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?

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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.

Dublin Contemporary 2011, which is allegedly the largest contemporary art event ever staged in Ireland, opens on 6th September, and the signs are not good.  One hesitates to join in the criticism of much of the “contemporary art” that galleries see fit to display, for fear of being thought a reactionary or a camp follower of Brian Sewell.  But here goes anyway.

With the benefit of decades of observation and analysis, albeit that of an amateur, I have reluctantly come to this view: the majority of contemporary art, and most Conceptual Art (particularly installation art, performance art, and electronic/digital art), is pretentious, boring and shallow.  Emperors with no clothes.

I’m with Ivan Massow, the former Chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, who in 2002 branded conceptual art “pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat” and said it was in “danger of disappearing up its own arse ”.  Massow was forced to resign as a result of his comments.

Aidan Dunne in the Irish Times wrote about the upcoming event back in June, and his words gave little hope that Dublin Contemporary 2011 would break the mould:

Tania Bruguere has proved to be controversial with performances pieces that – separately – encouraged criticism of the Cuban authorities and involved the use of cocaine – she also sought to employ a live firearm in one show but was, unsurprisingly, refused. Danish art group Superflex devise direct social interactions that entail specific actions or commitments from the public. Teresa Margolles makes powerful works about the systematic murder of young women in north Mexico.

In terms of spectacle, there should be plenty to look at with, for example, Maarten van den Eynde’s Plastic Reef project, an ever-growing accumulation of waste plastic packaging that has proved to be thought-provoking. There should be spectacle, as well, in David Zink Yi’s (his heritage is Peruvian, German, Chinese) giant sculpture of a squid, made from ceramic and incorporating glazed plates, referencing food as a signifier of cultural identity….

Ominously, though, it has to be said that many of the featured artists habitually make elaborate, idiosyncratic installations with exhaustive theoretical rationales, the kind of work that is generally beloved by curators of international group exhibitions but may not find a corner in the heart of the casual viewer.

That’s putting it mildly.

Private Eye has a satirical cartoon series entitled Young British Artists which features a group of self-obsessed and self-promoting “chancers” and which mocks the works and attitudes of modern British artists.  But much of the prose on the official website of Dublin Contemporary 2011  would be a candidate for a different part of Private Eye, namely Pseuds’ Corner:

The title and theme of Dublin Contemporary 2011 is Terrible Beauty—Art, Crisis, Change & The Office of Non-Compliance. Taken from William Butler Yeats’ famous poem “Easter, 1916”, the exhibition’s title borrows from the Irish writer’s seminal response to turn-of-the-century political events to site [sic] art’s underused potential for commenting symbolically on the world’s societal, cultural and economic triumphs and ills. The second part of the exhibition’s title underscores Dublin Contemporary 2011’s emphasis on art that captures the spirit of the present time, while introducing the exhibition’s chief organizational engine: The Office of Non-Compliance. Headed up by Dublin Contemporary 2011 lead curators Jota Castro (artist/curator) and Christian Viveros-Fauné (critic/curator), The Office of Non-Compliance will function as a collaborative agency within Dublin Contemporary 2011, establishing creative solutions for real or symbolic problems that stretch the bounds of conventional art experience.

The Office of Non-Compliance, located within the Earlsfort Terrace exhibition site, will function as a promoter of ideas around a laundry list of non-conformist art proposals. The Office’s practice will be fuelled by the idea that not only has the world been transformed in the last few decades, the very concept of change itself has changed utterly. This element of the exhibition looks to highlight less conventional, largely artist-led models of art discourse, production and presentation. The Office of Non-Compliance will include ad-hoc, accessible structures for discourse around art and its place in society, such as a Bank of Problems, a Bank of Possibilities, One Problem a Week and a curated forum exploring one topical problem per week.

The bullshit quotient in the above extract is high, as might be expected (although the author apparently doesn’t know the difference between “cite” and “site”).  And, judging from the above, you can bet your life that Dublin Contemporary 2011 will be choc-full of works which will (according to their creators) make important statements about politics, economics and social injustice.

Yet Robert Hughes, as long ago as 1992, disposed of the argument for art as an agent of political and social influence.   The following extract is from his angry but totally coherent book, Culture of Complaint:

It seems to me that there is absolutely no reason why a museum, any museum, should favour art which is overtly political over art which is not. Today’s political art is only a coda to the idea that painting and sculpture can provoke social change.Throughout the whole history of the avant-garde, this hope has been refuted by experience. No work of art in the twentieth century has ever had the kind of impact that Uncle Tom’s Cabin did on the way Americans thought about slavery, or The Gulag Archipelago did on illusions about the real nature of Communism. The most celebrated, widely reproduced and universally recognizable political painting of the twentieth century is Picasso’s Guemica, and it didn’t change Franco’s regime one inch or shorten his life by so much as one day. What really changes political opinion is events, argument, press photographs, and TV.

The catalogue convention of the nineties is to dwell on activist artists “addressing issues” of racism, sexism, AIDS, and so forth. But an artist’s merits are not a function of his or her gender, ideology, sexual preference, skin colour or medical condition, and to address an issue is not to address a public.  The HIV virus isn’t listening.  Joe Sixpack isn’t looking … The political art we have in postmodernist America is one long exercise in preaching to the converted… it consists basically of taking an unexceptionable if obvious idea — “racism is wrong”, or “New York shouldn’t have thousands of beggars and lunatics on the street” – then coding it so obliquely that when the viewer has re-translated it he feels the glow of being included in what we call the “discourse” of the art world.  But the fact that a work of art is about AIDS or bigotry no more endows it with aesthetic merit than the fact that it’s about mermaids and palm trees.

.….In any case, much of the new activist art is so badly made that only its context — its presence in a museum – suggests that it has any aesthetic intention. I know that such an objection cuts no ice with many people: merely to ask that a work of art be well made is, to them, a sign of elitism, and presumably some critics would theorize that a badly made work of art is only a metaphor of how ratty the rest of the world of production has become, now that the ethic of craftsmanship has largely disappeared, so that artistic ineptitude thrust into the museum context has acquired some kind of critical function.

I will no doubt visit Dublin Contemporary 2011.  And I am equally sure that I will be saddened, frustrated and even annoyed by the experience. You, dear reader, can decide whether this makes me  a sad and grumpy reactionary or the equivalent of the young child who points out that the emperor has no clothes.