Call a prank a prank, and leave art out of it

CRIES & WHISPERS
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Indy Lifestyle Online
LAST WEEK, a crowd of critics and tutors at Leeds University gathered for the unveiling of a new exhibition, an end-of-term project put together by 13 of their third-year Fine Art students. That was the theory, anyway. Instead, the connoisseurs found themselves herded onto a coach and driven to Leeds-Bradford airport, where the students were strolling through customs. They'd spent the project's pounds 1,800 sponsorship money on a week of sunshine and nightlife in the Costa del Sol. Cue blanket coverage in the media, and one of their tutors defending the con as a "coup de theatre".

Later, the students announced that it had all been a trick. They hadn't been to Spain at all. They'd been hiding out in their flats all week, getting tanned on a sun lounger, and they'd taken their "Estrepona" holiday snaps in Cayton Sands, near Scarborough. Cue 18-tog blanket coverage, and another defence from a tutor: "They have got everyone talking about the very things - the nature of art and its relationship with life - which lie at the heart of the course."

True enough, people were talking about these things, but what they were saying was, "Why haven't the Government's higher-education cuts reached the Leeds University art department?" The real achievement of this brilliantly realised bit of mischief was to prove that you can get to up to any old nonsense, and someone will stand up and declare that it's art. You tell your tutor that you've been on holiday, and he tells you that it's art. You tell him you haven't been on holiday, and he tells you that that's art, too. You're not going to take him quite so seriously when he gives you a C-minus for your painting, are you? (One critic has said that the non-holiday was definitely art, because there is a long tradition of pranks among art students. There's also a tradition of pranks among medical students, but you wouldn't expect your doctor to hand you a bar of black-face soap and pass it off as a cure for measles.) The affair, or rather the tutors' reaction to it, exposed how ridiculously vague their course is. If art can be absolutely anything that anyone does, then what possible reason can there be to study it for three years?

To say that this prank is art is an insult to art. But more importantly, it's an insult to pranks. This was an exquisite scam, and it doesn't need any other name to justify it. To call it art is to reduce it, to disempower it as patronisingly and inappropriately as when a game of football is compared to ballet, or a rock lyric to poetry.

But the students' tutors had to use the "A" word. After all it's undoubtedly better for the ego to say you've just interacted with a piece of performance art than to say you've been fooled by the people you're supposed to be teaching. But to applaud the prank as a clever bluff one day then as a clever double-bluff the next just invalidates the course twice over. The students should be proud of themselves. The tutors should be ashamed.

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