A Note on the Last British Art of the Twentieth Century

A question of value: Emin, Creed and Hirst

 

‘If I put you in the show it will be patronising because people won’t get your work ‘cause it’s so tiny and it’s so intricate people will miss it and will think that I’ve put you in the show because you’re my girlfriend …. You can’t be in the show” [Carl Freedman, gallery owner, curator, Emin’s boyfriend in 1995:]. I was really upset. He said ‘if you can think of a really big idea you can be in the show’ (laughs), is this big enough for you?, I come up with the idea of the tent, and that’s what spurred me on…I ended up being the star of the show, well my tent did, it pulled the crowds in, it was amazing, the amount of publicity.” – Tracey Emin, talk with ICA Director Gregor Muir, ‘Culture Show’, 8th April 2011

“It’s not… a solo exhibition nor a group exhibition… and in a way the only equivalent I can find, thinking about it, is that it’s more like a… degree show than anything else. In the sense that, you know, in the sense that each artist is given the same amount of space… and then in the sense that there’s going to be judgment taking place, it seems like a unique kind of show also because over the years I’ve often watched the Turner Prize on TV and had a laugh at it and, you know, got excited about it, you know?” – Martin Creed

“I always ignore money. It’d be nice to make lots of money but it’s quite difficult, because every time I make lots of money I make a bigger piece that costs lots of money” – Damien Hirst

***

For me the quotes above illustrate three problems inherent in the work of Tracey Emin, Martin Creed and Damien Hirst: 1) the role of the gallery in the attribution of value to a specific work of art or artist(s). This includes the power of influence exhibition publicity can have over the viewer’s experience. 2) The way in which Creed’s Turner Prize winning work no. 227, the lights going on and off, (2001) was conceived. 3) The false value given to certain art based on a system of monetary attribution and demand; the viewer’s judgment, intuition and acceptance of a work of art as dictated by a ‘price tag’ mentality.

Ever since Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) submitted his piece entitled ‘Fountain’ (1917) to the Society of Independent Artists in New York, the definition of art has been questioned. By submitting an objet trouvé (a urinal reoriented to a position of 90°) under the title ‘Fountain’, Duchamp subverted the art tradition in one controversial (but arguably necessary) move. It was this questioning of art that was to influence the whole of its development throughout the twentieth century. By presenting the world with an ordinary object placed in an artistic context, Duchamp created a radical new question; what is art? From this moment, art did not have to be constrained to the limitations of painting, sculpture and architecture alone but was liberated into the realms of found objects, conceptual art and later installation. This moment ninety-five years ago has come to dictate our contemporary acceptance of art as having few boundaries. The majority of us are content with our consideration and/or acceptance of a ‘crack’ through the floor of the Tate Modern (2007) as a work of art.

‘Fountain’ was a fantastic moment in the history of art; it was a necessary action and one of supreme liberation. However the way in which this revolutionary action has set a standard of acceptance for the ‘Young British Artists’ has been somewhat anti-climactic and completely valueless. There is a considerable difference between Duchamp’s art and the art of Tracey Emin, Martin Creed and Damien Hirst (it is important to note that these are just three selected artists; they do not represent the entire ‘movement’). The difference lies in the fact that Duchamp followed his own idea to create something new and reactionary whereas the artists mentioned above have not done anything ‘new’. ‘New’ in the sense that they have not tried to bring art into a different realm of significance; all they have done is to take the idea that art can really be anything if it is reinforced by an idea and placed within an artistic context and abused this for personal fame and financial gain. This strikes me as a particularly violent act. In this respect, art can essentially be anything; its artistic value in contemporary society is dictated by a purely financial criteria.

The role of the Gallery is instrumental in this attribution of value to art. In the talk with Greg Muir (shown above in extract), Tracey Emin explained how her famous ‘Tent’ (Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995) came into being. At the time, she was in a relationship with Carl Freedman the gallery owner who put on the showcase of the ‘Young British Artists’ in 1995 entitled Minky Manky (South London Gallery). Emin (who was little-known at the time) was initially refused the opportunity to exhibit her work in the exhibition on the grounds that it was too ‘tiny’ and ‘intricate’. According to Freedman, people would not understand it and would not consider it seriously as Emin was Freedman’s girlfriend. Surely the belief that people would not ‘get it’ should not have stopped Freedman from exhibiting Emin’s initial work. If it was to be a true reflection of the work of contemporary British artists he should not have told Emin that she needed to create something ‘really big’. This instruction would have initially dictated the purpose of the work Emin would have to create. It would have to be a work that would attract crowds and make Emin stand out. The ‘Tent’ was conditioned by a superficial aim; to generate attention, publicity and ultimately money and fame for Emin and Freedman. When the work Emin submitted achieved this, she became ‘the star of the show’. The publicity generated out of the sheer controversy of the situation came to manipulate people’s expectations of the ‘Tent’ and Emin as an artist. People going to view the exhibition would have gone expecting something ‘big’ from the work. Regardless of their instinctive reaction, the experience of the Tent would have been considerably influenced by this expectation. It seems that the ‘Tent’ was purely an attempt to get noticed.

 

Tracey Emin, ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995’ (1995)

The amount of publicity a Gallery generates for an exhibition creates an expectation of quality or interest prior to the actual contact the viewer has with it. Before the viewer has seen the exhibition they have already built up an expectation of quality based on the advertisement strategies of Galleries (publicity in magazines, public posters and television coverage). The viewer is less likely to follow an instinctive reaction if a large amount of publicity or positive ‘hype’ has developed around it. In addition to this the (considerable) fee a viewer has to pay in order to experience the exhibition manipulates how they ultimately view the work exhibited. If a viewer were to enter an exhibition with no prior expectation or exchange of money, the reaction would be considerably more genuine. The use of a single work featured in the exhibition for the advertisement posters singles that one work out. It features not only on the posters but on mugs, plates, bags, umbrellas and anything else the image can be printed on (and thus can be sold). Already, this one work has been given superiority over other works in the exhibition and so is ultimately viewed in a different light. This is good technique to increase ticket and merchandise sales, but it ultimately attaches a meaning to the work that it never intended to have.

The Turner Prize has been a valuable opportunity for contemporary artists to try and create new and often radically challenging work since the award’s conception in 1984. Many previous winners have been elevated from near obscurity to a realm of high critical acclaim. However, since the beginning, the award has been received with scepticism by many and has been the subject of much controversy. All too often the results instigate anger amongst many and seem to be met with fierce criticism. If anything the Turner Prize can be seen as an interesting social experiment; just how far can the artists stretch the boundaries of the art tradition before the public becomes outraged? Often it is those artists who win who cause the most controversy. For me it is Martin Creed who encapsulates all that is uninteresting, lazy and pointless in contemporary art of this ‘Turner Prize’ type. His work 227, the lights going on and off, (2001) which won him the prize was received with a significant amount of outrage, even by previous standards of the award. As the title suggests, it consisted of the lights going on and off in one of the galleries of the Tate Britain (that was it). Throughout this essay I have emphasised my admiration for Duchamp’s questioning of the limitations of the art tradition. However, how far are we willing to go? Can the automatic action of the lights going on and off in a blank gallery space really be considered as art? First we must consider the value that can be gained from work 227. If one of the roles of a gallery space is to provide us with an experience that cannot be obtained in any other environment, then work 227, is completely useless in this respect. If however the point is that this process can be confined to the gallery space but also experienced in other environments (unlike other instillations which physically occupy a space) then work 277 must be credited. However, this is as far as I am personally willing to go. One of the most exciting possibilities opened up by ‘Fountain’ was the possibility for art to be anything. However, for it to be anything it can also be nothing and therefore can become completely meaningless. I am not ready to say goodbye to art, nor am I willing to admit its defeat and render it dead. For it to be anything it must have some inherent purpose which will ultimately benefit our outlook on art. Creating controversial work that is only controversial due to the apparent lack of the artist’s ‘hand’ is not relevant anymore. It has been done many times before and in many far more interesting ways. If art is to be nothing then the work must be exhibited as so. This action must have a significant purpose and must have something significant to say other than the fact that it questions art (this has been done). Instead, Creed presents his work as something else, something we could accept as meaning something valuable to us when in actual fact it is nothing. It is simply too easy, in both its conceptual and physical form. I am perfectly willing to accept art as anything but in order to do so there needs to be some considerable amount of thought behind it, a new way of looking at the world, some conceptual or manual skill required in its production. Creed’s work does not contain any of these qualities. Without submitting myself entirely to the all too often used cliché ‘I could do that, anyone could do that’, never is it more relevant than with the work of Martin Creed. I am not accepting this to be a criterion of art, but there must be a limit; otherwise art will be anything in the sense that it will be nothing.

 

Martin Creed, Work 227 the lights going on and off (2001)

Creed’s work No. 88 (1995) is possibly even more upsetting to me. It is a sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball.  Is this art? Can the fact that anyone could do this suddenly provide us with a valuable and interesting interpretation of the meaning of art? No. The shear subjectivity involved in the work does not give it any more significance as art and neither does the fact that it can be physically made by anyone (I have done so in my own way below). I use the term valuable to replace good in my own analysis of contemporary art. The quality of good can never be objectively understood; therefore it should not be used as a criterion in the judgement of a work of art. Creed’s work may be considered good by many but is it valuable?I do not mean valuable in a financial sense; I use the term to refer to some quality of a work of art that enables us as a collective to recognise something within the work as important, beneficial, significant, revolutionary or different (whilst having a purpose). In this respect, Creed’s work is valueless. It takes the objet trouvé to pointless heights.

This is art but is it valuable art? (2011) Laurie Lewis- In response to Martin Creed work no. 88 (1995)

The final quote reproduced at the start of this essay introduces a criticism I have touched upon whilst discussing Emin’s ‘Tent’. This is the role of a system of monetary attribution to works of contemporary art which appear to elevate dead sharks and random coloured dots to the status of masterpieces. Of course I am referring to the work of leading ‘Young British Artist’ Damien Hirst. The hilarity of Hirst’s statement that he ‘always ignores money’ evidently arises from the fact that the majority of his works sell for obscene amounts of money. His sale of a complete series Beautiful inside my head forever at Sotheby’s in 2008 for £111 million achieved record heights for a single artist. This is all very impressive but does it make Hirst’s work significant art? Well, following my line of argument throughout this discussion, Hirst’s work must be considered as art but it is certainly not significant art. Determining the artistic value of a work of art through a system of monetary value completely distorts our experience of it. Thanks to the advertising experience and entrepreneurial skills of Charles Saatchi, Hirst’s work (up to 2003), exhibited in the Saatchi gallery, gained the attention of some significantly wealthy individuals. In our Capitalist society, material objects are given significance based on their monetary value. This is transferred to art as well and is exemplified by Damien Hirst. When going to see a Hirst (if the unfortunate event ever arises) our experience of it is essentially undermined and dictated by the ‘price tag’. If we were to view The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) without the knowledge that it sold for $10-12 Million, our interpretation of it would reflect something genuine. Our experience of it is distorted by this ‘price tag’ and can never adapt to one which reflects a higher level or authenticity. The nature of Hirst’s work as dictated by money cannot be a contribution to its artistic value otherwise anything which has a large monetary value can also be considered art. As art, Hirst’s work must be viewed as separate from its sale at auction. Unfortunately this is somewhat impossible; therefore Hirst’s art has no intrinsic value.

I do not think that Art should be seen as a system of progress in which artists are constantly trying to create better things. I do however feel that Art should be perceived as a system of change in which artists should be concerned with the creation of the new. The new cannot simply be defined as that which has not come before as everything created must reflect on the past. It cannot be characterised as valuable purely on the grounds of being new alone (new for the sake of being new). Therefore the new must contribute something of value to our understanding of Art and the context in which it is created as well as providing us with a new and interesting frame of reference. Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ did precisely this; it made people consider the role of art in contemporary society and it questioned the tradition of art. It was an immensely valuable work in terms of the significance it had on Art History. It stimulated change and presented the world with a different way of looking at Art. From this grew the idea that art can be anything. This can be pursued in creative and influential ways, for example the work of Anish Kapoor or Anthony Gormley. I feel that the way these two artists have approached their work has been of considerable benefit to our society and time. Their work breaks out of the confinement of the gallery space (on many occasions) and into the public space creating new ways of approaching art. It has changed our experience of art for the better as exemplified by Gormley’s Another Place (2006) on Crosby beach or Kapoor’s Sky Mirror (2001 initially unveiled). These works are optimistic and break the boundaries of art in a valuable and interesting way. Emin, Creed and Hirst have not done this. If Art is to change it must follow the example of Kapoor and Gormley in the way in which both artists create an experience for the viewer that cannot be compared to anything previous. It is pure and magnificent artistic creation that puts Emin, Creed and Hirst to shame.

Laurie Lewis

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