Thursday 9 July 2020

On 'playful interventions' in art

Another recycled blog, a bilious response to a particulalry irritating public artwork. It's from 2013.


I know a lot about art, and I know what I don't like. What I particularly don't like is lazy, clumsy, cocksure public art. I've had it up to here with 'playful interventions'.

You'll know what I mean. Some artist you've never heard of has made (or more likely caused to be made) some kind of thing (not, in all likelihood, a painting, but an object, a public thing: a performance, or film, 10,000 dirty jamjars stuffed with condoms, street art.) Its aims are invariably expressed in this kind of slack prose:

Finial Response is a permanent public artwork in the bustling heart of Soho in London. It is an interactive and light-based piece that blurs the boundaries between architecture installation and art [.] It consists of 109 individually shaped black steel profiles sandwiching illuminated acrylic which responds to the movements of passers-by. Each profile shape echoes ornamental finials found around Westminster, connecting Soho’s decorated past with its new incarnation as a media hub.

'Blurs the boundaries' my aunt fanny. Soho has been dedicated for decades to doing just that, using such time-honoured strategies as booze, sex, drugs and patisseries - we don't need any well-intentioned intervention to add to that mix because there are no boundaries left to blur. Finial Response is, we are later assured ' a constantly changing artwork that will engage and delight for many years to come.'

Finial Response (Image © Google images)

This was optimistic. Last time I looked it wasn't working, or perhaps not switched on. It is in any case a one-look-and-you've-got-it object. Who'd want to see the damn thing on their way to and from work every day?

Typically an artist involved in this sort of thing is aiming through such 'playful interventions' to (in another threadbare phrase) 'challenge the viewer's preconceptions'.  This is how they tend to put it:

Through playful interventions these artists create a ‘non place’, a meeting ground between the fictional and what actually exists. There is a notion that we are being presented with a glimpse or fragment of reality, veiled only by the finest gauze of illusion. Viewers are invited to cultivate and engage with their own narratives, therefore entering into a dialogue within this dichotomy. 

It's typical of the meaningless guff that surrounds and seeks to justify humdrum sophomoric site-specific 'gestures' and (in this case) is written to accompany an exhibition in a recently-established space in what I remember as an elegant Victorian waterworks, a few minutes' walk from my parents' house. These neat public buildings used to be surrounded by carefully-tended gardens and a small car-park accommodating a fleet of neatly-liveried vehicles, the modest plant serving local residents quietly and efficiently. It was adjacent to a home for young people with learning difficulties (now closed) and a Methodist chapel (now derelict).

I don't for a moment agree with the prevailing view, now virtually a given, that modern art can only earn its place in the world by challenging our beliefs, rather than illuminating, instructing, enriching our lives and adding to our knowledge of ourselves and others. I particularly loathe the word 'playful', which becomes, in the hands of witless, artless prankster-practitioners, no more than a synonym for trivial. In fact, replace the former word with the latter whenever you see it in an artist's statement or exhibition catalogue and a simple truth is revealed.

I loathe even more the kind of art and artist that aim to 'challenge our preconceptions'.

As it happens I have plenty of preconceptions, most of which are hard-won, the result of thoughtful reflection and a lifetime's reading and listening and looking and thinking. I'm annoyed - and who would't be - when these preconceptions of mine are regarded as mere prejudices to be overcome by the diligent application of conceptual art as a kind of ethical poultice. It would take a spectacularly persuasive artwork (and I can't even begin to imagine what form it would take) to challenge my existing preconceptions about slavery, for instance, or to convince me that Jimmy Savile was a Good Egg, or that Terry Pratchett is a better writer than V. S. Pritchett, or that the satanic abuse of children might be (despite our misgivings) a cultural cloud with a silver lining, or that I've up to now been quite wrong about the Holocaust (which  I strongly believe was a Bad Thing) and misinformed about global warming. Picture an artwork that dared to challenge the widely-held preconceptions that Allah is the only true god and Mohamed is his prophet. Then picture the reaction. It wouldn't be playful.

Of course all art is an intervention, and an incongruity, although that has nothing to do with destabilising the viewer's expectations (whatever they are) or subverting the status quo (whatever that is, or was). Art is incongruous because it has no utility, and it is the non-utile nature of art that is the real challenge - inviting if not always eliciting a range of responses from the philistine ('A child of five could do it') to the informed ('That's awful').

Why, one wonders, do so many artists suppose in any case that the sort of people who come to look at their work (or 'intervention') arrive with a set of unreflecting prejudices which, thanks to the eloquent powers of their creation will be first destabilised and then overturned?

Anyone with deeply-held prejudices is never going to be won over by any post-Duchampian sub-Dada footling. Proper racists, for instance, don't spout their nasty bullshit simply in order to shock and provoke and to challenge the rest of society's (anti-racist) preconceptions. They spout their nasty bullshit because it's what they believe in, perhaps all they believe in, and they have nothing else to say. It wouldn't occur to them that what they say is shocking, because they see it as a self-evident truth. Artists, bless them, routinely confuse preconceptions (which are unstable and therefore negotiable) with convictions (which are irrational and unyielding). You can't challenge convictions with reason because convictions are seldom based on reason. And preconceptions, let's agree, are not necessarily shallow or thoughtless or wrong, and may be bang on the money. But that's not to forgive the pompous self-belief of the artist who believes his work somehow incarnates a coherent assault on the established and self-deluding order, whatever that order might be. 

Since Duchamp's Fountain the stakes have got higher but the bar has been lowered and what we have to settle for now is Dame Tracey's unmade bed, which is shocking only in its banality and feebleness. Wouldn't you in any case swap her entire gurning portfolio for just one piece by Yves Klein? Better to have both than neither, say the cultural relativists. Balls, I reply.

Marcel Duchamp's Fountain

As craft declines and intelligence is ousted by sincerity the shouting match becomes a free-for-all. In the past year we've seen a number of playful interventions which failed, emphatically failed, to make their mark. Remember Wlodzimierz Umaniec? Almost certainly not. He's the gormless arse who defaced a Rothko with black ink in the Tate Modern last year, attempting to promote his feeble one-man Yellowist movement. He got two years in jail and a few minutes of Warholian fame, on which I expect the chaotic pillock imagined he could build. We can expect more of this as times get harsher, as action replaces reflection, loquacity trumps eloquence and noisy self-reflexive sarcastic artlessness drives out the quietly thoughtful, the serious, the unironic.

Oddly it's those game old pranksters Gilbert & George who continue to deliver the odd beneficial shock, with their ambiguously fascistic homoerotica and their right-wing pronunciamentos, although I suspect they only do it to annoy, because they know it teases.

But what, these days, would really shock? What would a serious artistic equivalent be to a moment once memorably described by Woody Allen, a moment 'when you kiss your grandmother goodnight and she puts her tongue in your mouth'?

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