If you had a British accent, you'd see art more clearly

February 17, 2002|By Dave Barry | Dave Barry,Knight/Ridder Tribune

We Americans tend to assume that the British are more intelligent than we are, because they speak with British accents. That's why we need to know about the Turner Prize.

This is a much-publicized prize awarded annually to a British artist. The people who award it say it's "one of the most important and prestigious awards for the visual arts in Europe." Besides prestige, the winner gets 20,000 pounds, which, if you convert it to American dollars, is a large wad of American dollars.

To win that kind of money, you'd think the artist would have to produce an actual, physical piece of art - a painting, a sculpture, a statue of the Queen carved out of cheese - something.

Nope. The 2001 Turner Prize went to an artist named Martin Creed, whose entry was entitled: "The Lights Going On and Off." It consists, as the title suggests, of lights going on and off in a vacant room. They go on for five seconds, then off for five seconds. That's it.

In other words, this guy got 20,000 pounds for demonstrating the same artistic talent as a defective circuit breaker.

Here's the scary part: He deserved to win. I say this because, according to BBC News, his strongest competition was an artist whose entry consisted of a dusty room "filled with an array of disparate objects, including a plastic cactus, mirrors, doors and old tabloid newspapers." Some gallery visitors mistook this for an actual storeroom, before realizing that it was art.

So Martin Creed's blinking lights probably looked pretty darned artistic to the Turner Prize jurors. The prize was formally presented by Madonna, who said: "Art is always at its best when there is no money, because it is nothing to do with money and everything to do with love." That Madonna! Always joking!

You should know that the artistry of Martin Creed is not limited to blinking lights. Another of his works is entitled "A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball." It's a piece of paper crumpled into a ball.

Perhaps you're thinking: "How come when I crumple paper, it's trash, but when this guy does it, it's art?"

The answer is that Creed has an artistic asset that you don't have: the fervent admiration of professional art twits. For example, one critic wrote that Creed's ball of paper "is not simply a sheet of A4 paper, it is a beautifully crumpled piece of A4 paper." Creed has also received critical acclaim for attaching a rubber doorstop to an art-gallery floor so that the door could be opened only partway. This annoyed the public, which, being the stupid old public, did not recognize that the doorstop was art. Naturally the critics thought it was brilliant.

Frankly, I admire Martin Creed. He can do whatever he wants, and the critics will declare that it's art, especially if it annoys normal people. If he suspended a bucket over an art-gallery door so it dumped water on whoever walked in, he'd be hailed as a genius. In fact, he may already have done this.

Another important British artist is Damien Hirst. In 1995 he also won the Turner Prize, for an entry that consisted of (I am not making any of this up) a cow and a calf cut in half and preserved in formaldehyde. Last October, a London gallery threw a party to launch an exhibition by Hirst. When it was over, there was a bunch of party trash - beer bottles, ashtrays, coffee cups, etc. - lying around. Hirst, artist that he is, arranged this trash into an "installation," which is an artistic term meaning "trash that the gallery can now price at 5,000 pounds and try to sell to a wealthy moron."

The next morning, in came the janitor, who, tragically, was not an art professional. When he saw the trash, he assumed that it was trash, and threw it away.

"I didn't think for a second that it was a work of art," he later told the press.

When the gallery staff arrived, they went out and retrieved the artistic trash from the regular trash, then reassembled the original installation, guided by photographs taken the night before.

So to summarize the London art scene: A trash arrangement, created by an award-winning artist, is painstakingly re-created by art gallery professionals, who hope to sell it, for 5,000 pounds, to an art collector, assuming the collector can open the gallery door, which might be blocked by a doorstop placed there, to critical acclaim, by another award-winning artist.

The thing to bear in mind about all this is that everyone involved has a British accent. Including, more and more, Madonna.

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