A few weeks ago, with my new(ish) Tate membership card clutched firmly in hand, I was enjoying a wander around the Tate Britain, when I spotted the door for the galleries where this year’s four Turner Prize nominees are exhibiting.
Now in the past that would have had me scuttling away, but the past is a different country, and armed with the knowledge that I could enter without having to pay any extra, I decided to grasp the opportunity.
Pushing beyond the heavy door, I tried to shove my equally weighty reservations firmly to the back of my head and maintain as open a mind as possible.
First up was artist and composer James Richards, who uses ‘found images’ in his own black and white films. His entry here, Rosebud, includes, for instance, mutilated photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe and Man Ray that he found in a public library in Japan.
The methodical efforts of an anonymous individual or individuals to scratch out any signs of genitalia is an interesting reminder of how censorship is not just something done by the state.
Moving on, Tris Vonna-Michell’s audio-visual installation, Finding Chopin Dans l’Essex, is about the artist trying to make sense of his own background as a German, born and raised in Southend.
Meanwhile, in the exhibition’s one step away from lengthy video installations, Ciara Phillips has pasted an entire room with her splattery screen prints, together with frames that spell out a gigantic ‘OK’, to create Things Shared.
And it all finishes with Duncan Campbell’s 55-minute film If For Others, which casts an eye over how art is used and commoditised.
Of the three lengthy films, Vonna-Michell’s is primarily a biographical/autobiographical documentary: there’s nothing remotely wrong with this – but is it ‘art’, other than an example of the art of documentary?
Richards’s piece, as mentioned, raises questions about censorship – but again, is it ‘art’ or a form of art film?
Phillips’s screen prints warmed the cockles of my old-fashioned heart – although that was rather more because I recognised them as being something that I could understand as ‘art’, but beyond that, they didn’t really have much else going for them.
The professional critics are hailing Campbell’s piece as the obvious winner among this quartet, but after being harangued by a female voice for several minutes on the subject of ‘parasitical art dealers’ and how It’s All The Fault Of The ‘Neo-Liberal Elite’, I chose to exit stage left, marking the first instance where I have found myself being irritated by someone actually objecting to neo-liberalism.
Campbell’s work may well be a very good polemical film essay – and there is nothing remotely wrong with that – but if that is what is for ‘art’ these days, then why isn’t the BBC’s fabulous three-part TV essay on concrete brutalism by Jonathon Meades in contention?
What is it that sees these video exhibits classed as ‘art’ and that not?
All of these video entries have a place – they all had more to offer than I expected – but is that place really in a gallery? And what, ultimately, do we mean by ‘art’?
The art establishment is, by and large, completely out of synch with the majority of the population.
Art has become divided into two worlds – and rarely do the twain meet.
In one, art has become about the concept – see above. You no longer need to able to even use any of what most people would consider the main skills associated with art: drawing, painting, sculpting, ceramics etc.
Throw some images together on film – the rougher-looking the better – and suggest that they convey some deeper, philosophical meaning.
Alternatively, do something similar with objects arranged in an apparently haphazard fashion.
Just to point out – I am not opposed to installation art per se: Anish Kapor’s Marsyas convinced me that there could be plenty of merit in such an approach.
But away from this sort of approach, most people want something less solipsistic – they do not want to look at a piece that takes hours to explain before you have a chance of ‘getting’ it (that’s why Marsyas worked: it didn’t need you to be told anything).
This is not to assert that people in general are unsophisticated when it comes to imagery or that they afraid of the ‘modern’ in general – the Matisse cut outs at the Tate Modern earlier this year was a blockbuster not just in name, but in terms of crowds too.
Art can – should? – “wash away from the soul the dust of everyday life”, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be infantile or unchallenging, as Picasso, who said that, illustrated.
And in a work such as Guernica, he also showed that he could use art for aims other than lifting the spirits.
But a large part of the key to Guernica’s power and success – just as with, say, Goya’s The Third of May 1808, is because they do not require lengthy examination before one can come to a basic understanding of them.
However, in an era when Tracey Emin can be named professor of drawing at the Royal Academy, as happened in 2011 – and that be hailed in some quarters – then we have come to a pretty pass.
As I’ve argued before, the likes of Emin, Damien Hirst and Ai Weiwei create an art that brings to mind the Emperor’s New Clothes, with gushing sycophants falling over themselves in order to show just how hip and avant garde they are.
In the case of Phillips, I feel that her Turner Prize nomination may be rather a sop to ‘traditional’ art, although some have suggested it’s because she runs an artists’ collective in Glasgow that operates in the community (perfectly laudable). It’s like the reserve of that Emperor’s New Clothes coin.
There may well be a place for the video exhibits that are currently on show in the Tate Britain’s Turner Prize nominees exhibition, as I hope I’ve illustrated in a fairly open-minded manner. But in a gallery, displayed as ‘art’, is not that place.