Yes, most conceptual art is rubbish - but so is most painting

'I would say nine-tenths of the stuff you see exhibited in galleries is without any merit'
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The Independent Online

A few eyebrows were raised when Ivan Massow was appointed as chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1999. Massow, who had not previously been much known for his interest in contemporary art, was widely seen as an attempt by the ICA to bag itself a high-profile chairman with some access to powerful people. His ability to get himself into the newspapers might, too, have been seen as an advantage; you never know, next time he might get the ICA into them as well.

Alas, this tactic seems to have backfired, and by now Massow will almost certainly have been fired as chairman. The trouble was exactly his knack for publicity. An article by him merrily cast aspersions on what is seen as the predominance of conceptual art. Most of it, Massow said, was complete rubbish. Other forms of art were routinely overlooked, even though, by now, conceptual art had lost any kind of excitement and had become, frankly, dull. With the abandonment of any kind of notion of talent, public art galleries were showing vast amounts of stuff that could only be described as "craftless tat". The dread words "taxpayers' money" were uttered; and Mr Massow's fate can now be assumed to be sealed.

I expect that Massow more or less said all this with the hope of being sacked. The ICA, after all, is the principal advocate of craftless tat in London. Nicholas Serota, the Tate director, and Norman Rosenthal, the exhibitions secretary of the Royal Academy, had their names bandied about in this exuberant diatribe, too. They are known to have keen interests in new art, but they do in a great deal of other things, and even the grimmest anti-modernist would have to concede that a conceptual artist would have to acquire an enormous reputation elsewhere before the Tate or the Royal Academy would start to look at them seriously.

Massow's piece can really only be seen as a jolly good go at the ICA itself, and its director, Philip Dodd. No one says "It's him or me" without the firm intention of getting themselves sacked, and Massow presented the ICA with the choice between Dodd and him. They are not going to get rid of Dodd, of course, but I wonder whether at this point the trustees might not find themselves with a still more attractive option. Why not sack both of them?

In fact, Massow has a sort of point here. Most conceptual art is complete rubbish. That ought to be entirely uncontroversial. Most art of any sort is complete rubbish, and always has been, from the beginning of time. At a rough guess, I would say that nine-tenths of the stuff you see exhibited in galleries these days is without any kind of merit whatever; uninteresting in thought or execution, ugly to look at, predictable and boring.

And he's probably right to say that an enormous amount of this stuff these days seems to get exhibited, and very little else gets seen. Painting needs to be very striking indeed to attract the selector's eye, and a fair number of interesting painters languish neglected. But his reasons for decrying conceptual art are, I think, mistaken.

To say that conceptual art is necessarily poor because it places no emphasis on skill is to write off some of the greatest artists of the last century. Cornell, Beuys, Duchamp and dozens of others were only passingly interested in skill. That is only part of an artist's artillery and has always been so; a virtuoso such as Liotard can make Watteau seem like a fumbler, but is a tenth as interesting.

But these kinds of assaults force the opposite camp into a much more sterile position, of overpraising and overpromoting some really useless artists. The point at which one shrinks from dismissing his criticism is the point at which one recognises the justice of his comment "craftless tat". That, pretty fairly, is a description of the ICA's usual exhibition over the past few years. Under Dodd, the ICA has failed to produce anything of much interest. Their Beck's Futures award hasn't turned anything up at all, and the very occasional artist of some merit is swamped by a lot of hopeful banalities.

The general mood of the place is: "Look at this! Conceptual art! Isn't it great! Isn't it all great!" No, of course it's not. It never could be. But they feel they have to say this to counter the many voices calling out that no conceptual art is any good at all. The rational position is quite simple, and not really to be argued with. Most conceptual art is rubbish; some is not. Most painting is rubbish; some is not. Ditto videos, installations, sculpture, performance art; everything, in short.

Any position that says "We, as an institution, are going to promote the following form of art because we believe in its intrinsic quality" is going to end in disaster. And, yet again, this spring we will probably find ourselves looking at a pile of household rubbish in a gallery and being asked to admire it if we believe in the possibility of conceptual art. No, there's only one solution: sack the pair of them.

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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