Conceptual Art is Dead (and about f**king time)

23 Jun

In 2006 the gallery at Cardiff’s Chapter Arts (Londoners should imagine Battersea Arts Centre, but better) exhibited Gallery Space Recall by Simon Pope, an artist who had represented Wales at the Venice Biennale in 2003. The work consisted of… nothing. The walls and floor spaces were empty. Instead of looking at pieces of work crafted lovingly by the artist, visitors to the exhibition were invited to remember previous exhibitions they had gone to.

Be still, my beating fists.

Be still, my beating fists.

It marked, for me, the nadir of conceptual art; the point when it went beyond parody and vanished up its own fundament. Having long been subjected to the accusation that it was like the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, here was conceptual art using that fairy tale as its template. There was nothing to see, but seeing nothing made you a philistine.

What’s more, it was a perfect illustration of conceptual art’s very worst traits; cultural navel-gazing and the assumption that the viewer would already be immersed in that world. This was art about art for the benefit of artists and people who already know about art. If you fell outside that spectacularly narrow group, you could fuck off, you fucking pleb.

Martin Creed's 2001 Turner Prize-winning Work No. 227, the lights going on and off.  In which the light goes on and off. Fucking seriously.

Martin Creed’s 2001 Turner Prize-winning Work No. 227, the lights going on and off. In which the light goes on and off. Fucking seriously.

In my mind, it’s no coincidence that this kind of conceptual art should come to dominate Britain’s art scene when it did, during the late-1990s and early 2000s. This was a time of economic prosperity, when the country’s creatives were, by and large, still in love with our government. They had very little to react against other than a kind of sketchy, nebulous “conformity”. Marcel Duchamp’s prediction, that the artist of the future would be “a person who points his finger”, looked dangerously close to coming true.

Of course, the ultimate irony of a movement that began with the intention of making art less elitist, less bourgeois, was that from Duchamp’s urinal to Damien Hirst’s rotting carcasses and Tracey Emin’s Unmade Bed (one of the great shibboleths of conceptual art) the exact opposite happened. Art became inexplicable  to the newcomer, a high-walled fortress accessible only to those “in the know”. Forget craft… Craft was bourgeois. Forget work that was actually about something; having something to say was just so ’80s.

As the decade known nauseatingly as the Noughties wore on, however, something interesting started to happen. First, in 2003, Grayson Perry won the Turner Prize with lovingly crafted pots featuring sexual imagery; work that took skill to create and was actually about something. He was followed, in 2006, by Tomma Abts. Though abstract, her paintings were breathtakingly beautiful, painted with stunning control; a celebration of the amazing things a skilled artist can do with paint and a paintbrush. And there… I’ve said it. Skill. Here we had artists winning the Turner Prize, the tabloids’ cultural bête noire, whose art couldn’t have been created by a six-year-old or “any old Tom, Dick or Harry”.

Or Tammy, Doris and Nancy.

Or Tammy, Doris or Nancy, for that matter.

Since then I’ve been to a number of exhibitions of contemporary British art, at the Saatchi Gallery, the Royal Academy and, yes, Chapter Arts, and I’ve seen this trend continue. Artists, it would seem, are returning to craft. Tracey Emin is now a professor of drawing at the Royal Academy. Even Damien Hirst went back to more traditional painting… with less-than-successful results.

This isn’t to say that art should return to some atavistic, pre-Duchamp state of grace, in which only traditional painting and sculpture are valid. There is still plenty of room for experimental films, photography and installations. The Mexican artist Teresa Margolles won last year’s Artes Mundi with work featuring bloodied tiles taken from a crime scene and a rusting hot-plate, and yet was an emotionally engaging, accessible piece that was actually about something. Jeremy Deller’s projects, which include an inflatable “bouncy castle” version of Stonehenge and a brass band playing rave classics, are very “conceptual”, but also entertaining and thought-provoking.

Jeremy Deller's Acid Brass.

Jeremy Deller’s Acid Brass.

Rather, this is a celebration – and hopefully one that isn’t premature – to mark the death of conceptual art at its laziest, its most vapid, its most dangerously nihilistic. If art can be anything, by anyone, the word loses all meaning and anything that follows and places itself beneath that banner loses all value. Art, once enjoyed by people from all walks of life, becomes the exclusive preserve of the elite; the chin-strokers who’ll happily discuss “the complex nature of beauty, and the complex beauty of nature” illustrated by a rotting cow’s head while Hirst falls cackling into a bed covered in banknotes.

Thankfully, after a blockbuster retrospective at Tate Modern in 2012, his star is finally in the descent. Prices of his work, once as ludicrous as those of single bedroom flats in central London, are beginning to drop. He was recently forced to lay off a number of the technicians and engineers who actually make his work for him while he sits there, like a scruffy Barbara Cartland, coughing up ideas with all the enthusiasm and creative passion that most of us hack up phlegm.

"Hmm. What next? Fuck it... Where can we get a gazelle?"

“Hmm. What next? Fuck it… Where can we get a gazelle?”

In London over the weekend, I saw multiple clues that this particular tide is turning. At the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition you’ll see Grayson Perry’s amazing series of tapestries, The Vanity of Small Differences. Inspired by Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, these epic works take a warm but satirical look at modern Britain, with all its idiosyncrasies, and are a real highlight of this year’s show, which as always is a bit of an all-you-can-eat buffet of art.

From The Vanity of Small Differences, Grayson Perry.

From The Vanity of Small Differences, Grayson Perry.

 Meanwhile, the younger artists on show at the Saatchi’s eclectic but entertaining show Paper seem as committed to big ideas as they are craft. Their work is unafraid to say something, to be about something. Anne Kevans’ oil paint sketches of war criminals and mass murderers as children are incredibly powerful, as are Eric Manigaud’s pencil drawings of psychiatric patients and painstakingly recreated aerial shots of a devastated Cologne in 1945. Ten years ago there’s every chance UK critics would have dismissed Yuken Teruya’s trees made exquisitely from designer label and fast food paper bags as twee, but they’re stunning.

From LVMH, Yuken Teruya.

From LVMH, Yuken Teruya.

The signs are promising. The stranglehold that the talentless and the profligate have had on contemporary art is starting to loosen. The emperor has at least – and at last – got his pants back on.


David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.

2 Responses to “Conceptual Art is Dead (and about f**king time)”

  1. Rosie Scribblah at 7:35 am #

    Well said. I gave up art for 15 years after seeing a show by a painter I respected which consisted of a row of potatoes nailed to a wall, surrounded by sycophants and elitist wankers. Come back to art now but tend to keep well away from the arty bollocks brigade.


  1. “I don’t know what art is…” Why Martin Creed is a simpleton or a fraud | A Forest of Beasts -

    […] waffled on about Creed in a previous blog, holding his work up as an example of the kind of conceptual art I find not only utterly vapid but […]

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