Originally published in Art of England, Issue 83, 2011. Reproduced with permission.
In the film Amadeus, Salieri says of Mozart that it was like he was taking dictation from God.
Most of us know the difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. It is not about dictation, but hard graft. Work can often be summarised thus: dirt, dirty hands, muck, wading into the muck. Untidy, but real.
Creativity is not done by dictation, despite Salieri’s suspicions.
And so we come to a book by Michael Petry, The Art of Not Making, about, well, about artists who conceptualise, but don’t make things. He suggests that the idea of artists actually getting their hands dirty, with unique personally created works of art is gone – is art just about putting a urinal on display and suggesting the art is only about creating new thoughts for existing objects? A bit like an unmade bed. Not art, but branding.
The arterati would cluster ‘round like bees to a hive, perhaps a bit zombie-like, waiting to be consumed by the branding as much as consuming the product. And art products are just evidence of the branding, indeed of notoriety, rather than substance, of being known for being known, rather than being known for something.
But the branding is important today for it is how we sort the wheat from the chaff, as it says these pieces of work are art in the early 21st century. It says we will buy (sometimes) and appreciate (maybe) these works literally in the same way as a can of peas, as an object to be consumed, and in the consumption to become alive in that moment, but not forever. Perhaps in our new terror world, we seek any frisson of excitement, like the first orgasm, over and over again, replacing what makes us uniquely human with mere physicality.
So in this world, the arid secretions of artists who employ others to fabricate their ‘stuff’, become evidence that I am alive as I consume their products. We might call this ‘secretion art’.
There is an artist who sees himself as conceiver of ideas, a thinker. Far be it that the artist should get his hands dirty, better to use others who can paint, but can’t think – this is such industrial age thinking about division of labour that we must surely find it archaic, if not exploitative.
This ‘thinker artist’ is a con, a bit like a philosopher king – would you want to spend much time in the company of such arrogance? But if you can sell a lump of wax for $3 million, well who wouldn’t? Do we marvel at the creativity of such work, cringe at the silly value, envy the ‘con-artist’, or bathe in the reflected glory that we got the invite to the preview?
In time, we will learn from the lack of substance, the failure to communicate, the muteness of the messages, and I think critically, the real lack of authority, for artistic authority must always lie in the process of creation, not merely its thought.
It is bizarrely reassuring to know that these secretions will be preserved for future generations by people who collate, collect and catalogue – it is for others to judge.
I predict that in the year 2135; a curator, who is just starting work today, but will be in her mid-forties then, will arrange a retrospective, “Secretion Art: memory of orgasm as evidence of creativity, 1990-2020”. Perhaps by then art will be dirty work again.
Now, where did I put my turps?