Wednesday, February 11, 2015

What is Art? - Reflections on 2014 Turner Prize Finalists

As happens every fall, the British component of the Art Establishment has spoken. Herein is the 2014 Turner Prize winner and the three other finalists.

Duncan Campbell was the winner; the Tate webpage citation is here, and includes the following: "Campbell makes films about controversial figures such as the Irish political activist Bernadette Devlin or the quixotic car manufacturer John DeLorean. By mixing archive footage and new material, he questions and challenges the documentary form."

As for the runners-up, there is Ciara Phillips.

The Tate link mentions "Phillips works with all kinds of prints: from screenprints and textiles to photos and wall paintings. She often works collaboratively, transforming the gallery into a workshop and involving other artists, designers and local community groups. Phillips has taken inspiration from Corita Kent (1918–1986), a pioneering artist, educator and activist who reinterpreted the advertising slogans and imagery of 1960s consumer culture." The image above of a Phillips exhibit credits the late Corita Kent with the "text works." Phillips' specialty is printmaking.

Then there is Tris Vonna-Michell (link). "Through fast-paced spoken word live performances and audio recordings Vonna-Michell (born Southend, 1982) tells circuitous and multilayered stories. Accompanied by a ‘visual script’ of slide projections, photocopies and other ephemera, his works are characterised by fragments of information, detours and dead ends."

James Richards' display of blankets from 2007, above, is titled "Untitled Merchandise (Lovers and Dealers)" -- not his Turner Prize effort -- that the Telegraph helpfully explains as showing artist Keith Haring's "dealers and boyfriends." The Tate link is here, including the following: "Born in 1983 in Cardiff, Richards was nominated for Rosebud, which includes close-ups of art books in a Tokyo library – the genitalia scratched out to comply with censorship laws."

So this is art worthy of our attention and respect.

Though I've seen neither Campbell's movies nor Vonna-Michell's standup schtick (though I'm virtually certain they're of the postmodernist ilk), what we seem to have here is a group of career-building posturers quite likely cynically gaming the postmodernist Art Establishment system by being "creative," "innovative," and "fearless" in shocking the bourgeoisie while posing as vedettes of the avant-garde.

Fundamentally, they are not as serious as they think (though they are unlikely to admit it).

But the real problem, in my warped (from their perspective) mind is the committee of establishmentarians who selected the finalists and winner. What on earth could they have been thinking? My guess is that they were fearful of being accused of conservatism.

I don't want to get into the business of trying to define "art." Though I think a useful distinction worth preserving is the concept of Fine Arts and Fine Arts - related illustration as opposed to other "arts" such as film, dance, graphic novels, and the self-promotional artifacts the Turner committee seems to prefer.

Moreover, I don't like the idea of "art" being defined by a body of "experts." That easily leads to bureaucratic rigidity exemplified by the French Academy in days of yore.

Nor do I especially welcome the self-proclaimed "artist" who defines whatever he is producing as "art." Actually, there is no real harm in that so long as there would be a philistine accusation-free zone where others could gauge those products against their own tastes and are allowed to publicly proclaim that what they are viewing is usually silly. Which is what I think most Turner Prize "art" is.

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