But Is It Art?

Modern Culture's Dubious Search for Beauty

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LONDON, JUNE 28, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Modern paintings and sculptures tend to leave onlookers puzzled. A case in point is the artwork that catches the attention of the annual Turner Prize.



This year, four artists made the shortlist for the exhibition that will be on display from Oct. 29, the London Times reported May 30. The winner will be announced Dec. 7.

One of the artists is Grayson Perry, a transvestite who scratches scenes of sadomasochism and bondage onto the surfaces of pots. Another entry is from the team of Jake and Dinos Chapman, who include among their works a pornographic film. They also recently defaced Goya prints with comical faces.

A third finalist is Anya Gallaccio, who painted a gallery with melted chocolate and attached apples to a dead tree. The fourth finalist, Willie Doherty, makes videos about Northern Ireland.

The 2002 edition of the Turner Prize, worth 20,000 pounds ($33,000), was won by Keith Tyson. His winning work, the Times reported Dec. 9, consisted in a series of drawings and mock-ups of computers. The other finalists were Catherine Yass, with a film showing an upside-down view of a crane outside Canary Wharf; Fiona Banner, whose work consisted in a graphic description of a porn movie; and Liam Gillick, who covered a ceiling with squares of the acrylic Perspex.

Other artistic follies include a grant of 2,000 pounds to a writer to spray-paint the words of a poem on the backs of sheep. According to the Telegraph of Dec. 4, the writer Valerie Laws said the project used "the basic framework of quantum mechanics: randomness, the influence of the observer and the observed, and duality." She did admit that once the sheep started moving, "some of the time it won't make much sense."

Then there is Tracey Emin, commissioned by London's Tate Gallery to create a Christmas tree for the rotunda at Millbank. But Emin instead sent the tree to Lighthouse West London, an HIV and AIDS charity, the Times reported Dec. 12. Visitors to the Tate found a message from Emin inviting them to leave their name and address, and a donation for Lighthouse.

The Tate, said the Times, denied it was disappointed at its lack of a real tree. "We don't expect a normal tree," a spokesman said. "We know that artists will create a different take on the idea; that's the whole point."

Then came the decision to give 12,200 pounds ($20,000) of public funds to André Stitt to kick an empty takeaway curry container down a street. His work, reported the Sunday Times of Feb. 9, is entitled White Trash Curry Kick, and purports to tackle the issue of "personal-societal dysfunction" of drunken youths on a Saturday night out.

The month before, Daniel Shelton won the 10,000-pound Creative Minority Prize by shutting himself in a wooden crate and mailing himself via security van from Brighton to the Tate Gallery in London.

After this, perhaps nobody was surprised when The Arts Council of Britain announced a name change. The Telegraph of Feb. 13 reported that after a five-month study, costing 70,000 pounds, the body will now be called "Arts Council England."

Goldfish in a blender

Cutting-edge art isn't limited to England. There is, for example, Italy's Venice Biennale, designed as a showpiece of contemporary art. "When the high point of a Venice Biennale is an exhibition of corpses that isn't part of the official show, you know something is not quite right," The Economist magazine mused in its June 21 issue.

Not to be outdone, the French are trying to copy the Turner Prize, with the Marcel Duchamp Prize, worth 35,000 euros ($39,000). The 2002 winner was Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, whose work was exhibited at Paris' Pompidou center. It consisted in a 45-minute video loop, which, in the words of the Nov. 11 Time magazine, "looks like a psychedelic astral storm, raging to a soundtrack of electronic bleeps and retro 70s rock."

Meanwhile, amid fears of something rotten in Denmark, Peter Meyer, the director of the Trapholt Art Museum in Kolding, was acquitted of animal cruelty, after a court ruled that a display with goldfish in 10 blenders was not cruel. According to an Associated Press report May 19, the exhibition invited visitors, if they so desired, to blend the fish. Somebody did, and two goldfish were ground up.

Animal rights activists complained and the exhibit continued after the blenders were unplugged. Meyer was fined 2,000 kroner ($315) for animal cruelty but refused to pay. In his judgment on the resulting case, Judge Preben Bagger said that Meyer didn't have to pay the fine because the fish were killed "instantly" and "humanely." The installation was the work of Chilean-born Danish artist Marco Evaristti.

Then from Down Under came the news that the public Australia Council has given a Melbourne jeweler $8,750 Australian (US $5,800) to make jewelery to hide in rubbish bins and road grates as an artistic statement on consumerism.

Caz Guiney was given the grant to make her "precious graffiti," The Australian reported May 28. "Caz is an emerging artist who stretches the boundaries of jewelery practice by trying to incorporate contemporary jewelery into the fabric of urban life and the city," said board manager Anna Waldmann.

Guiney has hidden 14 gold, silver and diamond pieces in grates, on busy footpaths, in scaffolding and other locations. "I want to rattle the expectation as to where you might find precious objects," she said. "I hope it will get people thinking outside the normal constructs of jewelery."

Myths and false assumptions

To try to put things in perspective, Julian Spalding, in a commentary on modern art published April 17 in the Scotsman, wrote: "The problem with modern art is that it's a world built on myths and false assumptions." The former director of Glasgow Museums and Galleries observed that art has a totally inadequate conception of what it is and could be. "The result is that art has virtually disappeared today," Spalding lamented.

He identified a number of causes behind this problem. One of the culprits is in education, "where the creative skills of visual expression have virtually ceased to be taught." Another cause lies among gallery curators, who "'collaborate' with a tiny handful of 'internationally accepted' artists, to create 'installations' in their 'spaces.'" Another mistake, Spalding contended, is to think that artists have to use modern media such as videos or computers and that the traditional skills of painting and carving are out of date.

Going further into the roots of the problem, John Paul II, in an address to the Pontifical Council for Culture on March 14, 1997, observed that in past centuries Christians had "brought about a successful synthesis between faith and culture." Today, he noted, this synthesis is often lacking, and there is a rupture between the Gospel and culture.

For the cultural world this rupture with faith expresses itself in a "feeling of anxiety which comes from the awareness of finitude in a world without God, where one makes the self an absolute, and earthly affairs the only values of life."

The Pope's 1999 Letter to Artists expressed a desire to see this rupture healed. "Every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world," John Paul II affirmed. "It is therefore a wholly valid approach to the realm of faith, which gives human experience its ultimate meaning." Artists, he noted, are by "their very nature are alert to every 'epiphany' of the inner beauty of things." A return to true beauty would indeed be a step forward for modern art.