Philip Hensher: All these brilliant people are asking the wrong question

'If you accept that Martin Creed's lights are a work of art, it doesn't commit you to approving of it'
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The Independent Online

The turner prize has, by general consent, lost some of the excitement that it had a few years ago, as the first generation of young British artists takes a few further steps towards respectability, riches and the Order of Merit. All the same, it is something that still seems to have the power to outrage people, and, by all accounts, the press view of the Turner prize exhibition is that it was a rowdy affair.

I didn't go – somehow, sitting on the sofa and playing with my dog seemed to be a much more sensible way to spend a Tuesday morning – but everyone said there was a full-scale peasants' rebellion as the hapless officials in charge of interpretation at Tate Britain tried to explain the exhibits to various hard-bitten hacks.

Rage, in particular, was caused by Martin Creed's exhibit, which consists of nothing more than the lights going on and off in an empty room.

Tate Britain did its best with this, and made a few dutiful noises about birf'n'deaf'n'all that, but no one was going to be placated. Gordon Bennett, the lights failing – you call this art? Their collective gander thoroughly up, the hacks went through the other exhibits like a dose of salts; one of the other artists had just done something that looked exactly like a storeroom, a child of six could have done that etc etc. You call that art? You're seriously asking us to believe? And so on and so on.

Anyway, all this has been a gift to the sort of people who write letters to newspapers, and for the last couple of days the letters columns have been filled with the sort of letters that always get written and, more mysteriously, printed at this time of year. They all go something like this: "Sir, the lights in my house keep going on and off/I have a load of rubbish in my back garden/I haven't made my bed yet/there is a gigantic shark in formaldehyde sitting in the middle of my kitchen. Am I eligible for the Turner prize?" Yes, whatever.

It seems to me that all these very brilliant and witty people are asking completely the wrong question here, and one that depends on a complete misunderstanding of the nature of art. It seems to assume that art has some kind of guarantee of quality attached to it merely by virtue of its status as art, and also – a secondary assumption – that art is automatically some kind of improving thing.

Neither of these are obviously true; I mean, if you accept that Martin Creed's lights are a work of art, it doesn't commit you to approving of it, or thinking that it has any merit. Similarly, when Stockhausen, the other week, said that he thought that the atrocities of 11 September were, in some way, a gigantic work of art, his views were somewhat eccentric, but only deplorable if you thought that art was necessarily a force for good in the world; and that is obviously not the case when you think of all the artists, writers and composers who have used their media to defend or propose mass murder.

The question here is really not "Is this art?". In an atmosphere that, since Duchamp's invention of the "ready-made", has not made it easy to see the obvious difference between a created work of art and an object from the world, we probably have to take the word of artists that what they are doing does constitute art.

We still have, and will always have, the right as members of the audience to say "this is no good". The correct sequence of argument, in the case of much conceptual art, ought to go like this: "Is this art? Yes. Is this any good? No."

That's really the only sensible tone of the discussion. No doubt denigrators of conceptual art think they've hit on a brilliant strategy by denying that all this stuff is art at all, but it is really the nuclear option, and it has had a very deplorable effect on many people who are quite interested in conceptual art.

In normal circumstances, where there is no assumption that it is any compliment to say that anything in particular is a work of art, we can easily say "This is good/This is bad" without feeling we are letting down the side by disliking a particular work of art or a particular artist.

In these circumstances, however, with a large constituency bent on saying not what they mean, which is "Come on, Martin Creed – he's rubbish, isn't he?" but "He's not an artist in any sense, really", many people feel honour-bound to assert that yes, indeed, Mr Creed is an artist; and then – a brilliant but not very necessary leap of thought – to assert that he's a good artist.

It ought to be perfectly possible to accept that the existence of great conceptual artists such as Duchamp or Beuys doesn't mean that the hapless products of art schools are worth looking at, and yet, in the interests of supporting what is undoubtedly an interesting movement in art, hopeless drifters are praised to the skies, and on the other side, great artists are idiotically knocked down.

I can't help thinking it would all be a lot more rational if we decided to say, from now on, what we mean.