This is the talk I gave for Speakers Corner: Art for Art’s Sake at the Auckland Writers Festival in 2022.
Today I am going to tell you about:
a piece of paper
and a hinge.
But first I am going to tell you about nothing.
I once gave an old boss, the manager of a bookstore, the gift of nothing. I bought it at a shop in Chapelfield Mall when I lived in Norwich. The gift of nothing was hanging on a hook and consisted of cardboard packaging only, in the centre was a round empty plastic casing, about the size of a tennis ball. I dithered – will he like it? Then thought what the hell. It was under 10 quid. My boss loved it. It was the surprise hit present, he raved about getting nothing for his birthday.
The packaging read:
Open the pack and be enthralled when nothing happens.
Allow nothing to flow through your mind and calm your soul.
Saviour the moment. Soon you’ll discover that nothing really is so much better than something.
Would I have got him this present if I hadn’t been to art school in the 1990s? Would I have got him this gift if I wasn’t a recovering video artist who used to appropriate mainstream films like Splash and Disney’s Snow White and recut them into short pithy artworks that only a handful of cask wine drinkers watched. My art school degree had got me so far, then stopped, and when I moved to England I was working in a bookshop. My manager used to joke to arts degree students who joined our staff, “welcome to a life in retail.” It was funny because because it was true. Nothing is one of life’s big anxieties—it’s also one of my big anxieties about art. How do some artists like me get nowhere, and others wind up in the Tate? It’s not just a matter of craftsmanship.
I like to think now that I wouldn’t have got my boss the gift of nothing if I hadn’t recently seen Work No 227, The lights going on and off by Martin Creed that won the Turner Prize in 2001. At Tate Britain nothing hung on the walls, nothing was on the floor, but the lights blinked on then off in 5 second intervals. I went in as a skeptic—a submerged artist, who had heard about the work in advance, we’d all heard about the lights going on and off—but I left as a convert. I had felt something. I decided the gallery was half full. One artist threw eggs at the wall in protest. Not while I was there though. One critic called it scraping the scrapings of the barrel, the worst winner of all time of the Turner Prize. The Tate now owns this work, it is part of their permanent collection. On their website it says:
Creed’s interrogation of his own motives reveals an anxiety about ‘making something extra for the world’ (ibid.).
Earlier this week I wrote to a friend, I am stalling on writing my talk ‘art for art’s sake’ as the phrase means virtually nothing to me, and Wikipedia’s account of what it does mean doesn’t take that sense of nothingness away.
She said start there.
And isn’t that part of the fear? Part of my fear, that art—if it isn’t widely valued—means nothing at all.
Today I want to speak about a type of art that is often put in the naughty corner. That is misunderstood. Or perhaps doesn’t seek or seem to ask for understanding.
It’s conceptual art. We need to talk about conceptual art. Not art for art’s sake.
Art for art’s sake is a nineteenth century art movement, a bohemian creed, cribbed from an original French phrase that I am not going to mangle by quoting, and originally meant that art SHOULD detach from the need to serve some moral, political or didactic purpose. Art for art’s sake broadly meant that art should be valued for its own attributes, that it should be valuable just for being art. Sounds good, right? But it was originally associated with aestheticism, when art for art’s sake emerged, art consisted mostly of painting and drawing and sculpture and therein lies the rub because back then art was mainly about producing beautiful works, beauty for the sake of it. And I will get back to beauty later—big topic.
On Marion Street in Wellington, is a picture framing and art print shop called Art for Art’s Sake, it is a family run business, that’s been going for forty years. They will frame anything, their website says. They didn’t answer my email so alas we can’t discuss their bestsellers, but if you think your art has edge (again a line on their website) you can contact them and they might stock it.
I am not telling you that to be an arsehole, or to be disingenuous, or to poke fun at the shop or people’s ideas about art, on the contrary, I use it as an example to flag that art has wide perimeters. The shop Art for Art’s Sake is full of art. But it is not full of the type of art I have been in the habit of reviewing for the past twenty years. That doesn’t matter a jot, but what does matter is this: many people can agree that paintings, drawings and some sculptures qualify as art, even if they don’t agree on their quality—but beyond that there really is not a broad public consensus about art. Art is mutable in a way that rugby is not. Not that I know anything about rugby. Or chess. The rules of Chess are not fluid, the board doesn’t change shape.
So here it is: a pickle from a McDonalds burger I purchased at about 10am today. It is here as a proxy for a recent work of conceptual art by the Australian artist Matt Griffin.
Conceptual art—like this pickle—that’s the type of art often in the naughty corner.
Conceptual art flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, I was born in 1974, during it’s heyday. Conceptual art first arose in opposition to purely formal concerns in art—the zenith of Abstract Expressionism, the thaw of Rothko—and funnily enough it originally arose in opposition to the commodification of art.
But it’s family tree dates back to the readymade. I like to think of Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel from 1913, as the pickle’s great great grandmother. The Bottle Rack (1914) or perhaps the urinal, Fountain (1917), could be the pickle’s great great grandfather. But of course gendering a readymade has never been less appropriate. So is conceptual art just a big joke? Why does it get made, why is one pickle worth $10,000 (plus the price of the McDonalds cheeseburger) and another just worth the price of the burger alone?
When the pickle was shown recently at Michael Lett Gallery, it provoked a flurry of media, including an article in The Guardian.
Responses on Instagram varied from “everything wrong with the artworld today”, to the more cryptic, “art is art and the painful feelings about some artworks confirm that art is art.” I will have to chew over that one for a while.
It was also given some serious art critique by Brandon Lorimer who wrote, “In a world where so many of us have so little and those creating and trading in the art world have far too much, what is clever about this stale cycle of currency?
It’s a joke. And I get it,” Brad said in his review. “But it’s a bad one.”
But why is it a joke? The pickle evokes physical comedy and slapstick because it is attached to the ceiling by its own sauce.
I noticed the $10,000 price point was always mentioned in every article that rehashed the pickle story. Because worth in a capitalist society is still frequently judged by price alone.
The Gallerist Ryan Moore, told media, “Generally speaking, artists aren’t the ones deciding whether something is art is not—they are the ones who make and do things. Whether something is valuable and meaningful as artwork is the way that we collectively, as a society choose to use it or talk about it.”
So how was it discussed in the media? No article that I have looked at so far mentioned anything about Griffin as an artist or his work beyond the pickle. Yet in the current issue of The Art Paper, there’s an artist’s page work by Griffin. The page work is essentially a text exchange between him and his dad about a “sheep handling cradle”. His father appears to be a farmer, and they are back and forthing about an enclosure his dad has built to help contain the sheep while he does things like put crutches on them, and trim the wool on their bums. In the exchange Matt says to his dad: “Can you remember when I was at art school I wanted to make a video where I was going to get dressed as a sheep and get you to shear me?” His dad: “no can’t remember that.” “Probably for the best,” Matt replies.
I felt very tender towards him and his dad after reading this exchange. The submerged video artist in me really got it. If I had been at art school and had a shearer for a dad, it is exactly the kind of video I would have wanted to make.
It’s not just the role of the artwork that can be ambiguous and aggravating in society, it is also the role of the artist.
Matt Griffin is fulfilling a role of the artist that I inherited when I went to art school—the idea that the artist is a provocateur, and I realise how lame that word sounds now that I am 47 years old. The idea that art shows us something about how we live now, about our current society, the idea that the artist may also show us something ugly or uncomfortable or unwanted. The idea that the artist will deal with aspects of life that society might rather repress, that the artist might dwell in a space of contradiction, that the artist might show us rubbish.
Now for this crumpled up piece of paper.
I made it earlier at home and have brought it here as a proxy for Work No. 88 by Martin Creed. This artwork first made in 1995 arrives in a box nestled in shredded paper. The box label reads: “example and certificate enclosed.” The box also includes instructions. The work is owned by Jim and Mary Barr, art collectors who live in Wellington. Jim was very helpful and sent me pictures of the work and also explained to me that you have to make your own crumpled A4 into a ball if you want to own the genuine artwork, the one inside the box is just an example. So it’s the process of crumpling the ball that is the artwork.
I always remember the Barrs talking about this work at Dunedin Public Art Gallery and their son, Pippin, who thought it was most stupid thing he had ever seen. When it arrived Pippin replaced the A4 paper with shredded paper. The Barrs thought he had shredded their example. But it later emerged, he hadn’t. They found a flattened sheet of A4 paper a week later, then two weeks later, two crumpled balls of A4. “At that stage even Pippin had no idea which was the one that had come in the box so we abandoned both and made our own one— which we should have done at the start,” Jim told me.
I originally thought Pippin was the hero of this story, but now they are all heroes to me.
“What’s not to love about conceptual art?” Jim wrote in his email.
One of the most infamous conceptual artists in New Zealand, other than the late Billy Apple, is Dane Mitchell.
Dane is currently exhibiting Unknown Affinities at Two Rooms Gallery here in Auckland. The installation consists of a series of black mounts, or armatures, that have been used as display devices in museums to present every known extinct Aotearoa New Zealand bird species. Dane considers the exhibition the first wing of ‘The Museum of Without.’
But many people know him for winning the Waikato Art Award in 2009 with Collateral. His presentation consisted of the packaging that other entrants had used to send in their works. It was technically rubbish. Something that was not lost on the media at the time:
‘Waikato Art Award winner just rubbish’, Waikato Times
‘Artist defends his award-winning rubbish’, Waikato Times
‘Artist fury over Rubbish Award’, New Zealand Herald
‘One Artist’s Trash is Another Artist’s Meal Ticket’, Animal, NYC
At first I hated this work but I have since changed my mind.
I can’t put anything into my rubbish bin these days without thinking where is this going?
I am not afraid it is going to Dane Mitchell. Even though for an early artwork he literally raided Gow Langsford Art Gallery’s rubbish bin, something they were not happy about. I do hope that even in these brief descriptions of Dane’s work, you see a continuum in his approach to life and art, an intrigue in the structures that frame value, and a fearlessness at looking into the void and perhaps even seeing emptiness —nothing—stare back.
I moot that the real fear uncovered here isn’t that art is rubbish—though that fear is also uncovered —but that our rubbish has become timeless.
That human beings have created rubbish.
That we can’t get rid of it.
That it is our fault the world and now the sea is filled with rubbish and micro beads, and it is because of industralisation and art can’t save us, it can only footnote the decline, because art is for art’s sake.
Which is all very well and good so long as your art is not fucking rubbish.
The government and Creative New Zealand highlight that art is good for resilience and community wellbeing. But I am here to say:
Art can kill you. In 1971 at the Walker Art Museum, rigger Raymond Johnson was killed by Richard Serra’s Sculpture No. 3, after a plate, weighing 5,212 pounds, broke free from its support, falling on him. And that is just one example. Google it.
Art can put you into debt. Muggins here. Me. I took out a student loan to cover my expenses and living fees at art school that is still with me to this day through a range of personal calamities. I have also eaten too much avocado on toast in cafes, so I am culpable. The one skill I learned at art school was critique, especially self-critique, and arguably I was already a natural.
Rich, my partner, and I are very invested in STEM subjects, we’re actually part of art’s problem, we’re out there sewing seeds that art for art’s sake is only okay at home, on the fridge but we actually want our 7-year-old daughter to grow up to be a doctor or a computer programmer. Or a scientist. We want her to be safe. We’re worried about the pickle! We’re only human. We know she is inheriting a world of climate change riddled by cruel optimism, dreams that once chased just might evaporate into less than nothing.
This is from a New Zealand Herald article on ‘Matt Heath and the bad advice that makes people unhappier‘ from 25 April 2022:
“The idea that every single person is going be special, amazing and find their passion and exist in it is impossible. I mean what percentage of people can really do that.”
Heath says that what this advice does is essentially set people up for failure.
“[When you follow your passions] you’re entering really, really crowded areas because most people’s dreams happen to be in similar spaces.”
I followed my dream when I went to art school. I wanted to be an artist because I thought that meant something beyond money.
Now for the hinge. Here it is, in all its mystical symbolism. I bought it from Bunnings yesterday. My dream became unhinged.
I went on Kim Hill last weekend crowd sourcing this talk and asked listeners to share their favourite artworks.
“I love art, me,” emailed one listener.
Another, “The Garden of Earthly Delights has never been surpassed.”
It was great to finally start a conversation about art with the glass half full. Even if was half full of oil paintings.
“The National Gallery is a jewel box of art and contains the Velazquez, An old woman cooking eggs. He was 19 when he painted it god Damit!!! You get a warm and satisfied feeling standing in front of such a great painting. And you can almost smell the eggs cooking.”
“I don’t personally like Christina’s World as bit close to home, my late brother beset with spina bifida and SO reproduced!… However I never fell out of enjoyment with Andrew Wyeth…Wind from the Sea and Pentecost give me goosebumps still.”
“Tracey Emin’s Bed, brilliant.”
“The KLF when they burnt œ1 million as an art statement is a controversial and fantastic piece of art.” Chur from Nigel.
Good on ya Nigel.
Kim and I talked about several art works my Instagram friends had flagged as favourites including Michael Heizer’s epic earthworks built in the Nevada desert. City is an artwork built out of sand and rock that Heizer has worked on for fifty years. City cost $40 million to build and consists of groomed mounds and depressions in the landscape with monumental obscure structures at either end. It’s dimensions are comparable to those of the National Mall, in Washington, D.C., and the layout is informed by pre-Columbian ritual cities. Heizer’s father was an archaeologist. “My work, if it’s good, it’s gotta be about risk,” Heizer says. “If it isn’t, it’s got no flavor. No salt in it.” So scale matters here, that sense of the ancient and timeless, what will last beyond us.
Also, hardly anyone had ever seen City, but it finally opened to the public about a day after I was on Kim Hill. Spooky possums.
Kim and I also talked about the fascinating African-American artist David Hammons who once lay a blanket on the sidewalk and sold different sized snowballs to passers by in 1983. This artwork was recorded in a handful of photos. Hammons said, “outrageously magical things happen when you mess around with a symbol.”
One Kim Hill listener raised this essential question: “modern artists seem not to be interested in beauty—why?”
It’s a good question. One that gets to the crux of why it is so annoying for a lot of people to look at a pickle de-centered from its place in a McDonalds burger and thrown atop a ceiling. But just a gentle reminder that even beauty isn’t completely universal. A photography curator sent me a thumbnail of Francis Bacon’s painting Two Figures from 1953. It was bought by Lucien Freud and kept above his bed like a trophy. When it was first painted, it would have been illegal to exhibit the painting in public.
The curator said: “If one reviews the key British paintings of the 20th century, this is one of the essential images. Queer art rendering both the cruel homophobia then existent in its own post-war culture. Yet with love tenderly rearranged. A triumph of affirmation in the face of hateful responses.”
Thanks to the many people who shared their favourite’s with me, your answers were all deeply beautiful to me.
Another listener made this excellent point: “If you think about a word long enough, it starts to lose meaning, or its meaning reshapes. If I think about a pickle, it might become more interesting. But shouldn’t you define ‘Art’ before you put the pickle in the Art jar?”
Ok. Challenge accepted.
I don’t need the pickle to stay in its jar.
I don’t mind if art is unhinged.
In this conversation I have dwelt on Western precepts of art, and I have not got the gender balance right (the art discussed today doesn’t capture all the art that matters to me) but I want to end on the most beautiful definition of art.
I asked the painter Judy Millar, who represented New Zealand in the 2009 Venice Biennale, to share her favourite artwork. She replied:
“I was brought up in a family with no interest in the arts, but my grandparents had a Maxfield Parrish print on their wall and for me it was the most mysterious spellbinding and wonderful thing that was. I remember staring at it for hours trying to understand its power. I knew it related to my small self but also offered me the chance to step into another larger world of strangeness and magic. Looking at the work of Parrish now I see the artificiality, the forthright eroticism, the sentimentality but also the way it is a hinge between the earthly and dreaming…”
Judy continued, “Without forming connections between the two worlds we live in (call them the sensuous and abstract, spirit and matter, the mind and body, the logical and the irrational, the inner and outer worlds or any other way to express this duality you choose) we are lost. Without binding our world together through ritual and the arts we are cast adrift.”
So I want to say that art is valuable to me as a hinge between the earthly and the dreaming, even when it gets me into a pickle.
I also note that early religious diptychs and panels, were often fastened by hinges, so they could be closed and therefore protected.