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Feb 2002 Journal

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Art Notes

The £20,000 Turner Prize awarded to Martin Creed by Madonna makes you wonder when conceptual art became a question of the Emperor's New Clothes. It's less difficult to connect it to the Saatchi aura of super-trendiness, which has clearly affected the way art is seen in the contemporary world. Today's Turner Prize has little to do with the artist who blended storm, ship and sunset into a multi-dimensional creative experience. The prize, which may well make Turner turn in his grave, was established in 1984 by a body worryingly described as the Patrons of New Art and is intended to "promote public discussions of new developments in contemporary British art".

Now take Jacqueline Crofton, a Jewish figurative artist whose work is in numerous private collections all over the world. Like many serious artists, Crofton is at odds with the fact that conceptual art is a negation of the very skills cultivated in traditional art schools. Meanwhile, the experimentalist Martin Creed, whose work is considered by the Tate a "mixture of seriousness and humour", wins the coveted Turner - an empty room installation at Tate Britain with lights going on and off. Enter Crofton, with an egg in each pocket to hurl at Creed's empty room, and soon she finds her protest has turned into a crusade against the cartel who "control the top echelons of the art world in this country, leaving no access for painters and sculptors with real creative talent". She describes Creed's work as at worst electrical, at best philosophy. But it is Turner judge Nicholas Serota who gets the lash of her tongue when she accuses him of not seeming to care how much the gallery's exhibits are ridiculed: "He just sits back and laughs."

It is the way of such things that when Crofton went to work on an egg she won critical acclaim for her brave action, but inevitably boosted Creed's own celebrity. Some applauded her vigour and some thought sour grapes. But there is surely a real question for all of us who believe art defines something greater than ourselves, a moment which conveys illusion and effulgence.

However, unquestionably, the corruption of beauty and sensitivity by harsh regimes like the Nazis has affected our perception of art. The effect of degenerate art is slow and subtle, distancing itself from its original reference. Knowing that beauty must self-destruct, we are asked to accept change. But if we do, where does change take place?

Internal, rather than visual, change leads to conceptual art, which by its very nature cannot be assessed. You can't qualify another person's imagination - it is present before it reaches us. And so Jacqueline Crofton's egg-throwing is as much an artistic achievement as Martin Creed's. It is right to criticise those who soullessly drive the public taste for outrageous nonsense and for having no sense of artistic direction. But to damn them completely is to leave no room for a new art to flow from this age of darkness and unreason. And this is the dilemma for all who want to see the dawn of a new Age of Enlightenment.
Gloria Tessler

previous article:'Closure': Returning to Prague as a stranger
next article:RG's Interface