“I don’t know what art is…” Why Martin Creed is a simpleton or a fraud

16 Jul

Martin Creed

Martin Creed was on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, involved in a brief discussion about Kazimir Malevich’s painting Black Square, which is being exhibited as part of a Tate Modern retrospective that opens today. The painting, for the uninitiated, looks like this:


That’s right. It’s one of those ‘Ronseal’ paintings. It’s called black square, and it is a black square. It was apparently inspired by the artist’s reading of Schopenhauer, which is way too hefty a subject to get into here without essentially copying and pasting big chunks of World as Will and Representation, but suffice to say, our pal Kazimir wanted painting to move away from the representational, and towards the kind of abstraction that music offers, thereby helping us transcend this dull and dreary world of ours. Hence, a black square.

The important thing to remember about an artist like Kazimir Malevich, however, is that he arrived at his black square through a lengthy process of practice and thought. He wasn’t capable only of covering a canvas in black paint. He could also paint stuff like this:

Dude was versatile, is what I'm saying.

Dude was versatile, is what I’m saying.

Abstraction, in his case, was an artistic choice, not the end result of having little or no skill. The same cannot be said about Martin Creed. I’ve 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 nihilistic and viciously elitist. It is the dreary cul-de-sac of 20th Century art. Stick a blob of Blu-Tac to a wall, call it art and hope you can get enough gullible saps to agree. Except, of course, Creed doesn’t even do that. He is either gleefully in on the joke, or a simpleton who is unaware that there is a joke to begin with.

This is Creed's Work No. 88. It is exactly what it looks like - a scrunched up piece of paper.

This is Creed’s Work No. 88. It is exactly what it looks like – a scrunched up piece of paper.

On Today, for example, he was asked if he considered Black Square to be art.

He replied, “I don’t know if it’s art or not, because I don’t know what art is, because I think art is just a word… that’s difficult to understand.”

So, if I’m right, because art is an often difficult concept to define, we shouldn’t even bother calling anything art, or trying to understand or define it? Why have that discussion when you could just stick some Blu-Tac to a wall, switch some lights on and off, get everyone else to call it art, and then giggle all the way to the bank? Though, of course, when I say “everyone else”, what I mean is, “Other artists, art critics and people who went to art school.” Not the countless people outside those three categories who can spot the Emperor’s naked, bouncing bollocks a mile off.

The most frustrating thing about Creed is the kind of almost uniform, unquestioning loyalty he inspires in so many art critics (with the notable exception of the Times’ Waldemar Januszczak). The now-defunct Review Show’s four-way rimming session about Creed’s Hayward Gallery retrospective was one of the most unedifying bits of arts programming I’ve ever seen on the BBC, so much so that when the show was cancelled, I found myself thinking, “Good riddance.”

That not one of the guest critics (Paul Morley, Denise Mina and – most disappointingly – playwright Mark Ravenhill) nor host Kirsty Wark were prepared to stick their hand up and say, “But… it’s all shit, isn’t it?” says a great deal about the kind of cliquey, incestuous media world in which Creed operates while feigning an aloof disinterest; the critics themselves presumably too scared of bumping into him at their next shindig to pipe up honestly.

Pictured: Paul Morley and Martin Creed.

Pictured: Paul Morley and Martin Creed.

Martin Creed did not arrive at his empty rooms or his scrunched up bits of paper or his blob of Blu-Tac after a lengthy period of learning his craft, or engaging with contemporary thought. He did it because he is incapable of doing anything else. The only thing original about this routine is that he was one of the first people ballsy enough to produce such blatantly lazy work without bothering to provide any justification and get away with it, and “getting away” with something should not be enough to earn you plaudits. Not when you have slammed a great big door in the faces of anyone not well-versed in art history and said, “Fuck off. You won’t get it.”

What Creed’s work says to all the struggling painters who learned how to paint, struggling sculptors who learned how to sculpt, and struggling conceptual artists whose concepts are original, fresh and thought-provoking, is, “Ha ha ha… Fools! Why did you bother? Look at me. I’m a fucking dimwit, and I get to do this for a living.

If you doubt this is the case, if you think I’m misreading Creed’s work, or underestimating him, I’ll leave you with a quote from the man himself, about his work The Lights Going on and Off:

“There was nothing that I could think of that was important enough to put in that room and say, “Hey, look at this.” And so, in the absence of that, I tried to do something with the room. And so I switched the lights on and off, because that’s all I could think to do.”


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