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Turning art into peepshow

The Turner Prize 2001 captured a culture that has nothing to say about anything.

Shirley Dent

Topics Politics

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You can’t really blame Martin Creed – or Madonna. They are the stuff celebrity is made of, and celebrity is now the stuff art is made of. Hey motherfuckers (as Madonna would say), froth up this cultural milkshake and suck on it.

The Turner Prize 2001 got the cultural mix so right, capturing a culture that has nothing to say for itself and is all sheen and celebrity. It is fitting that Martin Creed, who had the least to say for himself in the Tate magazine interviews in the run-up to the award, should win, with his empty room with the lights going on and off – a piece called ‘Work#227: the lights going on and off’.

Equally tuned in to the cultural magimix of our times was the Madonna herself, frisking on to the stage, lowering those eyes with intent, thinking ‘I’m gonna hijack this shindig’. And for what? To say ‘motherfuckers’ and that art is about love and stuff. You could get both the bad language and that level of insight into art from most junior school playground debates.

And that’s the problem. There was a time when art was about great vision and big ideas, and culture was that thing that could propagate those ideas (as well as propagating other less useful ideas and visions). Forget switching the lights on and off and swearing on TV, cultural values used to be hard work and hard won.

Culture itself is not the problem. Cultural myopia is – that narrowness of vision that says, as Martin Creed’s ‘Work No. 115: A doorstep fixed to a floor to let a door open only 45 degrees’ does, fetishise the insubstantial because this is what our culture boils down to.

Well, if you think like that, you think like that – but this wasn’t always the way and it doesn’t have to be the way now. I am sure Martin and Maddie and I can agree to disagree. But the Tate has a duty to give more than the fetishisation of the insubstantial. It should give us a panorama of knowledge by which to judge, of vision in which to find inspiration, of ideas by which to be challenged.

Even worse than the predictable artlessness of the Turner is when the Tate groovers take a truly visionary artist who struggled passionately with the big ideas of his time – say, William Blake – and turn him into the pulp for faddishness. To be fair, the Tate 2000/2001 exhibition of Blake, which advertised itself with a strapline celebrating artists working today under the ‘influence’ of Blake (a bit like, you know, drugs), did contextualise his political and social concerns, but they ended the story there and allowed the cross-cultural fertilisation of his art to be represented by the disco glitterball of Cerith Wyn Evan’s ‘Cleave 00’.

Actually, this wasn’t such a bad experience, allowing me to plonk my arse down after the intensity (and often overlooked subtlety) of Blake’s work. The darkened room was suddenly illuminated by the flicker flicker of dance lights on the walls (can’t one of these Young British Artists just keep the frigging lights on for a change?), disseminating Blake’s poetry on to the walls in Morse code, in a piece that tried to be clever about communication. Fine – but I wish it had been in the ladies’ toilets instead, where you really can switch off and go with the flow (so to speak).

As trendy young author Zadie Smith pointed out on Channel 4’s coverage of the Turner Prize, there is a difference between the contemptuous and the challenging. If the Tate wanted to challenge the public with the cultural reception of Blake, why not give Wyn Evans’ glitterball room over to somebody like William James Linton?

Who? No, not a great artist, but a great assimilator of art – an artisan engraver who had the panorama of vision to make a connection between the big ideas in Blake’s work and the culture of his own times. Linton went for the jugular when he re-used and remade Blake’s works, whether he was commenting on the tragedy of the Paris Commune or venting his spleen at the trade-induced famines that were to devastate vast areas of the world in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

The word here is ‘challenge’, rather than contempt. Linton didn’t think he could improve on Blake’s works or ideas, but presented Blake’s works as exact facsimiles – yet he gives us their content afresh, in a new context. For example, plate nine of Blake’s 1794 Europe, depicting the auguries of the French Revolution as two fairies blowing blight through wheat – the fairies are indifferent, they are simply the winds of change – became the frontispiece to Linton’s 1875 Famine: a masque.

Content and context are key here. The form and the medium don’t need messing with – Blake has already taken care of that. This exhibit, in other words, ain’t flash. There’s no digital trickery or funky firecrackers. Just books in a room to look at and think about – the kind of art that increasingly seems to be a turn-off for the Turner and the Tate.

Great art is a 360-degree kind of thing, not a 45-degree wedge. BritArt seems to have got revolution slowed down to a peepshow.

Shirley Dent is assistant editor of New Humanist magazine. She is also co-author with Jason Whittaker of Radical Blake: Afterlife and Influence, 1827-2000 (Palgrave, 2002).

Read on:

The short-sightedness of spectacle, by Tiffany Jenkins

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Topics Politics

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