A Dig around for the Roots of Art

Article excerpt

Byline: TOM LUBBOCK

FIGURING IT OUT: What are we? Where do We Come From? The Parallel Visions of Artists and Archaeologists by Colin Renfrew (Thames & Hudson, pound sterling32)

PEOPLE are forever saying that artists are like other kinds of people. For example, they have a lot in common with scientists (this one always goes down extremely well on Start the Week). Or they are like priests. Or prophets.

Current artsfunding policy has them down mainly as social workers.

Of course, the gambit generally works because artists are like all kinds of things. Well, how about archaeologists? Yes, there's a book about them.

Colin Renfrew is a Professor of Archaeology and when he looks at contemporary art it puts him in mind of archaeology. In this book he explains. He talks about his experience as an archaeologist and casts a remote but beaming eye across the contemporary art scene, and adds a little light history and cultural reflection. But I really cannot follow him. Is he serious?

His choice of contemporary artists seems dictated by fame, rather than taste.

("Eduardo Paolozzi is one of Britain's greatest post-war sculptors.") His engagement with individual artworks is glancing. His comparisons between art and archaeology are vague and catchall.

Some contemporary artists are interested in the ground (Richard Long), some in everyday objects and detritus (Tony Cragg), some in how things are preserved and displayed (Damien Hirst), some in traces, remains, pieces of evidence (Cornelia Parker), some in what it is to be human (Antony Gormley), some in the making process itself (numerous).

And so, one way or another, their interests overlap with archaeology's. Very true.

But it all depends what you do with these analogies. Just making them gets you nowhere. It points only to the ease with which analogies can be drawn and to the limits of one's own perspective. If Renfrew were an estate agent he would perhaps notice the parallel visions of artists and estate agents, and his case would be just as strong.

There comes a point where the reader can play the game better than the author. For example, Rachel Whiteread (little mentioned here) with her explorations of interior spaces - surely she is exactly like an estate agent - I mean, an archaeologist.

Or, after considering Tracey Emin's appliqued tent, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, without showing an inkling of why it might be a good piece, Renfrew pauses. …