Conceptual art and the employment of glamour

In a recent BBC documentary Who’s Afraid of Conceptual Art? art historian Dr James Fox “embarks on an open-minded guide for the perplexed and asks ‘What is conceptual art?’ ‘How should we approach it?’ and crucially, ‘Why should we care?’”

About halfway through, Dr Fox discovers a work of conceptual art that really appears to be making an impression on large numbers of ‘ordinary’ people. The piece by Robert Montgomery, entitled ‘The People You Love’, is not unlike many high profile works of contemporary art, being primarily an illuminated 3D display of a large scale text.

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‘The People You Love’ by Robert Montgomery (left) and an ‘inspirational quote’ on Facebook

However, interviews with Montgomery and members of the public reveal that it is the sentimental content of the slogan which the audience finds so moving, while Dr Fox seems take this wide appeal as a reassurance of the efficacy and significance of ‘conceptual art’ as a whole. But surely the obvious question to ask at this stage was how this work differed from the similarly popular ‘inspirational quotes’ which litter social media – as of its extra qualities that allow the piece to make the jump from mundane to ‘conceptual art’ we are not told.

I would argue that it isn’t what it possesses which puts ‘The People You Love’ in such a lofty position of ‘high art’ – setting it so far apart from similar sentimental passages you may find posted on Instagram, or in a frame on you Grandma’s window ledge – but the context in which it is portrayed and perceived. For most of us the notions of art and artists as being somehow extraordinary, enigmatic, almost mystical, have been etched deep in our minds from a very early age. The temple like galleries and reverent tones, the incomprehensible imagery and language that creates a void of mystique we then fill with our fantasies of the ‘specialness’ we perceive ‘art’ to possess. All of these factors work to give art a more potent form of glamour than that of movie stars, or fashion models, although it’s still just ‘glamour’ nonetheless.

Understandably it would appear that none of us are more susceptible to the influence of art’s glamour than the art curator, just as those who love the aura of fashion most desire to be part of that industry. The following passage is taken from an interview with international heavyweight artist, Ai Weiwei by renowned curator and head of The Serpentine Galleries, Hans-Ulrich Obrist:

HUO: I see you always have your little digital camera with you. You photograph a lot and that’s also a form of drawing, almost like a sketchbook. We could call them ‘mind drawings’. When did you start taking photographs?

This and other similar sycophantic comments made by Obrist during interviews with Ai Weiwei, show how he endows the artist with extraordinary qualities; they are not just photographs like which you and I would snap, but mysteriously become ‘mind drawings’ in the hands of such talent. Indeed, as we have seen – in the recent work of Tracey Emin, or Richard Tuttle at Tate Modern for example – any works can become a culturally significant solely through the employment of glamour, but rather than exploring this most fundamental aspect of modern art, our ‘experts’ will only provide us with reams of faux intellectual waffle that none but themselves can be deemed worthy of challenging. And without a realistic analysis of how our perceptions and interpretations of major works of art are shaped by these personal notions and fantasies of glamour, the credibility of art institutions and market valuations must surely remain as severely undermined.

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