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Thai Girl Tattle: Subvart And The Conceptual Rats

...For me it’s always busy, even stressful coming to England as all of the life tasks I escape by being in Thailand become focused on this brief period of time. Every small process, whether tax return, car tax, insurance or banking has become so immeasurably complex that something always gets messed up. I call the enquiry number to resolve it and the recorded message gives me twenty five successive options to choose from before telling me the ‘customer service operator is busy’. Oh to be in Thailand!...

Andrew Hicks pays a return visit to his native land, there to muse on the nature of art.

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I have to confess that though my recent stories imply I’m writing all this from Thailand, I am in fact thousands of miles away in Petersfield, a small market town in Hampshire in the South of England.

It’s really quite rural around Petersfield but it’s not like Thailand at all. There’s lots of houses but very few people, or so it seems. All they actually do here is to sleep. Every day they disperse in their big cars and on trains, intent on earning the money to finance their big houses and cars.

Quiet though it is, for me it’s always busy, even stressful coming to England as all of the life tasks I escape by being in Thailand become focused on this brief period of time. Every small process, whether tax return, car tax, insurance or banking has become so immeasurably complex that something always gets messed up. I call the enquiry number to resolve it and the recorded message gives me twenty five successive options to choose from before telling me the ‘customer service operator is busy’. Oh to be in Thailand!

A few weeks back I escaped up to London for the day on the invitation of my niece, Ponny. Arriving at Waterloo by train, I trod an urban landscape as dreadful as the worst of Bangkok before reaching the Thames and The London Eye. Turning right down the river I then did a rapid canter round Tate Modern, that most dramatic and popular of modern art galleries.

A little breathless, I crossed the river and sat awhile in a crowded St Paul’s cathedral before walking to Trafalgar Square where I ‘did’ the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. I then walked some more and did much of the British Museum before catching a bus to Islington for dinner with Ponny.

I was physically and artistically knackered but as Ponny is currently doing a masters degree in Fine Arts and having the company of two articulate young men, one of them a fellow art student, what did we talk about but art.

Our dialogue and my visit to Tate Modern once again challenged me to consider the nature and meaning of ‘art’. Was the pile of building materials in the corner of the room at Tate Modern a work of art or were they just doing structural repairs? And why unlike all other London galleries does Tate Modern have no definite article?

Yes, Tate Modern is an amazing art gallery, especially for the vast, obsolete power station that houses it and also because it’s excellent value for money. It has a huge number of visitors because admission is free and perhaps also because much of the collection is more than a little controversial.

Is a huge red canvas with a vertical red stripe down the side hanging in a vast empty room really art? Is ‘the welded heap of scrap metal recently unveiled which resembles nothing so much as the rusting chassis of a delivery van’ (The Times, Opinion, 13 June 2008) worthy of display?

Perhaps it is worth a look because it cost them Four Million Pounds and because it’s ‘one of the greatest sculptures of the twentieth century’, or so says Tate Modern’s director whose name, if I remember, is Sir Nicholas Serota.

But hold on a moment! I really think I do know what ‘art’ is.

Art’s old pictures in gold frames and marble statues with their clothes falling off. If you can walk round it, it’s a sculpture. If you have to stand in front of it, it’s a picture, though there my definition ends.

The trouble is that modern art has no clear confines, is not a definite article.

Then of course there’s the visual arts, the decorative arts and most problematic of all conceptual art. I’m not sure what this is exactly but if your gallery wants attention, try a dollop of conceptual art. There’s nothing like a silly stunt to attract media coverage. It challenges people to ask, ‘Is this really art?’

In contrast Tate Britain has lots of old pictures in frames but this summer it unveiled ‘Work No 850’ to much critical attention. By Turner Prize winner, Martin Creed this new work of ‘art’ consists precisely as follows. “For the next four months, people will sprint as fast as they can through the gallery at 30 second intervals. Fifty amateurs are each being paid ten pounds and hour to dash through the Tate.’ So said The Times.

And I say, ‘Art for f…’s sake?!’

In Trafalgar Square in the centre of London the ‘fourth plinth’, unlike the other three has no statue on it. In recent years there has been an imaginative scheme to place art works on it for a limited period of time and the next exhibit is by a leading British artist. His work of ‘art’ is that members of the public will be invited for a brief moment one by one to come and stand on the plinth and do whatever they feel like doing.

So again I ask, is this art? Performance art, nonsense art or what?

Conceptual art should be about a concept, an idea, be it ever so small… about conception. Thus it seems appropriate that one of its leading proponents, Tracy Emin is best known for her unmade bed strewn with soiled underwear, stained sheets and a used condom and for her tent to which is pinned the names of those she has slept with she can still remember. Conception or contra-ception?

I wish like her that I could sell my unmade bed for 150,000 Pounds to Charles Saatchi and for it later to be valued at a cool Million Pounds, but perhaps that lifts the lid on all of this. Conceptual art is just a lucrative racket, a scam.

One of the leading racketeers so far has been Charles Saatchi, the well-known advertising mogul. Described as a collector, he is in reality a dealer, an opportunist with the midas touch. When he buys and promotes something, it turns to gold.

For a young artist his imprimatur ensures arrival into the world of art. Thus The Times recently reports that he has just bought almost the entire graduation shows of three London art students. The pictures are said to be ‘infant-like daubs of faces and figures. By any known yardstick for evaluating figurative painting they are atrocious’. But soon Saatchi will be selling them on as pricey works of art.

Damian Hirst, his dead sheep and shark dissected and pickled in a glass tank are intriguing but again, are they really art? Not that it matters much anyway.

The 2008 Summer Exhibition at The Royal Academy is currently featuring a number of exhibits selected by none other than Tracy Emin. These exhibits include ‘an automaton depicting a zebra having sex with a woman and a video of a woman dancing in a hula-hoop of barbed wire that cuts and draws blood from her body’.

What’s more Emin has recently been elected as a member of the Academy. To become an RA is the ultimate accolade of recognition for the serious artist.

Beds and tents! It’s inconceivable! Enough said!

Once upon a time all art was religious and had one single purpose. When art became secularised the artist was still required to master precise technical skills and to paint pictures strictly according to established forms. The romantic movement later enabled artists to break free of these strictures and the watchword became individuality, novelty and creativity.

There followed a ferment of ideas and Turner’s broad brush evocations of rain, wind and speed and the works of the French Impressionists were condemned as mere daubs before their brilliance was finally recognized.

Expensive ‘daubs’ some of them have since become though… one of Monet’s many paintings of lilies has just sold at auction in London for almost twice its estimate at Forty Million Pounds.

Where does such money come from in times such as these? Is ‘credit crunch’ a breakfast cereal? Has the world gone totally mad?

It may be silly therefore to ponder ‘what is art’ for ‘art’ is just a three letter word as the precise classification of unmade beds, scrap iron and people running round galleries is not so very important. These things are certainly not artistic and they primarily represent the continued swing away from the rigid confines of art that existed before the romantics cut the traces a few centuries ago and released an unruly horse.

What does matter today though is if students emerge from the colleges with a degree in ‘Art’ unable to draw or paint and without any basic skills. What also matters is if the new ‘art’ takes all the money and prestiege and strangles the old forms to death.

‘Conceptual art’, peep shows, wax works, circuses are all entertaining and have their place, especially if they provoke thought but conceptual art is dangerous if critics take it too seriously and equate it with traditional art forms. It is simply different and so needs a new name.

For conceptual art is not ‘art’ at all. It is what I think in future we should call ‘conceptual subvart’. If you did not already know or suspect, subvart it is a sub-variety of art, a lesser species that subverts art properly so called.

I remember enjoying the ‘Sensations’ exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997 which was perhaps the first major showcase for conceptual art. It was memorable, entertaining and to a small degree thought-provoking but it was definitely subvart. It and its likes should not be allowed to become a flesh eating monster or to devour the rest of the world of art.

One of my great regrets in life is that I did not clip and keep the small advertisement that escaped the eye when promoting an event at ‘The Royal Society of Rats’. Typos are one of life’s great banana skins and that was a good one. ‘Conceptual rats’ would be an even better one.

My recent marathon around London’s galleries left me exhausted but I’d now be a mouse if I did not reiterate that subvart is primarily an audacious and lucrative joke. It’s time it was unmasked and renamed and to be enjoyed for what it is, a frivolous distraction from greater things.

In an age where everything is highly regulated to protect the vulnerable and the credulous consumer, conceptual subvart should carry a mental health warning. It should definitely not be given an artistic license.


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