Is art running out of ideas? Artists forced to explain modern art

From the Tate to Trafalgar Square, new works often seem to come with an explanation for the viewer. Please, says Tom Lubbock, let us make up our own minds

A major change to the urban environment over the last generation is the explosion of running. Once, you could walk down a street and not have people continually rushing by, practically knocking you over, and behaving – what's more – as if they had the right to practically knock you over. Now you can't. To run is an act of virtue. It's almost a sacred rite.

Indoor public spaces, though, are still exempt from the cult of running. If you break into a sprint in a library or a church or an art gallery, somebody will probably try to stop you. So coming across Martin Creed's Work No. 850 at Tate Britain, your first response is, naturally, surprise, with a slight added frisson of danger. You're in a museum. This means a social rule is being broken.

As you may have heard, the Turner Prize-winning artist has arranged for relays of young runners, male and female, to pelt every 30 seconds, one at a time, as fast as possible, from one end of the central Duveen Gallery to the other, while avoiding visitors. Since the stretch is only 87 metres, there's a pause before the next sprinter appears. And, on weekdays, when there aren't many visitors, they have a straight-ish run.

If this was happening on a track or in a park, you probably wouldn't give it much refection. But it's happening in an art gallery, and so – beyond being surprised – it's right to apply some artistic considerations, and see if they're rewarded.

For example, you can pay attention to the work's structure. You can notice that Work No. 850 involves fixed start- and end-points, and fixed time intervals, and maximum speed – but also a variable path between these points (depending on interposing visitors) and variable pauses between each run (depending on individual speeds). And, if you're critically inclined, you can wonder whether this is a satisfying structure. Do the 30-second intervals set up a good rhythm? Would it be improved by slower speeds? Would a marked-out visitor-free path be better? How about just a single runner? Or, even if the arrangement is as good as it can be, does this very minimally shaped experience amount to all that much?

Perhaps you feel that, just by itself, it doesn't. But don't walk away yet. Try another artistic gambit. Go for the big one. Try asking: what does it mean? What's it about? Ah, now we're talking. At any rate, Tate Britain is talking, and talking fast.

As if to forestall any possible doubts, their publicity goes into interpretative overdrive. "Work No. 850 is about the purest expression of human vitality," it says. "This investigation into the body celebrates physicality and the human spirit, the constant ebb and flow of nature."

Wow! In 30 words, the work is packed with meaning. How could you have missed it? It's about vitality. It investigates the body. It celebrates physicality. It's a metaphor for the ebb and flow of nature. And look, there's the human spirit, as well, hovering in the air just above our heads like the Holy Ghost...

Come now. This response is wholly whimsical. Work No. 850 isn't about any of those things. True, it involves vitality and physicality. It also involves speed, youth, risk, surprise, the social practice of running, sex differences, breathing, being fit, avoiding obstacles, following rules, breaking rules, etc. But it doesn't focus our attention on any of them, let alone offer any reflection upon them.

Sure, you can free associate. You can say it celebrates the ebb and flow of nature. But suppose I deny that. Suppose I say it exposes the futility of human routines. Who's right? Nobody. The work just allows either response, and many many more.

Or tell me this: if it investigates and celebrates something, is its investigation serious or superficial? Is its celebration sincere or phoney? You have no idea. I have no idea. Because it doesn't investigate or celebrate anything. The verbs just don't apply.

Work No. 850, I would have thought, was a rather conspicuously meaningless artwork, and none the worse for that. It has its materials, human runners and the gallery space. It has its form. It doesn't have themes or metaphors, and to seek them is to seriously misrecognise it. And the fact that, against the odds, Tate Britain insists on seeking them suggests that powerful forces are at work.

What we're up against here are two of contemporary art's guiding imperatives. Rule 1) Justification by meaning: the worth and interest of a work resides in what it's about. Rule 2) Absolute freedom of interpretation: a work is "about" anything that can, at a pinch, be said about it.

In short, meanings are arbitrary, but compulsory. And this double bind holds almost universal sway. Whenever you learn that a work explores or investigates or raises questions about something, that it's concerned with issues around this or notions of that or debates about the other, you know you're in its grip.

It's weird how people can't resist. If you want to make art sound serious, this is simply the way you do it. Read any gallery wall-caption or leaflet or catalogue, and see how long it is before the writer commends the work solely on the basis of what it's about. And then note how it is isn't really about that at all.

Meaning comes first – even before the work itself. At some point in the near future Antony Gormley's project One and Other will occupy the much-discussed fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. For 100 days, 24 hours a day, a succession of volunteers will stand, for an hour each, as living statues on the plinth-top.

What will happen exactly? Goodness knows. It's anyone's guess. But what will it mean? Oh, we know that already, for the artist himself has explained: "Through elevation onto the plinth and removal from common ground the subjective living body becomes both representation and representative, encouraging consideration of diversity, vulnerability and the individual in contemporary society".

And in the circumstances, pre-emptive interpretation is only to be expected. When meanings are crucial but also completely out of control, the artist had better get his meanings in first. He must make it clear his work will encourage us to consider "diversity, vulnerability and the individual" – rather than other less uplifting things, like exhibitionist tendencies among the public or messianic tendencies among artists.

One and Other is another of those works that might mean anything or nothing. But because it's art, not life, it has to mean something. In fact, that's pretty well what defines the difference between them.

This spring, for instance, a gadget called the Telectroscope appeared by Tower Bridge in London. It offered the public a chance to peer at a live two-way broadband video link to a spot near Brooklyn Bridge, New York. It came with a cod history. Each screen was housed in a sci-fi structure, purporting to be the entrance to a rediscovered Victorian sub-Atlantic tunnel-telescope! Whatever, you could look and wave and express yourself at people 3,000 miles away.

Was it art? I thought not. I thought it was just a fascinating public amusement like the London Eye. But it turned out it was an artwork, made by a bona-fide artist called Paul St George, – a discovery that was, frankly, a disappointment.

It wasn't just an experience that was interesting in all sorts of ways. It was going to be about something. It was going to be raising issues or asking questions. And sure enough, as St George's website reveals, "his practice as an artist has always been concerned with questioning the relationship between the viewer and what is being viewed." Oh no! Suddenly the whole thing got smaller.

That's the problem with these meanings. They're not just highly tenuous. They're depressingly limiting. And we should put them aside. We should stop measuring art by its meaningfulness. We should heed the wise words of Susan Sontag, written almost 50 years ago in her essay "Against Interpretation".

"Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back on content so that we can see the thing at all. The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art – and, by analogy, our own experience – more, rather than less, real to us."

So let lookers look. Let standers stand. Let runners run.

Martin Creed at the Duveen Gallery, Tate Britain, to 16 November (020-7887 8888)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing