‘One aesthetic banality is added to another’

Art critic Matthew Collings on the controversy of contemporary art, and why Perry's Turner Prize-winning pots are mundane kitsch.

JJ Charlesworth

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Matthew Collings is a writer and a broadcaster, known for his idiosyncratic and humorous observation of the fraught and sometimes bizarre world of contemporary art. He presents Channel 4’s annual coverage of Tate Britain’s Turner Prize, now in its twentieth year. Grayson Perry, a transvestite whose highly decorated ceramic vases depict scenes of troubled infantile sexuality, won this year’s prize. JJ Charlesworth asks Matthew Collings what he thinks of the 2003 results.

JJ Charlesworth: Today it is almost obligatory for the Turner Prize to provoke controversy and outrage – yet this definitely wasn’t the case when I was a lowly art student 10 years ago. What do you think is behind this obsession with controversy in the public presentation of contemporary art?

Matthew Collings: I think ‘controversy’ is a way of getting a handle on art. I think it’s the wrong handle – it’s philistinism, really. People are suddenly presented with something they don’t know much about, which is art, and they look for a way of feeling comfortable with it – controversy does the job. They know what a controversy is, they know what kinds of things you’re supposed to say about them. Even if it’s to be angry or hateful, at least you know where you are with a controversy.

Art culture on its own – or art history, or the tradition of art, whatever you want to call this thing – is too difficult. People don’t want to bother with having to find out about it. They just want to get to the position of sounding off about it straight away. Obviously they wouldn’t feel the same about science or technology: the insides of aeroplane engines, say. But they assume that because art is about human issues, rather than technology issues, in order to get it you just have to be human.

Actually, art is complicated, there’s a lot to it. A lot of that complication really is about technology: it’s understanding that literal meanings are not always what art is about, or where the concentrated centre of art is really at. Maybe you should see how the materials are being used, how the form relates to the content. I am always amazed, for example, that Ivan Massow [ex-chairman of the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London] clearly doesn’t know anything about art and also he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know. And this is true of most chat about art: it’s very painful to have to listen.

From the point of the view of the art, these controversies aren’t always the same. The lights going on and off, the unmade bed – both have different rationales as art. And the Chapman brothers’ stuff is different again. But these differences are still recognisable to anyone who knows a little bit about contemporary art and its connection to what went before. You can find conceptual models within serious art culture for what the ‘controversial’ Turner Prize artists do. For example, you could say the Chapmans are more strategic, and it’s actually ‘thought’ that they’re being strategic about: they’re art philosophers, they’re interested in consciousness.

Tracey Emin is more about finding presentation strategies through which to present crude emotional contents. They’re sometimes sentimental, rather banal contents, actually. When there’s a spark of electricity with Emin it’s because the relationship between presentation and subject kind of riches-up. This happens with her tent and her bed, and also for slightly different reasons – where an aesthetic element comes more into play – with some of her sewn stuff. With Martin Creed (the lights-going-on-and-off guy) the work is much more pared-back and minimal. It’s as if what used to be a thing in pop culture (say, the Sex Pistols freaking Bill Grundy out on live TV in the 1970s), is now a thing in champagne art culture (a punky, anarchic guy freaking-out Turner Prize solemnity).

But with Grayson Perry there’s a whole other level of difference, and that’s the sheer alien-ness of what he does in relation to art: the fact that his stuff doesn’t even really try to be art. It’s quite content merely to have bits of disconnected controversy floating about unconvincingly. There’s no sense whatsoever of any seriousness on any level as far as art is concerned. There are merely superficial references to art-type ‘concerns’. From the point of view of the new enlarged popular audience for art, this difference isn’t noticed. But from the perspective of art it’s a big change, it’s significant – to give the prize to someone who is obviously not really an artist but just, well, a nice guy. It’s a kind of slap in the face to art-fashion. It’s certainly a slap in the face to the YBA [Young British Artist] rule. I don’t think it’s the right slap in the face, but I do see there’s a bit of excitement and drama in the judges’ decision. On the other hand, I have to say I infinitely prefer the Chapmans, because they’re serious and clever, and I think the decision was a wrong one.

JJ Charlesworth: Grayson Perry’s pots have been praised as showing a return to craft and skill, but it seems more likely that he won because he keyed into contemporary fashion. Perry’s pots come across as a temper tantrum, as someone who thinks of himself as a small child demanding acceptance – which chimes with a culture that falls over itself to include the marginalised and embrace difference. How do you judge between a ‘real artist’, and someone who merely keys into contemporary cultural sentiments?

Matthew Collings:: I look at these pots and they look like they could have been ordered up from a factory. They look anonymous. Except for the drawings and so on, on top of the pots, they look mass-produced. So what is it that we’re supposed to be thinking is so fantastic on a ‘craft’ level?

The V&A and the British Museum are full of pots. Bernard Leach was a potter. So there’s such a thing as a tradition of pots. But there’s also a tradition of kitsch – and this is that. Although philosophically his work falls in the category of ‘art’, the visual impact he’s coming up with is aesthetically feeble. Visually it’s mundane, expected, ordinary – not hideous, but just mildly okay. That’s what kitsch usually is. Someone might object that elephant dung is kitsch, or flashing light bulbs are kitsch, but they’d just be making a mistake, I’m afraid. Grayson’s pots are something like stuff that first started becoming widespread in Victorian times: cheerfully crude vases that refer in a way that’s actually very distanced to Chinese vases or Greek vases.

So ‘craft’ or ‘beauty’ and ‘skill’ issues don’t come up with him in any real sense. They’re terms that are used in relation to him in an unreal way, usually by art-world outsiders who want to complain about the rest of contemporary art. Ironically, I agree that contemporary art has often been visually horrible, and I personally wish it weren’t that. I just don’t see that adding Grayson’s pots to the visual desert is the answer. The other group that uses these terms – ‘skill’ and so on – are the weird, corrupted zombies who write the Turner Prize press releases. That’s a tragedy, and I’ve made it my cause over the years to fight against that kind of thing. (The outsider audience I don’t think about so much.)

Of course, I also see that the pots are covered in drawings and bits of mechanically done photo-collage. The content of this laid-on stuff is the standard currency of a lot of contemporary art. That is, a dystopian view of society, but in particular in this case a black view of how children are treated. The drawings have all the visual dynamism of birthday card illustrations. So really one aesthetic banality is added to another. If he did any of this in a way that had some impact then I’d have a different response. I still wouldn’t be particularly interested in the social comment because the level of that is pretty shallow, too. The comparisons to Hogarth that have been made are just ridiculous.

But if you really want to know ‘how’ I judge between ‘a real artist’ and Grayson, well, it’s complicated. It would take a much longer interview. Knowledge, observation, experience, feeling; they all come into it. Good luck to him though!

Matthew Collings’ series Matt’s Old Masters is currently running on Channel Four at 8pm on Sundays.

JJ Charlesworth is a writer on contemporary art based in London.

Read on:

‘Why not a Kandinsky, a Mondrian and a motorcycle show?’, Jed Perl

Conceptual art, by Josie Appleton

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