Ruth Dudley Edwards: Modern art is excrement but worth its weight in gold
In the conceptual art world, peddling literal faeces has replaced basic skill and talent,
Last Tuesday evening, I made a speech about excrement – or scatology, if we're being posh. It was at the London launch of my latest satirical crime novel, Killing the Emperors, and I was trying to explain to my audience how ludicrous the world of conceptual art is and how difficult it is to satirise.
I can't write about this without indulging in a bit of crude language, but before I get on to the, as it were, nitty-gritty, I should mention what I said about one of our own, Dublin-born Michael Craig-Martin.
Craig-Martin is described as the first conceptual minimalist and was the inspiration and tutor in bullshit (or art bollocks as it is familiarly known) for top salesman Damien Hirst – he of the dead animals, spots and medicine cabinets – who has made over £300m (€372m) from the credulity of people with more money than taste. In the Seventies, Craig-Martin exhibited a half-full glass of water on a shelf and called it 'An Oak Tree'. When the National Gallery of Australia bought it, he declared it on the customs form as vegetation and it was rejected, so he had to rebrand it temporarily as glass.
From a Catholic background, Craig-Martin based this work on the concept of transubstantiation as an article of faith. The essential element in art, he explained, is the willing faith of the viewer in accepting what an artist has to say. The young Hirst was bowled over: "That piece is, I think, the greatest piece of conceptual sculpture," he said once. "I still can't get it out of my head."
Craig-Martin was one of those who taught Hirst and a generation of young would-be artists that all they needed was an idea and a smart-ass justification.
All this rubbish calls to mind one of my favourite stories from Boswell's life of Samuel Johnson: "After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it – 'I refute it thus'."
I'm with common sense. Matter exists, and a half-full glass of water is a half-full glass of water.
However, back to the speech. I was sharing the information that not only is much conceptual art shite, but the art form itself is as pre-occupied by the substance as are toddlers. Here are just a few examples for those of you who've led a sheltered life.
A few years ago, Tate Modern paid £23,000 for one of Piero Manzoni's 90 small tin cans. Produced in 1961, each carries a label, printed in Italian, English, French and German, identifying the contents as 30g of 'Artist's Shit'. They are much sought after: Tate Modern is thought to have got a bargain. Reverentially, in the accompanying art bollocks, we're told that the merda d'artista, "dried naturally and canned with no added preservatives, was the perfect metaphor for the bodied and disembodied nature of artistic labour: the work of art as fully incorporated raw material, and its violent expulsion as commodity".
There's Chris Ofili, who in 1998 won what is described disobligingly in my book as: "the Turner Prize, which is named after an innovative painter of genius and is awarded annually to whatever bluffer has caught the eye of the knaves and fools who dominate the contemporary art world." Ofili has talent and a good way with colour, but you have to shock to win the Turner, and his unique selling point was the lumps of elephant dung he incorporated into his work.
Then there's Terence Koh, the Canadian Chinese artist who sells his gold-plated faeces for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He also kindly sells it to students in its natural state for only $150 (€116). As he points out, they're losing nothing, since his shit is worth its weight in gold.
This year, the Turner Prize shortlist contained work by Paul Noble, who was described as taking almost "an omnipresent view" of a "dysfunctional world" in which "people become turds and turds become people". He also showed black and white sculptures of turds copulating. He didn't win, probably because he was frowned upon for actually being able to draw.
The emperors are naked, and its time we stopped allowing the art establishment to tell us otherwise.
'Killing the Emperors' has just been published in the US by Poisoned Pen Press and the UK by Allison & Busby.
www.ruthdudleyedwards. com. @RuthDE.