Curious Trends


Hackneyed? The art of ideas: is conceptual art a con?

In his recent book, Con Art (Why You Ought to Sell Your Damien Hirst While You Can), art critic and former curator Julian Spalding predicts that the conceptual work of artists like Hirst will soon become worthless. But “is conceptual art a con?” asked Channel 4 News, ahead of its preview of the forthcoming Damien Hirst ‘retrospective’ at The Tate Modern.

The amount of time, talent and training that goes into the production of conceptual artworks seems largely irrelevant. Hirst’s pieces are actually created by assistants under his direction. According to Wikipedia, Rachel Howard, photographed by Ross McNicol above, is said to have created Hirst's best spot paintings. Compared to old school fine art, conceptual works are often raw and rudimentary. But they are as fashionable as they are controversial. And they sell.

Using the analogy of music, we could say that high art is ‘classical’ and modern pre-1970s art is ‘jazz’. However, the promotional tactics of key conceptual artists, together with the buying power of major dealers, means we now have an art genre with the commerciality and hype of popular music. This is, of course, a generalization – for instance, the work of contemporary craftspeople, like Grayson Perry, are perhaps more akin to folk music. And art, like music, offers a multitude of niche sub-genres.

Tracey Emin has become a figurehead for the ‘art as storytelling’ movement, and Hirst has paved the way to a whole new era of curiosity collecting. In fact, his initial inspiration from natural history and curiosities has spawned a glut of insect art, taxidermy and dotty collages by emerging artists (see below). And with the likes of Theo Fennell making skull jewellery, it appears that skulls have now become part of the establishment.

So does this make the originals less valuable? And why is it that art which can be neither fully interpreted, nor appreciated as the work of a technically superior practitioner can command such inflated prices?

One of the key reasons why artists like Hirst have done so well is because they are perceived to be originators of ideas, pioneering a whole new movement of modern art. But visit the latest exhibition at the V&A – British Design 1948 – 2012: Innovation in the Modern Age to see a selection of patterns developed for fabrics, furniture, glass, ceramics and plastics – all based on molecular and crystal structures. Marianne Straub’s furnishing fabrics and Reginald Till’s tile panels for the 1951 Festival of Britain Regatta restaurant will remind you of Hirst’s Pharmacy restaurant decor (also featured at the show). As for the ongoing fascination with morbid curiosties, A Colour Atlas of Forensic Pathology, by G Austin Gresham, was the Britart bible, according to Mat Collishaw.

The art of ideas is as interesting as it is comprehensible. No one knows exactly what was in the mind of the artist when he/she created it – which is both an advantage and a problem for conceptual art. The key is for an artist to create something that speaks to an audience – an outward expression of their experience of the human condition. But when the audience becomes bored with the same old story (or theme), the cycle shifts to a new (or old) focus of attention. And so we go full circle… Ideas are rarely original. But if the ideas are considered so important, why even bother to turn them into art. Why not simply sell the ideas?

This is what many art fairs and galleries are now doing via their navel-gazing speaker programmes, packed with pseudo-philosophical discussions of topics such as ‘new geographies of contemporary art’ and ‘the materiality of theory.’ Additional income can be made from related publications and glossy coffee table books.

Nancy Durrant, an arts editor at The Times, told C4 that she didn’t think young people had been at all influenced by Hirst. But the East London gallery scene launch nights on the first Thursday of every month are rammed full of works by YBA wanabees looking to cash in whilst they can.

Recently exhibited in Hackney, Hannah Horn’s Creeping Death acrylic-covered taxidermy beetles and miniatures were complemented by a range of skateboards, t-shirts and cushions.

Hannah Biscombe’s rat and reptile photograms at The Execution Room are also available on a range of ceramic tableware.

The work of young fine artists and artisan craftspeople, like Hackney based Robson Cezar, who creates collages from recycled bottletops and bronze sculptures, shows ingenuity and wit.

But whether or not you buy into any artist’s story or idea is entirely up to you. Meantime, the constantly evolving art world appears to be stepping back for a moment, to contemplate the formally defined skills and historical value of works by more traditional artists.

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