Art, Books, Marcel Duchamp

Inside the tent, pissing in

Grayson Perry has just published his BBC Reith lectures on contemporary art as a book*.

In May 1961 an Italian conceptual artist Piero Manzoni, known for his ironic attitude towards the avant-garde, filled a tin with a deposit of his own faeces sealed it and wrote upon it the legend ‘Artist’s Shit’. He made 90 such tins in total and stipulated that they were to be sold for their weight in gold. One of the tins is currently in the Tate Modern collection and is described in their catalogue as made from “Tin can, printed paper and excrement”.

What counts as art? How do we judge its quality? Who is in a position to tell us what is good? In the example of Manzoni’s tin, we know it’s shit, but is it crap? These are the vexed questions of aesthetics that Grayson Perry tackles in this book. Tilda Swinton in a glass case, a video of David Beckham asleep, a urinal bought in a shop and signed R Mutt and mounted on a plinth, sound installation, performance art; modern artists have repeatedly challenged what it is that can be regarded as art. Conceptual art is concerned with ideas rather than materials and one of its main thrusts is to keep challenging authority with the shock of the new. Perry charts this mutating process and announces that an end-game has been reached. Now no one is shocked by embalmed sharks and embroidered tents and unmade beds. Like tattoos and piercings, contemporary art has become mainstream and instead such pieces form an expensive asset class for the hard-nosed hedge fund manager. This is an end game in artistic crisis.

A urinal is for urinating in. In 1917 Marcel Duchamp declared his ready-made shop-bought urinal was art. By relying on various artistic conventions: he mounted it on a plinth, he signed it, he placed it in a gallery, called it Fountain, the urinal became art. It caused a sensation but was and is regarded as a seminal work, a forerunner. Perry is particularly interesting on this Duchampian power of an artist to make an object art simply by declaration. He asks can an artist unmake a work of art by declaration? Banksy painted on the wall of a London Pound shop a child worker sewing a Union Jack as part of his contribution to the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. When it was later hacked off the wall and placed up for auction, Banksy declared that because it was no longer in situ it was no longer a Banksy. Was he right?

One example Perry does not use (in the lecture or book) is Tracey Emin’s cat, Docket. In 2002 when the cat went missing Emin put up several hand-made posters on trees around the area of Spitalfields where she lived. The local residents, with their contemporary art anennaes perhaps overly-attuned, took the posters and put them up on their walls at home seizing a rare opportunity to own an original Emin; the posters started trading at £500 each. Emin was doubly distraught as Docket was yet to be found. An indignant spokeswoman for the White Cube Gallery said “The posters are not works of art, it’s simply a notice of her missing cat to alert neighbours. It’s NOT a conceptual piece of work.” Was she right?

The Northern Irish loyalist Michael Stone entered, without permission, Stormont with a viable explosive device, 3 knives, a garrotte and an axe. At his trial for the attempted murder of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness Stone claimed this escapade was a piece of performance art. The judge, Mr Justice Deeney, gave him sixteen years. Was he right?

Perry’s own artistic solution to the crisis of the end-game he describes, is to be wilfully conservative in his choice of medium but reclaim it for edgy art. Using the unfashionable medium of pottery Perry makes traditional pots which on much closer inspection contain images of penises and swastikas, unexpected text and the like. He masquerades as a craftsman whilst smuggling in conceptual ideas. In this he is both an admirer of the traditions in art and an iconoclast, he describes it as an “act of mild rebellion”. He recognises this double stance: he is a tribal member of the art world who questions its own set of values and language; an outsider and traverser since art school but now a member the art establishment (and invited to give the Reith lecture no less). He is on the inside of the tent, pissing in. One suspects that the art world was deeply suspicious of Perry’s popular adoption by the BBC. Some of the Radio 4 audience were aghast that he made jokes during the lectures. Several listeners complained that laughter could be heard from the audience. Perhaps they wanted the comfort of more somber sounding language.

There is a language problem when it comes to writing about art. Here is Gilles Deleuze on Francis Bacon: “But conversely, even when analogy is independent of every code, one can still distinguish two forms of it, dependent on whether the resemblance is the producer or the product.”

Here is an extract from Modernist Painting, Art & Literature no. 4 Spring 1965
“Neither the simplifications nor the complications are matters of license. On the contrary, the more closely and essentially the norms of a discipline become defined the less apt they are to permit liberties. The essential norms or conventions of painting are also limiting conditions with which a marked-up surface must comply in order to be experienced as a picture”.

Perry says that the art world is scared of everyday clarity. He quotes some opaque prose he copied out at the Venice Biennale in 2011:
A Common Ground is based on the fact that affectively remains a central access in contemporary Uruguayan artistic production. This exhibition puts forward two seemingly antithetical notions of this idea. On the one hand Magels Ferrero’s personal diary, a written and visual work in progress, and on the other, the discourse and meta-discourse about language in Alejandro Cescarco’s constant need to shed light on what it has said (and not said), multiplying the winks, quotes, repetitions and versions of his favourite subject matters“.

Perry’s prose however is clear, precise and funny. His solution to the problem of style is to be teasing, ironic and mischievous. His joyful and facetious rhetoric reminded me not (thankfully) of academic critical prose but of the wonderful manifestoes that artists pronounced in the first half of the 20th century (Marinetti 1909, Wyndham Lewis 1914, Le Courbusier 1923, André Breton 1924 etc.) The artist manifesto is an imaginative remonstration, a prose poem, a call to arms, a performance, a protest. If conceptual artists could reduce their concepts to writing they would be writers: the very act of physically creating the concept in art form is a rebellion against the limits of language. They articulate the inarticulate; Perry manages to eff the ineffable.

*Playing to the Gallery, Particular Books 2014

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