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London Report and Editorial: The 2001 Turner Prize

One contemporary art critic can view a piece of contemporary art and dismiss the work outright. Another, equally 'important' art critic can view the same work and wax eloquent on the virtues of the work and how it relates to the definition of art or how the work expands the horizons of art. However, the actual consumers of art all repeat the same mantra: "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like." So if the general art consumer doesn't need to expand their definition of art, why do art critics look for it so intently in contemporary art?

The Turner Prize, a £20,000 international award in the United Kingdom, bestowed by the Tate Britain in memory of British painter J. M. W. Turner was recently won by 33-year-old Martin Creed. Mr. Creed's winning entry was an empty museum gallery in which the lights are timed to periodically turn off and on. He won out over artists such as Richard Billingham, who made a blurred home video of his sleeping alcoholic father; Isaac Julien, who created a homo-erotic film of two nude men; and Mike Nelson, who recreated a dusty gallery storeroom.

Rachel Campbell-Johnston, The Times art critic, mentioned "His flickering installation may mean everything or nothing. But at least it gives the viewer something to look at, something more interesting than plotless movies and planks of wood." Whether Creed's work is genuinely more interesting, is of course, beauty in the eye of the beholder. However, the plotless movies and planks of wood to other critics, may be much more on the edge than Creed's installation.

The artist himself states that his work is about the qualities of "nothing" and that "I was trying to make something. I want to make big, beautiful things" -- two mutually exclusive ideas. But the artist states, "I don't think of myself as an artist," a claim that seems to be the real, latest mode in contemporary art. Maurizio Cattelan whose "Felix" was currently created for and purchased by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, was reported in the Chicago Tribune recently as saying the same exact phrase; claiming that his artist tools consist mostly of phones -- to call people and arrange things to happen.

Unfortunately, neither Creed nor his critics seem to have really grasped the meaning of 'nothing.' An empty gallery is still a gallery. A light is still something, as is darkness. An experience is fleeting and impermanent, but the present state of something that exists is still something. This is Buddhism 101. The second question that arises is, is it big and beautiful by the artist's intent. (Or perhaps we should call Creed an 'accidentalist' -- "I just happened to walk in here and win this Turner Prize as I was passing by"?) Of course, the work is scalable by the artist's own admission, "It's obvious that everyone can turn the lights on and off, if they're able to reach a light switch." So it's not necessarily a big work. And since there isn't really anything to 'look' at and the experience isn't exactly uplifting or moving, well, this beauty is certainly in the eye in the beholder. Therefore the question arises of whether this was a successful work of art -- although it certainly was successful enough to filch £20,000 and a spot on national television. (In Britain, they actually value their culture with big media events, complete with Madonna handing out the awards.)

Why continue to bother exploring "the nature of art itself, the relationship between art and reality, art and life" (Simon Wilson, the Tate's curator of interpretation, quoted in the Times)? The debate is endless, as is philosophy, as is life. We will continually be redefining art as long as there is humanity. So at what point do we stop questioning, and begin producing what we know is art? Of course, artists have continued to produce what we know is art -- even creating new, inventive imagery, styles, etc. -- but to the critics who are always looking for the newest of the new, or what else can shock or reestablish the boundary, the content is no longer worth examining.

Perhaps art consumers claim not to know about art because the contemporary art critics, to whom the consumers have turned when they've been unable to identify the uniqueness of an artist's work, have failed to adequately define the value of the work in question. An old saying for writers goes 'write to your audience; write as though your audience is ignorant.' Yet, contemporary art critics delight in talking over the heads of their audience. They have failed to deliver on why one artist can 'question the boundaries' and receive accolades, and another, lesser known artist may have created the same work years ago*, but never received notice. They have also failed to deliver on why one boundary is more important than another, and on why boundaries of definition are important at all in the history of humanity and art. Defining what is and isn't art is not essential to the questions of philosophy and certainly not to the meaning of life.

In the end, I don't think that good art should confound 'outsiders' into believing that they have shortcomings, as in the statement made by Lord Hattersley, "It [the lights exhibit] is not art as I recognize it and I do not understand the feeling that makes the current prize a prize, but that may be a shortcoming in me rather than the committee." Once again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but if that beauty can't be shared except among a clique of select insiders, like a group of sci-fi fans obsessing over the plot of the latest Star Trek episode, what's the point?

--Richard Donagrandi

Richard Donagrandi is the Executive Producer and brains behind ArtScope.net. He is an artist with a BFA from Michigan State, and currently shares a studio space in the Flat Iron Building on the corner of Milwaukee, Damen and North Avenues. You can visit his homepage at http://home.earthlink.net/~donagrandi

*From Letters to the Editor in The Times:

Sir, Martin Creed has ploughed in another man's furrow. The Venice Biennale of 1976 featured an exhibit in the Italian Pavilion entitled Ambient Art, designed by Gino Valle.

One entered a large, empty, whitewashed room and the lights were switched off and on at intervals. Feeling puzzled, I left the room and an attendant said softly: "You are a work of art."

Yours faithfully,
1 Northmoor Place, Oxford OX2 6XB.
December 10, 2001

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