Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Friday, March 23, 2012

To be of use: The Art Kettle by Sinéad Murphy

An art book is a curious item. Lifting the unusually heavy cover and flapping ahead to the large colour plates, one anticipates pleasure not only in looking at the art itself without the peculiar unease of galleries – departure lounges without destination, waiting rooms without delay – and with all the attention enabled by languid time and solitude, but also reading about the art. This is where the gift may be fully unwrapped. Except one soon rediscovers that there nothing in books quite as awkward and unsatisfying as reading about art. Embarking on paragraph setting the scene of, say, an allegorical landscape, one is impatient to turn to the particular plate to see again for oneself. The same is true when the author discusses the technical properties of the work, its critical context and its family tree. In the identical original gallery movement, however, one's eyes leave the painting to seek the caption and, a moment later, the related text one had impatiently abandoned. The next impulse is to put the book away and visit the gallery again, or perhaps abandon the subject altogether. Art appreciation sometimes appears less a process of discovery and growth than an unsatisfying, moth-like fluttering between partial illuminations. Why this oscillation in the dark?

Sinéad Murphy’s dissatisfaction with art is of a different order entirely and she has no hesitation in providing an answer: by suppressing the question of what art is for, contemporary art colludes with liberal democracy in making “social, cultural and political life free of ... unpredictable, revolutionary capacities.” Moreover, this collusion is not a failure of certain contemporary artists or movements but its very mode of being:
“the manner in which art is constituted in our society – that is, what we understand art to be and to do, and the value we attribute to what art is and does – operates primarily as a mode of control.”
The Art Kettle's case is worth setting out in as much detail as a brief review allows in order to let its unusual resistance to art show through.

The title makes the explicit connection between the art world and the Metropolitan Police’s new tactic of containing political protests: a uniformed cordon blocks citizens into a corner and, on pain of truncheon and arrest, refuses to let them proceed until they are exhausted and the protest tranquilised. Art’s collusion is exemplified by the book’s premier example: Brian Haw's permanent protest in Parliament Square against the invasion and occupation of Iraq, made up of placards, photographs and paintings, that was then recreated in Tate Modern by the artist Mark Wallinger. In 2005 the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act came into force outlawing unauthorised protests within a kilometre of the square and Haw’s protest was almost entirely dismantled. Yet Wallinger’s creation, also within the kilometre exclusion zone, remained untouched: “Haw’s protest, become art,” Murphy observes, “had ceased to make itself heard”. The removal of one installation thereby “makes explicit the subtle dismantling of possibilities for protest by a government bent on protecting the ‘freedom’ of its citizens”, reducing political action “to mere performance of action, to remake it ... with merely aesthetic import”. Protest in liberal democracy is then possible only in terms that disqualifies its need to exist.

The direct connection with art in Murphy's account seems, on first impression, wilful and excessive. Art must have great power to prove so weak. So how did it reach this place in society and what is the alternative? For The Art Kettle, the reason is the art world’s “obviation of the question What is it for?through disinterested appreciation of exhibitions rather than active engagement, and the proper alternative is not a “political art” at all but craft: “that thinking and feeling mode of living for which use and beauty are warp and woof”. To get to this point the book tells several stories that follow the movement from natural human creativity to disinterested art.

The first movement began in 1878 when John Ruskin accused James Whistler of “flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face” by exhibiting Nocturne in Black and Gold. Whistler sued and the debate about whether the painting was genuinely art took place in a court of law. While Ruskin’s lawyer saw no beauty in the painting and could not therefore regard it as art, Whistler contended that any “artist of culture” would see that it is and would. For Whistler then, art was for only the cultured few, while Ruskin believed it should be “devotional handmaids of right and of good”. Murphy summarises this as the first and permanent division of art’s possibilities “between an exercise in the elevation of the masses and an experiment in the artistic interests of the few”. This is a familiar charge of course, particularly in the literary and musical spheres, but The Art Kettle makes explicit how false this opposition is: both in fact serve the cause of Kantian disinterest in the work. After Whistler vs. Ruskin, art’s possibilities have existed in an “It’s not art/It is art” loop which continues today in the Stuckists’ protests against the Turner Prize. The former bemoans the latter rewarding the disappearance of art into life while the movement, Murphy argues, is quite clearly life disappearing into art. Both serve the same tranquilising goal. The Art Kettle presents disinterest as an ideology of art appreciation imposed by a navel-gazing elite; an ideology that “pursues” both permanence (timelessness) and evanescence (irrelevance to the social moment) and is thereby “the enemy of human existence twice over”. Yet her examples suggest there is something less intentional at work.

William Morris saw that the industrial revolution eventually removed working people from their ability to “think, create and invent” and though they might live in comfort with beautiful furniture and appliances, it is a comfort detached from its foundation: “all of those things that we now regard work as 'freeing us up' to do: read, paint, shop, travel, think – is also alienated, from the educative, the enlightening, incubation that is craft.” One only has to recognise how demeaning the word “hobby” has become to appreciate the anxiety generated in a deracinated population. But Morris’ own design work has itself been assimilated into the same consumer culture and his aim “to conflate the faculties of thought and feeling” neutralised; it has become another hobby-like lifestyle choice as much as minimalist kitchens and properties with “character”. Worse, in the 2009 Turner Prize was won by a maker of wallpaper, a decorative object become chin-stroking aid. This is certainly life disappearing into art, placing taste in the hands of a disinterested few. But isn't something stranger taking its course?

Édouard Manet’s paintings portrayed people dressed in the fashion of the time in otherwise classical works as a means of depicting the present day, to make ordinary life the subject of art by confronting the viewer with images of himself and not, as had been the case for centuries, the divine. Murphy says the man in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is meant to be you, not anyone but precisely you. The same goes for the viewer of Olympia. Manet spent his career trying to address “people who would not listen, who would not look”, partly perhaps because the fashions change so quickly the man reflected in the mirror the Folies-Bergère was soon as out-of-date as a Roman in a toga. The viewer saw only another great work of art. In a key pointer Murphy says the human subjects in Mante's paintings “went very quickly the way of their gods”. The democratic art he and others sought all went this way, much like the French Revolution was the first of many to go the way of the terror. We’re told the newest design for the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square is called Power Structures, Fig. 101, a title presented as revelatory: “artworks as power structures; art as the guillotine of the modern age”. Art as the Calvary Cross of the modern age would perhaps be more appropriate; a revolutionary saviour ritually executed by an occupying force.

The Art Kettle concentrates on visual artists but a chapter is devoted to the dressmaker Charles Frederick Worth whose story takes the reverse direction of Manet’s. He went from selling clothes that suited the needs of women of the day to cultivating a permanence in what is, by definition, ephemeral – that is, by being purposely retro like Teddy Boys or Mods – and so diminishing craft and taste to adorn himself with timeless art. Murphy compares this with modern day fashion houses and is  characteristically sharp about the pretension of parading clothes never to worn by anyone other than by tall, ultra-slim models. Yet while this certainly removes the craft of dress sense that Murphy values, it is perhaps also obscurely aspirational to a customer, much like a peacock’s tail is to a peahen, an otherwise useless item used to gain a mate or, in our case, a customer: a surplus of strength used solely to display useless beauty. What then is motivating this Siren-like movement from utility to art?

We may recognise an answer by going back to the “It’s not art/It is art” loop. One figure who brought it to prominence is undoubtedly Marcel Duchamp. Murphy aligns his readymades with Manet’s paintings in which the bare canvas could be seen beneath the oils. But Duchamp’s Fountain was his direct challenge to art as art.
“Making something is choosing a tube of blue, a tube of red, putting some of it on the palette, and always choosing the quality of the blue, the quality of the red, and always choosing the place to put it on the canvas, it’s always choosing.” 
If art involves such limitless choices, then it is essentially arbitrary, and so a crafted item such as a urinal may as well effuse the supposed glory of art as anything else. A banal point nowadays and repeated as often as the gesture itself, but it helps to brighten the space between art as a craft and art as an abiding veneration of something, if no longer divinity. The assumption of intentionality as central in the process of art cannot be maintained when the tradition and purpose of worship has gone, when the work of art has become like our world, irredeemably secular and disenchanted. Duchamp's Fountain more or less discharges intention at its very apex, thus perhaps demanding the re-evaluation of the meaning of art. What fascinated Duchamp was the introduction chance into the made work, what Francis Bacon called the non-rationality of a mark. Of course his elaborately perplexing installations, such as The Large Glass with its unintentional rainbow shatterings, have gone the way of the gods too.

What suggests itself then is precisely what Sinéad Murphy desires: a naive, anachronistic and exclusive reconstitution of craft: “a kind of fundamentalism that identifies ends that are worth pursuing and commits itself to their realization". This is not a utopian demand, if not its opposite. It is instead open resistance to the utopian whiteout of the gallery space that has extended its bland, neutralising presence into the everyday world. With craft replacing consumption as a universal practice, we may then begin to witness the disappearance of art, and how art might thereby transfigure our relation to the world, not merely remove us from it. It has happened before.

In the caves of southern France tens of thousands of years ago, humans lit fires and painted animals on the walls. For what reason, we can only speculate, but there must have been a reason; most likely, we suppose, a shamanic ceremony. What ever the reason, here is art before art, apparently useless and manifestly overwhelming. For us there is nowhere to go but back into the light of day struck by the power of painted things and wondering, again, what to make of this experience of partial illumination. Could it be that the irrationality of these excessive acts in the dark, now protected from human contact (the contrast with art galleries is pertinent), is necessary for a revelation/revolution? Art may be the inevitable remainder of craft, the epiphenomenon of human creativity, and all that we call art since Lascaux has sought in vain its unintentional alchemy. This would mean the craft of rational argument, on display throughout The Art Kettle in as much quantity as bitter passion, may be seen to be part of that vain search, as is each art book, and this review too. Perhaps the best response would be to learn how to build a fire in a cave.

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