Wednesday, March 17, 2004

objects may be closer than they appear

This may sound a little bit like a general studies essay.

The selection of Marc Quinn's sculpture for its sojurn on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth
has met with the inevitable turbulent media reaction. Opinion has been both anti, and also anti. Obviously there are some in favour, but good news is no news for most media outlets.

The first lot of antis (Daily Express, Evening Standard, etc etc ad nauseam) are most concerned not with the work per se, but with what the work is thought to represent, i.e. modern art, and how it offends their worldview. The usual reasons trotted out are not matters of taste, but contend that there is something intrinsically wrong with the art, that it is not art, because:
  • "It doesn't look much like her!" (nonrepresentational work, or superficial disconnection between the form and the subject)

  • "It's disgusting/pornographic/sexual" (subject relates to bodily functions or body image)

  • "It's just a bit of junk" (form comprises common materials, un-costly substances and/or found objects)

  • "It's not like a proper picture/sculpture/whatever" (work doesn't conform to 19th-century formalisms/conventions)

  • "My six-year-old daughter could have done that" (object doesn't display overt evidence of craft skills/time-consuming processes/manual dexterity on behalf of the artist)

These objections have been around for most of the 20th century, and are getting pretty tired now. None of them seem to apply to the Quinn work (OK it is a nude, but not especially sexual : and the subject matter doesn't seem to mind us staring), so could it be that the work simply makes thought inevitable, and that this is the source of popular discomfort?

The other sort of antis, or at least grudgers, start from an opposite perspective (they want to be thinking hard about art, and to be seen doing so) and yet display equal dissatisfaction (see for example Jonathan Jones in the Guardian, or Siân Ede's unrelated essay on Art/Science interplay from UCL vs CERN vs ART).

Here are the usual arguments, translated back into their original meaning.
  • The work is overtly political in intent. "Don't tell me your opinions on social values, they might conflict with mine."

  • The artist has not asserted their interpretation of the medium/subject/historical context. "It just sits there looking pretty, where's the art in that?"

  • There is no integration/opposition/relationship with existing/prior work/theory, or at least none is offered. This arises from two unrelated thoughts: "such and such has done it before" and "they clearly haven't read my MA thesis".

  • The meaning of the work is superficial/obvious/unambiguous. "My sense of importance is diminished because I don't need to use my MA to read this particular work."

Quinn's sculpture seems to offend both camps. Perhaps the England shirts and bow ties are closer than they appear?

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