Art should never aspire to be cerebral it is a creative activity where expression of feeling and emotion are its major concerns. So watching a recent broadcast treating Channel 4 viewers to an explanation of Tate Modern’s themed display on Still Life made me immediately suspicious. Great art needs no explanation it just ravishes you.
We are far enough removed from Picasso and Braque’s Cubism not to be shocked by it. Their reconstruction of observed objects for artistic effect was driven by painterly concerns which now need no explanation. Their insistence that painters had total freedom to organise and present the world in any way they choose was characteristic of the revolutionary times in which they lived and explains the diverse and fragmentary nature of Modernism.
One of Modernism’s unfortunate consequences is that it seems to have led artists to become more arrogant and extreme. Duchamp’s urinal presented as a fountain and signed ‘R. Mutt’ was perhaps a joke but it led to the doctrine that anything can be art if the artist says it is. Magritte’s little painting ‘The Treason of Images’ with the inscription ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ is a light hearted reminder that you are not observing the real thing but he keeps a visual reference the real world. In contrast Michael Craig Martin offering a tumbler of water displayed in a glass shelf as ‘An Oak Tree’ does not. As an idea it’s pathetically weak and lacks a logical general reference as a well devised concept should.
It is questionable whether art should be driven by logical constructs anyway. Artists unlike say mathematicians are not trained for this kind of creativity. When they try they generally display the kind of arrogance which only comes when you are ignorant of the real world. A concept is not true just because the artist says it is. ‘Believe me my unmade bed really is as good as any Vermeer.’ Tracy Emin was just kidding wasn’t she?