some degree, the exchanges between passengers and guide are not made more transparent or more accountable, and they return significantly little to the discourse of urban regeneration that seeks mobile and spectacular representations of a city renewing itself.

Less than a sceptical assertion of some unintelligible absence at the heart of conversation, we find with Docks Tours something that almost reads as a tactic, a modest but firm refusal either to provide significant cultural content to a city developing its commodity status or to reproduce the social relationship that facilitates this development. For there is something ineradicably tricky about these tours, something that Nolan aptly describes as genuinely inauthentic, especially if they are understood for what they appear to be: a personal account of a vanishing common world. An authenticity imagined to be lost has no currency in this recursive telling of tales, despite the high premium that it otherwise might acquire in the regeneration process. All that is lost is the performance that tells a tale, a performance then mourned, reiterated and displaced in the tale-telling of others.

So, to describe Nolan’s work as an extraordinary gift, as John Kelly does in his review of it, is to hear only half the story. Nolan gives what is already held in common, something which is not really his to give and which he exercises no proprietal rights over – the telling of tales. What is truly extraordinary about Nolan’s gift is that he discloses what is, like the purloined letter, hidden in plain view: namely, that throughout this everyday tale-telling the legitimacy and possibility of the past and future are at every moment open to thought.

Giving is not without its problems, its debts and promises. As a commissioned artist, as one who can give, Nolan does not ignore his situation. In any number of ways, economic and cultural relations are at stake in the perceptual and aesthetic management of an area preparing for or undergoing regeneration, and Docks Tours is no exception. Between Nolan and Mr McCarthy the relation is one of management to labour; after all, a party is being paid (with the carriage used for the tours) to perform. Yet, as is so rarely the case, this is, let us say, management without direction. In particular, Mr McCarthy is allowed to retain the political dignity of withdrawing wholly or in part the performance of his labour from this agreement without forfeiting it, by choosing to remain uncommunicative or else by controlling the release of information, whether real or imagined, into the conversation. Also, Mr McCarthy does not receive a wage for his troubles, but instead keeps the material means that make his performance possible – the carriage, in other words.

The relationship here, then, although it mimics the predominant model of short-term, project-based immaterial labour, significantly differs from this model in at least two ways. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, Mr McCarthy is not required to make accountable his decisions as a performer and nor is he required to invest his own subjectivity in preparations for the spectacular reworking of the docklands’ past. The only stipulation made by Nolan concerning the conversations to take place during the tours was that Mr McCarthy could discuss the artwork but was to give no clear answer as to its meaning, its form, or his own possible role within it. Other than that, the only demands made of him were those of his passengers. Secondly, and modestly (how could it be otherwise?), in payment for his labour the potential for continued performance passes fully into Mr McCarthy’s possession, for him to exercise or not as he sees fit: his decision is not to be forced nor pre-empted even by the admittedly loose contractual conditions of the initial work. In this way, the work and the capacity to work passes into common hands.

One of Nolan’s primary concerns, it seems to me, is to approach and remain near, if only for a short period of time, to the uneventful richness of the common – what is at stake in it and what is hidden in it by its very ordinariness. The question to be faced each time is: how does one interpret this ordinariness without claiming mastery of it, without looking to have the final word on its meaning or value? In other words: how does one outwit the hero in oneself and in others, the hero being, as Barthes describes it, the one who makes a scene; the one who ‘has the last word’? And perhaps to do this, finally, one must cheat, however slightly, whether as artist or guide, with the licence that one is given.


References

Barthes, R. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, translated by Richard Howard, Cape, London, 1979
Cavell, S. ‘The Ordinary as the Uneventful (A Note on the Annales Historians)’ in Themes Out of School: Effects and Causes, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1984
Cavell, S. ‘The Uncanniness of the Ordinary’ in In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Scepticism and Romanticism, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1988
Kester, G. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2004
Kelly, J. ‘The Spectacle of Expectation in Public,’ Circa online, 2008
http://www.recirca.com/articles/2008/texts/docks.shtml

Posted By: Tim Stott (78.152.245.88)

Review: Frequency at the Hugh Lane

Frequency: Mark Garry, Padraig Timoney, Hayley Tompkins
Hugh Lane Gallery, 26th February 2009 to 17th May 2009 

By Hilary Murray

Frequency: Mark Garry, Pádraig Timoney, Hayley Tompkins
Hugh Lane Gallery, 26th February 2009 to 17th May 2009 By Hilary Murray 

We are told this exhibition deals with the examination of the disparate nature and frequency of life. This is immediately evident when we notice the eclectic quality of the artists involved. Hayley Tompkins examines the minutiae of life through a suite of delicate, subtle works that take time to examine. By contrast Mark Garry and Pádraig Timoney play by their own rules, extravagantly moulding life about them. This is not a negative factor in the exhibit. Curator Michael Dempsey adeptly taps into the multi-frequency of art today and the contrasting canonical singular resolve of the art institution. Playing on the variability and multiplicity of each artist, Dempsey shows us the intimate nature of the world and the awesomeness of its possibilities. Tomkins has created works in response to the other pieces on show and works as the antithesis to much of the later work by Garry and Timoney. Mixed media works such as Variations (2008) examine the fragmentary nature of life in the 21st Century. Shards of metal inscribe a scarification upon the piece, while remnants of forcibly removed segments remain as scabs. Tomkin’s paintings exhibit the remains of a very modern battle. Bolts serve as bullet holes on the block surfaces, each piece scrubbed over with a metallic sheen, garish in its odd placement, connotations of industrial struggle and tank warfare abound. These works speak to our continual struggle with and reliance upon materiality, the sheen of metal reminiscent of hard cash. Photos remain as ripped edges, a humanity lost to metallurgy, the ancient alchemical rub showing through. Tompkin’s sculptural works are delicate yet powerful in message. Metabuilt (2009), consists of a twig crudely adorned with tiny images of everyday life, a T.V, with rabbit ears atop perched at one end (image above). The world seems to be miniaturised. The images though attached seem flimsy and likely to fall of the tiny twig. Is Tomkins suggesting our attachment to modernity is frivolous? Is this a divining rod for technological advancement? Tomkins also shows a filmic piece Interstice 2008, (4min) which examines the sublime nature of a life viewed through the artist’s eye. Minimalist structures evanesce on screen created by what appears to shots of techno-hardware. The blinking of an artificial life made beautiful, it’s all a matter of how one sees things. A Kantian pure judgment of beauty resonates though the work. The theme of resolution through art and nature resounds within the entire installation.

Mark Garry’s This is About You (2007) details three works. A diminutive sketch in pencil of a tree, an installation made up of different coloured threads, converging and diverging at three main points upon the gallery wall and a grounded sculptural piece. The threaded work refracts light off the angles of the ceiling, bringing the environment into sharp focus. The threads acting as light seems to funnel the exterior light from the gallery window into the space, refracting off the walls. One is conscious of the space outside in relation to the interior. Moving through the piece and under the work we become incorporated into the work, implicit to the creation of art. Garry seems to ideologically diverge from Tomkins in this respect. The focus here is on the Bergsonian body. The properties of colour are acknowledged, coming together at concentrated points the threads remind us of the power of colour. At other points the threads diverge so far as to appear white against the backdrop of the gallery wall. When interacting with this piece, by moving under it to access the next gallery one is reminded of the power of nature. The rainbow creates an oscillatory effect implying a learning process within. The natural resonator that is light becoming elemental resonates well with the solidity of forms witnessed in the first two rooms. The irony of light and exuberance hitting the white wall of the gallery and becoming absorbed insinuates a wry smile on the face of the artist in relation to the white cube. The enlarged origami swan sculpture is anachronistic in its solid portrayal of the ephemeral.

A multitude of disparate works by Pádraig Timoney fill two rooms within the exhibit. Deliberately varied, mingling painting, sculpture, photography and mixed media works, Timoney creates the ideal guerrilla artist statement – as much as one can in the confines of the gallery. Please Touch (2007), a work made of peuter and aluminium displaying a clenched golden fist pushing into the gallery space. Above the fist, ‘Please Touch’ sheens in etched metal letters. One doesn’t know whether to take him at his word and touch the clenched fist or to defer to gallery practice and ignore. The material here is unavoidable and the uncanny hand does make one shrink from being near it in fear of it actually grasping for you. The illusionistic lettering confuses and illustrates the uncertainty of aesthetic judgement alone. Is the link between the eye and the brain to be trusted? In this respect the judgment of art is being examined in each of the artist’s work. Timoney has many untitled pieces throughout described only through the referencing of material. This illustrates the metanarrative of the exhibit. Like Garry, Timoney references the frequencies of nature and how they can be altered upon dissemination. A painting split in two, one side depicting a ship, the other a confused referencing of the ship, where the paint appears to have been allowed run around the canvas, the controlled hand of the artist has given way to the rule of material. My favourite piece of Timoney’s work is a pottery bird anchored by the heavy weight of a part-munched, giant gob-stopper. This piece, hilarious in its absurdity, forebodes a loss of innocence. For Timoney I feel art is a constant investigation, a play that should not be made formulaic and as such his works feel uneasy within the gallery space.

I found myself eager to see more of Mark Garry’s work and the final room did not disappoint. Two sculptural works make up Logic and its Associates (2009). The first being two componiums affixed to the handles of what looks like an antiquated hardwood treadmill. We are told each music box affixed to what look like the handles of the treadmill represent the head and the heart. The cut-out dots that move through the mechanism creating the music as the cog turns follows a pattern associated with wave readings taken from the brain and the heart. Thus both machines produce concurrent heart and brain rhythms, and actually when played in tandem the music created is quite harmonious. The monumental importance of the body-as-whole is referenced. One imagines the componiums ticking away as we frantically walk, though the thread of paper running through them is already well used, hole-punched into near oblivion. The second piece is Calderesque in its mobile simplicity, though this piece is stationary, affixed to the wall and reminiscent of a sun-dial. Light once again is referenced in Garry’s work. We are told this piece represents a leaf, the notion of a scientific sensibility within nature is implied. The Naturalist ideal is implicit; ‘all basic truths are truths of nature’. Of course Naturalism also proposes that methods of science should be used in philosophy, the artist appears to suggest we embrace the scientific manner of nature. One leaves the exhibit hopeful of what nature holds and the possibilities imbued within it. Our evolution through the elemental resounds within the viewer and we feel refreshed through the experience of coming through the exhibition. The show questions the forces of acoustics, oscillations and the frequencies that permeate our everyday existence. We are reminded that life would be impossible without the resonating hum of frequencies that make up our world. The artists here demonstrate that to remain in harmony with the frequency of nature is ultimately a matter of survival.

Posted By: Declan Long (87.198.195.156)  Date: 03/16/2009 9:56 pm

Writing: Hacking through art

Writing about art for a non-specialist audience is work, not play, and work means you’re not in control.
Written in October 2008
Journalists are not historians—it is not the reporter’s job to do anything other than to nail a story, and preferably be the first person to do so. This may seem like a fairly banal point, but from the perspective of a working journalist it is vital.

A journalist’s work may, at some unknown point in the future, become source material for historians but to approach journalism from this standpoint—that it is somehow ‘the first draft of history’—is not only unbearably pompous, it also ignores the simple, day-to-day reality of life in a newsroom. There are many pressures on a working journalist, editorial, commercial and ideological, and the most significant of these is arguably the simple fact that few journalists are truly independent, no matter how much they flatter themselves that they are. As the legendary American reporter I.F. Stone argued: “Reporters tend to be absorbed by the bureaucracies they cover […] Should a reporter resist this pressure there are many ways to get rid of him.” (Stone, 2006) Platitudes such as ‘journalism is the first draft of history’ serve to obscure more than illuminate—hardly surprising coming from an industry that worships an organ with the Puritanical slogan ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ slapped all-over its masthead[1].

Still, journalism exists and it is practised by journalists—and, like them, we must deal with the world as it is, not how we would like it to be. So long as journalism continues to resist the ‘professionalisation’ of the trade—something it is doing with greater success in Britain than in Ireland which seems determined to follow the United States down the road of churning-out ever greater numbers of over-educated and over-cautious reporters—then the newspaper art critic will be left to write today’s review, tomorrow’s fish-wrapper, and be all the better for it. Make no mistake: whatever his or her personal, educational or professional background, a newspaper or magazine’s art critic is a journalist and works under the same pressures as the rest of the galley slaves in the newsroom, no matter how high-minded their particular beat.[2]

To some degree the above serves to let academic critics off the hook: why bother referencing ‘popular’ criticism if it is not of historical significance? On the other hand, as lightweight and ephemeral as journalism may be, at least it is engaged with the world in two key ways: firstly, it is about something and secondly, it is actively consumed—and consumed by a disinterested and wide public. Both things that may be harder to argue about academic criticism. As low as the stakes are in today’s brave new media—and low they are—journalists remain circumscribed by their inky old sphere of production and are therefore less free to engage in ‘bollocksology’ than critics, for example, on the payroll of artists, curators or galleries. Nevertheless, one can clearly see trends in journalistic art criticism mirroring changes in both academic circles and wider journalistic practice.

In the academy there is significant evidence pointing toward a retreat from the universal sphere, perhaps even a retreat from education itself. In 2003 Britain’s then-education secretary, Charles Clarke, agued that the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake was “a bit dodgy.” This from a man who’s stated goal was to enrol a full half of Britain’s school-children in universities. (BBC reporter, 2003) This apparent contradiction poses the question: what do Clarke and the rest of the establishment think education is for? The answer is not an edifying one.

Instead of pursing knowledge for its own sake, today higher education is more often than not framed in terms of ‘relevance’, that is, how it relates to the ‘real world’. (Parkin, 2003) So, what ‘relevance’ actually means is instrumentalisation, something Clarke went a long way toward admitting when he further stated that students “need a relationship with the workplace”. (BBC reporter, 2003)

This is a long way from Einstein’s famous remark: “The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice and the desire for personal these are the features of the Jewish tradition which make me thank my stars that I belong to it.” Einstein, not exactly an intellectual lightweight, could see a value in knowledge where the authorities see only information, which may or may not be of commercial value.

This is neither the time nor place to fully examine why such a phenomenon has occurred but one may make a convincing argument noting the redefinition of education—particularly higher education—as a form of training, the commodification and ‘consumerisation’ of education driven by the retreat of the public sphere and, more broadly, the assault on truth driven by discourse from the post-modernists and deconstructionists onwards. I would argue that the latter has facilitated the former two.

Central to all of the above is a collapse of meaning and an attendant loss of nerve in the face of this. Interestingly, in Denys Arcand’s 1986 film, Le Déclin de l’empire américain, a group of cynical, spoilt, soixant-huitard university professors lament that the realisation post-1956 that the Soviet Union was not paradise on earth resulted in the foreclosure of our dreams of human emancipation. In many ways this is a cogent and honest description of the hole at the heart of ‘radical’ post-modernism and deconstruction. This feeling was doubtlessly accelerated by the Prague Spring of 1968 and the eventual toppling of the Berlin Wall in 1989—Hungary 1956 and the ‘Secret Speech’ for slow learners.

The collapse of the left’s belief in itself and, more importantly, not only in the putative agents of radical change (the working class) but also in the very desirability of change itself, is the key issue at hand. On the right, meanwhile, so much energy was expended ‘proving’ that change was negative—surely the conservative’s very raison d’être—went a long way toward undermining the popular capitalism that was posited as the alternative to socialism.

(It is perhaps uncontroversial to argue that people who work in the arts and media tend to be of a liberal or even left-wing persuasion. As documentary filmmaker Martin Durkan noted: “Exposing that a journalist has a Marxist background is like exposing that he wears trousers.” (O’Neill, 2007) However, exactly what one might mean by either of those terms is increasingly difficult to pin down.)

Nevertheless, the emergence of deconstructivist and post-modernist discourses and their subsequent colonisation of large sections of the arts and humanities had the effect of copper-fastening this ‘pessimism of the intellect(uals)’. The effect of this on academic art criticism seems to be to lower the stakes to such a point that neither the art nor the criticism matters.

In the journalistic sphere the collapse of meaning is even more striking, if harder to divine in the first instance. In previous eras, newspapers (and the wider news media) served a specific function: to inform in order to allow the subject to act. This was played-out not only in the opinion pages (the division of newspapers into news and opinion is largely a twentieth century device) but also in the ideology that underscores any given newspaper’s reporting of events—or lack thereof. (The above is not to say, however, that any given news outlet is necessarily open in its allegiances. Note, for example, that amid the Guardian’s orgy of self-congratulation at publishing it’s 50,000th edition in 2007, commentator Murray Macdonald pointed out that the newspaper had been on the wrong side of the barricades during every almost significant political battle during its existence, from universal suffrage, through the Irish question, to Britain’s wars of adventure overseas.) (Macdonald, 2007)

Today, the space for serious discussion of ideas is shrinking just as the newspapers themselves expand blancmange-like to consume more and more of our kitchen tables.

Nonetheless, whatever its deficiencies, up until the 1980s, arguably until the David Hillman redesign of the Guardian in 1988—though Hillman himself, a graphic designer, is not to blame—the daily newspaper was principally a vehicle for understanding the world in Enlightenment terms. Today’s daily newspaper is increasingly magazine-like in both its objectives and its form. (Walsh, 2007)

Andrew Calcutt, professor of journalism at the University of East London, posits that this breakdown in meaning for journalism has actually resulted in some of journalism’s most high-profile failures in recent years:

Indeed it is likely that the sustained outbreak of media professionals ‘chancing it’ – from Jason [sic] Blair on the New York Times to RDF, the BBC and ‘Crowngate’ (when British viewers would have gained the erroneous impression that the Queen had rowed with photographer Annie Leibowitz), is not simply a problem of personal integrity in the moral sense, but is better understood as a problem of disintegration in the absence of organising principles such as objectivity. In other words, the source of what appears as a moral problem is that media and the people working in them do not currently have an integrated account of what they are for, hence they tend to lack ‘integrity’ (in the sense of coherence) in what they do.  (Calcutt, 2008)

(The antecedents for this shift are the work of Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe, the ‘New Journalism’ of the 1960s but, again, this is not the time of place to elucidate further.)

It is no surprise, for example, that the Morning Star, the daily newspaper linked to the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), contains a regular opera column. Dreadful ‘tankies’ these superannuated Stalinists may be, but they take both culture and ideas seriously.[3] How could they not? Their objective is to change the world and in this they differ from today’s liberal-left best exemplified by the Guardian-reading, sustainability-obsessed bean-eater that has colonised the contemporary left.

Unlike our archetypal (and imaginary, I concede) dedicated Guardian-reader, at least the potentially doctrinaire can usually be relied upon to have read a book or two and though their heads are perhaps well characterised as being composed of wire-wool, the life of a political radical and outsider forces an engagement with ideas that the woolly-headed liberal really only pays lip service to. Traditionally the vehicle for that great debate has been the essentially public forum of the newspaper.

Art, and visual art in particular, may be peripheral to this (mythical) discussion about the future of society—indeed, I am in no way arguing for expressly didactic art and feel that those who wish to send messages are likely to be better served by SMS services, e-mail, or old-fashioned notes stuck the fridge than they would be by picking-up a paintbrush—it is inevitable that culture forms a significant part of the ‘battle of ideas’, so to speak.

Post-modernity in its ultimate rejection of meaning serves a useful function as an ideology that supports not only the failure of capitalism to truly universalise as Marx predicted (1996) but also the absolute inability of capitalism’s contemporary critics to articulate any alternative vision for humanity.

Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher coined the dictum ‘There is no alternative’ (Tina) [to the market economy]. Though a conservative (and indeed Conservative) such as Thatcher makes for an unlikely bedfellow with Jacques Derrida or, indeed, a typical ‘sandals and candles’ Guardian-reader (or GROLIES in medical slang) all three stand shoulder-to-shoulder in their fear of any attempt to transform our common circumstances. Or, to put it another way, it is commonplace today to believe that the path started by the Enlightenment leads directly to the gates of Aushwitz or the Gulag.

Although post-modernism and its associated discourses are clearly products of the left, their key insight was to respond to the disaggregation of working class subjectivity by rejecting the central tenets of socialism. Although this fact is shied-away from by much of the left today, it is not unknown for leftist commentators to wonder exactly what happened to the movement they were part of. As Alan Sokal put it when explaining his satirical attack on post-modernism, ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’: “I confess that I’m an unabashed Old Leftist who never quite understood how deconstruction was supposed to help the working class.” (Aronowitz, 1997)

It may seem counter-intuitive to argue, as I am, that we live in an era of media proliferation that ideas are in fact in retreat.

Today’s information-saturated world might cynically be summed-up as ‘more everything, especially the crap.’ More charitably, one might say that a higher volume of information does not necessarily mean higher standards. Indeed, few would argue that it does, but it does not necessarily follow that more means worse. The point is that there has been a levelling of expectation and this comes from the top as much as it does from the bottom: the sheer volume of media thrust in front of the reader today has a tendency to reduce the significance of the information contained in it and the media elite, the publishing and dotcom giants, are complicit in pushing more and more material before the readers just as those readers’ expectations of themselves and the information they need to possess in order to act have been reduced.

As journalist Brendan O’Neill notes: “People tend to have short attention spans [these days]; they’re constantly being tempted away to do silly things, like watch pets having accidents on YouTube or read [British Conservative politician] Iain Dale’s weblog.” (Walsh, 2008)

This very proliferation of media, both ‘official’ (the press, journals, catalogues etc.) and amateur (user-generated, YouTube, blogs, Facebook etc.) serves to not only lessen the time available to the consumer of media but also to further undermine the value of the content of media itself.

Both trends, in ‘serious’ criticism and in journalism, appear to be rooted—unsurprisingly—in the wider societal changes we have witnessed over the past few decades: the retreat from production, a decline in subjectivity, the privatisation of the political and social spheres and an increasing wariness of truth and meaning and a decline in belief in universal values.

Interestingly, within art itself one can see quasi-political trends that are well worth analysing. Does this make such an argument art critcism?

Times (of London) columnist and former editor of Living Marxism, Mick Hume, argued at the height of the ‘Cool Britannia’/’Creative Britain’ narrative eagerly promoted by the British establishment through the likes of the British Council, the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA), the Tate and even the stodgy old Royal Academy, that British art reflected a diminished view of humanity:

Where once culture could reflect the view of man as the active, self-assured, nature-conquering agent of history, now it can only show humanity as the passive, self-obsessed, fearful victim of forces beyond its control. Five hundred years ago Leonardo da Vinci dissected dead bodies with the precision of a surgeon in order to further our understanding of the human condition, and drew the perfect and beautiful ‘Universal Man’ (the one in a circle and square) as a result. Now artists hack up human and animal corpses like amateur butchers, to create monstrosities intended to depict—and even to revel in—the ugly, degraded state of our existence. (Hume, 1998, 1)

Taking Hume’s polemic at face value, one might posit that the (temporary, as it turned out) appropriation of the Young British Artists (YBAs) by New Labour was wholly appropriate not only in practical political terms (functioning as propaganda for Britain’s creativity) but also because the YBA’s degraded view of  humanity and its works was only a more radical—and crudely argued—version of New Labour’s Hobbesian distrust of human nature that later articulated itself in anti-social behaviour orders (Asbos), attempts to hold suspects in policy custody without charge for absurd amounts of time and other therapeutic-authoritarian measures.

Though this is a perfectly valid critique of the YBA phenomenon it should be noted that such an analysis is better understood as sociology of culture rather than pure culture studies or art criticism. That is, the criticism serves some instrumental value and in it art takes on the role of an avatar for broader phenomena or functions as a locus for critique.

Interestingly, since Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, generally referred to in the press as ‘the Bricks’, the Tate has functioned as a lightning rod for attacks on the ‘irrelevance’, ‘stupidity’, ‘vapidity’, ‘offensiveness’ and ‘decadence’ contemporary art. This intensified during the 1993, 1995 and 1997 Turner Prizes when Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin respectively were nominees (and in Whiteread and Hirst’s cases, winners).

The 2008 Turner Prize is now upon us so it is illuminating to look briefly at journalists’ responses to the event.

The British liberal daily, the Independent, a newspaper whose readership vies with that of the Guardian for being the most open-minded, cultured and tolerant in the land, noted recently that the Prize “never ceases to raise furious debate on what constitutes art and what should be dismissed as nonsense, yesterday proved it was not about to change the habit of a lifetime.” (Akbar, 2008). So far, so what? Articles making this uncontroversial claim about the controversial nature of contemporary art are the (former) broadsheet’s stock-in-trade response to any newsworthy occurrences in the rarefied realm of art—as is a reference to the ant-Turner Prize antics of the Stuckists and the Independent does not disappoint on this at least. However, at no point in the article is there an attempt to examine the work in any way other than simply describing it. In other words, it is reduced to the level of a hastily written breaking news story: all reportage, no analysis.

The American current affairs magazine, Newsweek, meanwhile was apparently bemused by those wacky British artists and their colourful antics:

Deuchar, the Tate Britain director, begs to differ. “Turner was highly experimental, especially in his last decade,” he says. “They thought Turner had gone mad. He was ridiculed by the critics. New art is always controversial.” And, sometimes, it is also ridiculous. (Nordland, 2008) [Emphasis mine]

This statement that art is sometimes ridiculous is the author’s parting shot and it is surprisingly empty. Those who despise the faddishness or vapidity of contemporary art will feel it vindicates their position while those who enjoy contemporary art will not be offended by it, instead arguing that much art is self-evidently ridiculous and that this is, in fact, the point. One is tempted to conclude that the author simply suffered a failure of nerve and was afraid to make a decisive judgement.

On the facing page to Newsweek’s piece on the Turner Prize, however, is a piece of criticism that is worth comparing. Under the headline ‘Designed to chill’ we find an review of an industrial and graphic design exhibition that examines design through the prism of the Cold War. (Bronwell, 2008) This article engages with the subject matter, in the form of both the actual design and the exhibition itself, much more seriously than its fine art equivalent opposite. Why should this be so? I suggest that there are two key reasons.

Firstly, it is essential to note that the design article is to some degree instrumental insofar as it uses design to talk about something else, in this case history and geopolitics. More importantly, however, design remains more firmly rooted in our culture than fine art, presumably due to its ongoing connection to production and the material world.

This is not to argue that art should be dismissed, Socialist Realist style, if it does not reflect our immediate circumstances. Rather, it is simply worth noting that the connection to real life makes the act of writing—and indeed reading—easier.

If art is increasingly isolated from experience and so are the institutions that support and frame art, and indeed, decide what is and what is not art, then the critic is left with only two options: join the party or stand outside throwing rocks in.

Moving away from the deficiencies of the press, from an individual’s point of view, the very act of criticism can be daunting. I shall give a personal example: in 2006 I was working as a design columnist for a London-based graphic design title. Out of the blue I was asked to write a piece of art criticism for a Dublin-based current affairs monthly. I agreed without thinking. Why wouldn’t I? The majority of my Ireland-bound writing at the time was less than glamorous, focussed increasingly on various technical aspects of architecture, construction and planning.

As the deadline loomed, however, I began to get nervous. I had been asked to write a review of a book of Polaroid photographs taken by the late Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. Tarkovsky is a giant—his legacy is unassailable. Who on earth was I to even comment on his image-making abilities?

Ultimately, the appropriate response to this is simply: “Tough. Suck it up!” If it’s your job, then you do it. However, it would be uncharitable, to say the least, to ignore the pressure on a critic to be, if not kind then at least to not damn. This pressure is, one can safely assume, suitably magnified when the subject is either of major (art) historical significance or simply when running into them is a real possibility. ‘Kicking against the pricks’, as the Acts of the Apostles instructs us to do, can be a tall order when then pricks in question are themselves alive and likely to kick back.

Going back to I.F. Stone’s remark that, “[R]eporters tend to be absorbed by the bureaucracies they cover […] Should a reporter resist this pressure there are many ways to get rid of him.” Surely this is as true of the academic art historian and/or theorist and indeed the artist? After all, only the bravest—or foolhardiest—turkeys vote for Christmas. Today, now that all that was intermediate has melted into confusion, perhaps we should rally them with a new slogan: “Critics of the world fight back; you have nothing to lose but your jobs.”

Posted By: Jason Walsh (87.198.195.156)


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