“What’s the point of it” is the title of the retrospective exhibition of Martin Creed at the Hayward Gallery in London right now. I find no merit whatsoever in the show, so what is the point of my writing about it? Exactly that. I wonder what leads a Gallery director to select such a show which advances nothing, certainly not popular understanding? What do the members of the Hayward board give as an excuse for promoting so much vacuity, such latter-day phenomena as Blu-Tack stuck onto a wall? Does the trodden chewing gum on the pavement not deserve equal exposure?
How can we, collectively, have come to this without howls of protest? Is it a sign of the end of excellence or spirituality in cultural phenomena? Namely, is there no point in our being on this planet? In this spacious gallery there is no tragedy, zero empathy, absolutely null meaning, no hint of beauty, and certainly nothing new or ground-breaking in terms of sculpture, painting, or art.1 Admittedly, there is an abundance of denial. There is, indeed, no end to the symbolic presentations of the chaos and confusion of our times, to self-indulgence, to the repetition of the gaping void, to spiritual emptiness. Perhaps that is why this show features the cinematic presentation of a woman defecating as emblematic?
Now Creed, who is a conceptual prankster, is frank in admitting that he has no idea what art is, nor for that matter, what an artist is. OK. I grant him the absolute right to put on whatever nonsense he wishes. The critics, however, are another matter. They take it all rather seriously and a few even sing modulated praise for this exhibition. So how are the school children being taken to this show at the cost of £4 per head going to be affected by this? It is certainly not going to help them distinguish between the acceptable and the discreditable, between art and pretense, between junk and craftsmanship. Defecation, as depicted in this show, cannot lead to anything new in our perception nor can it be improved upon as such. It is part of the dead ends dominating an entirely by-passable show.
Early in the 21st century it seems no longer acceptable for the cultural literate to call crap, crap. Saying that such an exhibit should never have been staged is regarded as a sign of snobbish elitism. Yes, perhaps really great art, like the Elgin marbles or the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, cannot be appreciated by everyone. But to attempt to diminish these by branding them as “elitist,” may be fashionable but serves to reveal both ignorance and stupidity.
Perhaps because humans are now being so flooded by images on television, the internet, films as well as printed media, they are no longer able to distinguish between the immaterial and the valuable, between the meaningful and the vacuous. I am continuously embarrassed by visitors unwilling, or unable, to say “I like” or “I don’t like” when visiting a gallery or a home. They remain silent perhaps because they are afraid to reveal their ignorance, possibly cause offense, don’t want to pass judgment or may be unaccustomed to expressing an opinion.
It is significant that in this show at the Hayward one learns nothing about the creator of this jumble — except that Creed has an intense desire for notoriety, fame and appreciation. He does not offer a clue about his own feelings. Nor is there any notion that the work is driven by passion, by talent, or by the spirit. Supporting descriptions in the hand-outs state he grew up in a Quaker background with little appreciation of the decorative. This minimalist background might be significant but one cannot deduce it from what is displayed.
So who has promoted Creed to have this one-man show in a huge London gallery? First of all, of course, himself. He is tireless when it comes to giving long introspective interviews. How he won the Turner prize with the creation of an empty white room filled only with a flashing light bulb filled me with bewilderment at the time. The endorsement of Sir Nicolas Serota, Britain’s foremost museum director, may have played a role here. His own gallery, Hauser & Wirth, naturally gave him unstinting support. There has been no one to say that the artist has no clothes.
Alas for Creed, the Shock of the New of the 1960’s has turned into the Big Yawn of the first decade of the 21st century. All of his conceptual gimmicks and fatigued concepts are an unattributed rehash of what had already been exploited over the last three generations.
The curatorial fashion of our time is anti-chronological so many exhibitions have been focused on the thematic. This encourages the professional curatorial world to embrace the chaotic, the thematic, and the vacuous.2 21st century galleries like the Hayward are primarily out to attract ever more visitors so that they can collect more money. This is perfectly legitimate but to present non-art, in the form of Hirst’s pickled shark or Tracey Emin’s unwashed sheets, or Creed’s haphazard enthusiasm for Blu-Tack, undermines the very legitimacy of the institutions presenting it as art.
What attracts visitors? Scandals, shocks, porn, the “New,” anything to do with the famous or ultra-rich. None of which have any relationship to the spiritual, to inspiration, to introspection nor to craftsmanship which are of the essence in art
Artists through the centuries have drawn on their heritage, on the traditions with which they grew up. They have enlarged on what preceded: Picasso, for example, drew heavily not only on the African masks he admired in Paris, but on the experimentation of the group of artists around him, such as Matisse and Gris. One does not encounter such engagement in the work of the likes of Tracey Emin or Creed — whose work is not based on any artistic heritage. For them there is no real history, only the present. Works created out of all context are rarely works of art. They seldom inspire a following and because of their intrinsic vacuity are unlikely to have any positive impact on our future.
I believe it is essential that art and its interface with truth and beauty lead us out of this protracted period of value-free nullity in which we have become afraid of letting emotions establish any kind of preference. If modernism was guided by new perceptions and movements conspicuously breaking with traditions and optimistically looking to the future while trying to break with the past, post-modernism recycled existing values so as to render them meaningless.
The great Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, declared in a famous address to the National Arts Club3 that “For a post-modernist the world does not posses values that have reality. A denial of any and all ideals is considered courageous. And in this voluntary self-delusion, post-modernism sees itself as the crowning achievement of all previous culture, the final link in its chain.”
I see little hope in the current approval ratings of conceptual art. If this category has any rules, parameters or system, I am unaware of these. For all I know, conceptual art ultimately may prove highly popular among astronauts winging it to other planets, but it lacks the solidity on which we can build a more artistically blessed society.
1 Farah Nayeri, “When art is beside the point,” New York Times, January 28, 2014
2 Jackie Wullschlager, “Thoroughly Modern,” The Financial Times, July 14, 2012
3 New York, January 1993