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Showing posts with label Sara Baume A Line Made By Walking. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Sara Baume A Line Made By Walking. Show all posts

Saturday 17 November 2018

Review: Peter Goldie and Elisabeth Schellekens, Philosophy and Conceptual Art

When I reviewed Sara Baume’s A Line Made By Walking on this blog ( 22 April 2018) it got me thinking again about conceptual art, something I hadn’t really done for twenty years – my last serious engagement, a long piece I wrote in response to the 1997 Turner Prize exhibition, the prize won by Gillian Wearing:

So now I wrote a short essay setting out my principal (and non-original) objection to conceptual art, that you don’t need to experience it first hand to talk about it – a fact which makes all the expenditure of time and effort and use of (expensive) gallery space seem rather pointless. A version of this essay appears in the bi-monthly Philosophy Now (Issue 129, December 2018/January 2019).

Then I thought I ought to find out what others had been thinking since I did my thinking in 1997 and Amazon pointed me towards the 2007 book I am now reviewing. For a collection of essays by professional philosophers, it’s really quite readable. Most contributors proceed charitably, trying to find a way or ways to accommodate conceptual art (whether narrowly or loosely defined) within the traditions of mostly gallery-based visual art. If anything, they bend over backwards to give it legitimacy.

If it is accepted that conceptual art is an art of ideas, then for example it’s possible to argue that the ideas have aesthetic value rather in the way that a mathematical proof can be elegant or a chess move beautiful – this is an argument developed by Elisabeth Schellekens (page 85 for the specific examples I have given). But this leaves the question open, Why do we need anything more than the ideas? Why do we need the installation or the performance, the bit that costs money and takes up our time and  a gallery space?

Schellekens uses the word “boldness” and another contributor speaks of the audaciousness of conceptual art. The founding work for conceptualism, Duchamp’s Fountain (a male urinal) is endlessly talked about, even now, because it took nerve and cheek to put the urinal into an art gallery, and nerve and cheek often get us talking. Lots of people could have had the ideas which conceptual art occupies itself with; very few people would have dared do anything about them in the fashion done by conceptual artists. So the embodied bits of the ideas are provocations, though it may be very unclear what they are meant to provoke. In contrast, an anarchist who throws a bomb or a terrorist who plants one usually has a clear idea of what they want to provoke.

The invocation of boldness and audaciousness is meant to give point to the installations and the performances. But Schellekens realises that this move effectively links conceptual art to things like jokes and satirical cartoons (page 86) and Margaret Boden references (page 228) the rather embarassing case of Alphonse Allais, a nineteenth century Parisian prankster who got there before the po-faced artists of the 20th century, already in the 1880s exhibiting a canvas painted entirely white and titled Anaemic Young Girls Going To Their First Communion Through a Blizzard.

I think the Allais case allows a different take on conceptual art. I think most of it belongs in the broader category of Pranks. Pranks usually involve someone in quite a lot of prior thought, maybe mixed in character and motive, and are realised by means which are intended to discomfort or shock some individual, group or institutition. The pranks performed by conceptual artists can, however, generally be grouped into a distinct sub-category of pranks  by two important features:

(1)   Humourlessness
(2)    A sense of entitlement to public funding and/or access to public exhibition space

So Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) is a contemporary prankster but not a conceptual artist because he aims to make people laugh. And only as a prank would a prankster seek public funding or an academic job or space in the Tate Gallery, but conceptual artists feel entitled to all those things. This is consistent with the claims of an institutional theory of art , which is also used  several times in this volume as justification for treating conceptual art as art (for example, by Lopes at page 241).

The obvious counter-example to my claim (1) would be Banksy’s recent auto-destructive prank at Sotheby’s which was indeed very funny. But that is in great contrast to most of the stuff the contributors to this book are labouring over.
My puzzlement about conceptual art dates back to the early 1970s when Michael Corris and a colleague from the US Art & Language group visited me in my rural Devon cottage and solicited a contribution for their new journal The Fox of which three issues appeared and are now collectors’ items. Well, I didn’t really have anything which I felt appropriate but I mentioned a draft study of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot which would have been my cover story for a second year in Paris as a student with Roland Barthes had I stayed on after my first year. But I had decided to return to England and a job, and so it had never been worked up or shown to Barthes though a version in French existed. Anyway, to my surprise it was accepted for The Fox and appeared in issue 2 with small editorial additions which irritated me. But for the life of me I did not understand how my essay fitted into their project.

That digression does lead to a final point. Perhaps the core weakness of most conceptual art is that the links between ideas and embodied work are so weak or so opaque, and the ideas themselves so often confused, that really all we are offered (in most cases) is an invitation to free associate. So I think it likely that I got an essay published in The Fox for no good reason because there was no editorial clear thinking about what they were about and free association was the order of the day.

It is notable that in this collection, even though contributors have been asked to reference at least some among a number of selected works of conceptual art, that no one attempts a serious, say, thousand word piece of criticism which brings to life and understanding a particular piece of conceptual art in its specificity. It’s my belief that most  works of conceptual art could not bear the strain of sustained critical reflection and that is a main reason why it does not happen. Of course, there is plenty of humourless prose produced around conceptual art, some of which ends up in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner.

Sometimes people know exactly what they are doing. At other times, they haven’t a clue what they are doing. For an artist, not quite knowing what you are doing is not such a bad place to be. It can mean that you are in the middle of some genuine exploration. Part of my problem with conceptual artists is that I'm not convinced that they are not quite knowing. Either they know exactly or they don't know at all.

Sunday 22 April 2018

Review: Sara Baume A Line Made By Walking

This is very good. There is really no plot, but right through I wanted to keep reading. It’s true that I did not read it as a novel but rather as an autobiography recollected – that is, crafted – in tranquillity. There is an enormous amount of skilful, talented crafting here. There is also a lot going on and any summary will be partial: a young woman holed up in her late grandmother’s isolated bungalow going through a nervous breakdown or, at least, a long episode of serious depression which makes isolation less of a challenge than human contact, less of a challenge than human intercourse. There is no sex and that is very striking and when it is alluded to, it appears only in the context of violence or the threat of violence: being followed, being stalked, being attacked. There is some use of alcohol to escape and consistent use of the natural world both as a thing to think the depression and sometimes overcome it. An obvious compare & contrast book to read beside this one would be Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (reviewed here on 19 September 2016  ).

The author makes use of two devices which are played off against the main narrative. Frankie (the narrator) photographs animals dead in the garden or at the roadside and each of the ten chapters is titled for the dead animal whose photograph appears somewhere in the chapter pages: Robin, Rabbit, Rat, Mouse, Rook, Fox, Frog, Hare, Hedgehog, Badger - the usual cast of roadside fatalities.  I have my doubts about this. Modern digital printing allows for small grey and white images to be inserted into text (usually as 600 dpi jpg’s), at no extra cost,  rather than separated out onto expensive gloss paper photograph pages. I don’t think these thumbnail snaps work very well, in this book or in others I have looked at, and it may be that Baume’s descriptions would have sufficed – or worked better - without the inevitably disappointing grey-scale photographs themselves. Baume somewhere rightly remarks that making it bigger does not make it art, but in the case of photographs I don’t think you can appreciate them as thumbnails. Miniatures almost certainly do not work as art – that is why museums of miniatures are museums of curiosities rather than museums of art.

Her second device, very impressively deployed, is to find an art work – usually a work of conceptual art – which relates to a theme, a topic she is discussing and to list and thumbnail- describe the work in a separated paragraph which always begins with a formulaic phrase on the pattern of  Works About Killing Animals, I test myself: …

 Some of these works are well-known like Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) or Richard Long’s A Line Made By Walking (1967), but most are more obscure. Though Baume at the end of the book (pages 303- 307) urges us to go to the works ourselves, I suspect she has actually and accidentally already illustrated the weakness of conceptual art: that you don’t have to see it, experience it, to respond to it. You just need a description – you just need the Concept which it was designed to illustrate. Conceptual art is basically illustration of an idea, and that is its weakness and banality as art; its realisation (often elaborate and costly, as well as fugitive) is pretty much irrelevant. We can all debate the Concept all night with only a nod to the work which illustrated it. There is really no need for us to confront the work itself, if indeed it exists to be confronted anywhere. Frankie/Baume effectively says as much herself:

Works about Time, I test myself: Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010. A 24-hour film, a collage of extracts… Each extract represents a minute of the day .. I have never seen it for real. Right the way through from beginning to end. I don’t imagine many people have. Nevertheless, I love this piece. I love the idea. (p 181)

Actually, you don’t love the piece if you haven’t seen it. And it would almost certainly be a waste of your time to watch it. When back in 1997 London’s Tate Gallery screened Gillian Wearing’s Sixty Minutes it would have caused a log-jam in the gallery if visitors had paused for sixty minutes to watch it. The gallery correctly assumed that everyone would give it at most a few minutes, to get the general idea, and then move on. I only had to sit cross-legged on the floor (no seats provided) for 17 minutes to outlast any other visitor in that period by at least ten minutes. What would we say about a commercial cinema film which could not hold its audience for more than a few minutes at most after which they would all leave because they had got the general idea?

Put differently, Baume could simply have made up the majority of pieces to which she refers, and in a work of fiction, who could object to that?  There would have been no loss of idea.