Here’s a link to the video explaining why Julian Spalding wrote the book:
Why you should sell your Damian Hirsts while you can.
by Julian Spalding
2nd Edition 17th May 2012
Spalding, Julian (2012-03-08). Con Art – Why you ought to sell your Damien Hirsts while you can.
Cover: Dolly the sheep (not shown)
Ian Wilmut and Keith Campbell, who cloned her, never dreamt of calling their sheep a work of art, but she was an extraordinary creation. Damien Hirst put a sheep in a case and it sold for £2.7m, though it was neither a work of art nor in any sense his creation.
What, no pictures?
How can this be a book about art when it has no illustrations? Firstly, because what it deals with is not real art, but art that is a projection of thoughts. You can’t see projected thoughts. The Emperor was dressed in the minds of his courtiers, when in reality he had nothing on. It took a little boy to point out that he was naked. I’m the little boy of contemporary art.
Secondly, illustrations are expensive. It’s not just the cost of the printing. Contemporary artists charge high reproduction fees. They want to maintain their lifestyles – which in some cases are those of the mega-rich. A fully illustrated book on this subject would be beyond the pocket of most readers, even on the web, and I’d like this book to be accessible to everyone.
Thirdly, even if I’d wanted this book to be illustrated, that wouldn’t be possible. Contemporary artists can be extremely touchy about how their ‘works’ are reproduced. In 1999 the art historian Julian Stallabrass wrote a book called High Art Lite, which essentially justifies this trivia. He maintained that ‘to praise or criticise’ this art was ‘as pointless as judging the weather.’ As if we should take any art on trust! Nevertheless, he did try to sneak in the odd gentle criticism here and there, but found that when he did so the artists and their dealers wouldn’t allow the works that he’d criticised to be illustrated. He had the strength of mind to leave a few gaps to demonstrate this censorship. It’s an unhealthy society where you can’t illustrate art you want to criticise, where you’re only allowed to be positive about everything. This is the conspiracy of consensus which dresses Emperors. If I had wanted to illustrate it, this book would be full of empty spaces, because it criticises the whole sordid shooting match.
Finally, this book isn’t illustrated because I didn’t want it to be. I don’t want to look at a picture of flies eating a putrefying corpse, or a photo of Jeff Koons buggering his wife (which he labelled Red Butt). One of the remarkable things about conceptual art is that people have produced – and, even more amazingly, have bought – work that no-one in their right mind would want to look at! Even the Tate Gallery, which bought a can of artist’s shit for £22,300 in 2000 (to celebrate the millennium), have never looked inside it to check that they got what they paid for. When they’re exhibited in galleries, works of art usually have what they’re made of described on the label: oil on canvas, watercolour on paper, bronze or marble. This exhibit is described as ‘tin can with paper wrapping with unidentified contents’. You can’t blame the Tate for not opening the tin (who would want to?), but why then did they spend public money buying shit that no one can see? The aim of this book is to answer that tantalising question.
I have coined the term ‘Con Art’ to mean contemporary conceptual art, rather than art that cons people, although all of it does, and some of it was made by con artists like Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys. Contemporary conceptual art? Did conceptual art exist before our time? Of course it did! All art is a concept in the sense that it’s the product of thought. But art must also be a creation. You have to be able to see art; it can’t just be the projection of an idea. It has often been proposed – seriously – that Damien Hirst is a greater artist than Michelangelo, because he had the idea for a shark in a tank, whereas Michelangelo didn’t come up with the idea for his David. This reveals such a paucity of understanding about what ideas, art and greatness are, that such a suggestion would be comic if it were not tragic. This book aims to tackle these subjects. The condensed truth is that all art is conceptual, but conceptual art is a con. What really separates Michelangelo from Damien Hirst is that Michelangelo was an artist and Damien Hirst isn’t.
The trouble with found objects is that you can’t tell just by looking at them what the person who put them in front of you is trying to tell you, unless he or she has altered them in some meaningful way. Nor does the mere act of placing something in an art gallery, whether it’s a stack of bricks, a bin bag or an unmade bed, automatically make it a work of art, any more than framing a canvas with paint on it automatically makes it a painting. Art can be made out of anything, as Picasso famously demonstrated when he put a bicycle saddle and handlebars together to create a bull’s head – but art has to be made.
There’s a world of difference between Picasso’s bull’s head and Hirst’s shark in a tank. And that world of difference is the world of art. In the Picasso you can see the relationship being created, the magnetic buckling together, in the sizzling heat of Picasso’s imagination, of the seat and bars of the bicycle and, by implication, the buttocks and the hands of the cyclist, to make this charging, bucking bull. And it’s not any old bull, but a black, sleek-headed one of that ancient, untamed breed still reared in Spain for fighting. All the fury, energy and sexual competitiveness of youth is here, evoking ancient initiation rites which hark back to the bull-leaping feats of Ancient Crete and beyond. All this in two found objects! The piece doesn’t need a title, and Picasso didn’t give it one. But what art can you see in a pickled shark? Hirst evidently thought its meaning needed a bit of beefing up, so he called it The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – if you’re any the wiser for that.
The collectors of con art haven’t actually been conned. That’s the cunning thing about it. Con artists don’t deceive you into thinking you’re buying something you’re not. They don’t sell you the Eiffel Tower when it’s not for sale. Nor do they sell you a sow’s ear as a silk purse. What you see is what you get. You actually buy a dead sheep – for £ 2.7 million! Hirst must be a genius to do that, you might say. But he’s not: he’s a chancer operating in a world of illusions.
It’s very tempting to see Damien Hirst as one of the many con artists who’ve prayed on the gullibility of human beings (particularly men, it must be noted) since the origin of our species. Mark Twain describes one in Huckleberry Finn. He relates how Huck falls in with a mountebank, who gets him to stick up posters around the town announcing a shock-horror, men-only show in the local hall. That night the men buy their tickets and crowd in. When the curtain opens, the mountebank crawls across the stage, stark naked but ‘painted all over, ring-streaked-and-striped, all sorts of colors, as splendid as a rainbow’. The curtain closes. That’s it. The men eventually realise that they’ve been duped and storm out, fuming, but the mountebank assures Huck that rather than admit to having been conned, they’ll tell all their friends to go and see the show. And he’s proved right.
The next night the theatre is full again, and the show is as perfunctory as before. Huck assumes his boss will want to get out of town fast, but the charlatan assures him that he knows what he’s doing. The next night the men all turn up again and buy their tickets, but this time their pockets are bulging with all manner of missiles and weapons. When the house is full and the curtain still shut, the mountebank appears at Huck’s elbow, fully dressed, and tells him that it’s time to run. If Damien Hirst and the rest of the Britart pack had been conmen, you might have expected them, having made their millions, to have done a runner by now. But they’re still there, more established, wealthier than ever, apparently invincible in their inflated eminence. Damien Hirst has been given a major retrospective at Tate Modern, during London’s Olympic year, which would have been an exceptional honour for someone still in his forties if he’d been an artist, but which is quite unaccountable for someone who isn’t. Tracey Emin has been made Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy, though she hasn’t created anything that I’ve seen that in any way qualifies as art. Faux-naïf scratches on pieces of paper aren’t necessarily drawings, especially when they mask a bad-girl mentality whose most notable inclination seems to be for masturbating with a bottle, an activity which cannot qualify, if words have retained any meaning, as an innocent form of expression. This might suggest that Hirst and Emin are the most successful con artists of all time. But that would be to seriously misjudge the situation and add an unearned gloss to their reputations. They haven’t conned the art world, because the art world is in fact in the game with them, and has been all the time.
All professions, as George Bernard Shaw remarked, are conspiracies against the public, but the contemporary art world is a conspiracy with a capital CON. Art curators have got into bed with art dealers, art critics and artists to create something to sell to the public which isn’t art at all. The extraordinary thing is that they mean well, and believe in what they do. In pushing their products they’re not trying to con people, but actually think they’re acting in the public’s own interest! The widely-held belief that the story of modern art has been a triumphant march against popular opinion is the main reason why the contemporary art world has been able to enclose itself in a transparent but impenetrable wall of self-interest. The public can peer in to watch its antics, but the more they criticise what’s going on in this bizarre world, the more those within it feel justified in what they’re doing, and the more bizarre their antics become.
This book isn’t trying to change the art market. Would that it could! This exclusive sales area is obnoxiously opaque and totally unregulated. You don’t need any qualifications to become an art dealer. It is more than potentially corrupt, and the sums of money that pass through it are obscene. It operates a self-interested but chimerical ring that is illegal in intention, but extremely difficult to pin down. Most of its activities should ideally be outlawed, but sadly we live in a world that is far from ideal. My aim here is less ambitious: I just want to see clearly what this market is selling. But before we can determine whether a work of art is any good or not, we have to determine whether or not it’s a work of art at all. The main aim of this book is to show that Damien Hirst’s preserved shark, to take one example, is not only not worth the $ 12 million that Steve Cohen, the owner of SAC Capital Advisors, paid for it. It isn’t worth a cent, not because it isn’t great art, but because it isn’t art at all. To understand why it isn’t, and why so many have thought that it is, we have to unpack a few of the myths that have clothed the Emperor in his nonexistent robes.
The Myth of the Shock of the New
If you say you can’t see anything artistic in a vacuum cleaner put in a showcase, in a light going on and off in an empty room, or in a used tampon – all examples of con art – those in the know in the art world will either dismiss you as a died-in-the-wool reactionary or, more kindly, say that you’ll come round to appreciating these ‘works of art’ in time. They’ll tell you that new art always shocks the public at first. If you ask why is it that other ages had their Leonardo and Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Goya, Constable and Turner, Monet and Cezanne, when we’re stuck with Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol (to name two leading con artists), they’ll cite famous examples of artists of the past who refused to compromise in the face of public derision. They’ll name Van Gogh, Picasso and Matisse. They were the avant-garde once, and look at their popularity today! You’ll come to love Beuys and Warhol in due course, they say. But this notion of ‘the shock of the new’ was a myth in the past, as it is a myth today.
The big, overarching myth is that avant-garde artists have played a key role in helping modern society to advance. The optimistic belief, hatched during the European Enlightenment, that it’s possible to advance society and, by implication, to change human nature for the better, suffered a severe and merited setback when it ended in the monstrous experiments of fascism and communism. But the hope still lingers in the idea that art is, somehow, ‘advancing’ and, by doing so, helping society as a whole to ‘advance’. Art history is still written as if artists were leading players in forging our modern age; they’re seen as heroes working at the cutting-edge, braving ridicule as they expand our horizons. The reality is that artists are, and always have been, observers, not leaders. Art is a star in the sense that it lights up our lives, not in the sense that it shows us the way. What’s more, artists always look back, rather than presuming to look forward, as they struggle to illuminate meaning in the present.
Van Gogh wasn’t looking forward to a new age when he painted his so-called revolutionary works. He was looking back. His paintings were inspired by medieval stained-glass windows and the traditional art of the Japanese woodcut, then just becoming known in the West. He liked their brilliant colours, expressive designs and bold outlines not because they were ‘modern’ but because they were attractive and popular. Van Gogh devoted his brief working life as an artist (before which he’d tried to be a priest) to painting pictures for his neighbours – the poor, not the rich – for the postman and the peasant, not for businessmen and collectors, as so-called revolutionary artists do today. But he liked these old art forms most of all for what they meant to the people who had created them; the love that had been poured into their making shone through every colour, line and shape. Van Gogh yearned for an age that had gone, when people looked at nature as a revelation of divine creation, and tried to express that religious spirit through their art. These artists hadn’t spent their time, as he thought modern scientists did, pointlessly ‘measuring the distance between the earth and the moon ’. Van Gogh resisted the whole trajectory of materialism, which was such a feature of the emerging modern age. In that sense, he was a reactionary; he wasn’t ‘modern’ at all.
Van Gogh hardly ever exhibited during his lifetime – he was too busy painting – but when he did, he immediately got a good review, and the second time, a glowing one. The critic Albert Aurier wrote about these ‘strange, intensive and feverish works’, that spring from ‘an excessive nature in which everything, beings and things, shadows and lights, forms and colours , rears up, stands up with a raging will to howl out its essential and very own song’. It’s still one of the best pieces of writing about Van Gogh. Van Gogh was most upset, and wrote to his brother on 29 April 1890: ‘Please ask Mr Aurier not to write any more articles on my painting … to begin with he is mistaken about me, then that I am really too overwhelmed by grief to be able to face publicity.’ Three months later he shot himself, partly, one has to think, because the art world was on to him.
The public never reacted against Van Gogh. Immediately they saw his work, they took it to their hearts. In 1892, two years after his death, he was referred to as a genius. The first full exhibition specifically devoted his work (a very rare honour in those days) took place in 1901. In 1924 the National Gallery in London acquired his Sunflowers to hang alongside the greatest paintings in the world – an extraordinary purchase, made only three decades after the picture was painted. It’s a myth perpetrated by the art world that Van Gogh was driven to suicide by lack of public recognition. It was his fellow artists who didn’t like his work, because he broke so many of their rules. Like all professionals, they didn’t like a member who spoke directly to the public. The public, unhampered by vested interests, had a much fresher, more open response to his work. They loved him, and with good reason, because he was a genius who painted directly for them. Van Gogh achieved what all artists of any ambition most desire – to be both popular and profound.
That was Picasso’s ambition too. It’s generally thought, by those who dislike modern art, that Picasso’s work is the main reason why art is in such a mess today. This attitude reveals a sorry misunderstanding of his extraordinary achievement. Of course Picasso could draw and paint in a representational style, and he did so often, and superbly, throughout his long life. But he also realised that this was only one way of looking at the world. The theory of evolution was becoming widely accepted by Picasso’s time. It demonstrated that appearances were, in almost all cases, superficial side effects of hidden motives. Our eyes, noses and mouths hadn’t been placed exactly where they were by God, as everyone in Christian Europe had formerly believed. We could easily have evolved with penises and vaginas on our faces. Picasso replayed evolutionary forces in his attempt to reveal to the public. The public, unhampered by vested interests, had a much fresher, more open response to his work. They loved him, and with good reason, because he was a genius who painted directly for them. Van Gogh achieved what all artists of any ambition most desire – to be both popular and profound. Picasso replayed evolutionary forces in his attempt to reveal our true natures buried beneath appearances. Hidden natures were then all around us, as Freud and Rutherford were discovering, in dreams and in atoms. Picasso’s art is part of that wider revelation. He was, in his art, being true to his times. But he was also looking back.
Nothing in Picasso’s vast oeuvre shows you what life ‘ought’ to be. It is not futuristic, but instead can best be viewed as a kaleidoscopic retrospective of the history of art. Picasso reinvented art for our times. In his hands, the whole gamut of human visual expression, from cave painting to tribal carving to Ancient Greek sculpture, dances again before our eyes in a contemporary form. This freedom to roam across past cultures wasn’t Picasso’s invention, either. Museum collectors had been doing it for a couple of centuries. And it was in museums above all in collections of African sculpture, that he discovered formal inventions which enabled him to express the hidden motivations in our nature that Freud and other contemporaries of his were writing so eloquently about.
Picasso’s art was offensive, as it still is, to all Creationists as well as many non-Christian faiths around the world, who believe that appearances are divinely ordained. It also offended, as it still does, all those who believe that art should be a civilizing, calming influence. His critics, mainly drawn from the worthy, hard-working middle classes, were naturally disturbed by the ‘primitive’ energy revealed in Picasso’s paintings, as they were by the ‘wild beast’ art of Matisse and the orgiastic rhythms of Stravinsky and Nijinsky. But his work found instant rapport with people who were more open-minded to recent discoveries, particularly in the fields of modern biology, psychology and physics. Picasso didn’t struggle for public acceptance, he always had an interested audience. He sold exceptionally well from the start. His art was innovative not because it was modernist, but because of the freedom it derived from looking back. Picasso never set out to be ‘new’ for the sake of it.
No artist tries to be new. They know that that’s one thing that they can’t help being. Everyone is unique, as is every ice crystal in a drift of snow. Individuality is one of the most extraordinary building blocks of nature, the sine qua non of evolution. In addition to individual differences, every age has its own unique zeitgeist which no one living in it can escape, no matter how hard they try. Newness, in this sense, is a given. But such newness is often fairly superficial. During their brief working lives, artists seek to excavate the deeper truths of human experience. Their ambition is to bring to the surface something that is lasting.
Artists know they can only live in their own moment, but they’re always being inspired by the work of their predecessors, which shows how brilliantly moments of living can be rendered. That’s why artists always have one eye on the past as they attempt to illuminate meaning in the present. They carve away at the cliff face of time as it unfolds in front of their eyes, their hearts and minds inspired by the achievements of artists of the past, without knowing what they’ll find, for no one can ever say that they know what the future holds. Newness in art is never a calculation: it’s always a surprise. Cubism wasn’t the illustration of a theory: it was dug up, instinctively, by Braque and Picasso, out of reality. Theory always follows on from discovery. In the case of Cubism it did so in spades.
Great art is always new, but never solely so. A better word to describe it is original, for great art always gives a fresh insight into our origins. This might surprise us, but it doesn’t shock us. The poet Apollinaire put it beautifully when he saw people laughing at Matisse’s work in 1907: ‘Surprise laughs wildly in the purity of light.’ A surprise is a very different sensation from shock. Shock is a tactic of war, it temporarily suspends our opponent’s capacity to respond as you move in for the kill. No artists want to do that, they want heightened attention freely given. Those who go out of their way to shock are not artists at all, but manipulators whose aim is to take advantage of their audience in some way. So Mark Twain’s mountebank crawls, naked and painted, across the stage.
Contrary to the assertion of the critic Robert Hughes, in his famous television series and book, no artist sets out to be new and shock. To be new and to shock is a combination of puerilities – the desire to be different welded with the determination to put others off. It ends with sticking clowns’ faces on genuine Goya prints, modelling erect penises on to Barbie dolls’ heads or urinating on a crucifix – all actual instances of con art. Such images might be shocking for those who have led a sheltered life (which is hardly possible now in the West, where pornography, vandalism and sacrilege are ubiquitous) but that doesn’t make them works of art.
It is possible, however, for art to shock and to be new without resorting to scatological nastiness. This is all the more insidious because it’s more acceptable to the public. The notorious work which came to be known as the ‘Tate Bricks’ was ‘made’ in 1966 by the American, Carl Andre. He placed some white firebricks from a builders’ merchant on a gallery floor in stacks of different dimensions, each two bricks high. Peter Schjeldahl, the American art critic who later wrote an introduction to the Saatchi Collection, described his first sighting of the bricks: ‘I entered the Tibor de Nagy Gallery and saw some bricks lying on the floor…construction in progress, I thought, and I turned to leave. Then another thought halted me: what if it is art? Scarcely daring to hope for anything so wonderful (I may have held my breath). I asked a person in the gallery [is it art?] and was assured, that, yes, this was a show of sculpture by Carl Andre. I was ecstatic. I perused the bricks with a feeling of triumph…here was an art…which, in a sense, I created… With them at my feet…I felt my awkward self-consciousness, physical and psychological…being made the focus and even the point of the experience. You can almost see the Emperor’s new clothes being sewn, poor Peter Schjeldahl’s shaky self-esteem finding, at last, a pigeon-hole to slot itself into.
The bricks were new, not just in the sense of being unused: they were new to art. No one before had done so little – stacked some bricks – and called it art. The shock came later, much to the art world’s delight, when in 1972 the Tate Gallery bought one of these stacks, called Equivalent VIII, for the princely sum of £2,297 – then twice the average annual wage. The public were outraged, not only at the cost, but at the idea that bricks could be thought of as a work of art. The Tate curators were delighted – they felt they were on the tight track, fighting the battle for avant-garde art against public ignorance. They’ve hardly ever taken these bricks off display since. They’ve become the icon of minimalism, the quintessential found object as art. Less can sometimes be more, but it can also be less, a lot less. The gutsy British abstract painter, Roger Hilton, was fond of saying that it’s not what you put in but what you leave out that matters. The bricks aren’t actually minimal because nothing has been minimalised. What’s been left out of them is art.
The Myth of the Found Object
Where did the absurd idea that a found object can be a work of art come from? If you saw an unmade bed in the street, littered with the detritus of a hopeless young woman’s chaotic and self-indulgent life, you might cheer, thinking, ‘Great, at last some parent has had the guts to throw out their impossible daughter!’ But the same bed in an art gallery is decreed to be a work of art, and one ‘made’ or more accurately unmade by Tracy Emin, was bought by Charles Saatchi in 2000 for £150,000. How can this nonsense have come about?
It seems improbable that what’s gone wrong with art can all be blamed on one man, but to a significant extent it can, though of course it takes more than a leader to make a gang. Con artists all refer to Marcel Duchamp as, if not exactly their God, then their exemplar and founder, their night in shining armour, who fought against the reactionary bourgeoisie and established for them the right to claim that any object they find can be a work of art if they say it is. And what Found Object is emblazoned on their banner as they march? A urinal, supposedly ‘made’ by Duchamp himself. But, as research has now made clear, this symbolic act of taking the piss out of art wasn’t actually his at all.
Marcel Duchamp was born into a bourgeois, artistic family in France in 1887. His elder brothers became interesting, if minor artists. Marcel tried to become a painter as well, but failed; painting wasn’t his language. It didn’t live for him. It wasn’t his artistic voice. His best-known picture, painted in 1912, of a nude walking down a staircase, is a chunking confection. It’s a self-conscious attempt to combine futurist art, time-lapse photography and Cubism – a premeditated compendium of what was avant-garde at the time, without being in any way an insight into genuine contemporary feeling. His friends weren’t impressed. Duchamp knew they were right, and gave up painting for good.
What is an ‘artistic voice’? It’s something that’s missing when you look at Duchamp’s paintings, and indeed at all con art, so it’s worth dwelling on it for a moment. We recognize an artistic voice immediately when we read a line by Jane Austin, hear a phrase of Mozart’s, or see a passage of a painting by Van Gogh. Artistic voices can be all-embracing, like Shakespeare’s, or condensed, like Vermeer’s, but they are always distinct, though what makes them distinct is often very difficult to say. Artistic voices are elusive as they are recognizable. In part, they’re an expression of the unique personalities we all have, writ large, for they permeate the whole of a work of art from its minutiae to its complete form. You can recognise a Rembrandt from a tiny detail in the brushwork as well as by glimpsing a painting by him hanging on a distant wall. Artistic personalities are, as we say of some people, ‘larger than life’.
Artistic voices are also larger than life because they give us something that we don’t get from anywhere else. We rarely listen to a friend speaking, for example, as intently as we do to an actor in a play. We get something like an artistic experience when we’re with someone we love, then we become intensely aware of tiny details about them, a slowly throbbing little artery in their wrist, a crack in the corner of their mouth, while being gloriously warmed overall by their general proximity. But this is an intimate experience that we relish in private. When we enjoy a work of art, our response is different: we feel the need to share it with others. People talk excitedly after leaving a play, concert or film they’ve enjoyed. Artistic voices are at once personal and collective. They flourish in that intangible sphere that is our shared consciousness.
Artistic voices have another attribute that is totally absent from con art, and from Duchamp’s early paintings. They have an apparent life of their own, they can appear to grow. The great Matisse retrospective in New York in 1993 was an extraordinary visual demonstration of this. Matisse didn’t step logically from representation to abstraction, as with hindsight one might have predicted. He was more like a mountaineer who thinks the ridge he sees above him is the top, but realises when he gets to it that there’s another much higher peak further up, and that the only way to get to it is to go down again and labour up the next cliff face. Time after time throughout his life, when he reached what looked like a peak of brilliant abstraction, Matisse abandoned everything and went back to drawing what he could see in front of him. Walking round the exhibition, you could repeatedly watch a new Matisse flowering before your eyes, even more brightly than the previous one. The late cut-outs didn’t spring directly from highly abstracted paintings, as one might logically expect, but from fresh drawings from life. He went back to the origins again and again. That was why his art was so original. But it was always his voice than emerged, even more Mattise-like than one could possibly anticipate. Art flowers in our imagination.
An artistic voice grows by speaking and being spoken to. That is the key to all creative development. For the remarkable attribute of a creative voice is that it enables you to have a conversation with yourself. It can only do that if it takes a form that is at once within you and external to you. That is what creating art is like for an artist – you facing yourself. You can bend the face you make in whatever way you like, even to the point of making yourself laugh. But you’ll know that you’ve struck artistic gold when in this conversation with yourself you uncover things you didn’t know. As Picasso was fond of saying, ‘If I knew what I was going to do today, why would I do it?’ What a wonderful way to live!
Now, I’m afraid we have to turn away from the high realms of real art and lower our gaze to the worms-casts thrown up by Duchamp’s subterranean deliberations. Duchamp’s life, subsequent to his failure to find a voice as a painter, was one of idleness and dissipation. He moved to the USA and spent his time hanging around the salons of rich Americans. There he played chess and the part of an enigmatic European artistic guru, who knew leading artistic figures on the continent and who could, if needed, negotiate secret, highly favourable deals on paintings, so he scratched a living.
He neither made nor exhibited works of art. The few things he did ‘create’, such as a bottle rack, a bicycle wheel perched on a stool, or an encrusted stain of semen on a patch of gauze and satin, were elaborate rebuses. They were not visual, but verbal puns – secret coded messages, comprehensible only to a tiny coterie of fellow travellers along Duchamp’s chosen, self-indulgent path, which was occult, Masonic, alchemical and probably bisexual. Duchamp did not regard his ‘readymades’ s works of art. Their function was actually to get him away from art, to enable him to ignore it as best he could. He was famously indifferent to art, to anything that was affective and subjective.
The intrinsic and intended incomprehensibility of Duchamp’s ‘work’ has subsequently enhanced its status. Enigmas are attractive to academics. Dr Glyn Thompson has now convincingly and thankfully cracked Duchamp’s code. His puzzling creations were essentially Masonic and alchemical puns, mainly in French. Duchamp spent hours with dictionaries. Words intrigued him. To give one example of his method, in 1913 he bought a bottle rack, probably as a ‘sculptural object’, but in 1916 redesignated it as a ‘readymade’, in other words, not as a work of art. The particular bottle drying rack he chose was in the shape of a radiating, tiered spiny cone. It can be likened, on one level, to the star and crown of thorns in the centre of the ceiling of Masonic lodges. But it’s also replete with personal references. Specifically, it refers to Duchamp’s removal from Rue Saint-Hippolyte, Paris to Broadway, New York City, with puns on novation, referring to Saint Hippolyte’s heresy and, more mundanely, to the French word for the renewal of a lease. He links clou, meaning a stud-headed nail, with clouttage, the term for the rack which the saint was martyred. In an exemplary intellectual forage, Dr Thompson has uncovered whole rafts of rebuses in Duchamps readymades. (His PhD thesis, Unwinding Duchamp: Mots et paroles à tous les étages has been put online by Leeds University.) These few fragmentary examples give us a glimpse into Duchamp’s closest antics.
How, then, did this oddball expatriate, essentially private and anti-art figure come to join the ranks of the truly great innovative artists of the modern age, alongside Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso? In true Duchamp style, the whole thing was set up, if rather late in the day. He’d seen other artists of his generation become famous, and he wanted to get in on the act. In 1945, with the help of a few mates, Duchamp launched himself as the founding father of modern art, in a special edition of the American magazine View. The claims made in it about Duchamp’s status as ‘the unique spearhead of all modern movements’, whose ‘un-eclipsed radiations’ would never die, are so over the top as to suggest a spoof. And that might well have been how they were intended – but that’s how some myths begin.
The articles in View were a ludicrous puff laced with venom. Duchamp’s works, they state, ‘denounce as obsolete and vain the greater part of recent artistic production’ and reveal the ‘fundamental crisis of painting and sculpture which reactionary manoeuvres and stock-exchange brokerages will not be able to conceal much longer’. André Breton added: ‘The practice of drawing and painting appeared to him [Duchamp] as a kind of trickery that tended towards the senseless glorification of the hand and of nothing else.’ The seeds of everything that subsequently happened to art – the dismissal of the traditional languages of drawing, painting and sculpture as antiquarian and reactionary, egotistical and corrupted by capitalism, the ridicule heaped on anything hand-made or crafted, and the priority given to thinking over making were all seeded in 1945!
These reductive ideas took root in the West in the aftermath of the Second World War. Representational painting and sculpture, which for millennia had provided the starting point for visual creation, had become discredited because of the exclusive promotion of realism and idealism by both Fascist and Communist regimes. During the Cold War, the democratic capitalist West promoted expressionism and abstraction and, above all, the idea that art should be free from political interference. Coupled with that was a shift in ideas about art education. The snobbery of the head over the hand, of thinking over making, had roots in ancient European culture – millennia before Duchamp. Judges, doctors and priests have long been placed higher up the social scale than architects, composers and poets, and even further above painters, potters and players, people who actually do things with their hands, though it could be argued that craft skills are rarer and take longer to develop than a crafty mind.
During the 1970s and 1980s, for a multitude of reasons that I don’t think have yet been fully understood, much of Western Europe, and Britain in particular, allowed its making skills, what used to be called its manufacturing base, to be wiped out utterly (along with millions of working people’s hard-earned self-respect). Education reflected this shift. In the field of art, specialist art colleges were subsumed into polytechnics, and then into universities. Thinking usurped making. This was partly a response to the need to make savings; desk work, later desktop work, costs less than studio practice. Making has been so devalued that at some institutions candidates for art courses now no longer have to submit portfolios: at their interviews they just talk. This is an open invitation to bullshitters. The emergence of con art in England is, in part, a by-product of a degenerate society that has ceased to make anything. Con art is a bubble in the black hole that lies at the heart of British culture.
What Duchamp promoted wasn’t just the art of not making art, but also the art of making fun of art. His apotheosis was consummated in 1999 when the Tate Gallery bought his urinal calle Fountain, for $5000,000, to celebrate the century of art they thought he’d done so much to create.
Unfortunately for the Tate, the urinal wasn’t his. They’d actually known that this was the case since 1982, when some crucial Duchamp correspondence became public, but they, like the rest of the Con Art establishment, chose to ignore this extraordinary evidence. In a matter-of-fact letter written in French from America to his sister Suzanne in France on 11th or 12th April 1917, Duchamp said he was not the author of the urinal submitted to the Independents a few days before. He added that it had been sent in by a female friend.
The latest research, in particular the work of Irene Gammel and Dr Glyn Thompson, has now proved beyond and shadow of reasonable doubt that this ‘female friend’ was none other that the redoubtable Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. She was a madcap, alcoholic, promiscuous, transsexual, feminist Dadaist, a German based in New York but at that time living in Philadelphia, who hated liberal, male America and all it stood for, especially when it declared war on her beloved Germany in 1917, just days before she sent the urinal in.
Being liberally minded and forward-looking, the gentlemen who ran the Society had promised that there would be no selection in their exhibition – they would show everything that was submitted, on receipt of the $6 entry fee. So Elsa submitted a gentleman’s urinal – a beautifully chosen symbol, from her feminist perspective, of a gentlemen’s private club (ie a gents). The signature on it, R. Mutt, is probably not just shorthand for ‘you are a mutt’, but a reference to Mutter – the German motherland. Punning was in the air then, but as Thompson points out, while Elsa punned in German, Duchamp punned in French. The gentlemen who ran the Society of Independents were exquisitely caught out. If they displayed her entry they would ba a laughing stock. If they broke their own rule and excluded it, they’d look like fools. They chose the latter option. They were gentlemen after all. The urinal was not exhibited.
Elsa’s gesture made perfect sense as a subversive, feminist attack on a complacent, supposedly all-embracing male establishment, on the outbreak of their war with her homeland. She wasn’t claiming that the urinal was a work of art, beyond asserting that it was as beautiful as other things in the exhibition, praising the machine aesthetic, as many did at the time. Nor was her gesture particularly original. Many before her had taken the piss out of the pretentiousness of art. One of my favourites is Alphonse Allais, who in 1883 in Paris exhibited a plain sheet of white paper in a frame, which he entitled Anaemic Young Girls at their First Communion in the Snow. His blank red sheet was good too – the label on that read Apoplectic Cardinals Harvesting on the Shores of the Red Sea.
Duchamp had a problem. When the myth that he was a founding father of modern art began to take off in the 1960s, he needed some evidence to back this up. But he hadn’t much to show. He couldn’t use his early, pedestrian paintings, they would have revealed him as an also-ran. And his ‘readymades’ were obscure, minor offerings, to say the least. What he did was to appropriate the Urinal as his own when all the people who knew the truth about it, including Elsa, were long dead. The original had of course long been lost, put back, one hopes to its proper use. Duchamp stole the idea from (of all people) a woman, to cement his reputation. Then he commissioned a set of replicas to sell – casts of a copy of a found object! Revered as the fountainhead and source of all found objects, they sit like po-faced thrones in the major collections of modern art around the world. Now Elsa’s joke is on all of them! The Tate would never have paid $500,000 for their copy if Duchamp’s name hadn’t been on the label. But you can’t trust the label when it comes to con art. That’s how emperors always get themselves dressed in false attributions of thought.
The Myth of the Label
One of the most famous of all con artists, Joseph Beuys, claimed the he’d been seriously injured in the Second World War, and had almost died. His story was that his Stuka aircraft had been shot down over the Crimea in winter, with deep snow on the ground. His life had been saved, so he said, by a band of passing Tartars who wrapped him up in felt, stuffed with fat to keep him warm, strapped him to a sled, took him back to their tents and slowly nursed him back to health – an act of kindness by strangers that obsessed him for the rest of his life. This tale is the main subject of his work. One of his best-known pieces is called Sled. It consists of an ordinary slatted wooden sled with a roll of felt, a lump of lard and a torch strapped to it. He had an ‘edition’ of fifty of these assembled in 1969. They now sell for £250,000 each, which is a good return on four objects then available in any general store.
When you look at Sled, you’re supposed to imagine the dying Beuys strapped to it being pulled to safety. Very moving, if you’ve got that sort of imagination. But what would you get from looking at these objects if you knew that his story wasn’t true – nothing? No, less than nothing, because you’d feel that you’d been tricked. And many, many people have been, because in fact Beuys hade the story up. He was in the Luftwaffe and his Stuka was shot down over the Crimea – but he wasn’t rescued by Tartars, nor was he seriously wounded, and there wasn’t a flake of snow. He was picked up by a German patrol within hours and was back fighting on the German front line three weeks later. My own view is that he created this myth about himself to hide his early Nazi sympathies. He had joined the Hitler Youth against his parent’s wishes, and the Luftwaffe generally only admitted party members. Does this matter? Yes, it does. Because his ‘art’ is a sham. £250.000 is a lot to pay for the spurious trappings of a phoney – and Sled is one of the cheapest of his works.
Beuys sold himself as a modern shaman. His love for everyone and everything, he declared, knew no bounds. He said that everyone was an artist, and that what everyone did was art. When you’re peeling potatoes, he claimed, the peelings are art! Needless to say, he wasn’t talking to dinner ladies or cooks at the time. The Tate has two of Beuys’s nail clippings (beautifully manicured, it must be said) carefully laid out on a slab of felt. He grew them after all, and since he was an artist, his nails must be art. In all, the Tate have nearly six hundred more or less revolting relics of this charlatan, including scribbles by him which exhibit the faux-naiveté of a calculating man trying to look innocent. Beuys always wore a felt hat (felt, naturally) to hide his nonexistent head wound and distinguish himself from the crowd. Everyone might be an artist but he, of course, was more of an artist than others. You could tell that from his prices, throughout the 1980s Beuys topped the Wall Street list of contemporary artists whose works were thought to be the best investment.
You might ask why it matters if some found objects acquire the status of works of art from the story that is attached to them, even when that story is a myth. Isn’t myth-making in fact a legitimate aspect of artistic creativity? Surely there’s room for all types of art – including art that’s just a projection of thought. Why can’t con art be a form of art? Isn’t a naked emperor strutting along in the fond delusion that he’s fully clothed a rather wonderful, and certainly an amusing work of art in a way? Can’t it be and rather than or? Can we not have Duchamp, Beuys and Hirst as well as Picasso, Matisse and Hockney? The answer is no, because the relationship that con art has with real art isn’t innocent, nor is it one way.
Imagine a glass of water. Now imagine a drawing alongside it of the same glass of water, by Rembrandt, Van Gogh or David Hockney. Now compare the drawing with the glass beside it, and consider which is the better work of art.
The question is obviously nonsensical: you can’t begin to compare them. Their purposes are so different. They were both designed, it’s true – and designing is nothing more nor less than drawing in the mind – but they were designed with different aims. The drawing was designed to work as a work of art – to be experienced purely visually. The glass was designed to hold liquid, and to drink from. It might also have been conceived as good to look at – but you wouldn’t think much of a glass, no matter how good it looked, if it had a hole in the bottom. The function of the glass overrides its aesthetic appeal; it’s worthless if it doesn’t work. The drawing is worthless if it doesn’t work as a work of art. So how can the two be compared?
At this point you probably think that I’m just playing games. Surely no one in their right mind would put a glass of water in an art gallery and call it a work of art! But in 1974 Michael Craig-Martin did exactly that. In 1978 the National Gallery of Australia bought his glass of water as a work of art, for nearly £2,000. Were they out of their minds? The short answer is yes. But I have to admit that I’m not giving you the whole picture. Michael Craig-Martin didn’t just put a glass of water in a gallery and call it a work of art, he also added a label which he regarded as intrinsic to the piece. The text on the label asked, at some length, whether or not the glass of water was an oak tree. Well, I think most people know that answer to that one.
But if the label had been written by, say, Wittgenstein, would it turn the glass of water into a work of art? The answer still has to be no. You have to be able to see art; it can’t just be what’s written on a label – it can’t just be a projected thought, no matter how elevated, or, in Michael Craig-Martin’s case, simplistic. No one in their right mind automatically accepts what they read on a label. You have to be able to test the product for yourself. That’s the point about the old Jewish joke about the early days of cinema. As they’re coming out of a film show a mother tells her son, ‘You gotta get into this business, my boy. People pay before they see the merchandise!’
But let’s accept, for a moment, that this glass of water is a work of art, and let’s compare it with the drawing of a glass of water. Again, I ask you, which is the better work of art? If you were to compare Rembrandt’s drawing with the one by David Hockney, and each of them with one by Van Gogh, you’d immediately have a lot to say about the different qualities and limitations of all of them. But when you try to compare a drawing with a real glass, you’re stumped. Where do you begin?
The trouble springs from the subversive assertion that the glass is, or can ever be, a work of art. By claiming to be art, the glass of water totally undercuts the artistic merit, however great or small, of the drawing. It does this in two ways. First it denies us the possibility of assessing how good the drawing is because it provides us with nothing to compare the drawing with. Goodness, quality, imaginative content, emotional depth, power of expression, completeness, partiality – the essential attributes and building blocks of any work of art – are irrelevant in the company of a real glass. The assertion that the glass is art obliterates art. But that isn’t all.
The presence of the real glass in the gallery – its pretence to be a work of art – does something even more destructive. It devalues all creative effort, the skill and insight that went into making the drawing. Why bother with all the effort of making art, it says, when you can have the real thing, buy it for ten pence, put it on a shelf and sell it for £2,000? A glass claiming to be art knocks real art out of the picture. That is what’s happened. Real art has been eclipsed by con art. All genuine creative effort has been knocked into the shadows, and derided as old hat, while get-rich-quick fixers have stolen all the limelight. The con lies in the label, calling something art that isn’t art in any way.
In many cases labels are the only thing that Damien Hirst actually adds to his ‘works’. His assistants – he has dozens – bring him the spin paintings they’ve done, and he utters the first strings of works that come into his head when he looks at them, such as ‘Beautiful, Kiss My Fucking Arse Painting’ or ‘Beautiful, Cheap Shitty, Too Easy’ or Beautiful Revolving Sphincter Oops Brown Painting’. You get his cast of mind. These ‘paintings’ are made by chucking paint at a spinning circular canvas. He got the idea from a children’s TV programme, showing kids how to make coloured spinning tops. He made them big, or rather got his assistants to. As he observed, you can’t do a bad one. And they’re money spinners. $75,000 dollars a throw! They make a decorative splash, but their centrifugal energy owes nothing to him. Compared to a Picasso or a Pollock, they’re trash. All he adds is the labels, and these reveal the triviality and nastiness of his thought.
Nastiness is the thread that runs through all of Hirst’s ‘creations’. It’s most blatant in his farm animals, preserved whole in formaldehyde but sawn down the middle in a most unseemly way (real butchering is an art) to reveal their innards. Even more sickening are the live flies and maggots that infest a real decapitated cow’s head. But there is nastiness too in his superficially pretty ‘butterfly paintings’. Iridescent tropical butterflies are flicked by Hirst’s assistants on to canvases coated with wet gloss paint, where they get stuck. Some look as though they’ve struggled a bit, which suggests they were living sacrifices, for the paint oozes over the edges of their wings, a ghastly chemical slick encroaching on a shimmering wonder of nature. These grim trivia sell for $750,000 dollars apiece.
Prettiness and the macabre are the cheap frills in Hirst’s mountebank show. He had a human skull coated in diamonds, except for its teeth. For a promotional photo, he stuck his tongue in between its grinning jaws. No wonder he fancied this creation – he was only asking £50 million for it! Skulls are beautiful and so are diamonds, but this juxtaposition is meaningless, unlike that of the mesmerizing, jade-decorated skulls of the Aztecs from which, presumably, Hirst’s clumsy idea springs. But at least it involves some kind of modification. Most of Hirst’s found objects are merely ranged on shelves – rows of cigarette butts, surgical instruments or pills, anything with an unpleasant edge. He explained: ‘When I was a kid I took some pills thinking they were sweets and had to have my stomach pumped. I don’t understand why most people believe in medicine and don’t believe in art, without questioning either.’ What on earth does he mean? That people should question why they don’t believe in art and, in doing so, come to believe in his art without question?
The most vacuous of all Hirst’s ‘works’ are his (or rather his assistants’) dot paintings – blank canvases covered with rows of different coloured dots. They sell for $1.5 million each. Recently, Hirst has tried real painting – pictures of skulls and spiders’ webs. These are dreary, lifeless adolescent pretensions. Like Duchamp, the young Hirst wanted to be an artist, but realized early on that he didn’t have his own creative voice. He began by emulating the work of the wonderful collagist Francis Davison, and then the assemblages of his widow, Margaret Mellis, but his own versions were limp imitations. He just didn’t have any talent. And so he took his revenge on art. That’s why his ‘work’ lacks any creative visual development, why it has no heart, no warmth, no humanity. That’s why it feels so empty and hollow and why it leaves a nasty taste in your mouth, as if you’d just swallowed a pill, not a sweet.
Hirst sells himself as a brand. The efflorescence of branded imagery is an interesting modern social phenomenon. Labels on clothes used to be hidden, tucked behind waistbands or sewn into seams; now they’re emblazoned across breasts and chests. This desire to become a walking advert for a corporate body suggests a collapse in individual confidence. With typical brilliance, the sculptor David Kemp has dubbed this trend ‘new tribalism’, and he’s created many witty and trenchant sculptures excavating this new seam. Con artists are attracted to brands because there’s money to be made in labels that sell. They’ve made the most of the old marketing adage that it doesn’t matter what people are saying about you as long as they’re talking about you. The clothes retailer Benetton adopted this cynical ploy in the 1980s. Billboards showing a nun and a monk kissing, horses copulating and murderers on death row had nothing to do with fruit-pastel coloured jerseys, but they kept the brand’s name in the public eye. When an American department store threatened to withdraw their goods from sale, after a mother complained about having to look at the murderer of her child on one of their posters, they dropped the campaign.
The advertising agent turned art dealer, Charles Saatchi adopted exactly the same marketing strategy in selling his stable of artists, dubbed the yBas, who included Hirst. But Saatchi had a great advantage over Benetton; he never had to withdraw an image. This was because the work of the artists he was selling was meant to shock the public. When the mother of a child murdered by Myra Hindley complained about the portrait of Hindley which was featured in a Saatchi show at the Royal Academy, the RA President at the time, Sir Philip Dowson, said he would go to the barricades to defend the freedom of artists to explore whatever subject matter they wanted. His well-intentioned naivety was exposed when the ‘artist’, who’d reconstructed the murderess’s portrait from a mug shot, said he’d done it because he saw Hindley as a ‘Love Goddess, who secretly, in our heart of hearts, we all want to shag’.
Branding has become endemic. The Tate now sells itself as a brand. It’s dropped the ‘the’ and become simply ‘Tate’, as if it was something uniquely special and not just one of many public art galleries. A brand’s credibility is based on the assumption that everything with its mark has a certain quality. This might be true of handbags – if you can tell the real thing from the fakes – but it’s never true of art galleries, nor even of artists. There are a lot of very poor Picassos that do little for anyone, and some of them are in museums, yet his best paintings are like fireworks exploding in the mind. Not all Matisses are worth a fortune, though art dealers would like us to think they are. Branding is bad for art because it elevates some artists above criticism and keeps down others who are not well known but produce superb work. Branding irons out individual expression, which is the wellspring of art. Rembrandt, Goya, Van Gogh and Picasso weren’t brands – they mined gold mines in the human mind. Their work is identifiable because each of them has an artistic voice, a manifestation, at its most basic level, of their individual personalities, which tells in their work even when they are less that inspired, something which happens to even the greatest artists from time to time. But this artistic voice is the very thing that’s missing in con art. All that the label does is hide the emptiness in the centre of the found object, it’s a dressing on a hollow heart.
The trouble with found objects is that they’re boring. They can’t hold anyone’s attention for long – at least not as objects d’art. For there’s nothing artistic to see in them. If Andy Warhol had exhibited real Brillo boxes, Campbell’s soup cans, press photos of famous people, crashed cars and electric chairs (which would have been a more honest activity, since these things are in themselves of some interest) his pretensions to be an artist at all, let alone a great one, would have been rumbled much sooner. As it is, he’s still orbiting in the stratosphere of prices. In 2007, one of his silkscreen prints – taken from a newspaper photo of an accident, tinted green – made an unbelievable $71.7 million at auction.
Warhol achieved this eminence by tarting up his found objects to make them appear to be his own. His Brillo boxes were merely inflated, but his Campbell’s soup cans were flattened, and their colours souped up. His pin-ups film stars’ faces were made up, again with lashings of chemical pigments. His newspaper cuttings showing human roadkill and electric chairs were viewed at a distance through tinted specs. A poster of Chairman Mao was rendered like a huge icon in cherry trifle colours with dribbles of icing. Warhol preyed on fame and notoriety, leaving a stain to show where he’d been, like a tomcat urinating around its terrain. That was the mark that turned his found objects into art, collectable in multiples.
The easiest way to replicate a found object is to cast it. This is when the con sets in, for a cast of something can so easily make it look like a work of art. Casting has for centuries been a legitimate way for artists to replicate their work, as an edition of prints, or in three dimensions, as a bronze, plaster or porcelain. All casts are, in themselves, inert; they depend entirely on the liveliness of the original. The value of a cast of a Rodin bronze isn’t in question. It replicates a genuine expression, in the same way as the pull of an etching by Rembrandt, or a delicately lifted drawing on stone by Lautrec. But nothing living, no artistic expression, is rendered in the cast of a found object. A bronze replica of a tin can, a plaster cast of the inside of a bath or a photo-litho of an advertisement might all, in their translated state, look like art, but that doesn’t mean to say they are. This is how the emperor has been robed, in glistening casts that hide the reality that he has nothing on.
Warhol’s casts tend to turn three dimensions into two. Jeff Koons’ casts turn two dimensions into three, purely mechanically. He had a three-dimensional cast made in porcelain of a publicity photo of Michael Jackson with his pet monkey, Bubbles. It’s a sickly sweet life-size confection in rococo white and gold, a brilliant achievement by superb technicians, but utterly vacuous as a work of art. One of the edition of three was sold in 1988 to the shipping magnate Rasmus Astrup for $5.6 million, then a record auction price for a work of a living ‘sculptor’. Casts can, of course, be mechanically enlarged to any size. Some are very big, because bigness, like bullshit, tends to baffle brains. Damian Hirst had a colossal cast made of an anatomical model for schoolchildren, and claimed it as his. ‘His’ version sold for £1 million in 2000. Marc Quinn had his own head cast in frozen blood; that sold in 2005 for £1.5 million. It has to be kept in a freezer. If the freezer is unplugged, that’s a lot of money down the drain.
Antony Gormley has had his whole body cast many times. These casts look more like art, because the human figure has long been used as a springboard for artistic expression. But Gormley’s casts aren’t art – they’re casts of found objects, in this case, himself. He adopts different poses, in the buff, and has clay patted over his clingfilm-shrouded body to make the moulds. He seems to like the experience. There are now casts of his body in various positions all over the world. In 2011 one sold for £3.4 million. He had a big one made for the north east of England, a cast of his body with aeroplane wings stuck on to it instead of arms. Two found objects – now we’re getting serious! He called it The Angel of the North, whatever that means. Angel’s wings usually rise, like those of the colossal winged figure designed by the Nazi architect Albert Speer to celebrate the Luftwaffe. Perhaps Gormley’s staff had technical difficulties getting them up, for the arms/wings on his figure just stick out, in a gesture that inspired locals to dub it, more accurately, the Gateshead Flasher. If it is an angel, it seems to be an exterminating one, with Nazi overtones, for its wings are very like the profile of the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt. The trouble with body casts is that, like death masks, they all have the same empty look. They’re mummies. Antony Gormley is the hollow man of modern art, a con artist pretending to be a real one.
Casts are not creations; they’re not art unless they’re cast from art. Photography is a special case. It’s a modern form of casting, a mechanical way of tracing three-dimensional effects of light on a two-dinemsional surface and rendering them almost endlessly reproducible. It is possible, though difficult, to use photography artistically. Henri Carter-Bresson did so superbly, as he waited like an agitated Buddhist, ready to capture an image in a frame. Such was his alertness to the present that he could sense when something was about to happen. His photos are instances that vibrate with life. But having photographed the world, literally, he got bored with taking snaps, of being (as he characterised it) a pickpocket, a sneak thief of other people’s moments. He spent the last decades of his life drawing, which he found to be a much more rewarding and contemplative activity.
Today anyone can play around with photos digitally, but they remain manipulations of reality, not fresh creations. If they were totally manipulated, they would cease to be photographs. Photography is to painting as taxidermy is to sculpture. Taxidermists nowadays use extremely sophisticated three-dimensional casting techniques, much employed by makers of fantasy films as well as by many artists, con and otherwise, like Ron Mueck. You can squeeze a little art into photography and taxidermy, but all forms of casting are restrained by the sinews of actuality. Genuine art exists on a different level of consciousness, separate from reality, in the sphere of our imagination. Genuine art is always untethered. Only by being free can it explore the whole compass of reality. Found objects are, by definition, earthbound, they’re simply products of their circumstances, totally constrained by actuality. How can anyone have thought that a found object could ever be worth anything as a work of art?
The Myth of Worth
‘These things are so expensive nowadays.’
I was taking the then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, around the museum of the Burrell Collection in Glasgow. She was there as part of an official visit to the 1990 European City of Culture. I’d been asked not to speak to her; she had a lot on her mind. She moved jerkily, like a remote-controlled manikin; I felt that if I went too close, I’d get an electric shock. Suddenly she spoke. ‘That wouldn’t look very good over the mantelpiece.’ Her eyes had alighted momentarily on Cranach’s painting The Hunt. I kept silent. What could I day? Then her attention turned to a little painting by Fantin-Latour of pretty flowers in a blue vase. ‘Oh, I like that,’ she said – presumably, I thought, because it would look good over a mantelpiece. We marched on, through the Persian carpets and the medieval tapestries to the Chinese porcelain, when she suddenly paused in front of a case of exquisite, rare Sung vases and turned to me. ‘I collect porcelain,’ she remarked. She seemed to want me to say something, so I ventured the question, ‘Why do you collect porcelain?’ ‘Because,’ she said, slicing the air with her hands and handbag, ‘for a case this size you get so much colour for half the price of a painting!’ Clearly she didn’t know the price of a Sung.
On we trooped, into the gallery displaying medieval stained-glass windows, where she stopped and declared. ‘These things are so expensive nowadays.’ I was confused: medieval stained glass just doesn’t come on the market, at any price. Confused was not a state of mind to adopt when you were in range of Margaret Thatcher. A flash of her blue eyes skewered me. ‘What about that £30 million for those chrysanthemums?’ ‘I think they were sunflowers,’ I countered politely. ‘Yes, that’s right,’ she snapped. ‘And who were they by?’ ‘I think they were by Van Gogh,’ I replied, not wanting to appear too knowledgeable. ‘Yes, that’s right,’ she agreed. ‘But they weren’t Van Gogh’s best chrysanthemums, were they?’
I relate this anecdote not to show that Mrs Thatcher didn’t know anything about art (she didn’t, but she did know a lot about other things) nor to illustrate her politician’s instinct to have an opinion on everything, even when based on a total lack of knowledge. I tell it in order to highlight that word ‘expensive’. Most people think, like Mrs Thatcher, that has become ‘expensive’. It seems a reasonable assumption that there are a large number of rich people who want to buy art, and who keep bidding against each other until these absurd prices are reached. But that is only partly true. When a record price is paid for an artist’s work at an auction, the other people in the room don’t go over and commiserate with the poor buyer for having to pay so much – they applaud. The room is filled with more sellers than buyers, more dealers that collectors. What happens at the moment when a record price is made is that the value of art as a whole has gone up. The art market’s stock has risen. The art world is an investment market: its aim is to increase prices.
They’re all in the game together – the auction houses, the dealers, the collectors (those who buy to resell at a profit, not those who buy art as a joy forever) and the artists (at least those who are lucky enough to become famous while they’re still alive). They form, essentially, a cartel or ring – not an illegal one, at least not publicly – but a ring nevertheless, of awareness of mutual benefit, by means of which they conspire to push prices up and up and up. Of course the art market needs money from outside – it couldn’t exist without extensive financial backing. But the art market is also in part a bubble of its own making – and many financial backers are willing to play its game.
Immediately you start talking about money and art you enter a world of smoke and mirrors. Money is, after all, invisible, it’s only a medium of exchange. The gold and silver coins in our pocket, once symbols of the sun and moon, are only the value for what they can buy, and are of no use in themselves. Paper money and electronic credit transactions have even less substance. Art is just as elusive as money when you try to get down to its essence. What do we actually get from listening to a symphony by Beethoven, watching a play by Shakespeare or looking at a painting by Van Gogh? These experiences are transient and insubstantial, and, in material terms, utterly useless, yet we know they exist. Money only exists as a means of exchange between people. Art only exists as a form of communication between people. Can we exchange communication? Can an aesthetic experience be sold?
We instinctively react against the idea of selling art in much the same way that people used to react against selling money. (The law prohibiting usury was almost universal.)
People pay to listen to a performance essentially because the performers have to be paid, but people don’t generally pay for the music itself, or the play. If its creator is long dead, a work of art becomes part of our common inheritance, freely available to all. If they are still alive, we accept that they should be paid for their work, but we pay only a token sum to them and expect them to make their money from the numbers of books, discs or tickets they sell. Great works of art, like new truths when they’re discovered, become public property. Art lives in the public domain.
What, then, has happened to visual art that no one now questions its exclusivity and excessive cost? Most of the great works of art of the past were produced at a skilled artisan’s rates, their ‘over-delivery’ sprang from love, inspiration and belief. Michelangelo painted the Sistine Ceiling not because he was being paid but because he believed in God’s creation. Sacred art was not made to be resold. In the sophisticated, secular culture of China, art has been potentially resalable for millennia. But there, if you liked a picture, instead of trying to buy it, you would sensibly commission a copy, as the Chinese still do. You hoped it might be as good as the original, and sometimes it was even better. In modern Europe art didn’t become marketable, at least in any great quantity, until the seventeenth century in Holland, where space was limited and the wealthy world traders couldn’t invest in land. Then people realised that paintings could be bought and sold, like carpets, jewellery and other nest-egg treasures. So the modern art market was born.
Poets and composers still notoriously grub away, eking out a garret living, even if they produce profoundly moving and popular works that are read or heard and quoted by everyone, while a handful of visual artists can become multi-millionaires even though almost all of their works are hidden away in private collections and are hardly seen by anyone. This is not only unfair but also illogical. Poems, novels and compositions don’t increase in value over time. The reason for some visual artists’ wealth is not their superior artistic worth – far from it! – but because they, alone among artists, produce unique marketable objects that can be invested in.
A bizarre popular notion has taken hold that when you buy a work of art, as opposed to a new car, you’ll get your money back and more when you sell it. This is partly a product of our eagerness to hold on to something which will last (and also line our pockets) in an age of great uncertainty, and, many believe, imminent disaster. Contemporary art as a long-term investment is obviously a delusion – anything long-term is at the moment. But even if culture does survive in a form we recognize, it’ll be up to future generations to decide what art form our times is of interest to them. History tells us that it’s very unlikely to be the art that contemporaries consider to be most ‘important’. When I hear the word ‘important’ applied to art I always reach for my gun (allegorically speaking, of course). If awork of art is ‘important’ it means that it meets a known brief and is premeditated – i.e. dead before it’s born – rather than being a genuinely fresh insight into the nature of existence. The world of art is littered with dusty, cracked monuments erected by vainglorious individuals, both artists and collectors, who think that art, as they perceive it, has provided them with a passport to immortality. But art is never made to die for; it springs only out of a love of life.
If you buy a work of art because you love looking at it, you might find out later that it’s worth more than you paid for it, because others have come to love looking at the same artist’s work too, though by then you probably won’t want to sell it because you’ll love it too much. But if you buy a work of art just to make money from it rather than to look at it, as many of those who buy con art do, you’re solely dependent on people in the future wanting to make more money out of it than you did. This is a chancy strategy. If nobody wants to buy Damian Hirst’s shark in the future, not only because no one thinks it’ll earn them any money but because no one wants to look at it ever again, then the $12,000,000 Steve Cohen paid for it will be, to put it mildly, a bad investment. Genuine artists’ reputations grow on love, not greed.
The credit crunch that began in 2007 brought down several banks, which in the process lost a great deal of public respect. Many expected that this financial crisis would in its wake burst the bubble of the art market. The reason that it didn’t is because the art market still maintains public credibility through its links to the museum world. Most of the world’s great artistic treasures are now in museums. This means that the great works in private hands – the odd Leonardo notebook, another version of Van Gogh’s sunflowers – are all the rarer and more valuable. In that sense Mrs Thatcher was right: art is becoming more expensive. Scarcity value makes sense with art of the past. Discoveries of lost masterpieces are few and far between. And in some cases, old masters are becoming even rarer. The number of Rembrandts shrank recently when a group of scholars agreed that several pictures previously thought to be autograph were actually painted by his followers. But why should a superb painting by a Rembrandt follower be worth only a few thousand, when a much less interesting, minor work proclaimed by experts to be by the master himself is worth millions? Surely it’s the artistic content that should be valued, not the maker. But how do you put a price on artistic merit?
Art isn’t like gold; its purity can’t be measured in carats. Art’s quality is notoriously difficult to quantify. This is where museums come in. They provide a benchmark in the slippery business of valuation. The art they have in their collections is assumed to be the best in the world. (In many cases, this is actually questionable, but that is a subject for another book.) The highest praise that dealers can give to works of art they want to sell is that they are ‘of museum quality’. If you buy a work of art like one in a museum, you assume that your investment is gilt-edged, and you prove the point by putting it in a gold frame. Museums are like banks (or perhaps more precisely, credit rating agencies) standing behind the art market, guaranteeing standards. The art they have in them is lasting, and justifies a lasting investment. ‘Museum quality’ has some validity when it comes to old masters, even recent old masters like Picasso and Matisse. But when it comes to contemporary art, such an accolade isn’t just slippery, it’s downright tricky.
Contemporary art museums are recent inventions. The first one opened in New York City in 1929, just days after the Wall Street Crash as it happens. The poet Gertrude Stein commented, ‘A museum of modern art? That’s a contradiction in terms.’ She was right. There’s a strong case for saying that museums shouldn’t collect contemporary art – by all means they should show it, as a stimulus to the appreciation of quality in the past and the present, but not collect it, because by collecting it they’re trying to write their own history, and that, as history shows, is a mug’s game. It’s also a game for chancers, because contemporary art museums have become an extremely lucrative milch cow for the art market. The whole idea that contemporary art is an investment, which is the basis of this trade, on which the absurdly exorbitant prices of con art are build, is dependent on this unholy marriage between the public sector and private finance, between the world of contemporary art museums and the art trade.
Museums have become tied to the coat tails of the art market. Not only do they validate what the market sells, they create a myth of exclusivity around certain artists’ work, hyping its uniqueness to increase its investment potential. This has significant implications for how we regard the art of the past, but in the contemporary field the museum’s role is absolutely seminal. When you enter a modern art museum you are entering an exclusion zone. What has been kept out of sight is the vast plethora of modern art production, much of which the public, whom these museums exist to serve, might well find much more rewarding to look at than the rarified diet on offer. Of course it’s not easy to survey and select the best from the sea of contemporary visual creativity, though isn’t it the job of a gallery of modern art to do just that? But no, the people who run them have given themselves a more elevated role. They have donned the robes of the high priest, those that in previous ages would have clad the fortune-teller or shaman, and have assumed that their role is to select the chosen few whose works will last and prove worth investing in. In the chimerical world of con art, museums have become myth-makers. But in fact these museums are themselves mythical.
The Myth of the Museum
Who are the people who control access to contemporary art museums, those who decide what’s ‘important’ – what, according to them will last? They call themselves curators (sometimes directors) and some of them become eminent public figures. Many of these people manage mixed historical and modern collections and care for the world’s most valuable artistic treasures. This leads to the general assumption that their judgement cannot be questioned. But it has to be if we are to get to the heart of what’s wrong with con art for, in many great museums around the world, it has been shown up as part of a calculated marketing strategy.
In 2007, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the greatest art museums in the world, agreed to show Damien Hirst’s shark in a tank for three years, declaring, by this single act, that not only did they think it was a work of art but that they considered it a great one, worthy to be seen alongside the masterpieces in their collection. Thus they valorised this worthless object’s investment potential. Hirst’s diamond-covered skull sold for £50 million in 2007 to a consortium of investors (though what money actually changed hands is murky, for Hirst himself ‘bought’ a 25% stake in this ‘investment’). One of the conditions of the sale was that the skull was to be exhibited to keep up, and hopefully enhance its resale value. And so it was in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence that I saw this meretricious object. The extraordinary price of $4,338,500 which was paid at auction in 2011 for a photograph, Rhein II by Andreas Gursky (an exceptionally boring snap) would not have been reached if three of the other prints in this artificially exclusive set of six weren’t already in the Museum of Modern Art New York. Tate Modern in London and the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich.
How can museum curators, who know about art, have been taken in by con art? The job of the art curator used to be quite straightforward: to make the best art available to the widest possible public. But a new breed of con art curators has emerged who believe the myth about the trajectory of modern art having to be essentially against the public. So, in what they think are the best interests of the public, they’ve insulated themselves from public opinion and got into bed with the artists – particularly radical ones, of course.
They’ve come to see themselves as ‘creative curators’, participating in the process of creating art and, since they hold the keys to the museum, in the determining of art history. They’re helping to make art which, no matter how transient its form instantly becomes lasting and therefore worthy of being invested in. that’s why these curators are snugly tucked up with dealers as well. But there are other financial reasons for this unhealthy partnership.
During the 1980s and 1990s, public funding for museums was squeezed so much that dealers began to help finance their programmes. This has grown to such an extent that exhibitions in public art galleries are now rarely independent selections by curators, but collectins of work arranged by and often paid for by dealers. Modern art museums have become showcases for the art trade. When the leading modern art dealer Anthony d’Offay gave up his shop, the reason he gave was that he no longer needed to run his own space because all the exhibitions of his ‘stable’ of artists were now held in public galleries.
Tragically for art, hardly any curators now visit the studios of artists who are not represented by dealers, in particular ‘top’ (i.e. expensive) dealers. A clutch of these exclusive dealers now claim equal status with curators. They’ve given themselves an ugly new mouthful of a title, calling themselves ‘gallerists’ – to show that they too have a role to play in determining which art goes down in history and which art is a guaranteed investment. A ‘gallerist’ is someone who runs an artistic programme in a space designed to exhibit art. Did someone mention selling? Wash your mouth out! Dealers are of course nothing more nor less that shopkeepers. They might be brilliant ones or bad ones, but the true nature of their role has been fudged. Gallerists and curators have become virtually indistinguishable in their bid to raise the value of con art. The cloak of public and private worth has been seamlessly sewn up.
One could argue that the public are getting a good deal out of this relationship. The drawback is that curators’ judgements can so easily be manipulated by the art trade’s strings. This has long been the case in America, where people can pay some of their taxes directly to the charity of their choice. America is widely held up by other countries as the land of artistic philanthropy, but in reality most of this is just the personal allocation of a percentage of their tax dues by very wealthy people, who benefit as a result.
Most museums in the USA are funded by rich collectors. The museum’s curators advise them on what to buy and then, when the value of their acquisition has increased – perhaps after the museum has put on a show of the works of art they’ve collected – the collector gives the museum an item or items in partial settlement of his tax bill. So everyone benefits – but only if the art is any good, and is of interest to a wider public. I once discussed with a friend who is a senior museum director in the USA why he thought it would be impossible for me to work over there. He told me that if he thought that the latest work of say, Frank Stella, was crap, he would never say so. I, on the other hand, would have no such compunction. One of the trustees of my museum would turn out to have a Stella in his collection, and I’d be out on my ear. One expects dealers, collectors and artists to refrain from criticizing artists’ works in public, but museum directors must be free to do so, for they serve the public’s interest. Questioning quality and raising public debate are both crucial aspects of the museum curator’s task.
As bad luck would have it, I once had to take the Queen round an exhibition of modern art which I’d inherited, in one of the museums in Glasgow which I took charge of in 1989. It was a show of con art of which a had a very low opinion. How could I maintain that these were fine or even interesting exhibits, when I didn’t think they were? The Queen was aware of my adverse views, and as we went round the galleries kept asking, in the quick-fire conversational tone she uses in private, ‘Is that an exhibit?’ I had to keep nodding, ‘And what is that?’ she asked in one room. ‘It’s some bunches of grapes cast in lead and hung from the ceiling,’ I replied. ‘Thank you for telling me,’ she said. We moved on, and came to a row of filing cabinets with open bottom drawers, in each of which was a roll of smelly old damp carpet (which, much to the delight of my Natural History department, harboured some unusual insects). ‘And what are these?’ Her Majesty asked again. ‘They’re filing cabinets with rolls of carpet in them.’ I told her, adding, ‘The artist got the idea when she was working in a mental hospital.’ ‘Her mind was affected, was it?’ came the lightening reply.
It’s not that the Queen doesn’t like modern art. She even has some. Six years later she opened the Gallery of Modern Art I created in Glasgow. It showed a broad range of visual creativity, including popular art, such as paintings by that genuinely original artist Beryl Cook. Beryl was chronically shy and never attended any opening, even though she’d just been awarded an OBE. But she had a request: would I ask the Queen to stop pestering her with medals? I did. Her Majesty was amused. I took her round the new gallery, introducing her to artists in front of their works. The veteran Scottish painter Alan Davie was standing beside one of his large explosive abstracts. As I escorted the Queen towards him, Davie grabbed her sleeve. She was wearing puce. ‘What a lovely colour,’ he said, cheerfully. Then he ventured, ‘You’ve got one of my pictures.’ The Queen glanced nervously at the wall behind him. ‘So we have,’ she said, politely shaking her arm free. ‘We’ve got a small one.’ ‘You should get a bit one.’ Davie suggested. ‘Oh,’ Her Majesty responded, quick as a flash, ‘I’d have to move house!’
When I started working in museums in 1970, I never imagined I’d end up being on the side of the Queen against so much of modern art. Anthony d’Offay, the art dealer who in 2008 sold the remains of his holding of con art to the nation for the extraordinary sum of £26 million, told a mutual friend that in his opinion I had ‘taken a wrong turning’. From my perspective I was just doing what I’d always done, responding as honestly and deeply as I could to the art I saw. The trouble was that by the 1980s I was seeing less and less to respond to. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand contemporary art; I understood it all to easily. Trivial one-liners at best, and most of it utterly barren creatively, emotionally and intellectually. I watched with increasing sadness as the magnificent tree of visual art was pared down and finally trampled underfoot. Duchamp’s cohort of 1945 had spawned parasitic fungi which were fruiting on the rotten patch that was all that was left of art. The traditional languages of painting, drawing and sculpture – all personal, artistic voices – were dismissed as obsolete, reactionary, capitalist and egotistic. Everything now had to be mechanically reproduced, and priority was given to thinking over making. And of course everything had to set out to shock the public, in its puerile attempt to be trivially new.
John Berger’s immensely popular TV series and book Ways of Seeing (1972) had begun the rot. With a deadly combination Marxism and Duchampian nihilism, he dismissed all painting as celebrations of private property. Painting was to be replaced by photography. He later admitted to me that he’d been wrong – he hadn’t meant to dismiss great painting. (What other painting matters as much?) But he never changed his text or withdrew the book, and his poison spread. New art forms don’t replace one another; they extend our means of expression. Photography didn’t kill painting: it liberated it to do other things. But Berger declared that painting had died in 1900. And as director of the National Gallery in London, Neil MacGregor put his works into action.
The National Gallery was founded in 1842 to collect summits of achivement in the art of painting. From the start it was intended that the collection would be kept up to date. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers was bought for the Gallery only thirty-six years after it was painted, but most works used to take seventy years or so to enter its ranks. The Tate, its daughter institution, founded in 1897, began buying modern British and foreign art, and over time a handful of its paintings were transferred to the National Gallery as their greatness became apparent. There was, and still is, ample room for both institutions, each has a different story to tell. But in 1997, tragically for art, MacGregor keeled over in the face of pressure from Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, and decided, without any public debate, to introduce a cut-off year of 1900 for the National Gallery’s collections, and to transfer its twentieth-century holdings to Tate Modern. Like Berger, he was effectively sayng that the story of great painting died in that year.
Explaining his decision, to which I objected, MacGregor told me privately, ‘If he’d been alive today, Titian would have been a film-maker.’ How could he know? Picasso and Matisse didn’t become film-makers in the great age of film, nor did Edward Hopper or David Hockney. The challenge of creating an image that is moving but unmoving in time remains as enthralling as it was in the age of Titian, when masques, pageants and processions would have offered him ample opportunity for time-based expression, had that been his main concern. MacGregor’s wrong-headed decision sealed the fate of painting. It is a policy that has to be reversed. Picasso’s The Three Dancers (1925) must be moved from the Tate to the National Gallery, to show that painting continued to be a great art form in the twentieth century. So should Chagall’s The Poet Reclining (1915) as well as, I would argue, David Hockney’s Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1971) and L.S.Lowry’s The Pond (1950). Others will have their own ideas. But this debate needs to be aired openly, and shared: what are the great paintings of our times? MacGregor has suffocated that debate, and left the centre stage of art empty for con artists to prance about on, stark naked but ‘painted all over, ring-streaked-and-striped, as splendid as a rainbow’.
Emptiness is essential for con art. Found objects can only be art if they’re in art galleries. Real art is art anywhere. The Mona Lisa is the Mona Lisa wherever it is, hung in an airport foyer or on a railing in Hyde Park, or even lying in a gutter. What modern curators and their sidekicks the gallerists can’t abide is art that doesn’t need their help in order to exist; art that survives without them, art that is successful in the street; art that is recognizable as art wherever it is; art that is created by artists, not curators; art that breathes in the air of ordinary life and breather out fireworks. What they despise most is art that people like. This of course, is the real art of out time. And it is vigorous everywhere. But you won’t find it in what Jean Tinguely, one of the truly great artists of our times, called (with his usual precision) ‘shit-art venues’.
Modern art curators like con art because they know it can’t exist without them, without their ‘spaces’ – they often utter the word in hushed tones – their special hallowed places, their hollow halls, appropriated from disused factories or built specially for the purpose, where ordinary things are transformed into something they call ‘art’. There they swell with the ‘importance’ of the ‘art’ they’ve delivered into the world. There troglodytic artistic maggots spin their flimsy cocoons under the pussyfooting protection of oh-so creative curators, both partners dreaming that their progeny will be metamorphosed into butterflies, and end up pinned forever on the pages of history. They sit, poor souls, like plato’s cave dwellers, staring at shadows, taking them for living things. Any visitor who ventures in from outside, who had seen art in raw sunlight, as I have, is taken to be mad.
The interior spaces that are modern art galleries are best understood as gaps inside people’s heads, inter-cranial apertures filled with grey matter (graded in shades from pristine white to lifeless black), passive, airless prisons where no breath of wind or ray of sunshine penetrates from the outside world. In these places wishes are fulfilled that what is lurking in the shadows, is real. You remember the insides of con art venues, but never their outsides. Their exteriors are grim and dreary; they don’t invite you in, or ever smile at you.
Real art always has a face. That’s what art is about: people facing people, artists facing themselves, giving form to feelings and ideas (the two are not distinct in any illumined consciousness). If they are of any interest, they survive independently of their creators, and of their audience, within the collective consciousness on which civilisation is built and on which the future of humanity so crucially depends. The facelessness of con art is its most distressing and its most revealing attribute.
This facelessness is the reason why Sir Nick Serota made the extraordinary decision to abandon the site that had been set aside since the war for Britain’s new gallery of international modern art (Tate Modern was not his idea), and to forgo the opportunity to build a wonderful new building for modern art in the very heart of London on the South Bank next to the Festival Hall. He decided instead to convert a grim old power station. It has been popular, but a wonderful spanking new building would have been much more so. Money wasn’t the reason for this choice. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao cost only half as much to build as Bankside did to convert (£70m as against £130m). What Serota liked was the vast, empty, gloomy and soulless interior and the faceless exterior.
All art of any worth has its own face, and can face the world wherever it is. It sits best in a building that itself has its own face, and makes its own creative artistic statement – features that can welcome people in to see the myriad faces of art within. Architecture is, after all, a form of modern art, and one in which Britain has led the world. Not all modern buildings need to be crashed spaceships, as the sculptor David Kemp has so brilliantly dubbed them. Serota’s decision not to build a great modern building for modern art, and for London, revealed his misunderstanding of the true nature of art. The secret and arrogant way in which he did this, keeping the choice of venue out of the public arena is another aspect of the facelessness that has masked art in our times, like Neil MacGregor’s similarly clandestine cutting-off of the National Gallery’s collection. A faceless mask is a contradiction in terms. But it perfectly encapsulates the self-effacing curatorial dictatorship, the invisible oppression, the exclusive exclusion, the sleight of hand that have conspired to allow con art to romp its rainbow rump across the public stage.
The End and After
In this book I’ve played the role of the little boy at the Emperor’s procession, rudely pointing out what isn’t there, art that you can’t see. I would like to end on a more positive note and say a word about real art that you can see. Paradoxically, this art can be invisible too.
As the old saying goes, the art is to hide the art. The task of artists is to make their meaning clear, not to show off their mastery of technique, though many lesser artists through history have been content to do just that. Clarity of meaning can take many forms: water can be as clear as a bell, or its surface can ripple excitedly; it can be transformed into an opaque shining sheet or it can become transparent again, a mirror reflecting the sky. But there’s a world of difference between looking through water and looking through air. Pebbles that look dull and uninviting on the beach can glow with glorious colours when viewed under the waves. That is the difference between looking at a found object and looking at a work of art, between looking at a real glass and looking at a painting of a glass by, say, Giovanni Bellini. Art always heightens consciousness. The intensity of clarification is what makes experiences revealed through art so exciting. It’s what attracts us to a work of art, what makes us want to drink from it, and return to drink from it again.
The translucence of consciousness varies vastly from artist to artist. Looking at a painting by Van Eyck is like peering into a still rock pool. Looking at a drawing by Leonardo is like watching a whirlpool. Looking at a painting by Van Gogh is like seeing a lake agitated by wind in the sunlight. Our sense of consciousness has varied over the ages and through different cultures. Contrary to Andy Warhol’s trivial assertion, art isn’t about what it’s always been about. An African carver conjuring up an image of a demonic destroyer, a Christian monk painting an illumination of Christ on the Cross and Francois Boucher adding a titillating highlight to the backside of Marie-Louise O’Murphy were not all doing the same thing. But everything they were doing went through their minds.
Making art is a conscious act. It’s the consciousness of the artist’s actions that makes their work riveting and ignites our own conscious awareness. If a carver is bored and uninterested, his statue of the Buddha will be dull and lifeless. But if he’s inspired, there’s a chance that his Buddha will smile with an ineffable, effulgent sense of peace. Both artists will have created standard images of the pot-bellied ascetic sitting on a lotus blossom, but one will glow in our minds while the other fails to attract our interest at all.
Beauty is in the mind, not in the eye. Nor is it only in the mind of a single beholder. Naked emperors are dressed in the accumulated self-deception of individuals. But art is a collective reality. When we look at a Rembrandt we know we are all looking at the same thing, responding to the same source of experience outside ourselves. We might respond slightly differently, according to our natures, but the heart of what Rembrandt has given us is something we know we can share. Beauty exists where minds meet. What it shows might be painful, even vicious, like the gouging-out of Gloucester’s eyes in King Lear, but the showing is beautiful because it is shared. We can share even the most terrible things, and that gives us a basis for hope. All art has that optimism, it helps us build our collective consciousness, on which the future of civilisation depends.
Real art is always positive – if it wasn’t why would anyone make it or want it? Con art is negative because it gives us nothing. That’s why you would be well advised to sell your Damien Hirsts, if you’ve been unfortunate enough to have acquired any, not before their worth becomes less, but before they become worthless, which they will be when everyone realises that they’ve given nobody anything. Damian Hirst’s ‘works’ could only be of value if they were works of art. They’re not. And that’s the naked truth.