Michael Flatley, of Riverdance fame, has a new career as an artist, and it is giving me considerable entertainment. According to the Irish Times, Mr Flatley “creates his paintings by dancing on canvases (strips of marley – a type of linoleum floor covering used on stage by dancers)”.  We learn that “At least 12 of the paintings sold, for an average price of £52,000 (€74,000). Negotiations are continuing regarding further sales”.

You couldn’t make it up.  Truly, life is imitating art – in this case the amusing 1960 film “The Rebel”, starring the late comedian Tony Hancock.  To quote from Wikipedia:

Hancock plays a downtrodden London office clerk who gives up his office job to pursue full-time his vocation as an artist. Single mindedly, and with an enthusiasm far exceeding any artistic talent (his ‘art’ has a ‘childlike’ quality – to put it mildly), he sets to work on his masterpiece Aphrodite at the Waterhole, moving to  Paris where he expects his genius will be appreciated….. The film explores existentialist themes by mocking Parisian intellectual society and portraying the pretensions of the English middle class…. The film also includes scenes parodying modern art. The scene showing Hancock splashing paint onto a canvas and riding a bike over it is a lampoon of the work of Action Painter, William Green while the childlike paintings of Hancock, referred to as the ‘infantile school’ or the ‘shapeist school’ parody the naïve style.

Alternatively, I hope Mr Flatley, with his “art”,  is having a good old-fashioned piss-take – otherwise known as “mocking … intellectual society and portraying the pretensions of the … middle class”.  Good for him if that is the case.

Surely he doesn’t actually believe his offerings are worth €50-100,000? No, it is no doubt a wonderful leg-pull on his part, at the expense of those blinded by fame into laying out large sums of money on unattractive and random smears of paint.  This must be the case, as Mr Flatley is a clever fellow.  Maybe he has even seen “the Rebel” and is carrying out his own experiment, testing the limits of art buyers’ gullibility!

Or perhaps he has seen the wonderful recent Italian film The Great Beauty (La Grande Belleza), in which a young child creates highly-prized “art” by having a temper tantrum and flinging paint at a large canvas (YouTube link here). Yes, that must be the case……

[More on the madness of modern/conceptual art here, here, here and here].

Last Wednesday’s Guardian had an article about the Frieze Art Fair, an international contemporary art fair that takes place every October in London.  Specifically, it dealt with Christian Jankowski’s cruel artistic joke “The Finest Art on Water”.  As their chief art writer, Charlotte Higgins, puts it:

….. one artist has taken the sometimes queasy-making connection between extreme wealth and the artworld to its logical conclusion: by attempting to sell a 65-metre superyacht at the fair.

Buy it as a boat (it will be built to order by CRN of Ancona, to the buyer’s specifications), and it costs €65m (£60m). Buy it as an artwork, authenticated by the German artist Christian Jankowski, and it will cost €75m. If that seems a little steep, a smaller, 10m Aquariva Cento motorboat is on display at the fair, among the Robert Rymans and Tacita Deans. That one’s €500,000 as a mere boat; €625,000 when officially designated art.

According to Jankowski, the boats are not artworks until he has handed out a certificate to the new owner, who will then have the right to call the vessel “Christian” (for the motorboat) or “Jankowski” (for the superyacht). There is nothing, he admits, to stop the owners calling the boats what they like even without paying the extra. But without the certificate, he said, “it won’t be sculpture”.

This brilliantly exposes the typical con-job that passes for conceptual art, much as Marcel Duchamp’s urinal famously did almost 100 years ago.  In 2004, Duchamp’s work was voted the most influential artwork of the 20th century and it has been asserted that, with this single work, Duchamp invented conceptual art and “severed forever the traditional link between the artist’s labour and the merit of the work”.

But, more significantly, Jankowski’s “sculpture” also highlights the dark question which we find so difficult to deal with: how can it ever be justified to pay tens of millions of dollars/euros for any artwork, no matter how rare?  If I can pay a skilled artist a few thousand euros to create an exact duplicate of (say) Van Gogh’s Irises, brush stroke by brush stroke, so that nobody can distinguish it from the original, then why should I not get as much satisfaction from hanging that on my wall as I would if I had paid $54 million for it?  It is functionally and aesthetically identical, after all.

The $54 million is surely a lot to pay for the bragging rights and reflected glory associated with owning an object which, although in principle unique, can effectively be reproduced at will by a talented forger.

Christian Jankowski is doing us all a favour by taking conceptual art to its logical (illogical?) conclusion.  If he forces the art establishment to look in the mirror and to concede that concept alone should not (or should hardly ever) triumph over skill, beauty and wit, he will deserve a place in art history.

My recent scribblings on Dublin Contemporary 2011 and on Richard Serra’s “challenging” works prompted me to think further about the root causes of the questionable integrity and vacuousness of much contemporary art, and its general lack of any discernible skill.

There was a heavy clue in The Sunday Times Culture section of 24th July (Irish edition).   Cristín Leach had a fascinating article entitled “New graduate shows raise the question of whether art should be led by ideas or skills”.  It is mainly about Dublin’s National College of Art and Design (NCAD) and how it now emphasises teaching students how to conceptualise rather than how to draw or paint properly.

While NCAD was the subject matter of the article, I suspect that a similar analysis could be written about almost any school of art in the western world.  Below I am quoting some extracts from the article.  The actual article is behind a pay wall, so I’m trying to balance my wish to give readers a good sense of what it is saying with the retention of a degree of respect for copyright issues.  I should also admit that I have seriously cherry-picked the extracts to suit my own perspective, and that Cristín Leach was more balanced in her article (although I have a suspicion where her sympathies lie).

…..“Every year, people say to me there’s hardly any painting,” says Robert Armstrong, the head of painting at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), of visitors to each summer’s graduate art shows…… He mentions …..Bob Glynn, who graduated with a pseudo-architectural installation made from found scraps of wood and carpet, John Ryan, who made sculptures from the trays in which he had mixed his paint, and Tom Boland, who filled a room with cardboard boxes into which words and phrases had been cut with a scalpel……

It’s hardly news that, in 2011, painting graduates are not necessarily painting. It’s a predictable result of the way in which art is taught at third level: concept first, medium second. …. He points out that students who want to learn to paint or attend life drawing classes still can, although many don’t “It’s an option and it’s available regularly. A very small percentage take it up because a lot of people don’t see the value in it any more.”

They’re wrong, says the painter Mick O’Dea, who attended NCAD in the late 1970s and taught there from 1981 to 1999. “Painting is the kind of art that you learn as you are doing it,” he says. “The concept is never divorced from the activity. It’s through the activity that the concept becomes clear. If you go to an art college that emphasises concept, it can be to the detriment of the activity. You need to be encouraged to get your hands dirty.”   O’Dea is the principal of the recently re-established Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) School, which, he says, has emerged out of necessity. “The people involved feel this drawing-and-painting issue needs to be addressed,” he says.…..

…. among the current crop of graduates are some with ideas and no understanding of how to execute them, or lacking the skill to do so. This isn’t necessarily the college’s fault. If the students haven’t gained the skills it’s maybe because they haven’t sought them out. In the current system, the onus is on the student to take what they want from their time in college.  Teaching is more discursive now,” says Napier, the head of fine art at NCAD. His idea of a successful student is one who has learnt to self-educate, to make connections, to ask the right questions. “I think it’s a more flexible, empowered way to come out of art college into today’s art world.

“A person standing up telling you something is no substitute for someone keeping their mouth shut and doing it,” says O’Dea. So at the RHA, teaching is by demonstration.

… a successful NCAD graduate has been well taught under Napier’s definition if, 10 years after graduation, they turn up at the RHA and say, ‘I need to learn to draw now.’ That’s concept-before-medium in action.

Having read the article, the question I was left with is: how much does NCAD get in taxpayers’ money to perpetuate this empty, derivative and self-indulgent approach to art and design?

Art or engineering?

6 September, 2011

Having warmed to my theme with my recent posting on Dublin Contemporary 2011, I am wading further into the murky waters of contemporary art appreciation.

I recently had an opportunity to visit the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.  The building is, of course, remarkable and worth a detour, as the Michelin Guide would say.  And I was glad to have seen Jeff Koons‘ Puppy, a 12 metre high sculpture (executed in a variety of flowers on a steel substructure).

Unfortunately the top floor of the Guggenheim was closed, so I was restricted to a selection of the museum’s permanent collection.  And what was on show was shockingly bad.  It’s almost as if the curators had gone out of their way to select the most shallow and pretentious and obscure works possible.  It’s not even that there was no conventional painting or sculpture (I didn’t really expect any), it’s just that the exhibits were not exciting or interesting in any way.  Novelty, shock value and sheer scale seemed to be more important.

The main “attraction” is a giant installation by Richard Serra called “A Matter of Time”.  Sponsored appropriately enough by a steel company, it consists of eight bent minimalist steel sculptures . The work weighs about 1,200 tons, is over 430 feet in length and is possibly the largest installation to ever be housed in a museum gallery.

According to the museum’s website, “The artist used traditional geometric forms and models combined with new technologies to produce unconventional shapes….The shades of color of the works change as the weathering steel undergoes a gradual oxidization process….The relationship between sculpture and the human body is explored through scale, equilibrium, weight, and tension.”   Or maybe they’re just big steel sheets in wavy shapes.

While the installation of this work undoubtedly was a massive and costly project, it struck me as more of an engineering achievement than a work of art.  The Guardian newspaper did not agree, and claimed that “on the basis of his installation of one old and seven new rolled steel sculptures at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, we can call Richard Serra not only the best sculptor alive, but the only great one at work anywhere in the early 21st century.”

And as I discovered later, Mr Serra’s steel statements are not universally appreciated.  In downtown St Louis in the USA, for instance, debate is raging about the merits of a Richard Serra sculpture called Twain.  One report claimed that:

“The installation is universally despised by St. Louisans, with the exception of a few art theory types who doubtless hate it too, but cannot bring themselves to admit a piece of contemporary art might be bad. Were Sam Clemens around to see his namesake he would doubtless sue the artist for defamation of character. Newcomers to the city without exception mistake the rusted steel slabs for a patch of blighted landscape. Others believe the work’s graffiti-scarred walls (much of the graffiti reads “Get rid of this!”) mask a sloppy construction area. Serra sculptures have been knowingly and legally removed from other cities after long and persistent public outcry, but in St. Louis the pressure from local art groups not to give in to the philistines is strong and has thus far carried the day.”

The Twain installation demonstrates how any piece by a famous artist can generate its own mystique among art insiders, even if it is dull, ugly, monstrous and non-challenging.  And people now feel they must see “A Matter of Time” in Bilbao because of the narrative surrounding it, and not for any intrinsic worth or because it gives them any great pleasure.  It’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry.