Magazine article The Spectator

Singular Dualism

Magazine article The Spectator

Singular Dualism

Article excerpt

When I was learning some art history by teaching it, at Maidstone College of Art some 40 years ago, there was a student who invariably raised his hand after each lecture, no matter what the subject or period. 'Excuse me, sir, but what is art?' he used to ask.

I appealed to his common sense, but to no avail. I referred him to the Oxford English Dictionary, which leads with 'skill as a result of knowledge and practice', but without success. 'Try thinking of it as what is produced by those who are called artists at any given moment in history,' I hazarded, but this did not satisfy him either. Luckily, a Duchamp exhibition at the Tate enabled me to refer him to the Dadaist icon's repudiation of all known values of art. In this nihilistic context the repetitive-questioning disorder vanished.

Even Duchamp appears to have retained for the self-styled 'artist' a key role in designating what art is. Now Professor John Carey, in his recent anti-elitist book What Good Are The Arts?, has spread the right and power to define art even more widely. He asserts that 'anything is a work of art, if someone thinks it is'. You can't get caught out with a definition as broad as that. The question that students should now be asking, perhaps, is, 'What isn't art?'

Even in this context the query 'Is you is or is you ain't a sculpture?' might sound odd, but it would be an appropriate one to ask Gilbert and George, the hardy duo who represent Great Britain at this year's Venice Biennale. A living, breathing human being used to be thought of as belonging to the sphere of nature as opposed to the sphere of art, but G & G changed that. When, in about 1969, these inseparables announced that they themselves were sculpture, some thought the claim ludicrous whereas others thought it rather clever. Their 'Singing Sculpture', in which they bronzed their skin and sang 'Underneath The Arches' again and again for hours on end standing on a table or a box, was highly entertaining and showed formidable stamina. 'Don't you get bored doing it for so long?' I asked them at the time. 'Oh, no,' they chorused. 'We find that the longer we do it the more interesting it gets.'

In 1970 they announced, as part of their programme of 'Art for All': 'Gilbert and George have a wide range of sculptures for you - singing sculpture, interview sculpture, dancing sculpture, meal sculpture, walking sculpture, nerve sculpture, café sculpture and philosophy sculpture.' Eating a dinner in public served by Princess Margaret's butler was an example of a meal sculpture which certainly succeeded as a publicity stunt. I confess to having deprived the world of an interview sculpture when working at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. G & G had suggested 'Ourselves Answering Questions in the Gallery'. In the end they showed 'The Paintings' - a series of charming country scenes by them and with them in it, leaning on a gate, looking dreamily at a stream and so on, dressed, if I remember rightly, in their identical grey signature suits and brown shoes.

G & G's talent and staying power are undeniable and they have excelled themselves with their Biennale Ginkgo Pictures. They have mastered advanced computer technology to produce 25 enormous images of themselves entwined in a variety of patterns with the golden leaves of the ginkgo tree - leaves which have magical powers to affect memory and potency. …

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