Tuesday 23 September 2008

Art, money and shit

Watching Robert Hughes battering away at the iniquities of the art market on Channel 4 (The Mona Lisa Curse) last Sunday I found my mind wandering to Piero Manzoni and his tins of artist’s shit (Merda d’Artista). An artist of sly wit and a beguiling manner, Manzoni’s work posed all the great questions about the relationship between art and money, about the definitions and boundaries of artistic activity and about authenticity, originality and the limits of public acceptability. His life’s work was completed by 1963 and he explored his chosen territory with charm, humour and a lightness of touch that never excluded the possibility that the entire enterprise was a satirical exercise. The first generation of conceptual artists began to emerge in the late 1960s and stretched the ideas that Manzoni had played with in every direction possible. Within a decade those possibilities appeared to be exhausted. By 1980 the market had to be refreshed and the chosen vehicle was the reappearance of hand held brushes and paint on canvas. Another decade had to pass before a new generation of artists began to excavate the conceptual heritage and discovered a rich vein of material that has been exploited ever since. At the same time a deal was sealed with the dubious world of celebrity culture. It’s the work of this generation over the last 20 years that has dominated the market for new art and finally triggered a massive critical meltdown for Robert Hughes. He loathes this stuff with a genuine passion and in his recent incarnation as ancient, battle scarred curmudgeon, dispatched a barrage of withering scorn and contempt at it.

It was amusing to read the thoughts of Germaine Greer in yesterday’s Guardian as she strapped herself to the Brit Art bandwagon and delivered an imperious rebuke to Hughes. Greer’s opinion is that Hughes is incapable of “getting” artists such as Hirst, Basquiat and Baselitz and an enemy of innovation in the visual arts. The beauty of all this is that she exhibits precisely the intolerance that she identifies in Hughes. What matters to Greer about art is whether she gets it or not; what matters to Hughes is whether the art is good or bad. There’s a lot of art that I like that, by the definition of Hughes, is bad art and there’s a lot of art that he defines as good that I don’t like. Liking something doesn’t make it good but on the other hand, nobody can oblige you to like something because they say it’s good. In between liking and good lies respect – a position where it’s perfectly possible to appreciate the value and importance of art without actually deriving any great pleasure from it. In the end I prefer Hughes because he continues to make the effort to distinguish the good from the bad which puts him in an awkward and uncomfortable place where it’s all too easy for the likes of Greer to toss a little light abuse at him.

Returning to Manzoni, he seems to be genuinely subversive in a way that none of the artists Hughes had in his sights could possibly claim to be. His work undermined the commodification of art and the personality cult of the artist. His tins of shit were sold for a sum equal to the value of their weight in gold on the day of sale. He produced lines on paper cylinders of various lengths that were sealed in chromed containers, he made artworks out of bread rolls and fur, he distributed hard-boiled eggs that bore his thumb print and he claimed the entire planet as his own creation by constructing and positioning a giant inverted plinth into which were incised the words “Source du Monde”. I love his work for its insolence and humour but was he a good artist? I believe he was, because he pushed on doors and rattled cages that nobody else had thought of doing. He presented a master-class in the art of logical absurdity and in doing so he shifted some of our ideas and preconceptions about the relationship of art to consumer culture. That’s good enough for me.

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