Before you ask, no I haven’t been reading R.D. Laing’s Knots. Here I make more than passing reference to in the title is conceptualism, à la Reinhardt, Kosuth, Weiner, LeWitt et al. (and forgive me for taking these references1 as a shorthand for a myriad of significant moments, but I really don’t have time here to explain). I alighted on the title in the current milieu of sense and nonsense that we have foisted on ourselves in trying to wrestle down our global viral load and the tragic personal consequences for thousands, if not millions, of families in terms of bereavement and other less tallied suffering. Having, like many of us, been relatively confined for almost half a year now, my own suffering thus far has been insignificant, but relative sensory deprivation is perhaps the best way to describe my experience of Covid anti-culture. I am missing looking at, smelling, touching (don’t tell!) and navigating art, its spaces, its people, and perhaps more unexpectedly, its emotional draw and retinal imprint.
Whilst I have much of my own salient history with art stored portably in my memory, there is a sense, even as museums announce tentative re-openings under “heavy-manners”, that the potency and progressive creative thinking as embodied through art has receded significantly in favour of civil defence vs. individual freedom as both defensive and offensive strategies. The very fact that the world is in a largely defensive posture, inevitably means that thinking on the front-foot doesn’t make much news apart from tech-trivia, cute animals and celeb. gossip. I suppose a notable exception to this has been the launch of Banksy’s remarkable German-flagged rescue ship, the MV Louise Michel. Banksy’s extraordinary generosity of spirit and sense of humanity is a beacon and brings into sharp focus two things; first, the capacity of art to make its ideas manifest in almost any form imaginable, but second, the utter failure of successive global governments to find ways and means to address historic wrongdoings.
The metaphorical chickens everywhere seem to be coming home to roost all at once: our abuse of the biological world seems visited upon us in viral form, Black Lives Matter seeks recognition of a developed and unevenly affluent world founded on human trafficking and slavery, and the conflict politics of the Middle East and the vested market mineral interests in the region’s oil, uranium and rare earth metals has effectively precipitated one of the greatest mass migrations since the economic and political movements of Italian and Irish citizens across the globe. In the background, China (allegedly) seems intent on enacting something between Orwellian fiction, National Socialism and a chilling re-interpretation/imposition of the Cultural Revolution, (under the flag of convenience of a(nother) “war on terror” – (remember where you heard it first)). At this point I forgive you if you want to click out of here due to the gloomy and discomfiting vision I offer, but actually I think there is at least a grain of truth in what I posit.
Incredibly perhaps, I come full circle and refer you back to Conceptual Art and the idea of Art as Idea. Conceptual Art has been referred to as the movement that ended art movements, its pre-punk, do-it-yourself, no-holds-barred iconoclasm held at its core an idealised (and ultimately naïve) belief that art might change things, might not just highlight, but actually address global social, intellectual and cultural inequalities. Conceptual art also enshrined the idea that art was enough in and of itself, and that the constancy of revisionism and contextualisation provided by art historians and critics was redundant in the face of the super-articulate assertion of “the idea” in its given (optimised) form. The poignancy of Banksy floating the idea of a rescue ship is, sadly, the equivalent of spitting in the wind of state power ideas driven by individualistic “leaders” of various ilk’s trying to balance the books between the unappetising prospect of, on the one hand; a global collapse of economic order, the rule of law, supply and demand and human existence unregulated by market forces. Whilst on the other; gambling on the potentially fatal political prospect of what might constitute an acceptable mortality rate (death toll) as the collateral damage of saving a way of life – as flawed as this is still turning out to be in terms of its medium to long term viability.
In the face of all this, what can one possibly learn from art you might ask? For me the vital thing about art is that it forces both the artist and the viewer to contemplate ideas that range from the compelling to the unthinkable in terms of a best-fit solution to seemingly implausible open-ended queries. If governments, and their special advisors, would only countenance the breadth, depth and audacity of approaches modelled in the arts, we might not be in this broth of fake politics and chameleon politics. Conceptual art was, I believe, a largely honest endeavour that enabled us to think and face the unthinkable in terms of an existential moment. Maybe our leaders should actually come clean about the ideas rather than the self-interested spin we are being fed by news channels. The Terror of Covid and the realities of what might happen if a cure cannot be found, and how this might look needs to be exposed with an honesty that sadly does not currently find an expression in the public domain. In my view, a combination creative thinking and public honesty will be the only way out of this boiled-down dilemma between survival of the species and capitalism. This is a conceptual art.
1 For a some great potted reading, look at Harrison’s Art in Theory and then see how Ad Reinhardt, Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt etc. expressed related ideas, but also you can find some good resources here.