Sunday, November 29, 2009

Saatchi School of Art - What the Critic Thought

You may not always agree with the Times TV critic A A Gill, after all he does think he is Jeremy Clarkson with brains! But on this occasion his I found his view of the Saatchi X factor wanabee programme quite amusing. His comments about Duchamps Urinal was particularly apposite. I make no apology for reproducing it in full.

A.A. Gill, Sunday Times 29th November 2009:-
Right, that’s it. I am unilaterally and with prejudice proclaiming an anathema on
R Mutt’s bloody urinal. It’s wheeled out for every feeble-brained, finger-snapping, zeitgeisty art programme as a sort of shibboleth, a totem. I’ve been shown it three times in two weeks, and it was predictably used to explain contemporary art in last week’s School of Saatchi show.

Let’s get something straight about Marcel Duchamp and his pissoir fountain, the Rosetta Stone of all modern art. It was a joke; it wasn’t even shown in a gallery. Duchamp liked puns, funny names and bawdy humour. He is famous for his ready-made found objects, which he placed incongruously — a bicycle wheel on a stool, or a commercial pot-holder. The simple point of the joke is that a urinal in a lavatory is there to be peed in, but a urinal in an art gallery is there to be talked about and genuflected over for a century.

Duchamp was a bit half-hearted about art; it was a hobby, really. He got fed up after a bit and devoted most of his life to playing chess. He even carved his own set, except for the knight, which he had to get a craftsman to do. He did take 20 years to create one last secret piece. It has to be viewed through a peephole. It’s a headless woman with the full Hollywood pudenda, holding an oil lamp in a landscape. You can see it in Philadelphia. Now, no art smarties ever hold this up as an explanation for all of contemporary art, although it is far more disturbing and difficult than the unplumbed bog. Duchamp was rediscovered in the 1960s, when his found objects offered some post-hoc heritage for a lot of artists who were bored with the mechanics of making stuff.

I’ve given you this patronising pocket lecture because I’ve just been patronised for an hour by the judges on Saatchi’s art series. Yes, the young wannabe artists are made to perform like contestants in The X Factor. (They are all Jedward.) This format has already been inflicted, disastrously, on design, with that old singing teapot, Philippe Starck. The obvious difference between performing and making is that one belongs on television as its natural habitat, and the other doesn’t. Art is mostly solitary and a rather mad occupation. There is also a sadder, uncomfortable truth about artists in this programme: they are mostly very, very dim. In fact, being dim may well be a prerequisite for the calling. I say this as someone who has practised as one for most of his life; and I’ve worked in a gallery as an art critic and catalogue scribe. There is something in purely visual creation that works best when disengaged from intellect. The less you think, the more you look, the better. For every polymath Leonardo, there are dozens of thuggish Caravaggios.

The judges in this heightened reality show constantly asked the proto-artists what they thought they were making, and to explain why what they did was art. None of them could form a rational or even coherent sentence. This doesn’t make it a bad programme. Indeed, it’s rather a fascinating one, but for reasons the producers probably didn’t envisage. It is actually a vivid evocation of the reality of contemporary art. It has become all about the polemic: an artist needs to be explained by someone else who speaks the fluent, florid art-speak that is the technical jargon of galleries. This is because the market trusts explanations when it doesn’t trust a brick. Words, you can understand; art could be a lavatory. The answer to “What is art?” has always been: “That which is made by an artist.” To further beg the question, the definition of an artist is: “Someone who makes art.” Those definitions no longer pertain. An artist is someone who is validated by one of the three Cs — a critic, a curator or a collector. Any one of these contestants could be a successful artist, but they would have to be defined by successful judges. So the interesting bit of this programme is the competition between the panel of experts for authority and memorably pithy jargon.

In fact, none of the contestants will become famous artists, because they are the found object. The art is the format; they are urinals. Charles Saatchi is a Duchamp of collectors, a creator who doesn’t create, a performer who never appears. He’s probably at home playing chess. Actually, he’s much more likely to be at home watching back-to-back reruns of CSI: Miami.

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