Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Let us pray at the Church of the Missing Head

By Aussiegirl

This is priceless commentary on the current sad (and funny) state of "modern art". Ever since Picasso scrawled a few lines and stuck an eye on a cheek and a nose on a forehead and called it art, it's been downhill all the way. I'm sure that the plinth was a much worthier piece of art, seeing as how it was probably based on classical Greek architecture. But then, what do I know? I'm not an art expert.

Let us pray at the Church of the Missing Head - Comment - Times Online

HERE WE GO again, another art world fiasco born of the confusion as to what constitutes art. Surely we’ve all realised by now that no one, not even the Professor of Sculpture at the Royal Academy of Art, knows the answer to this question. Apparently — and isn’t it reassuring to know this? — Professor David Mach is just as flummoxed as the rest of us.
Let’s get this straight. There is no reason why anyone even vaguely familiar with the risible modus operandi of the contemporary art world should be surprised at what happened to David Hensel’s sculpture of a laughing head entitled One Day Closer to Paradise. He submitted it to the academy but, in the course of transit, it got mistakenly separated from its plinth. The empty plinth was judged on its own merit to be worthy of exhibition, while the sculpture itself was rejected.

The mistake is no different to that of the art critic who reviewed the air-conditioning in a new museum or, indeed, to the many cleaners who have swept up art installations because they weren’t recognisable as art.

When, in 1917, Marcel Duchamp handed down his great commandment that, henceforth, anything can be art, he unwittingly kicked off a new religion. He supplied generations of talentless students (and professors) with a charlatan’s charter. The brainless fanatics of this simple creed are now teaching in every art school in the country. Indeed, we’ve been suffering this intolerant and prescriptive orthodoxy for decades because, under the auspices of the new faith’s high priests at the Tate and the Arts Council, this religion, state-funded needless to say, runs all aspects of contemporary art on our behalf. It has been the process by which the originality of the avant-garde has become authoritarian, institutionalised and dead dull. Every year this religion bores the pants off us with its annual synod, the Turner Prize.

Like all religions, in order to be a supportive, active member of the congregation you must suspend all reason and demonstrate blind faith. Don’t ask too many questions because the college doesn’t like troublemakers. Just do as you’re told, forget all your preconceptions and everything you’ve ever learnt and follow me down the road to the Arts Council cashier.

If Sir Nicholas Serota, the infallible Pontifex Maximus himself, declares that these few off-cuts of wheel-mounted ironmongery (which he’s just bought with three or four millions of your money) is “one of the greatest sculptures of the 20th century” it becomes law. Said scrap might look like something run up by your neighbourhood weekend welder but it is a great work of art because it has been declared so by those with better eyes than yours. The trick is that their eyes have been trained to see it for what it isn’t, whereas yours are merely human.

[...] The saga of Hensel’s plinth is only the latest example of the silly self- appointed tyranny we live under in the visual arts. And it is a tyranny enveloped in self-justification and hot air. For those of us who are completely baffled by the decisions of the State Art religion, the Arts Council has recently supplied a handbook called Culture Matters. In its pages we are informed that, to qualify for Arts Council support, art must be “challenging”, because the Arts Council only believes in something called “Challenging Contemporary Art”. It sees its job not as promoting excellence across the whole range of contemporary styles but only in that corner that it deems “challenging”.

Indeed, so desperately important is it to be “challenging” that the word is used 80 times in 55 pages. Needless to say, it doesn’t deign to explain what it means, because it can’t. Like “cutting-edge” and “innovative”, challenging means whatever the council wants it to mean.

I imagine that the system by which an artist is selected for professional preferment from the horde of equal incompetents happens something like this. During one of the approved biennale junkets, an acceptable quorum of apostles stand looking at whatever it is. Suddenly, one of them turns to another, nods and utters the word of endorsement: “Challenging.” They then all nod and chorus: “Challenging.” This is baptism. The artist is reborn.

When Professor Mach stood evaluating Hensel’s plinth he was experiencing a “challenging” moment. For the rest of us his experience might be deemed a “gullible prat” moment. For Hensel, however, it is the best thing that has ever happened in his career, for
yesterday he was completely unknown.


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