»  National Review Online

December 13th, 2001

  The Nincompoop Prize


As faithful readers know, I am a true Renaissance man. Humani nihil a me alienum puto, and there is no sphere of human endeavor into which I have not, at one time or another, peered inquisitively, grasped the fundamentals more or less immediately, and formed a well-rounded opinion — which, of course, I am ready to defend to the death. I am willing to admit, though, that while I know something about everything, I know much more about some things than others; and among those topics about which my stock of knowledge is perilously close to the minimum required to pontificate confidently, is art.

I have done my best with art. The subject was lit up for me briefly in my teens by a charismatic teacher. Then I learned some more in my college years (though on my own, not from college teachers) to impress girls. I have dutifully trudged round most of the big European and American galleries at one time or another, believing — as I still believe — that some acquaintance with beautiful objects, made by masters steeped in a grand tradition, is an important part of the mental furniture of any civilized person. I know the great names; I know their main works; I know rococo (joyful, airy) from baroque (grave, solid), and Manet (girls) from Monet (lilies); I know enough to give my kids a start, anyway.

The key word there, though, is "dutifully." I never really got art. It never really "took" with me. Every visit I have ever made to an art gallery has been motivated by some un-aesthetic impulse: vanity, guilt, duty, curiosity, boredom, lust. I can't say I have ever really enjoyed looking at paintings or sculptures. I'm a words guy, not a pictures guy. If a genie were to tell me that the human race would, from tomorrow on, by my irrevocable decision, be deprived for ever of either all the poems in the Oxford Book of English Verse or the entire contents of the Louvre, I wouldn't hesitate for a nanosecond — the Louvre would have to go.

All of which, you might say, disqualifies me from passing opinions on art, art exhibitions, and art prizes. Not a bit of it! I may be a little shaky on the difference between chiaroscuro and tenebroso, but I know the real thing when I see it. I know that "art" is just an old word for "skill," and that nothing worthy of being called art is created without skill — studied, sweated, endlessly practiced skill, preferably lit from within by the glow of inborn natural talent and divine guidance. Knowing this, I am ready to pronounce with full confidence on the latest Turner prize.

The Turner prize, in case you don't know, is one of the most prestigious art awards in the western world, given every year by London's Tate Gallery for a body of work whose creator has demonstrated outstanding ability and originality. The winner then chooses an item to put on display. The prize is worth £20,000 (about $30,000). This year's award went to 33-year-old Martin Creed for an exhibit that consisted of an empty room with lights that flicker on and off every five seconds. Mr Creed's previous exhibits include a scrunched-up sheet of plain typing paper, a piece of plasticine stuck to a wall, and neon signs bearing cheery messages. The award was presented Tuesday night by Madonna.

Prior to the announcement of Mr Creed's triumph, the favorite for the prize was Mike Nelson, who (I am quoting here from a British newspaper report) "works with rubbish," and whose prize submission was a pile of planks. The other shortlisted artists were Richard Billingham, exhibiting photos of his alcoholic father, who lives in a Glasgow slum, and Isaac Julien, who entered some short films about homosexual cowboys. (Inspired, I suppose, by that old Cesar Romero movie The Gay Caballero … )

Approving comments on Mr Creed's exhibit came from all over the art world. The prize judges said, in a joint statement, that: "The lights going on and off have qualities of strength, rigor, wit and sensitivity to the site." Mr Simon Wilson, the Tate Gallery's communications curator (there's glory for you!) called the work "pure and spiritual." Creed, he added, "is a very pure extreme kind of artist. The fact that many people find his work so baffling indicates that he's working on the edge." (Note the flimsy non sequitur on which all this bogus "art"rests: It's obscure, so it must be profound. You can get away with that in the visual arts, but not in literature, where "obscure" only ever means one thing: badly written.) The artist himself, asked to explain why the lights flicker, elucidated thus: "It activates the whole of the space it occupies without anything physically being added and I like that because in a way it's a really big work with nothing being there … It's like, if I can't decide whether to have the lights on or off, then I have them both on and off and I feel better about it."

What do I think about all this? Well, first I think that the directors of the Tate Gallery, which receives funding from general taxation, should be locked up in prison and made to do hard labor scraping the rust off bolts for twenty years or so with nothing to eat but cold oatmeal porridge. Then I think Mr Creed should be stripped naked, sprayed all over with bright blue paint, and made to run round and round Piccadilly Circus until he drops from exhaustion, after which he should be killed by some not-very-humane method. Then the Tate Gallery should be reduced to rubble by aerial bombardment, the rubble carted away to be used as landfill, and the ground sown with salt. Then the fools who pay good money to look at this "art" should be packed into boxcars and tipped off the white cliffs of Dover, and their mangled corpses left to be feasted on by dogs, crows and crabs.

Oh, all right: in a free country, people should be left alone to ingest dog poop, if that's what they want to do. Cancel the boxcars. I do think, though, that the fact of a worthless fraud like Mr Creed being able to attain fame and fortune with his absurd "works of art" should make anyone who cares about our civilization cringe and weep. It is all very well to say that people should be able to do what they like with their money (which seems nowadays to include your money and my money, too: "art" everywhere is heavily subsidized from taxation). But public awards like the Turner Prize are not private matters. They are statements that we — we, this culture; we, this civilization — make about ourselves, to the world and to posterity. The statement being made this week by the Turner Prize judges is: "We are a culture of driveling nincompoops, who would not know real talent, skill and inspiration if they whacked us over the head with a loaded pool cue." To drive home the point, to add insult to injury, they delegated the prize-giving to Madonna, a talentless self-promoter, the very epitome of everything trashy, stupid, dirty, meretricious (look up the etymology), mindless and antisocial in our godforsaken culture.

There are, of course, real artists, doing real work, all over the western world — struggling through all kinds of difficulties and obscurity to keep the magnificent tradition alive, and push it forward an inch or two. What a pity that the little attention they can get for their work in a frivolous, easily-distracted age is diluted and embarrassed by the antics of charlatans. And what is the economics of this Turner Prize "art"? Is someone going to buy Mr Creed's room and install it in his house? Set one of Mike Nelson's heaps of rubbish out on his front lawn for passers-by to admire? Festoon his living-room all round with photos of Richard Billingham's dipso dad? Amuse his houseguests with showings of Mr Julien's buggering bronco-busters? How does this ludicrous charade maintain itself?

"There's one born every minute," said P.T. Barnum. On hearing which, his assistant enquired: "But where do all the rest of them come from?"