Off Their Trolleys? in Breaking Conventions and Taboos, Contemporary Artists Seem to Occupy a Mysterious Realm of Freedom Entirely Separate from Economics and the Everyday. Julian Stallabrass Explains That the "Otherness" of Art Is Merely a Mask
Stallabrass, Julian, New Statesman (1996)
If the crowds at the Tate's latest Turner Prize show are anything to go by, contemporary art is as popular as ever. And yet, if you regularly visit such exhibitions and bother to read the catalogues and blurbs that accompany the works, you will be all too familiar with the feeling of incomprehension. The text often reads something like this: "The work on display confronts the viewer with opacity, liminality and indecipherability, resulting in a radical break with our normal modes of thought, opening up a profound rupture, at the brink of which our illusory selves can only tremble in the draught of an encounter with the fathomless other." I exaggerate only a little.
Why, as viewers of art, are we continually assured of the limits of our understanding? What explains the insistence on the unknowability of art? After all, much contemporary art hardly warrants such a description, being no more difficult to work out than an advertising slogan or a crossword clue. Many pieces are claimed to be "about time" or "about death" or "about urban space", and so on, while doing no more than throwing together a couple of conventionally opposed elements and letting the writers of press releases, and the docile critics who spout from them, do the rest. Most contemporary art is immediately recognisable as such, which suggests that it is far more uniform, and understandable, than its propagandists would have us believe.
Contemporary art is the negative image of mass culture. Because artists generally produce one-offs or limited editions (even when using media such as photography and video), they do not have to worry about the commercial pressures of popularity. A video by Bill Viola, for example, is not tested on audiences to check that they approve of its ending. Hollywood produces stirring, coherent narratives, soaps peddle sentiment and moral lessons, and pop songs tell of love and plaintive rebellion.
In art, by contrast, all narratives are left open, all morals are questioned and all traces of sentiment are expunged. Thus we have Lego concentration camps (Zbigniew Libera), snuff movies (Sergei Bugaev Afrika), offences to decent taste (eating babies and copulating with melons, to take a couple of recent examples) and genetic manipulation for aesthetic purposes (Eduardo Kac and others). In its dark explorations of the human psyche, contemporary art appears to hold out no consolation. But through all the negativity, a seemingly more positive message emerges.
Contemporary art appears to exist in a zone of freedom, set apart from mundane, everyday life, and from its rules and restrictions. The economy and its complementary mass culture function according to strict conventions; contemporary art does the opposite. The idea that capitalism allows space for such free expression could be taken as rather reassuring. The message is that art is a law unto itself, unaffected by the demands of private patrons, religion, business and the state.
Even when works bear a direct relation to mass culture and commerce--for example, when Sylvie Fleury gilds a supermarket trolley or displays the results of her shopping trips to fashion boutiques, or when Guillaume Bijl builds a supermarket inside a gallery--they serve to underline the huge difference between the two realms: the subject is cheap and accessible; the artwork is expensive and rare, further elevated by the grand status of the institution in which it is displayed. And yet, although it is not certain what comments Fleury and Bijl are making in these works, they none the less draw attention to how art is marketed, sold and consumed like everything else.
Indeed, the "otherness" attributed to art masks how the art market is becoming increasingly integrated into the general run of capitalist activity. This is made more visible by increasing pressures on art to be useful. As market forces tear up old attachments and certainties, states turn to art as a balm to foster social calm and cultural solidarity. …