Just think

Laura Gascoigne wonders if the artists who purport to be thinkers are any good at thinking.

“I think, therefore I am.”

“I think differently, therefore I am an artist.”

To traditionalists it may already seem that the entire art world has arrived at destination Hell in a handcart and there is nowhere further to go, but actually the journey isn’t over yet. While the general public remains unconvinced of Josef Beuys’s final solution that everyone is an artist, it still expects a reply to the following question: if it’s not the way artists draw, paint or sculpt that makes them artists, what qualifies them for the title? Here’s the latest answer: it’s the way they think.

To qualify as a contemporary artist you have to walk the walk, talk the talk and think the thought, all at the same time. (Gum-chewing is an optional extra.) The theory goes, apparently, that by some creative providence artists’ brains are wired differently to everyone else’s, an accident of evolution that lends their thoughts aesthetic value in themselves. Any works that might result, if any do, are only of value as physical manifestations of this mental difference, byproducts of thought processes that may be exchanged as commodities for financial profit but could just as easily be dumped without detriment to the maker’s status as an artist. The kernel, the essence, the nub of art is thought, and the purer its expression, in principle, the better – no gunk, no junk, just the juice of undiluted creative thinking. But in our messy world of gunky realities, this ideal is difficult to achieve. How does the differently thinking artist break the ties that bind him to the world of objects? It’s a problem the Café Gallery, Southwark Park – always at the cutting-edge of creative cerebration and municipal lawn-mowing – has been trying to address.

Its summer exhibition, which if you hop straight on a number 188 bus you might just catch before it closes on June 29th, is called Thinking Things, and concerns itself with this very problem of “exploring thinking’s ambivalent entanglement with sculptural and visual forms”. It takes its name from an essay by the literary theorist Steven Connor which, if you’ve missed the bus, you can read online. Connor’s thinking on thinking starts from this premise: “Thinking, which is properly nothing and nowhere, can only lay hold of itself in the form of a thing. But not just any thing will do, for it seems that it needs to be a special sort of thing, a thing apt to embody thought – a thinking thing.” That is, as I understand it, a thing with a thought bubble, but not just any old thing with a bubble – not a bar of soap.

The exhibition, supported by something called Pro Helvetia – not a brand of probiotic yogurt but the Swiss Arts Council – considers the thinking problem in relation to the practices of a number of contemporary artists including Richard Serra (the only one I’d heard of) and to the work of the late French writer, filmmaker and educator Fernand Deligny. (There had to be a Frenchman in there somewhere. When Brits start spouting thought-bollocks, cherchez la grenouille.) And there’s more. “Complicating the dichotomy between ‘things’ (materials, objects) and ‘thoughts’ (ideas, concepts), the exhibition focuses on the contradictory alliances and uneasy codependencies of mind and matter, object and idea. It looks at how thinking often depends on material forms and becomes thing-like, and how objects can become abstract like thoughts.”

I can’t see quite how you complicate a dichotomy, though I expect you get points in French philosophy class for trying. But concentrate now, because we’re going to another level: “A ‘thinking thing’ has all the qualities of thought, while no longer being a thought. It is an atmosphere, cloud, storm, gas, air, secretion, ooze, balloon and bubble [you see, I knew there’d be bubbles]: all things that in their puzzling incompleteness capture the drifts and vagaries of thought… At the heart of the exhibition is a concern with the fundamental processes of art’s conception: how thinking about form and forms of thinking in art come about.” In other words, it’s the thought that counts.

Trend-spotters will have seen this idea coming as long ago as the 1998 Hayward touring exhibition Thinking Aloud curated by Richard Wentworth, the thinking man’s artist – or is that the arty man’s thinker? Whatever, let’s not complicate the dichotomy. Wentworth described his show as “an opportunity to see what happens when you fray the edges and actually provoke more open-ended ways of looking.” What happened was that Tate Britain took up the challenge and ushered in the Millennium with New British Art 2000: Intelligence, a show of 20 contemporary artists including Tacita Dean, Douglas Gordon, Bob and Roberta Smith and the crown prince of frayed-edge thinking, Martin Creed. The Tate gave the idea a more sinister spin by comparing contemporary artists to “intelligence agents at large in society, gathering, sifting and transforming the raw data of our life, critically examining our environment, the way we live and our relations with each other… They see art as a means for imagining the world differently, or ‘thinking otherwise’ as the French philosopher Foucault put it.”

What did I just say about Frenchmen? It’s Foucault and his copains who are largely responsible for spawning a generation of British art school graduates who fondly imagine they have reinvented thinking. And the delusion is spreading. Last year Tate Modern teamed up with a German car manufacturer to launch a series of BMW Tate Live Thought Workshops (yes, really) to teach the general public to think like artists – rather than, presumably, Jeremy Clarkson.

There’s nothing new about the idea of artistic intelligence. We’ve known all along that in art it’s the thought that counts, ever since Michelangelo explained that “an artist paints with his brain and not with his hands” – or his prick in the case of Renoir. But this obsession with the thought behind the art rather than the art itself is a phenomenon of the last 20 years. Every religion needs a creation myth, and I guess this is the creation myth of conceptual art. It allows conceptualism to be presented to the public as a cult of creativity vested in the artist rather than the work, compensating for the fact that the work leaves the public cold. Meanwhile it swells the heads of the not-so-bright who went into art because they fancied themselves as thinkers while lacking the intellectual cutting-edge to cut the mustard in the Mensa department.

Artists aren’t stupid but neither, Leonardo excepted, are they intellectual giants. If they had the brainpower of philosophers they’d be philosophers, ditto mathematicians, microbiologists, astrophysicists and all the other professions their ‘thinking otherwise’ now licenses them to dabble in. But should they be wasting creative energy on thinking at all? Not according to Ensor. “Reason is the enemy of art,” said the Oracle of Ostend. “Artists dominated by reason lose all feeling, powerful instinct is enfeebled, inspiration becomes impoverished and the heart lacks its rapture.”

Fortunately, help may be at hand. The first stirrings of a counterrevolutionary backlash were felt in February when the South London Gallery hosted an evening of talks and screenings titled Stupidious, which proposed “stupidity as both a subject and a strategy of artistic production.” Who would have thunk it? With a healthy injection of stupidiosity, the heart may yet recover its rapture.

Laura Gascoigne

The Jackdaw, 2014