Sunday, 22 April 2012

It's all the rage

This week, Megan and I took a trip through England, visiting many big public galleries. In London we visited the Tate Modern, the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery; in Birmingham the Ikon Gallery and the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery; in Manchester the Manchester Art Gallery. I learned that I have almost no affinity whatsoever for conceptual art and that, if I am to believe what I saw in some of these galleries, I am only interested in art that was made before 1950. Does this not make me seem rather like a philistine? It certainly made me feel like one and that was most unwelcome.

I have documented here my problem with conceptual art several times, going as far as to label it Fashion Art. I am now, frankly, tired of this it. I'm tired of seeing it in all the major modern galleries, I'm tired of talking about it with every artist I know or meet, I'm tired of getting angry about it and, most of all, I'm tired of thinking about it. And even with all of that, I still can't stop myself from once more rehashing my experiences of it.

Having seen so much of it in the past week, at the Tate Modern and Ikon Gallery, I feel like an idiot for not understanding it, for not caring one jot about it and for thinking that it is simply cannot be art. How can I call my self an artist and yet be so completely at odds with what seems to be the major art movement of my time? When I read "As the title suggests, Steel Zinc Plain represents a territory or a space as much as an object. By placing it on the floor rather than on a plinth and allowing it to be walked across, Andre alters the viewer’s relationship to the work of art" why do I keep shaking my head and wondering what I am missing, before feeling stupid and excluded? If I had been alive in the nineteenth century, would I have shunned those appalling new pieces by the so-called Impressionists, with all of their mess and unlife-like appearance?

Conceptual art depresses me. It depresses me because it is omnipresent, seemingly to the exclusion of every other contemporary art form. I want to see work invested with feeling, that has been wrought by artists using the hand, eye and heart, rather than this stuff of sensation and empty questions. Alternately, as an artist I could simply be jealous that conceptual artists appear to be swimming in the depths of accolades and money, while the sole of my foot is barely even wet.

I ought to take a lesson from this and totally avoid conceptual art in future. This, however, would appear to be no easy task at a time when there seems to be almost no other form of contemporary art on display in public galleries, almost as if each and every curator is dancing to the beat of one drummer, following in the wake of the unclothed emperor.

In many of our public galleries, we see vast spaces taken up with a small number of thin-seeming conceptual pieces, while enormous collections are held in storage, away from the public's eye. It seems wrongheaded, especially when one considers how disengaged audiences seem to be with conceptual art, compared to more traditional forms. At the Tate Modern viewers drifted through the spaces, never seemingly stopping for long, whereas in the National Gallery some paintings held constant and barely-moving crowds in front of them like magnets.

If we are to believe these admittedly-jaundiced memories, then something is clearly amiss. It would seem that many of those in charge of the public's art purse are purchasing and showing work that the public does not particularly care for.

Recently, Edinburgh's Fruitmarket Gallery held an Anna Barriball exhibition, that featured around twenty works lost in the brilliant white space of this mid-sized venue. On top of adding to the gallery's reputation for hosting unpopular and unlikeable art, it was shockingly empty when compared to the nearby Royal Scottish Academy. That building was playing host to the annual exhibitions of Visual Arts Scotland, the Scottish Society of Artists and the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour, all at once. Here was an exhibition showing a cross-section of contemporary art; a vibrant, lively and attractive show, where walls had to be jammed full of paintings and which ran for only a month.

One of the many empty spaces in Sarah Browne's
How To Use Fool's Gold in Birmingham's Ikon Gallery.
Last week in the Ikon Gallery, another attractive mid-sized space, Sarah Brown's exhibition How To Use Fool's Gold took up one whole floor. This time less than ten pieces failed to fill the space. There seemed little unity in the work and if there was a vision for the exhibition it was far from evident. Once again an exhibition of contemporary work in a modern gallery lacked any emotion and had few visitors.

When most of the money and public gallery space in contemporary art is stuck to what appears to be vacuous gimmickry, it is not just the majority of artists who suffer, but the viewing public too. The artists starve or give up to take a soul-destroying job; the public turn away from art thinking they do not like it and live an unenriched life of corporate entertainment and large-screen televisions. We can surmise that, just as with our financial world where the 1% have all of the riches, so too the art establishment only notices the fashionable 1% (some of whom it would appear are even part of the financial 1%). It is a sad state of affairs.

The "Fighting Temeraire" Tugged to her
Last Berth to be Broken up – William Turner, 1839
Happily, our England trip was not totally consumed by conceptual upset – we also got to see justly famous artworks of beauty and emotion. At the National Gallery we saw several rooms of great Impressionist works, including Degas' Combing the Hair, as well as a wall of van Goghs and Turner's stunning Fighting Temeraire. Here Megan fell for even older pieces: Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors and Jan van Wyck's Arnolfini Portrait. Up north we particularly enjoyed two Modiglianis, with one in Birmingham and one in Manchester.

Our last stop at Manchester Art Gallery, turned out to be an unexpected highlight. With an impressive, well kept and well laid-out collection, covering an almost 700 year span, it packs an impressive punch for a gallery of its size. Its rooms of Pre-Raphaelite and Victorian art (including John William Waterhouse's Hylas and the Nymphs and Charles Mengin's Sappho) were a particularly treat, which was a genuine surprise given my previous lack of interest in work of that type.

While much of this work was often beautiful and even at times emotional, little of the contemporary work on show was either. I am an artist, who by very definition makes contemporary work, work that is, to me, both emotional and beautiful. Over the past few years I've met plenty other artists who are similarly engaged. I believe that this kind of work, made using the hand, the eye and the heart, would be well received by the viewing public, if only they knew of its existence.

Today I am part of the unfashionable 99% of artists. Being unfashionable does not upset me, neither does being one of the masses. What does upset me is the skewed perception of contemporary art that our public galleries foster. It think it is time for the 99% to get their turn. Who's with me?


  1. Conceptual art is an institutionalized system of promotion and trade. Period. Objects traded within that system are called art simply because nobody wants to call them what they really are. Commodities, things, rhetorical solids. That's some depressing shit.

    So yeah, I feel your pain.

  2. That's a good description of conceptual art. Thanks, I'll have to remember it.