Ivan Massow: I defend my right to question the value of today's art

'Like a virus, conceptual art may grow to become little more than the dot.com of the art world'
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The Independent Online

My fate as chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts will be decided at 6.30pm this evening by the Grandees of the ICA Council when they meet in the splendid, panelled Brandon Rooms at the top of the Institute's elegant headquarters in Whitehall. They will be meeting – they'd hoped in secret – to decide whether someone who can describe "some" concept art as "craftless tat" should be allowed to continue to hold the rank of ICA chairman.

The trouble all started a week ago, the day the New Statesman ran an article in which I expressed my personal opinions on contemporary British art and asked whether our conceptual artists were pushing the boundaries of artistic achievement or were simply pushing the limits of our gullibility. Since expressing those views I have been overwhelmed by the response I have received, from e-mails and letters to people stopping me in the street. Much to my surprise, it has been almost exclusively supportive, if not always so much in agreement with my opinions as in agreeing about the importance of debate.

However, this has not been the response from the arts establishment. An eerie wall of silence has descended. Last year Nicholas Serota had £26m of public money to spend on art. With huge pressure on public institutions across the board to show that they provide the taxpayer with value for money, why should art be treated any differently? When challenged to respond, Nicholas Serota has favoured a monarchic silence, but he seems to forget that he's not the Queen but a public servant.

Indeed, it all seems to be giving credence to my suspicions about Conceptualism becoming the new "official art". But before the ICA Politburo cry "treason" and send me to the Tyburn gallows to be hung, drawn and quartered, I ask that I may put the case for my defence.

In the article I likened conceptual art to Soviet-era socialist realism in that it is authorised and promoted at the cost of other, competing styles. After all, it does seem to be endorsed by Downing Street and sponsored by big business – in other words it is an investment medium, which should not come as too much of a shock in our increasingly commercialised world. But if we are to place material value on things, we must look at how those value judgements are made and by whom.

There is much conceptual art that I enjoy, but I feel that we are now in danger of moving towards a situation where talent is no longer a criterion. This is worrying for the future of art in this country. Will tomorrow's students, when filling in art school application forms, write about their desire to "vent angst and expose their underwear" rather than aspire to what many may call the old-fashioned ideal of artistic excellence? What is wrong with suggesting that we encourage other forms of contemporary art so that conceptual art can develop within the broader contemporary arts scene? Surely, if we don't it will grow. like a virus, to become little more than the dot.com of the art world. The parallels between advocates of conceptual art and the dot.com pirates who plundered our pension funds are there for everyone to see. The arts élite have invested so much of their reputation (and cash) in defence of concept art that they find themselves unable to criticise it.

Frankly conceptual art , although great fun originally, has become dull. I felt myself yawning through this year's Turner prize ("oh look, this video installation has a film of someone smoking backwards!"). The problem is, it has no answers – it is merely intellectual masturbation. Viewers are endowed with the compliment that they can find meaning in it that the artist had never spotted. They explain away the lack of talent by explaining that it reflects what's going on in our chaotic, brutal and transient society (like society has never been in the past...). But as much fun, or personally rewarding, as it may be to get it – we still must step back at some point and ask whether the amateurish psychological musing of some mockney Gilbert and George stalker, are really delivering what we need from art.

After all, we live in a society where a collective atheism has left people crying out for "answers" from culture and art. Perhaps I'm being hopelessly idealistic, but I want art to move from pure linguistics and subjective philosophical theories, and evolve into something that aspires to elevate the spirit and alters minds.

Last week, when I created "Concept Gun": a toy gun I wrapped in lime green synthetic material and had delivered to the ICA in a wicker basket, I invited them to dispatch me cleanly and humanely with it – if they feel that I have gone too far by starting the debate.

As an art lover and patron and being ICA chairman for the past three years, I have been introduced to a huge number of artists, visited countless galleries and exhibitions who want this debate. I defend my right to be able to have opinions and express them.


The writer has been chairman of the ICA since 1999