‘Sculpture’ v. sculpture

Martin Jennings

Among the least impressive legacies of arts administrators’ obsession with Modernism and its aftermath is the impossibility of predicting a work’s status solely from its appearance. You might form your own view about it, but you can’t predict what State Art’s opinion will be because there are no published criteria or guidelines for making such a judgement. You can’t second guess a whim. The bottom line is that we have allowed a body of ‘experts’ to evolve who unashamedly make it up as they go along. This gullibility on our part for allowing it to happen, and the smug charlatanism of those in authority who are impervious to and ignoring of criticism, is the inevitable result of being for decades under the thumb of an establishment which – for all its daily protestations to the contrary – is not only awash with cash and therefore patronage, but has decided, god-like, that anything at all can be art if it says it is. In its way State Art’s is as extreme a form of capricious and intolerant dictatorship as any regime in North Korea.

There is a useful current example of how fossilised prejudice and arbitrariness inform establishment policy. It concerns two works of public art each designed for city locations. Both are, on the face of it, conventional figurative bronzes. Superficially similar though they may seem, to the Arts Council there is an enormous gulf in acceptability between the two, a difference invisible to you and I. One of these works, that recently unveiled outside the tacky new public library in Birmingham and called A Real Birmingham Family, is a ‘challenging’ piece presenting two local women and their children. The other, depicting women in overalls and commemorating the crucial contribution of female workers to the steel industry during the World Wars, will soon be unveiled in Sheffield.

The Birmingham sculpture is by former Tate trustee Gillian Wearing. Obviously she didn’t make the sculpture herself, a skilful craftsman will have run it up from snaps. The result is a hideous, styleless simulacrum of real people, the point of it being to promote the view that nuclear families are not now the norm – how very trendy, how perfectly BBC. This sort of conceptual conceit must of necessity be a sculpture-free zone because the last thing Wearing wants is for the object to be gauged by its form rather than for its ‘idea’ – albeit one which, to the rest of us, would be so small as to be not worth the effort and expense of illustration. As sculpture it stinks, it’s stillborn.

In contrast, the Sheffield piece is a work of imagination and looks like a sculpture because it was made, with his own hands, by Martin Jennings, a renowned specialist in this area of modelling and invention. To State Art this sort of traditional approach is vile anathema.

But here’s the real rub. Conceptual art, even when it comes in the otherwise despised bronze figurative form, is funded by the Arts Council, to whom Wearing is well known. She has had two national touring shows and has exhibited in every ACE-funded gallery. ACE also bought in 1999, for £30,000, her Turner Prize winning film in which two dozen coppers stand silently still for an hour. Confirmation of her A-list status is supported by the fact that 31 of her works are in the Tate, Arts Council, British Council and Government collections: curiously, all four own an edition of the same print, unnecessary duplication of a kind that ought to have been outlawed years ago. Wearing’s family sculpture was administered by local Ikon Gallery, which itself receives over half a million a year from the public.

In contrast, Sheffield had to find all the money through public donations because Martin Jennings is the wrong kind of artist.

State Art always prefers ears to eyes and has never based funding decisions on the merit of what you actually see. Why artists nationwide are not campaigning about ACE’s continued unfair discrimination and casuistry is baffling.

Here is yet another filthy, indefensible racket.

David Lee

Jan/Feb 2016