Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What is Art?

Every Sunday morning, Miriam O’Callaghan interviews a “couple” on RTE radio. Last Sunday’s “couple” was John Sheahan & Barney McKenna of the Dubliners.

Sheahan read a poem he’d written for the deceased Ronnie Drew – the closing section was where he hoped Ronnie had finally found the answer to life’s three great imponderables: “What is life, what is art and where the fcuk is Barney?”

I thought of it last night while watching a BBC2 programme about aspiring young artists competing for the patronage of Charles Saatchi.
Basically the programme had selected 12 wannabe artists from a much larger group, this 12 to be further whittled down to 6 during the programme, who would then be given 10 weeks to produce some new artworks. The ultimate winner will have his/her piece exhibited with Saatchi’s collection and be given a studio for 3 years.

The whittling process from 12 to 6 was the subject of the programme, with each participant having to present one art work to the panel (which included Tracey Emin) and the final choice to be made by Saatchi himself.

As a little surprise the 12 contestants were asked to complete a life drawing of a nude model, which merely served to prove that none of them can actually draw. There were only 3 painters in the twelve, the rest were showing a variety of installations, mechanical devices and videos.

They then, individually, had to discuss their presentation with the panel and each was asked the simple question: “Why is this art?”. None managed a credible answer, indeed, most were genuinely flummoxed by the question.

This inability to justify didn’t seem to faze the panel – who showed a “famous” video by an “artist” called Bruce Nauman, walking bare-foot along the edge of a square marked on the floor. Nauman famously found himself suffering from “artist’s block” while sitting in his studio. Then he had a blinding revelation: “I’m an artist and, therefore, everything I create is, by definition, art”. And off he went. He’s beloved of the art community because this rationale has been the greatest “get out of jail free” gift that could ever have been given to that community.

I don’t know if this was the first of a series of programmes, but I hope there will be a follow-up. At least half the final 6 chosen appear to be utterly talentless charlatans, so my education has obviously sadly deficient and I welcome all opportunities to bridge the gaps.

One girl who made the final 6 presented a handle attached to the wall, with a referee’s whistle suspended from it. Asked to explain it she mumbled stuff about tactile feel, action of blowing the whistle etc.. Tracey Emin elaborated for her – it’s sexual blah blah. But what they particularly liked was her drawing of the nude model – an incomprehensible series of marks, squiggles etc across two large sheets of paper. The human form could not be discerned in all of this. But I know that I’m wrong, because this “drawing” also caught the approving eye of Charles Saatchi!.

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