Art & Language: Social media and conceptual art

I am deeply divided over painting.

When I was at art college, the idea of “skill” and “technique” was definitely a no-no. Ideas were everything. Concepts. Deep discussions with furrowed brows. That sort of thing. “Skill”, so the argument went, is something or someone that can be hired in to execute the idea for you. You don’t need to learn technique, and you should be more like a CEO, calling the shots and making the work happen. At push, you could actually paint with your own hand if you wanted to – but that was really just another stance; an idea about statement of intent. No one was interested in how amazing it was that someone could paint like that. The discussion straight away became about why you would want to do that in the 20th Century (yes it was that long ago that I went to art college).

Indeed, many major works are fabricated by Mike Smith, who I met on many occasions when I worked for a Fine Art storage firm back in the 90s.

When people used to ask me what sort of painting I did, it was never an easy question to answer. My favourite gag, and what I used to tell people, was that I did painting in inverted commas – I did “painting” rather than painting. To that end, I never really got down and sharpened up a technique. I’ve made a good fist of using a paint brush over the years, but I could have been a whole lot better at it if I’d made more of an effort to brush up on the skills required, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Part of the reason I’ve never really got the painting down as well as I might is that to some degree I agree with the above thesis. Ideas are important to work. I always wanted to be able to have ideas and concepts that I could do in any medium. I wanted the final works to be dictated by the idea, where ever it would take me. You can see, I hope, that if one had an idea that required a photographic representation of something, then one should probably just take a photo, rather than trying to paint like a photo (for example) purely because one is A Painter, otherwise it becomes about something different.

More than that, I didn’t want the skill of applying paint to a flat surface to be my schtick. Part of the allure, I think of art, any art, is that it takes you off into uncharted waters emotionally, intellectually, all sorts of ways – to the point where you should be able to forget about how it’s made. I would imagine that most people, when they’re listening to a piece of music, don’t spend the whole time listening out for the individual instruments or working out what notes are being played when. Rather, you let it wash over you as a cohesive whole.

However, as I’ve been involved in conversations with other artists online, I’ve noticed another perspective. Coming from a marketing point of view, it’s worth noting that using esoteric language is a classic example of “positioning”. It’s quite common to add value to something by talking it up. Put crudely, the more high-falutin it sounds, the more it’s considered serious and worthy of discussion. Clearly taken on this level, high-concept discussion add value to art works, and this could and does get used to increase the value to an artist’s work. The more sophisticated the better.

The flipside, of course, is that esoteric language is also a good way of keeping people out – anyone who doesn’t speak the lingo can quickly find themselves on the outside looking in, rather than the other way around. On the face of it, you might wonder why anyone would want to keep people away (surely you want to sell your work?) However, in fact the reverse happens – it makes people more curious. Like a group of people gathered round an accident, more people will come over to find out what it’s all about if they can’t quite make out what’s going on. Human nature.

A lot of the artists I’m meeting online seem to want to eschew the whole high-concept thing. Part of an Old Boys Club, they say. In a time when the internet is blowing open opportunities for artist to get their work out there and get on, its as if anything that indulges in deep concepts is “The Old System”, as if to say we need to be free of depth as well as the restraints of a closed system.

Personally I don’t buy it.

What I aspire to (and we can talk about how successful I am later) is that the same piece of work can be as complicated or as simple as you like. It should be possible to be able to look at work on a straightforward visceral level, but also to be able to go deeper should you want to – as deep as you like.

I’ve no doubt that using language to create a closed shop goes on, just as I have no doubt that that same language is sometimes used for “positioning”. However, I would argue that some people come to art FOR the depth, rather than in spite of it. It’s part of the allure, and there’s nothing wrong with it per se. Social media and art are both about connecting with an audience, and if that is your audience, then you’d be a fool to avoid it. Art should be more universal than that anyway.

Where does that leave me on the technique/conceptual continuum? I honestly don’t know. In fact I was hoping that I’d have a clearer idea by the time I’d finished writing this, but my suspicion is that it’s a false dualism/polemic/dialectic/dichotomy/how ever you want to put it.

Many artists such as Tracey Emin (check out the monoprints – much better than the tent or the unmade bed), Gary Hume, or Chris Ofili (who I recently reviewed here for his show at the TATE) have been very successful by developing a signature language – their own recognisable style that comes from skill and hard work (I recognise that all these people have technicians working for them, but the style is theirs, and was more than likely developed by their own hand to start with). Many of these artists also are able to talk about their works in quite a sophisticated way, too. All of them have been able to cross the boundaries between High Art, and the Common People (and no, that is not MY dualism).

As for me… Now, where did I put that paintbrush?

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