16 October 2009

I just read From Has Conceptual Art Jumped the Shark Tank? (By DENIS DUTTON) and loved it. Rather than merely analyze the aesthetic or financial value of conceptual art, he describes where it fits in humanity’s art history.  He argues, yes, the ideas behind each work may be interesting, but that their value entirely depends on the concept.  That is, the works themselves are rather ordinary and uninteresting.  The exhibit no, what he calls, virtuoso. He describes what he believes is the earliest known form of art, not drawings, but tools:

The earliest stone tools are choppers and blades found in Olduvai Gorge in East Africa, from 2.5 million years ago. These unadorned tools remained unchanged for thousands of centuries, until around 1.4 million years ago when Homo ergaster, Homo erectus and other human ancestral groups started doing something new and remarkable. They began shaping single, thin stone blades, sometimes rounded ovals, but often in what to our eyes are arresting symmetrical pointed leaf or teardrop forms. Acheulian hand axes (after St.-Acheul in France, a site of 19th-century finds) have been unearthed in their thousands, scattered across Asia, Europe and Africa, wherever Homo erectus roamed.

The sheer numbers of hand axes indicate a rate of manufacture beyond needs for butchering animals. Even more curious, unlike other prehistoric stone tools, hand axes often exhibit no evidence of wear on their delicate blade edges, and some are in any case too big for practical use. They are occasionally hewn from colorful stone materials (even with decoratively embedded fossils). Their symmetry, materials and above all meticulous workmanship makes them quite simply beautiful to our eyes. What were these ancient yet somehow familiar artifacts for?

The best available explanation is that they are literally the earliest known works of art — practical tools transformed into captivating aesthetic objects, contemplated both for their elegant shape and virtuoso craftsmanship. Hand axes mark an evolutionary advance in human prehistory, tools attractively fashioned to function as what Darwinians call “fitness signals” — displays like the glorious peacock’s tail, which functions to show peahens the strength and vitality of the males who display it.

I was really moved by, what I see, as his conclusion that beauty and skill are more durable values than the fleeting concept. It seemed to answer my occasional thoughts about what happened to art in the last century.

The appreciation of contemporary conceptual art, on the other hand, depends not on immediately recognizable skill, but on how the work is situated in today’s intellectual zeitgeist. That’s why looking through the history of conceptual art after Duchamp reminds me of paging through old New Yorker cartoons. Jokes about Cadillac tailfins and early fax machines were once amusing, and the same can be said of conceptual works like Piero Manzoni’s 1962 declaration that Earth was his art work, Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 “One and Three Chairs” (a chair, a photo of the chair and a definition of “chair”) or Mr. Hirst’s medicine cabinets. Future generations, no longer engaged by our art “concepts” and unable to divine any special skill or emotional expression in the work, may lose interest in it as a medium for financial speculation and relegate it to the realm of historical curiosity.

In this respect, I can’t help regarding medicine cabinets, vacuum cleaners and dead sharks as reckless investments. Somewhere out there in collectorland is the unlucky guy who will be the last one holding the vacuum cleaner, and wondering why.

Wow. Very clear, very simple.  He does not say that the conceptual art is meaningless, only that its meaning is frail and mortal.

Update: The Times published letters to the editor.

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