They All Look The Same To Me

David Lee
November/December 2020

In the last editorial, when describing the new full bloom of official Wokeism, I didn’t have space to consider if, in the context of State Art’s exclusive obsession with conceptual and minimal art, work selected without resort to the gender/sexual/racial ticklist would be of a higher standard than what is chosen when applying it. Over the years I’ve seen no convincing evidence that it would. Wokeism is offensive, but there’s no mileage in kidding ourselves we are missing much as a result of its now universal adoption. Yes it is unfair, patronising, predictable and crassly discriminatory but it doesn’t matter how you choose most State Art work because, in terms of its judgeable quality, there isn’t that much to choose between anything by anyone. 

State Art is a charlatan’s charter, the clapped out, undying endgame of Modernism where anything goes. It is the one approach in which no artist can be seen to be better than any other. Thus a majority of such work comes and goes but leaves neither trace nor afterglow. Even works hyped as masterpieces, as almost everything routinely is nowadays, are instantly unmemorable and forgotten as soon as seen. And because working in this area is so easy to get away with, there is no shortage of it. The best known and most expensive artists – those written up with uncritical servility in the posh papers – are not actually the best, they are merely the most cleverly and assiduously promoted; and the less said about the risible flannel used to justify their unwarranted status the better.

Knowing which works are any good, and which are not, has always been a problem with State Art because you can’t judge conceptualism by the criteria used to evaluate previous art. Even when it comes in the form of painting and sculpture all traditional values are not just overturned but discouraged.

Conspicuous incompetence becomes a positive attribute (see Moping Owl, p. 9): I need only draw your attention to the forthcoming exhibition at the Tate of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s paintings which, judged against traditional standards of figuration, are abysmal.

Having nothing else to go on, critical response to conceptual art can, therefore, only be informed by personal whim. We must always take on trust the opinion of those we assume must be better informed. A comprehensive traditional training in art history, for example, is no use at all when dealing with State Art, where no such inconvenience as connoisseurship exists.

It was a brilliant achievement of conceptualism’s original promoters to shift the onus of finding meaning from artist

400 Bad Request

to viewer. How they managed this with so little complaint or objection remains a mystery; the salesmen must have been magicians, or bullies, and the rest of us cowed by a dread of appearing backward. As one influential devotee pointed out at the time: “Depending on one’s energy and interest one can get into lots of different levels of association.” I think this meant that if you look for long enough and you have a sufficiently fertile imagination you 400 Bad Request can make anything at all mean anything you like. By force of will and personality alone you might convince yourself that an arrangement of nothing much is the Rondanini Pietà. And many do indeed convince themselves of such absurdities.

Additionally, every conceptual artist’s work is so individual it renders comparisons impossible. This is a tremendous advantage. What difference does it make how you select artists if there is no way of evaluating convincingly what they do? Consider the recent joint winners of the Turner Prize. Except for the selectors’ tedious obsessions with colonialism, slavery, gayness, blackness, disability, and assorted permutations thereof, the recipients seem as equally indifferent in quality of work as might hundreds of other potential candidates, or indeed any previous Turner winners. Irrespective of any physical trait or sexual leaning, you might just as well throw the names of all eligible candidates into a hat and play lucky dip because, I suggest, the standard of what emerged would be unaffected.

Such conclusions are never more obvious than when considering ‘visual artists’ who use film. Regrettably for them, their efforts are instantly comparable to the work of true professionals. Film was the most serious new art form of the 20th century. Nothing in painting and sculpture came near to it in visual quality and especially in its popular appeal. If you judge video artists’ projections by the standards of cinema, the only possible conclusion is that they are all amateurish, pretentious tripe playable only where demanding criteria are ignored, namely in State Art galleries.