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The Problem of Conceptual Art

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Conceptual artists and galleries displaying their work have a mutual self- interest in focussing the spotlight of publicity upon themselves. The same can of course be said for artists and galleries of any type of art. However, we need particularly to remember today that publicity is not necessarily any indicator of the worth of the item, event or person publicised. For example, the spotlight of publicity is no stranger to a gallery like the Tate and it's current Director, Sir Nicholas Serota, but what the artistic policy of the Tate? As Julian Spalding , former Director of the Glasgow Museums and Galleries, writes in "The Eclipse of Art":
"Unbelievable as it might seem to those unfamiliar with the world of modern art, the self- styled artist Piero Manzoni canned, labelled, exhibited and sold his own shit (90 tins of it) in the early 1960's. The Tate has recently acquired no. 68 of this canned edition, for the sum of £22,300. They have coyly catalogued it as a 'tin can with paper wrapping with unidentified contents'."
This is just one example of "the fruits" of The Tate's artistic and investment policy.The wisdom of these policies is, or should be, a problem to address for those with greater powers than I. There are of course many other galleries who have collected similar artistic triumphs at vast expense.

However, the aspect of Conceptual art which I particularly wish to comment on is the role that Conceptual art appears to be playing in our society. In practice, it seems to be there to pass the time of (and sometimes also to take the money away from) the uncritical audience, in a way rather similar to the role of theme parks. (I have no objections to theme parks as entertainments but I would have major objections if they were to be classified as art.)

I say this because I have had the instructive experience of hosting several large parties of visitors around galleries of contemporary art. The way these viewers reacted to Conceptualist exhibits was interesting because their reaction seemed to fall so far short of what can be generated by great art. Instead, these viewers just passed through the gallery and their principal reactions were in the main frustration and disappointment. There was an almost complete absence of joy, wonder, love and awe - the kinds of reaction that great art can engender. For these viewers,
confronted by these Conceptualist works, there was no sense that life had been made richer for them, no sense that the artist was talking as a whole person to every fibre of their being.

As a result therefore, I have been forced to confront the question as to why Conceptual Art is such a disappointing, life-narrowing, unlovely experience for so many ordinary people? For Conceptual art is both unloveable and unloving. This is indeed my feeling but the words to express it were written, far more authoritatively, by Julian Spalding who wrote in his "The Eclipse of Art":
" I have never met anyone who told me they loved modern art. No one ever came up to me, their eyes glowing with pleasure, telling me I just must see, say, the new wall drawings by Sol Lewitt in the 1970's, or the smashed plate paintings by Julian Schnabel in the 1980's, or the life-size, glazed porcelain figures by Jeff Koons in the 1990's.......But love is not a word that springs to mind when one thinks of much modern art - so much so that one wonders whether it is art at all."
Who has the problem here? The artist or the public? Recognising that through the ages "contemporary" art has often taken time to gain acceptance, I nevertheless believe that it is the Conceptual artist who is the problem and that Conceptual artists and galleries displaying Conceptual works have generated a division between themselves and the wider public. Julian Spalding makes this point too:
" It is all too obvious to anyone not in the art world (though this is always denied by those within it) that a rift has opened between the art being promoted in contemporary galleries and the art people like to hang on their walls at home"
The causes of this rift need to be understood more widely so that pressure can be generated for a radical new direction for contemporary art. Without such a change of direction, the general public will continue to be disappointed.

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