The British Contemporary Art Scene:

Ominous Cracks are Appearing (part two)

By Peter Strong

Looking at the problem: a glance at the philosophical basis of conceptual art

Do we have a difficulty with conceptualism, then? We must have one, I think, if it is holding art in general down. And if it is contributing to this, what is the kernel of the problem with conceptualism? It would perhaps be good for us all to know. And we would like to know; however, please, only if it can be explained in a nutshell.

Consider this. Consider that a species is a category, or, let us say, a bag. A species is a bag into which one puts all items of a similar kind. Thus, we might have a bag (granted, a very large one) filled with kitchen sinks. That, then, is a ‘species' of kitchen sinks – of which, of course, we can have a few ‘varieties' of the species of kitchen sinks, for they are not all of them made by the same manufacturer to the exact same specification: nevertheless, they all belong to the same species because they are all kitchen sinks. Similarly, we could have a bag for bookends as a species, a bag for tractors as a species, a bag for brass monkeys as a species, and so forth. Now the conceptualist's position, as I understand it, doesn't hold with all this categorization of distinct looking items into separate bags of species. No, no, no. The conceptualists have only one gigantic bag for every item and thing on planet Earth, and beyond, to be crammed into: shall we simply call it a ‘one-species', or a ‘one-bag'.

Looking at things in this conceptualist way implies that you cannot really draw any valid distinctions between any of the odd assortment of items that you might pull from out of the accumulated mixture that you find collected within your one-bag. Once more, conceptualists refuse to distinguish between a sink and a tractor, or these and a brass monkey – they are all of equal value and consideration. Now if we think here in terms of just an ordinary rubbish bag filled up with all sorts of bits and pieces and household trash and such things, then, according to the conceptualists, the assorted items within the rubbish bag all belong to a single species called trash. Which is why if we here follow the conceptualists' logic from the bag to the wall, so to speak, by looking up onto a wall at a piece of their art, or into a room at an installation, then, often, we can find likewise a sight of many incongruous items oddly piled, stuck, or otherwise arranged together. If we look at the logical basis of conceptualism in this way that I illustrate, then we can see that it is no coincidence that rubbish has spilled literally onto the stage of contemporary art as conceptualism's metaphor. Indeed, even if we happen to see as part of a conceptualist scheme just one item, or a minimal bit of something, it doesn't really matter – for whether alone, or in company, they all belong in conceptualism's logic of the single species one-bag. The single minimalist conceptual item on display we might therefore think of as being merely a lone piece of litter that has been plucked from out of the one-bag, and so it is still theoretically fixed and connected (on a par) with everything else that may yet be in that bag.

A clever overall deception is built into conceptualists' attempted selling to us of their single species ‘conceptualism'. They would stress to us the feature of its ‘inclusivity' – it knows and has no boundaries, and therefore is a reception species for all peoples and all things; the implication is given that it represents a style which comprehendingly embraces the furthest reaching and diverse elements of life (the full Monty, as it were); the implication is given that there is indeed nothing more that any other style of art, or philosophy of art, can further add to such an inclusive picture as fits this package, or bag: furthermore, they stress its vast scope for our producing endless different and original works of art – conceptualism, in this sense, is conceived of as a mainspring for all human art to come.

But let us think upon this last one.

Yes, certainly, there is vast scope for moving all the items filling the universally large one-bag into an infinite number of aesthetic arrangements. But, if all the ingredients of the one-bag are of an equal philosophical much-ness, it turns the word ‘scope' into a rather horrible prospect – a nightmare, in fact. It presents us only with the prospect of a wilderness, a desert: one where there is given to us only a vast scope for endlessly moving the equivalents of identical grains of sand into an infinite number artistic arrangements. But with this ‘level playing field' of content and meaning inherent in the physical substance we are moving and positioning in our conceptualist arrangements, we are, in fact, only forever doing the same work of art: and, this is, if we think of it, a conceptualist condemnation devoutly to be unwished. Roll on, Sisyphus! Or, rather, shall we not, I hope, let ourselves roll on with an art which is in principle is basically in imitation of Sisyphus. There is vast scope, only that it is all the same: a vast scope of sameness.

Agreed, we can say conceptualism does hold the universe, but only in a sense, or terms, of everything being reduced to a common category, or species – the species of rubbish. It is accepting of all, as rubbish. However, it is the view of others, myself included, that many of the fractured items presently to be found inside conceptualism's one-species rubbish bag require now to be rescued, and to be considerately glued back together again in order to be regarded as species gems in their own rights. And this is where a much larger view of art requires to enter the upon scene, to facilitate the setting of these things back together and the inserting of them forward into their more understandable places: to do in fact for art just what Linnaeus's and Darwin's ideas did as explanations for the diversities we comprehend in nature. This latter approach of theirs did not in any way arrest the flow of nature's life; nor do I think would an equivalent new explanation for art be killing to art's life – art and science themselves are unstoppable: proper explanation in art and science merely enables us to be more comprehending of these two vital immensities explained and, hopefully, more careful of them. Conceptualism is too mediocre an idea for this task: it places everything into one morass of a ragbag because it cannot think formidably enough to provide for art with the equivalent of what Linnaeus and Darwin did for natural science. Linnaeus, and then Darwin, spelled out for natural science their schemes of the arrangements and dynamics of things that have in turn provided for us with more authentic explanations for the perceived diversity of things – more authentic pictures of the way things work than those inadequate and confused explanations which they themselves inherited. Of course, art still awaits that fuller picture of explanation that surely can be spelled out for it – but it ain't conceptualism. The very climate and fundamentalism of conceptualism precludes us from even searching for these larger, truer, and more necessary explanations concerning art generally.

A nation and its art world confined to conceptualism

In the meantime, in Britain, we are, if we are either artists or arts administrators, being kept within the confines of the Serotian potato patch. Massow can make his truthful remarks (an editorial comment in The Daily Telegraph of 26/01/02 calls him "Ivan the Truthful") simply because as an independent millionaire his long-term livelihood is not affected. He therefore is in no great plight. Yet because others in the business of art must both eat and pay their mortgages they are therefore under current British conditions somewhat obliged to work in, and on, or at least near to Serota's patch - or, if not exclusively on his patch, then possibly on a complementary conceptualist patch belonging privately to the millionaire publicist patron of contemporary art Charles Saatchi - who was once Serota's mentor but has now become more a rival. More of Saatchi as we go along. But whichever patch one works in, between the two, all must kow-tow and thrive off the fact that Britain's contemporary art world is a single product economy. It clearly is a matter of thinking potatoes, planning potatoes, dreaming potatoes, completely inside this nationalized art potato industry of conceptualism. The general British investment is therefore in potatoes, and has been increasingly in potatoes for nigh on 20 years. Many have for so long invested in Serotian potatoes - their money, their reputations, their integrities - for it to have now reached the condition of a solid entrenchment. Thus, as Massow says of the ‘tsarist' arts establishment: "Together, they conspire both to protect their mutual investments and to defend the intellectual currency they've invested in this art."

The Tsarist reign has led to a crisis in British criticism

In this twenty-year path to entrenchment the critical elite of Britain have been successfully cowed, and have been inexorably absorbed into a subserviency to the potato industry. Again, to quote Massow: "The arts elite (and that includes the critics) who witnessed the conceptual revolution have invested so much of their reputation in defence of this kind of art that they find themselves unable to criticise it." Such is the power of the arts establishment that today in Britain there remain only a few independently minded arts critics still operating. There is a crisis in the function of criticism to match the dearth of non-party line critics. But does this really much matter? I for one think it does: at least for those who believe that for it to be properly and intelligently functioning as a democratic culture a state requires - quite literally - a critical body, or mass, of critics.

But what do these vitally needed critics actually do? Well, ideally, critics perform a fundamental task of intelligent scrutiny, that of looking at and assessing with contemplative care every conceivable aspect or life and living – including art. They find art and artists for us, and the valid of art and artists for us; in their very interaction with the public they train others in the art of agreeing or disagreeing with them, but at the same time, in the habit at looking at things with a greater acuity and vigilance. We are impoverished without critics, and, again, to stress the point, I would suggest that we are actually in some democratic peril should they all get themselves completely replaced by salesmen. Like the need for a sufficient number of teachers to keep an education system going, a sufficient body of critics is vital to keep a lively minded and alert democracy alive. Of course there can be and are star critics, but the "critical mass" can only healthily be the fruit of a critically active society with everyone at almost every level pursuing some aspect of its practice – otherwise there will be found only the lone-wolf Jeremiahs trying to stuff our ears with their tedious drones.

What we can now report of the present situation in British society and its arts scene is this news: that not only is God dead (that happened a long time ago), but that the critic is also now also dead – de facto dead. Massow plainly discerns this state of affairs when he states: ‘Concept art is so firmly "established", it is no longer promoted through reference to any criteria of aesthetics, originality or intellectual challenge, but through spin and the clever exploitation of the fear of "missing out".' To spell out his message: it is, or it was, exactly the critic's job to furnish the public criteria of aesthetics, originality, and intellectual challenge. Now, with concept art – and, by default, with any other sort of item or act claiming to be art - the services of the critic are no longer required in Britain. And, as we are finding, when the critic is dead – or even nearly dead - it is a question of long live spin … and hype … and more spin … and more hype.

So here it is where we home-in upon the nub: which is upon this particular matter of critics and criticism. And it is a matter, I suggest, worth sparing a moment to consider. Because the matter sorts out what is a democratic type of culture, from what is a totalitarian type of culture. And we still have an opportunity, at least for the immediate present in Britain, to say which of the two types we might prefer to have in our futures either as Britons alone, or Britons in Europe. As things stand, the majority of British people remain completely mystified by the arts world and its structures, and if they wonder at all about it simply assume that it is acceptably what it is, and that it is benignly democratic, like the BBC and organizations like that.

The ‘Serotian' system of ‘designation'

"However, Massow began his New Statesman article by telling us straight that we have a totalitarian form of culture maintenance system operating in Britain – and he happens to be absolutely right about this. This totalitarian system gradually crept up on Britain during the twenty plus year period that we have been regularly mentioning, much abetted by the presence on the scene of Nicholas Serota. Therefore, we shall use his name eponymously to epitomise Britain's totalitarian form of culture maintenance system - as ‘Serotian'. Under this type of regime, in common with other types of totalitarian culture regimes, patronage is undertaken along characteristic lines, and artists emerge before the public in characteristic ways. Thus, under the Serotian system we can say that patronage of artists and cultural events is provided in the main by state funding. Also, we can say that artists and creatives who emerge before the public arrive there, again in the main, through processes of ‘designation'. Top-level patrons - meaning those who have access to copious funds, public or otherwise - we can say, inhabit the ‘Designator League'. In Britain today there are two particular individuals who dominate the arts scene as its top-dog designators: they are Nicholas Serota (possessed of a public purse) and Charles Saatchi (owning a private purse). Together they are the Barnum & Bailey men the visual arts world. And they happen both to be in the business of conceptualism. Ruling as they do they are in a position to designate just what is art and what isn't, as well as just who is an artist and who isn't. They do this effectively. Consequently, there need be no public debates – other than publicly staged cosmetic ones- entered into on these matters.

The ‘Ruskinian' system of critical championship

So where does the critic fit, as a nub or anything else? Well, the critic fits in a social and political context in diametric opposition to the position of a cultural designator. The designator is a decider and line-manager; the critic is a comprehender, tutor, and encourager – in short, not a dictatorial boss.

Now if we have already set before us the Serotian example of an official state, or totalitarian, system of culture maintenance, can we likewise find in order to compare, any British examples – past or present - of a contrasting ‘critical' system of culture maintenance? Certainly, we can. This particular one is an historical example, but, even so, one not entirely dead in some Britons' sentiments even today. So if we are prepared here and now to brave for a few seconds our fears of any possible fustiness, and conquer our worries about "missing out" on the present through wasting even a quick peekie-boo at something of the past, then we can safely pull back the dust sheet to reveal the example of John Ruskin (1819-1900), the great Victorian cultural figure and prophet of his day. And it doesn't really matter if in pulling back the sheet what our attitude is, either towards the Victorian past, or even towards any of the specific ideas and views which Ruskin held (these were often stimulatingly self-contradictory). The feature of importance that we are looking at regarding Ruskin is that model his very example set for the role of the independent minded critical champion. And just as we have adopted Sertota's name to represent a totalitarian system of culture maintenance, we can here adopt Ruskin's name to represent an essentially democratic system of culture maintenance. As a duo Serota and Ruskin present an example of a total antitheses in all that they culturally represent.

Ruskin himself presents to us the example of himself as a proto-champion of cultural life. Many Britons even today will recall from their school history lessons hearing the story of how John Ruskin championed the works of the painter J.M.W. Turner as well as of the Pre-Raphaelites Brotherhood (who included artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Milais, and others), and succeeded, as a consequence, in drawing the works of these artists into the consciousness and hearts of a Victorian, as well as a later public. The story well enough encapsulates the idea of the ‘Ruskinian system': which is an approach to getting the public aware and accepting of artists' work and the particular works' inherent messages and meanings. The system entails the critic assuming the role of an artists' champion, functioning all the while as a free agent in society's midst. A champion is a defender of the cause of either a particular artist or a school of artists – and the ‘weapons' the critic fairly uses for this purpose are opportunities for public discourse, publications, and, in today's world, the broadcast media.

The Ruskinian model of the critic-champion is a notion greater in value than the sum of all Ruskin's own works as both an artist and a critical writer. And why? Simply because it constitutes a model for all time – or, that is, one serviceable for as long a time as democracy cares to be sticking about in people's lives. For with an uncanny genius Ruskin struck upon a perennial role for the critic. Cultural maintenance prior to Ruskin, and now again in Britain under the reign of Serota & Co., had always been an essentially totalitarian business. And so it has been predominately, and is, in other cultures as well. Ruskin smashed this mould like the Industrial Revolution smashed the world of agricultural economies. Therefore, Ruskin's unarguable cultural contribution to the processes of Western thinking comes through his placement of the role of the critic in democratic culture. Few people yet twig to the fact that his is as significant a contributing idea to the function of democratic culture as, say, was the original idea of the ballot-box or of its Greek equivalent of marked stones and sherds – to the function of democratic politics.

And so, essential things having been said, we can round off this highlighting of the critics' importance. In a Ruskinian regime artists are critically accompanied in their efforts, and critically assisted – which makes one hope that they are always aspiring to be a responsible bunch of people. It happens to be my view that it is the independently minded critic, not the artist, who is the pivot of a democratic system of culture maintenance. Artists, contrary to the myth, to the razzmatazz that they are a tribe of prophetic and independent wild bohemians, are predominantly compliant souls - most of them ready to act with their gifts as the Albert Speers of others' causes. We need to understand this as a home truth: did even the great Michaelangelo himself instigate the idea of the Sistine murals? No he didn't, he would rather have kept on chiselling at his sculpture.

The economics of the Serotian and Ruskinian systems of culture maintenance

Now let's be practical.

Systems all are edifices erected upon some foundation of practical economics. The Serotian system thrives as a plant because it has been potted into a container of state money. People, however rich, who invest in conceptualist art are effectively buying government bonds.

Likewise, it is foolish to conceive of subscribing to a possible Ruskinian system of culture maintenance without it too being set upon some practical economic foundation. And, at least as I see it, this could perhaps be done upon the basis of a private patronage open to all, and not only pitched to the resources of the mega-rich. And so, without here bogging ourselves into the technical niceties of how exactly a viable Ruskinian system for the 21st century could be structured, let me just say that it might well be feasible to base it upon a scheme that offers annual tax concessions to ordinary citizens who elect to purchase the works of living British artists and craftsmen. And, of course, in doing something like this (at least for the visual and plastic arts) the onus of patronage would then pass - from the non-elected cultural civil servant, and from the untrustworthy ambitions of those sorts of politicians who would simply mobilize the talents of artists to serve their ends - to where it should rightfully belong, which is into the responsibility of the individual citizen.

However, on the immediate prospects: namely, the possibilities of a greater democratisation of cultural life in Britain I myself remain doubtful. What ought immediately to happen does not always turn out to be what does happen. Recent politics and politicians in Britain have succeeded in chronically debilitating Britons on the general subject of democracy to the extent that at the last general election only 59% of the electorate voted. So, there is no great upsurge for democracy at present. The ruling government's opposition in toto has zilch conception, or interest, it seems, in those issues that involve operating a properly democratic cultural maintenance. In the meantime hype and spin are having their heyday, and pseudo-democratic demagoguery is perhaps getting set to have its field-day. These things, I think, require first to burn themselves out before any practice of a democracy of culture gets suddenly to be recognized as an engaging and necessary project.

4. April 2002


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