“The animal brains and pulverised jet engine are a hit with the critics, but if you want to look like a true connoisseur, pretend to see shapes in a swirly golden mural” Leo Benedictus, Guardian.
The Turner Prize 2009 Exhibition opened at the Tate Britain on Tuesday and I’m dragging a kicking and screaming Guy - rigorous traditionalist - there next week. (Actually, I think he just pretends to be grumpy when in reality he’s secretly enthralled by it all. Either way, he’ll most certainly have a great deal to say about it afterwards!)
It’s all subjective, right?
Then what, exactly, is art?
Of course, that question has been hummed and haa’ed over for centuries. What is sublime to one person can be garbage to another. Art, like life itself, evolves and changes – but has it now become identified with all that is found, filmed, unlaundered, pickled, switched on and off, or pooped and scooped?
Did Antony Gormley get it right when he said “these days, art can be anything” at the start of his Fourth Plinth project in Trafalgar Square?
Perhaps you’re seduced by Miroslaw Balka’s Oasis at the Tate Modern where he suggests a domestic setting in which the daily rituals of human existence are played out? Eating and sleeping, love and death are evoked using materials which have a particular resonance for Balka such as milk, wooden planks from his childhood home and pine needles salvaged from the tree that grew outside his window.
Maybe you feel outraged that the Charles Wollaston Award for ‘most distinguished work’ at the 2008 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition went to a broom handle candle by Gavin Turk. Dumb Candle, a sawn-off broom handle carved into the shape of an extinguished candle, was praised for both its simplicity and subtlety. I have to admit my jaw still drops in astonishment at the thought that this was considered worthy of the £25,000 prize.
The Wollaston Award this year went to an audio visual clip called Turning the Place Over by Richard Wilson RA. Fascinating though it certainly was, I couldn’t help wondering when it was that film crossed over from its own world to compete with painting, drawing, sculpture and printmaking.
Where in your home would you hang Cadet Congo Ganja by Tim Bailey? The artist states that it is a fusion of Mr Kurtz from Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' and Colonel Kurtz from Coppola's 'Apocalypse Now’. This is one of the painting which drove the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones to exclaim “What I see in works such as this is more of the same deadening irony, disbelief and smallness of mind that has reduced painting in modern Britain to a stale, repetitive, self-parodic eunuch.” Harsh words indeed, but do you agree?
Does Tracy Emin’s My Bed do it for you? Is it art, self-absorbed disclosure or plagiarism? Or all three? Did Emin know, as she was arranging the detritus of her life on and around her bed, that artist Robert Rauschenberg had put his own bed into a museum in 1955? Rauschenberg’s bed, by contrast, is splattered with paint and has Twombly-like pencil scrawls on it - possibly done by Twombly - so, in my opinion, his bears a closer relationship to art than Emin’s soiled mess.
How about this one? Untitled by Maurizio Cattelan. This stuffed horse lies in an otherwise empty room, impaled through one flank by a placard that reads 'INRI'. Apparently Pontius Pilate had a similar sign hung above Jesus on the cross – it means 'Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews'.
From the horrific to the faintly ridiculous. Takashi Murakami’s ‘sculpture’ Hiropon is fantastical blue-haired woman skipping with a rope made from her own breast milk. Is it art or merely an enlarged and enhanced Barbie doll?
Despite the fact that he recoils from the vagaries of the abstract, this is Guy’s current favourite painting. On the reverse are these words: Dear Mazee – this is a cement mixer that I painted for you at Stickee Fingers – love James. The artist is our grandson.
Is it the impulse of art to explore beyond surfaces, to question appearances, to bend the conventional into unexpected shapes? Because so many experts have shrunk from defining the concept, are the terms ‘art’ and ‘artist’ up for grabs? It has even become common for critics to resort to such absurd statements as "If an artist says it's art, it's art" (Roberta Smith in the New York Times.) However, if a work makes no sense at all to an ordinary person without the intervention of an expert, is it outside the realm of art?
Maybe things will become a little clearer after I’ve been to the Turner Prize exhibition, but right now I ‘m still stymied, frankly.
What do you think?