This week I went along to an exhibition at The Southbank Centre’s Hayward Gallery in London. “Light Show explores how we experience and psychologically respond to illumination and colour, and also encompasses more conceptual and political concerns”, or so the pamphlet I received upon entry told me.
As I have grown older i’ve come to enjoy time spent in art galleries. Far more enjoyable and stimulating than sitting idly in front of daytime TV, less taxing than a night of alcohol consumption (especially the next morning), and often a valid precursor to exploring decent restaurants with friends of a weekend.
Discussing art, artists and exhibitions with a friend recently, I confessed that “whilst I dont know a lot about art, I know what I like. Pretty pictures mainly”. A fairly glib, yet accurate assessment. Brian Sewell I am not. A fact I’m sure both he and my girlfriend are utterly thrilled about. This statement brings with it a tension, at least as far as much of Modern Art is concerned, for much of what people tend to think of as Modern Art falls into what should probably be called Conceptual Art.
A page originally posted in 2004 on the Tate Britain’s website which examines the history of the Turner Prize, a page that can be found here, suggests:
‘Conceptual art’ is a term that emerged in the 1960s to describe art in which the idea, and the process of making, take precedence over the finished object. The artwork does not have to take on a finished physical form: it’s the idea that counts. By giving primacy to the idea, concepts and thoughts become the artist’s medium
It is with the above statement in mind that I found myself troubled by much (not all, granted) of what I saw at Light Show, and indeed a lot of other art of a similar ilk. All too often, I felt that having read the accompanying description, I was left cold when presented with a work. Staring often for periods of time without feeling, or even thinking, much. So often it is incumbent on the viewer to not only discover, but to create meaning from these pieces. To some extent this is fine – I am not promoting a form of intellectual spoon feeding – but when one is told that x’s or y’s art “deals with the themes of death, social injustice, Walt Disney and Hamburgers” (of course I’m exaggerating) only to see what amounts to a really cleverly constructed piece of sculpture devoid of much if any meaning, I cannot help but think we’re into a sort of Emperor’s New Clothes scenario.
Some of the pieces in the exhibition were genuinely interesting – ranging from the evocative, visceral and thought provoking; such as Jenny Holzer’s Monument and Conrad Shawcross’ Slow Arc inside a Cube IV, to the fun and playful, such as Olafur Eliasson’s Model for a timeless garden. But, on the whole, it would seem that much of the exhibition, quite contrary to the statement on the Tate’s website, actually valued execution over concept. Ideas were, at least to my mind, at best flat and simple when present, or worse, sadly lacking.
If you compare these to the work contained within another gallery, just a hop skip and jump from the Hayward, such as those at the National Gallery – work which I’d crudely suggest match my “pretty picture” criteria – you’d find work which although it predates the conceptual art movement, often by hundreds of years, is laden with symbolism, meaning and thought.
It does not take a rocket scientist to understand the juxtaposition within the picture above, Frans Hals’ Young Man Holding A Skull, nor does it take a graduate of Goldsmiths to appreciate it.
My immediate criticism of Light Show was not that the work was devoid of value, but rather that the industry which surrounds it – commercial, academic, and those who produce – seeks to create and promote meaning where there is none, as if to justify the work and defeat the perennial claims by joe public that “I could have done that”.
If the work focussed on the creation of feeling and emotion there is nothing wrong with that. People, free of the burden of feeling that they have to discover meaning and symbolism in everything, may even feel like they could say “I like that”. It is this thought which troubles me most. Do art galleries and collectors when dealing with modern art seek to focus on meaning because it somehow elevates art from being mere entertainment? As if the creation of something which makes people feel happy just through being liked was a lower calling for the work? Demonstrating man’s infinite ability to post-rationalise nearly everything.
Has the success of YBA’s Damien Hirst and Tracey Emmin meant that we try to look at everything as conceptual art these days? Maybe we’d be happier if we stopped seeking meaning, and just started seeking pleasure. Remove the pressure to “get it” and suddenly we have objects that we can enjoy for their own structural merits – art for arts sake.
Artist Grayson Perry sums this up beautifully
The trouble is that people now look at all art as if it is conceptual art, which it isn’t. I think it’s about time that people started to bring their senses into play more and trust their bodily reactions to work – become more willing to say, ‘Wow! That is really lovely. I love that!’, rather than looking for the meaning of it all the time