Irish News 16th October 2000
When Wilde said that, “there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about,” he was unwittingly describing the value system underpinning today’s visual arts.
I got a phone-call this week from a Derry journalist; she wanted my opinion on a particular artist’s work currently on show in Derry. I told her I hadn’t seen it.
“I don’t think that matters in this case; I’ll describe it for you”.
She explained that this artist had placed white flags with the word,“ LAMENT”, written on them along the banks of the Foyle. This display was complemented by the broadcast of an “Irish Lament” from a public address system and an exhibition in the Orchard Gallery.The exhibition, which, presumably, unravelled the complexity of the artist’s thought, was entitled; “LAMENT, The river The path.”
“ A lot of Derry people”, she said, “ think that it is lamentable that this event should be sponsored from the public purse.”
I said that she might say that, but that I, who hadn’t seen the installation, couldn’t possibly comment. Notwithstanding, I am talking about it. The artist has achieved his aim; he is being talked about even by those who haven’t seen his exhibition. The work becomes a means of achieving fame.
The actual work isn’t important. In fact it is important that the work isn’t important, because, if it is important, less people will recognize its importance. The artist’s name will only be known to the cognoscente; but if it is overtly unimportant and banal everybody will be outraged at the insult to their intelligence and the artist will be asked to justify his stupidity on television interviews.
“Tracey Emin? Oh yes she’s famous. Didn’t she unmake a bed or something? Anyway she’s famous”
The Literary world doesn’t seem to suffer from this malaise. The novelist who repeats the same word for 300 pages is unlikely to get it published by even the most bizarre publishing house and the Booker Prize would remain, forever beyond his grasp. Yet throughout the last century the visual art world has continually been captivated by this type of emptiness.
Back in 1946 American artist Ad Reinhardt decided that ART needed to be rescued from the depredations of modern society. He filled a gallery with totally, black square canvases. Art critic Lucy Lippard said that these works were to be seen;
“As empty stages upon which the observer could act his own interpretative fancies.”
In 1953 when Robert Rauschenberg exhibited a 7 panel white painting Lucy said that “their meanings rest in a silent, blank nothingness”.
As you can see it is sometimes easier to achieve international success by exhibiting nothing. SOMETHING can be critically analysed and may be rejected, but NOTHING offers boundless possibilities.
The Art experience has been reduced to accommodate the tabloid reader and the tabloid reader loves personalities.
Harold Rosenberg’s comments on Andy Warhol should be emblazoned on the front door of every Arts Council as a warning to sponsors and funding bodies; Warhol , he said,
“has meticulously constructed the figure of the artist as a nobody, though a nobody with a resounding signature.”
How does one become a famous nobody in the visual art world? Knowing the difference between imagination and creativity is a start. If your work involves both it is likely to be too good to succeed. What is needed is imagination only. Imagination doesn’t require skill, it only requires imagination and we all have that. Imagination says that all is allowed. According to G.K. Chesterton, the most imaginative people in the world reside in lunatic asylums. Well not all. Yoko Ono is very imaginative. In her exhibition in the Ormeau Bath’s Gallery two years ago she invited us to;
“Imagine an empty bowl,
leave it in your room
to be filled with love
leave many empty bowls around the house”.
Marvellous stuff. Its like listening to one hand clapping only not as interesting.
So to succeed your work must involve imagination and ideas, but not enough to matter. These ideas must be easily transmitted to the audience, preferably by using aphorisms or unconnected words, such as; Lament, the river, the path. Most importantly do not handle any materials with skill as this invites informed, specialist criticism and might adversely affect the appraisal of your ideas. For example I have yet to experience an installation which displays anything like the technological, skill, artistry and ingenuity to be found in a fairground ghost train.
Finally your work has to offend the intelligence of almost everyone. If you can combine all of these attributes and lack of skills with an unintentionally hilarious statement you are in the running for a major art award.
Joseph Mc Williams 16thOct.2000©