Art or a load of bull? ICA chief toasts minister over holiday doodle

By Andy McSmith
Sunday 22 December 2002 01:00

A wine glass rests on a table. Nearby, a book. In the background, trees. Is it art, or is it a doodle?

Frankly, no one would care except that the man who executed this drawing is a notorious figure in the art world – not for his drawings but for his sayings.

Kim Howells, a Culture minister, famously dismissed the entries shortlisted for the Turner Prize as "conceptual bullshit". Now the art world has taken its revenge by using the drawing of a wine glass as proof that Mr Howells himself is not exactly JMW Turner reincarnated.

The drawing was executed during one of the minister's skiing holidays in the Alps and donated for auction to a small Oxford-based charity, Power4limbs, which helps the victims of land mines in Laos, Mozambique and other former war zones.

But Philip Dodd, director of the Institute for Contemporary Arts, was not impressed by Mr Howells' generosity. "It is either brave or very vain of him," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. "It is kind of champagne socialism because it is of a wine glass. It is sort of champagne socialism out of Oddbins."

His remarks produced an aggressive riposte from Mr Howells, who accused the ICA of exhibiting "a load of old tat". He added: "This sounds like the kind of sneering guardian of the emperor's new clothes which, of course, Philip is part of. It seems to me the limit of most of these guys' creativity is trying to decide what shirt to wear for their next opening first night.

"That is the problem with critics and arts administrators, I think. Like the rest of the art establishment, they've got a position to defend and when they have to defend it they will stoop to anything that suits their purpose." Mr Dodd responded to this attack by dismissing him as "a man who confuses abuse and argument".

At his Pontypridd home yesterday, the minister sounded as if he was beginning to tire of the argument. "I don't know why I bothered actually. It was just a drawing I did when I was on holiday in the Alps. I was sitting by Lake Geneva, and there was a wine glass in front of me and a book called Valais Alps East. It's a climbing guide, the kind of thing us climbing loonies use all the time. There was a bit of hotel stationery nearby, so I drew the scene. The drawing still had the hotel logo on it."

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