Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Conceit Behind The Concept

I have long entertained the thought of writing a disparaging post on the subject of modern art. I admit I have never been particularly fond of it. Works by Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst alike have always left me somewhat cold and empty , rather like looking at Cezanne paintings – you recognise their formalistic implications and influence upon subsequent generations, but I would confess that my aesthetic sensibilities are flaccid and impotent, were I to ever admit that I enjoy anything aside from merely studying them for the sake of expanding my knowledge of other movements which I actually like.

Dipping a dead shark into a glass tank of formaldehyde and dubbing it rather pretentiously, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, is to me as cheaply sensationalist as bands producing videos with an overt anti-Iraq War message – flashy, false, and populist - ultimately worthless.
Walking through the Tate Modern, you are submerged into precisely such a world – a world where the concept supposedly wins. The Idea is the victor but where are the spoils of that victory?! I’ll tell you where: Damien Hirst is a millionaire.
And so the Idea, the Concept runs concurrent with financial benefit. But why not? Man is a pragmatist by nature.

Indeed, the well-oiled mechanism through which communication is established between a conceptual piece of art and the general public works similarly to any religious institution – it seeks to achieve prominence and power by falsifying as neatly and eloquently as possible a person’s idea of living in earnest with himself; he is objectified, stuffed like a Christmas turkey with claptrap he accepts as attractive due to its digestible, seemingly melodious, euphoric charm which it offers him as a substitute for living in everyday nothingness. The cogwheels behind this mechanism may often give off violent sparks in the face of plutonic controversy, ensuring that those artists’ names would be splattered all over newsreels. Not before long, even their shoe sizes will make the headlines, and then even the grunts of critics won’t matter. In other words, maximising gain while simultaneously minimising strain – the concept behind the Concept. Art today, and I mean such high-profile art functions precisely in this manner.

What is Tracey Emin doing when she exhibits her unmade bed along with all the pleasant niceties unashamedly part of her life? Is she trying to make a statement about a woman’s life today in general – the unscrupulous reality which she has to put up with? Is she trying to relate to us her experience of depression and loneliness? Is she simply trying to extend the boundaries of art, thus altering the way we perceive it overall? Or is it all publicity? Trying to answer those questions would be like trying to solve the Middle East – mission impossible.
One thing is certain though: publicity, well she was indeed blessed with that at least. Nothing can dissuade me with from the view that this is more artifice than genuine art.
Art and aesthetics are indelible counterparts; they are the lever through Archimedes wanted to lift the earth – a likewise impossible task because the oceans of vanity are simply too heavy.
If any of the above questions were true, Tracey Emin’s My Bed would be nothing more than social commentary. There is quite a considerable difference between a piece of social commentary and a piece of art, though the two very often of course tend to overlap. Not in this case though. If anything, Tracey Emin’s work is social commentary and its sole purpose is to convey a message, a meaning, a point. For it to be art though, it needs to possess some kind of an appeal; and by no means am I referring to an academic, Bouguereau- type of draftsmanship, I am merely emphatically stressing it should have an immediate impact upon the eye, whether it’s beautiful or plain unattractive – it absolutely must provoke a feeling, a sensation from within, which would perhaps naturally draw you towards it. A statement, a cantankerous critique on the landmark mishaps of the modern woman presented in the form of a scruffy bed does not qualify as such – it is not even ambitious, let alone effective.

Let me give you an example:

Tracey Emin would get up one morning, still bearing the torch of a heavy hangover, with a face the state of which would characteristically reveal her fondness for Edward Munch and an attire as clean as her bedsheets. She would spend at least a minute, possibly two, simply asking herself the existential question of what actually happened the night before. However it won’t be long until an empty bottle of Stella suddenly rolls down the heap of dirty clothes beside the bed and bumps into her foot. From this, she would rationally infer that whatever it was that happened the night before, it could have probably been seen from space. Naturally, her brain still on cruise-control, she would instinctively try to convince herself that last night was not really that bad and it could have been much worse - all those typical womanly expressions would be swirling around her cloudy mind, as she would be desperately trying to console herself. However, the night before would unfortunately still remain a jigsaw of suppositions. Nearby, right next to the dusty, old, out-of-tune piano that nobody plays, a handful of ambitious ants would be transporting the last remaining fags to their little abode in the garden under the perilous conditions of the Himalayas – the towering crests and cashmere ravines of wine-splattered clothes, so uncouthly amassed in compact piles on the floor – indeed, a work of art in itself, conceived and christened by chaos. Pregnancy test results – negative. Tracey Emin would sigh in relief, as at least one mystery of the past night would appear to be solved. She would then call forth the muses of divine inspiration – she turns the TV on, for the sound of the ravenous flies buzzing over the putrid leftovers of last night’s feast in the kitchen is driving her crazy. Evidently, the ghost of the early-hours past would still be hanging around the place for an indefinite period of time, as Tracey Emin would finally admit to herself that last night’s happenings certainly did not make for a symposium the kind of which Plato would be honoured to write about.
All of a sudden however, an idea will flash inside her mind. It’s fate! Lumens upon lumens of light would shine all over her divinely inspired brain, filling her with confidence that millions of innocent people from the remotest spots of the globe would doubtlessly love to witness first-hand the spectacle of her existence, immaculate only in its arbitrariness!

Thus ends the long and winding road to a single decision and thus My Bed is born!

And thus from the ridiculous we come to know the sublime:
Indeed, Michelangelo would tend to the ostensibly unexceptional solid block of marble that would have been only just delivered to his atelier, as he would tend to any living creature that he would effort to call dear. He would behold it with all the sharpness and clear, forthright resolution, pondering over its suitability, its dimensions – perhaps he would even deprive himself of a few days’ worth of sunlight merely to correctly visualise the finished masterpiece and its most intimate details from the amorphous marble block in front of him. Of food and drink he would not shed the slightest thought; with the thought of even young, virile, handsome males he would dare not concern himself; even incomplete ruminations of life and death the budding leftovers of which would be scattered upon the affluent table of his grand nature, he would put to a healthy repose, devoting his sincerest, most passionate, life-affirming attention to the masterpiece the exquisite forms which he would in his blessed mind conceive of. And thus years would pass as in a hermitage in his lonely atelier; he would carve, and chisel and chase; his talents would unrelentingly pressure even his well-being and perhaps knock the spirit out of it, all in the name of the uncertain, gloomy twilit realm where lies his most important debt – his debt to Man!
He would shun its beauty and call it unfinished, as so often happens with surly geniuses like himself; but it would be the honest, unpretentious, unerringly simple eye of the astounded viewer who, nevertheless well-bred in aesthetics, would revel with heartfelt sincerity in the Pieta’s painstaking perfection!

Indeed, it would be a posy of perfection the likeness of which an eminent poseur could never but in vain try to imitate!

I hope the above comparison, too idealistic or too cynical or for some perhaps too satirical, elicits a sound understanding of the very crux of the issue at hand. Sure, it may all be terribly far-fetched and equally untruthful, but at least to me it serves as an apt summation of where Conceptual Art gets it all so totally wrong in my opinion.
The fact remains: you can by all means try and grasp the meaning of Tracey Emin’s My Bed; you may look upon this work of art as a genuine work of art, but in the end, you will look at it, and casually say – ‘Yeah, I see what you mean, it’s alright, yeah’ - it would ingloriously fall so devastatingly short of any lasting appeal because it is quite simply nothing more than a sensationalist piece of social commentary conceived by the supposed artist, but in reality, designed by the media. You would just as swiftly want to move on.
I mean, can you really go up to Michelangelo after he has only just completed his Pieta and say with equal casualness - ‘Yeah, I see what you mean...’
Nothing beats genuine, accomplished beauty before your eyes, not even a concept or an idea, least of all a puny, populist attempt at those...

But, as Whistler once said (and quite rightly so):
“And the artist's occupation was gone, and the manufacturer and the huckster took his place...”