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)

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