Art? Exhibitionism? A joke? The old debate on what constitutes art has become relevant all over again. Amrita Shah THE INDIAN EXPRESS Thursday, December 20, 2001
LAST week I was invited to watch a little known local artist ‘‘paint while he danced’’. The event took place in a large room in South Mumbai with an approximately eight by eight foot canvas forming the stage. Pop songs spilled from a tape recorder while the artist, a slim young man in a white leotard suit, sprayed it with shades of acrylic paint from tin cans. Orange, yellow, green, pink. He flung the paint in graceful arcs and then rolled in it. The riot of colour turned black. He flung some more, rolled some more — a process that was to be repeated several times over the next 90 minutes or so. The ‘show’ ended with one messy canvas; one very messy artist and several amused faces. What was it? Art? Exhibitionism? Self indulgence? A joke?
I was intrigued to find similar things being said at a far, far more significant event taking place around the same time, many miles away. Last fortnight the Turner Prize for the year 2001 was given away in London by pop star Madonna, amidst the usual furore that has come to be associated with the prestigious British art award. At the time of the announcement of the shortlist itself, playwright Tom Stoppard had described the works as ‘‘artless, self indulgent and without spiritual meaning’’. This year’s prize winning entry however, seemed to stretch the limits of incredulity, consisting as it did simply of a room in which the lights went on and off.
Several visitors confessed to having passed through the room completely unaware of it being a work of ‘art’ and of eventually giving more attention to the plaque describing it than the room itself. Another shortlisted entry, grandiosely titled, ‘Cosmic Legend of the Uroboros Serpent’, evoked a similar response — visitors assumed it was a dusty storeroom left open by mistake. By now the Turner’s penchant for sensationalism has been well established (previous winners include a pickled sheep and a painting with elephant dung). This year was no different.
Observers found much to condemn in the current selection. Some criticised the absence of women on the shortlist, the role of self promotion and the influence of wealthy patrons. The idea of an award itself, with its pressure to nominate as many as four to five artists every year, came under attack as did the glaring lack of painters on the shortlist. With one filmmaker, two installation artists and a photographer vying for the award (one entry featured a home video in which the artist’s alcoholic father wakes up and receives a cup of tea from his wife) the old debate on what constitutes art became relevant all over again.
What is art? And what did the prize winning work signify? The communications curator of London’s Tate Gallery (where the show is held) claimed loftily that the winner, Martin Creed, had made ‘‘minimal art minimal by dematerialising it — removing it from the hectic, commercialised world of capitalist culture’’. The artist himself claimed his work was ‘‘emblematic of mortality’’. Another supporter found it unusually ‘‘ephemeral’’.
Ephemerality? Mortality? Haven’t these ideas been around for a while now? Isn’t there a faintly anachronistic air about the whole affair? Yes, but in a good way some claim, maintaining that what artists like Creed are doing is what the famous artist Marcel Duchamp was attempting to do when he exhibited a urinal in 1917. Not everybody agrees. Tom Stoppard, for instance, believes that what Duchamp did constituted a valid attack on the orthodoxies of the time while the current crop of conceptual artists, he believes, are themselves an orthodoxy ‘‘championed and supported by the establishment’’.
There is some truth in this view. For it is not just the artists but even the establishment that appears to be stressing irony over achievement. The Tate director, for example, was emphatic that the award was not designed for the ‘‘best’’ or the ‘‘greatest’’ but for the ‘‘extremely interesting’’. The choice of a pop star, not any pop star, but the image-hopping Madonna, to present the prize seems further evidence in the same direction.
And perhaps the aim is merely to popularise art. As many as 58 per cent of respondents in a pre-award poll maintained that none of the shortlisted artists deserved to get the award. At the same time, the event and the room with the lights going on and off generated an unprecedented amount of publicity. As David Lee art critic and self confessed opponent of the award’s philosophy admitted ‘‘it does get people talking about what is art’’.
In India where serious discussion on the arts rarely enters the mainstream, the Turner Prize debate may seem a remote thing. But as the dividing line between art, showmanship, life, etc., blur increasingly, these are issues affecting people everywhere.