Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Turner Prize Game of Art

It's Turner prize time again.  Yes indeed.  And aren't we fortunate to be living in an age where even the most spurious of individuals can have their moment in the limelight.  And thank god for that.  If they didn't come out into daylight every now and again we might be under the misapprehension that modern art had somehow disappeared, or become irrelevant or simply nonsense to those that search unabashed for the truth in art and culture.  So to take a quick tour of the contestants this year let us look first at... no.  Lets not.  I was going to write an educated 'in the know' essay on the nature of contemporary art, its place in society, the effort with which the Turner Prize strives to explore and examine the diversity of understanding and (that hateful word) 'practice' that is demonstrated by the four, whose catchphrase really should be "all for none and one for what?"  But there are myriad commentators on the subject of the Turner prize, those for, those against, and of course the in-concise verbiage you encounter when you try to fathom what on earth some of this stuff is for, let alone what it is about.  No.  Lets not bother with any of that.  Instead, let us play a game, the 'Turner Prize Game of Art' (also known as T-Art).

Lighbulb on/off
This game requires 3 or more players, 5 is a good number, preferably disaffected artists, and at least 2 bottles of wine, or a bottle of whisky (Lagavulin by choice), or brandy.  Vodka and gin are no good, and neither are cocktails or liqueurs (don't even think about advocat), since the contestants usually end up hurling abuse at each other or actually creating the 'art'.  In that case, you may as well enter the real thing, which is a lot less fun.

For a game with 5 players it takes place over 5 rounds.  Before the game starts, a consensus must be reached as to who is likely to be the winner, who will come second, third, fourth and fifth.  These 'seeds' must be noted as they are vital for the final scoring and may be used in arbitration to declare the winner should a fight break out.  Each player takes their turn to be the judge, while the other four have to come up with new works of art in each round for the competition.  In turn, they describe their work of art, its meaning, its physical manifestation, and why their art is important.  After the four have finished, the 'judge' must score the work, out of ten, for each of 3 categories: quality of art, entertainment, and aesthetics.  Some knowledge of art is crucial here, as if the judge is certain that the work of art they are scoring has already been made, with or without the contestants knowledge, their overall score for that particular work is halved.  The other players at this point can interject with their own knowledge, but if the judge completely disagrees, they automatically incur a 10 point penalty, and if the judge does agree, they gain 10 points.  Again, this is important for the final scoring.  After each round bets may be placed as to whom the eventual winner might be.

After all the rounds have been played, the scores are tallied up and compared with the initial rankings decided before the game started.  The winner will be the one with the most unlikely score.  Therefore, the 'artist' who was deemed to be the one with the most chance of winning, will only be the winner if they have in fact scored the least points.  And similarly, the one who was thought to have had the worst chance of winning, but actually scored quite highly, may end up the winner.

Since the final decision has to be made by all contestants, the idea of the game is to trick the others into believing they are something they are not, and then pleasantly surprising them with their inability to come up with any good ideas, or conversely, with their impressive creativity given their lacklustre appearance in their initial odds.

Cast yourself
You might imagine that it would therefore be easy enough to win, especially if you are the one in the group who is thought of as the best artist.  But the inability of a real artist to subdue their creativity regardless of success or money or anyone else caring in any way whatsoever about the masterpieces they have created, makes it almost impossible for them to step back and come up with nonsenses that could win them the prize.  There are many different tactics that can be employed to win this game, but beware that simply coming up with ideas that you imagine are rediculous, or completely bizaar, is likely to see you lose, since the more ludicrous the idea, the more likely it is that it has already been done.  And you might also be surprised by the creativity expressed by the 'non artists' of the group who then go on to make a decent career out of their imagined works, eventually winning the Turner Prize for real.  I could happen.

It is a delicate balancing act, and one which the Turner Prize judges take very seriously.  Each year, their task is to surprise.  They don't always get this right however.  In the early days, the prize was regularly awarded to those artists that had not, in the judges view, been sufficiently recognised so far in their career.  So you got the obvious winners, Howard Hodgkin, Tony Cragg, Richard Long, Anish Kapoor etc. etc.  Then the 'enfant terribles' came in.  But of course, they couldn't be awarded the prize straight away, no no no!  That would be far too obvious.  They were made to sweat.  Then, a few years later they would win: Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, that bloke in the bear costume...  The judges sit, they deliberate, but none of them ever ask, since it is not in their remit to do so, "is it art?"  That is a question that is beyond the pail, it is anathema to their way of thinking.  Simply considering the question shows you don't understand what contemporary art is.  After all, the contestants have been through the correct art hoops, they talk the talk, they walk the walk, they are called artist, ipso facto, what they produce is art, no question.  And who cares what art is anyway?  It's not even a question worth asking.  It is irrelevent.

Shed, something, shed
You see, anyone who has come to the point in their life when anything goes, as long as it is under the banner of 'art', is someone who has lost all interest in what art actually is, or what it is for.  For these poor souls, art is a playground, an entertainment of exquisite esoterica, things or events or short films the like of which no one has seen before - and that is the point.  Whatever you do, if you want to win the Turner Prize, it must not have been done before.  No matter if the paucity of the original conception is akin to a stick drawing of a man by a four year old child verses Rembrandt's last great self portrait, laughing at the ludicrous nature of life (it is truly a fantastic painting), there is no shock or surprise.  It cannot win.  Superficially, we have seen it all before, therefore, there is nothing more to see.  So don't look, don't examine, don't, god forbid, question the veracity of the works you are looking at.  Accept, and be happy that your tight little world of extra-ordinary banality has furnished you once again with a neat little cabal of abstract conceptions that, in years to come, will be washed away by the seas of time.

Well, that is perhaps not quite true.  Occasionally there is something to be said for a work that appears on the shortlist.  But you can lay your bets that they won't win.  And nor should they.  The Turner prize is not about art, never has been.  As I described earlier, originally it was used to reward those that had not been fully recognised, and were becoming to old to be considered 'new'.  But now, it has degenerated into a competition against itself.  Can the prize be more outrageous than the year before, can it create more headlines than ever before?  It is, in short, a very successful marketing exercise, the 'Big Brother' of the art world, that in the years when it was sponsored by Channel 4 Television, must have seen the increase in takings by the Tate gallery gift shop go up by several magnitudes, and footfall into the spaces that during the early years was confined to what is now known as Tate Britain, rise and rise and rise.  And that is a good thing.  Since without that they would not have found the funding for Tate Modern, and I, for one, would not have had the pleasure of walking over the bridge from St. Paul’s Cathedral towards the gallery, pausing to watch the riverboats, and marvel at the view of London, before entering the gallery and finding my way into one of the rooms that holds some of the greatest paintings of the 20th century.

I wrote an article about the Damien Hirst retrospective a few weeks ago, and I commented on how there was actually little or no art in the whole show, though its quality of entertainment I scored at a rather good 7½.  Once out of the show, I went into a free exhibition showing surrealist art from the Tate's collection, and came upon, after many years, Dali's 'Metamorphosis of Narcissus'.  You might think the title pretentious, but it is nothing as to the titles Damien Hirst gives his vacuosities.  The exhibition was appallingly hung, badly displayed in every way, paintings shoved here there and everywhere in a 'it doesn't really matter, its all old stuff' kind of way.  But that Dali - a small painting, filled to every corner and all four edges with imaginative detail, vibrant and vital.  Any one square inch of that painting contained more 'art', more thought, more guts and delight, than the whole of Hirst's retrospective.  But original?  Certainly the image may be, but the conception of smearing pigment saturated linseed oil on a finely woven cotton fabric?  Seen it before.  Been there, done that.  Move on.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Damien Hirst Restrospective - fun and fantasy at the Tate

When you go to a Damien Hirst exhibition, you are full of all sorts of expectations, good and bad, as, of course, his fame and notoriety precedes him to such an extent.  Indeed, you can take something from that, something very Damien Hirst.  Yes, a lot of expectation.  So what do you actually get?  Well the first room, his early works, was fairly uninteresting.  Cooking pots painted and hung on the wall, well..., photo of him with some poor mans dead head, nice..., his first spot painting, and reading the little guide you get given, once I was back at home, was something called 'Boxes', which was so astounding in its artistic power that it completely passed me by.

How to make a shark tank
How to make a shark tank
Ok, so I'm not particularly a fan of the 'art' of Damien Hirst, but that is not to say that he hasn't made some great things.  So we move on the second and third rooms that basically show Hirst in his entirety.  The shark, the spot paintings, the dead cows head with flies, the shelves of tablets.  For anything more, you have to go to some of the other rooms where you will find, as expected, halved cows/calfs, a sheep or two, another shark, a dove which is absolutely cliché-tastic.  You get the pharmacy stuff, various different displays of pills and packets etc., all very boring, a giant ashtray 'crematorium' which is tedious school boy fantasy art, the kind of thing you laugh about with your mates when sneaking out of school for a quick smoke when you should be doing something else, but you never actually make the giant ashtray because, well, you realise that the idea is the thing, and the thing isn't the idea.  I thought the shelves of fish would be good, but given that their colours have been all but lost, again, pretty boring to look at, just a collection for no adequate reason.  Similarly, more collections of pills, of surgical instruments and teaching aids, which struck me as the kind of collection you might make when you have the money to do it but no reason to do it, a couple of floaty ball things (naff and boring if you're not 6), and spin paintings which were so dull they brought tears to my eyes.  I'm sure even he realised this which is why he had one of them spinning round on the wall (or was it both of them?  It hardly matters), and made them as big as he possibly could, "got to give the punters something to talk about," I can imagine him saying, "there not going be fooled for long if they're static and only a few feet wide."

You see, what you get with Damien Hirst is a whole load of stuff.  He professes an obsession with death.  Indeed, he is quoted on the wall of the gallery as wanting to bring death into the space to 'provoke a profound primal fear'.  But that is not what you get.  What you get with the shark, is two impressive things: the shark itself, and the cabinet it's in.  And at no point is there a primal fear involved.  How could there be?  The cabinet is so strongly made, so overtly engineered that the barrier between you and the dead beast is as insurmountable as that between our little sun and Alpha Centaury, so any possible fear one might have is completely lost.  When you see it, you are first impressed by its size, then the interesting bending of light as you walk around it and the prism effect of the liquid within gives you differing views.  Then you enjoy the shark itself, as you would.  It's a massive shark for gods sake!  It's cool, it really is!  But you don't get death, not in any way.  What you do get is dead.  And you get dead again with the cows head, you get dead with the other cows/calfs/sheep/shark/dove.  It's dead, over and over.  No exploration, no understanding, the pure laziness of his 'art' is quite astonishing; the concept that all you have to do is exhibit something to have it mean something is arrogant in the extreme.  It is a fashion, I know, and it is not limited to Hirst, and of course because some people think it's rubbish it must actually be great art etc. etc.  But no.  There are those critics that fall over themselves to marvel at his Svengalian objet d'art, and those that keep a little more quiet, or try to see it as art.  Don't listen to any of them.  If there is a group of people any where who know less than the average punter it is those self same critics.  Once someone achieves a modicum of success, however they manage it, and they are lucky enough to have the collectors move in, then money is involved, real money, and critics seem to see it almost as their duty to take sides.  They move in like blinded vultures, scrabbling around for whatever they can find, eating off each other if necessary, because you can't ignore money, Hirst certainly got that one right.

How to make a spot painting
How to make a spot painting
So what else is there?  Well, there is the butterfly stuff.  The stained glass window designs are really nice, but again, there's no interpretation or exploration, just pretty butterfly windows.  There's the butterfly room itself, with live butterflies from the pupae on the canvases.  And just like the shark, what you get here is not 'life', but alive, just stuff that is alive, just like any butterfly tunnel you can go in up and down the country.  "But it's in an art gallery," I here you cry, "so it's art, isn't it?"  All I can say to that is believe it if it makes you happy, but really, saying something is true doesn't make it true.

So in the end, you have a whole load of stuff, none of which has been explored to any great extent, some of which hasn't been explored to any extent at all.  They are decorative, or shocking the first time you see them.  But that's it.  The spin paintings are about spinning a canvas and chucking paint on it.  The sharks are about "wow a shark... look!".  The ashtray is like that crazy-glue conversation you had for hours one night when stoned at a party.  The floaty ball thing?  - what you talked about after you got bored of the crazy-glue conversation.  The mini floaty ball thing with a ping-pong ball and hairdryer, art?  Really?  The dead flies in resin, the shelves and shelves of pills and cubic zirconia that are so devastatingly dull they even resorted to describing the materials that the shelving units were made from in an effort to liven things up a bit.  They reminded me of some of the terrible art from the seventies that either assumed you had no brain, or you would believe whatever you were told, or they didn't care one way or the other because communicating with any kind of language that meant someone without an in-depth knowledge of art history could understand surely meant that all you could do was paint figurative landscapes or portraits, instead of trying a little harder and doing what an artist is meant to, finding a way to communicate directly with their audience without the need for explanation.  The problem is, once you need to explain why something is art, and what it means, the art is gone, or perhaps it was never there.  Art is meant to communicate.  If it doesn't, it is not art.  Maybe the explanations become the art?  Maybe Hirst's shark should have been put on the wall as the label that describes its title?  Maybe.

But after all that, yes, after all that, I left with a smile on my face.  The spot paintings were the closest he came to any form of actual art, any thing in the show that attempted to grapple with something that required the artsist to actually think, to make decisions, to put forward a point of view thereby at least making an attempt to transcend the physical object to a state where it connects to other human beings, communicating something of what it is to be alive, to be human.  But even then, the most interesting thing about them is the idea, the concept.  Their reality is ultimately a let down, as is proven by your passage through the show when they turn up time and time again, and each time they get a little less interesting, a little more the same, a little less... anything at all.  And of course, we all know that he didn't paint them anyway, so he firmly pins his flag to the mast of conceptionist, designer, leaving any possible artistry to his underlings.

There is a poverty of imagination here, and almost no art at all.  But there is entertainment akin to watching a blockbuster movie, Die Hard or something similar.  It is fun and fantasy, but ultimately vacuous, like a lot of art today.  Would I go to another Damien Hirst exhibition?  Sure I would.  Great fun.  And I might even take my kids.  But I wouldn't pay £15.50 for the privilege.

Art 0.5/10
Entertainment 7.5/10
Aesthetics 6/10