A bunch of mildly talented people, a few chancers thrown in – all manipulated by a multi-millionaire with a cynical eye on the commercial. Yes, it was School of Saatchi. To give the show some credit it was both a sincere attempt to make modern art more intelligible to the general public as well as, potentially, a big risk in occasionally confirming the public’s suspicion that there is something a bit ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ about modern art. In a way there was about this show – in that the Emperor, the eponymous Saatchi, never appeared himself.
For me the crux of the programme and the crux of the public’s distaste and even mistrust of modern art is the suspicion that there’s no substance to it. I don’t endorse that view, but it was the itch that wanted to be scratched throughout the series. In week three Matthew Collings, the art expert who lead the viewer through this world, stated his belief that by forcing the artists to confront the Past Masters they would be forced to confront the ‘problem of contemporary art seeming to be shallow.’ Yet it never seemed to be a challenge the critics were prepared to take all the way, remaining confused throughout over eventual winner, Eugenie Scrase’s work – was she brilliant or taking the piss?
The first week was particularly trying: the group of twelve long-listed hopefuls were interrogated, sorry – interviewed, about their pieces. Tim Dowling in The Guardian criticised the panel for repeatedly challenging them as to why their works were art. After all, didn’t Duchamp break down this concept almost a century ago, showing that anything can be viewed as art? However, what was shocking – more so than modern art’s refusal to allow this long-answered question to die – was that so few of the candidates had appeared to ask this question themselves, let alone have an artistic vision with which to provide a satisfactory answer. In some cases this went further, leaving one with the sense that they actually had no artistic vision at all, no artistic intention other than to get into the next round. Maybe simply no intent. This has left me with a real puzzler these last few weeks. Even as a weak intentionalist I’d never say a work can or must be judged by its intention, but surely a work must have an intention, an artistic intention, even if this alone does not provide it with its meaning or indeed can become irrelevant to its meaning? Is there art without intention? (I don’t propose to answer that).
Too often some of the candidates seemed to settle on an idea without ever interrogating it, their intention in the work or how the various strands of their piece came together to provide any kind of coherence or concept. Take the crucifixion piece in week three: with the copper plates, frame and the sound of static. Crucifixion – because the installation was in a chapel; copper – arguably aesthetic (a motivation too often ignored or even sneered upon, in my view), as well as technically necessary to create the sound; finally, the sound itself – created by the static and resonance of a human touching the copper. Why the sound? How does the sound and its production by the involvement of a person inform our understanding of the crucifixion? Does it inform it anyway? Why that sound? Do any of the other elements play on each of the others? Most importantly and worryingly of all, it seemed that the artist – Samuel Zealey – hadn’t considered these questions either.
The worst candidate for this – this post-intention/no-intention art – is the winner Eugenie Scrase. In week one she made the short-list on her, not universally admired, whistle hanging from a towel rail. (Her medium is found objects yet no one commented on the fact that she had constructed, rather than found this piece). When asked for her explanation or intention with the piece she made some vacuous remarks about it making you want to climb and making you want to reach out and touch the whistle. At this point Tracey Emin, who was highly articulate and insightful as a critic, jumped in and talked about its sexual connotations – the desire induced in the viewer to put their lips to the whistle. Scrase nodded along amiably. Now does it matter if the only depth to her idea has been interpolated by somebody else and if her original intention was vacuous to the point of non-existent?
Collings expressed some unease as to whether Scrase’s art was really good or, as he put it, the result of a prank like a request to the TV props department to ‘send us down some joke modern art’. This was in response to an installation of a long tassel on a pulley. At the last minute Scrase decided not to switch the mechanism on, claiming this asked questions about function. ‘It makes them a bit more about … things,’ she said. Now why can she not be more specific? One suspects that it’s because she herself does not know the answer, does not know where or why she is directing the viewer in a particular way. Ultimately, she is unsure as to her intention with the work other than that it should exist.
Her winning piece was another found object – a large section of tree trunk impaled on a spiked fence. The judges criticised her other piece – a grappling hook made from insulation and spray painted silver – as vacuous. Yet this didn’t seem to matter, nor did their unease throughout with what she was trying to do, rendering the rest of the series somewhat pointless. Matthew Clark was also signed up by Saatchi – his work was highly rated throughout. And at this point I would also advocate Suki Chan, whose work was both subtle and aesthetic, although we were told that Charles Saatchi doesn’t like subtlety, which might explain why so much of his collection is bold, shocking but lacking in depth. At one stage Collings questioned whether Scrase’s work had any real value ‘or whether it’s all some posture’, whilst praising Clark’s work as ‘sincere, thoughtful and energetic.’ Had Clark won, a sceptical public may well have been reassured by modern art that had chosen to stop the jokes, the pranks, the constant attempts to see what it could get away with, in favour of works that are genuinely thoughtful. Gazing at one of Scrase’s pieces Clark asked whether it wasn’t just a badly painted piece of foam insulation. ‘Thought for the day,’ he said. Sadly at the final hurdle the experts failed to reward the artist with a coherent vision, a narrative, an intention that they were able to follow through. They never satisfactorily addressed their own doubts as to whether Scrase was a chancer unsure as to what she was doing. If they can’t answer that question, or simply can’t be bothered, what hope for convincing the rest of us.
This week Michael has also seen: “Cock at the Royal Court. What a wasted opportunity with a lazy treatment of a great idea. This could have challenged the construction of binary, medicalised sexuality. Instead it was littered with tired stereotypes; couldn’t decide whether to poke fun at the issue or take it seriously and by constructing the narrative around a love triangle made the main focus on John’s apparent selfishness, rather than truly interrogating his dilemma in the face of a prescriptive society. Most disappointing of all was Ben Whishaw. A good performance: frail, twitchy, eyes darting all over the place. But it was the same performance, the same Whishaw that we’ve seen in everything else. The real stars were Andrew Scott, injecting some humanity into a gay cliché that could have been plucked from the seventies, and Katherine Parkinson’s genuinely stellar turn as the only character written with a third dimension.”