“I feel insulted to have to look at this”. It looked like crap.
Why am I writing about a reality TV show about aspiring artists from 2009? Because I just discovered it and binge-watched it, and I had an array of responses to it, mostly positive feelings about art (especially conceptual art), until the surprise ending unraveled it all and made it a farce, which makes the whole of the series the more interesting.
The premise of “The School of Saatchi” is that they get a dozen students, quickly reduce them to six, and then put them through various art challenges until one triumphs and is rewarded with a studio for 3 years, a piece included in a show in the Hermitage , and a head-start on becoming a blue chip celebrity artist. A small panel of art world luminaries, including Tracey Emin and Matthew Collings provide mini-critiques (a normal critique can last longer than the whole series).
I was hooked in the first episode when a student presented two crumpled sheets of paper, one an email he sent to Martin Creed, and the other Creed’s response. If you don’t know who Martin Creed is you’ve been spared. He’s the guy who had an art piece which was just the light in the gallery room going on and off at short intervals, and of course he’s also the guy who presented a single crumpled piece of paper as a work of art.
I’m just going to skip over Creed’s paper ball itself, because I’m sure there’s much more to it than meets the eye, and I’m also pretty sure my head kinda’ hurts already and I have no real interest in the heady theory that makes this paper ball radical. The hook was Tracey Emin’s reaction: “This is the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever heard in my life.” Just like real crits in art school, a lot of which is aspiring artists trying to pass off bullshit, and older artists eating it up or seeing through it.
Part of the reason I was so into the show was because I’ve been through art school up to an MFA and this is familiar territory. I still have anxiety dreams in which I’m back in grad school and have an upcoming show. Thus I could easily put myself in the situations the young artists found themselves in, struggling to snatch some grand idea out of the ether. And of course, the grueling aspect in which artists would submit their work to the opinions of the esteemed judges was sure to be entertaining.
The first meaningful task the young artists faced was being paired up to collaborate on a public artwork at the Hastings shoreline. They’ve got £1,500 and two weeks to create something to woo the public. This is also where I started to put myself in the shoes of the artists, casting about for inspiration. What the hell would they come up with? All but one of them were art students, so, this was not entirely new mental terrain for them, but the stakes were high, and being paired up with another artist, and having to make something for the public (as opposed to the insular art world) were challenges that took them all out of their comfort zones.
This is the best part of the show, and I think a good way to get people to understand and be sympathetic to conceptual art. It’s just this: using anything (other than traditional mediums and processes) to make something creative in order to impress people. There’s really nothing wrong with that, and the fact that these mostly 20 year old students can do it proves that it doesn’t require a lifetime of wrangling with the big questions of art to just get started. It just requires an intro to contemporary art class. Because they have a budget and a very limited amount of time, any traditional approach isn’t feasible. The artists come up with very different solutions, sometimes making parts themselves, and sometimes commissioning them. Once the pieces are completed, and the panel has had a chance to look at them, Charles Saatchi is helicoptered in for a private viewing. We never see him, but he has a stand in, Rebecca Wilson, who conveys what he had to say. Apparently, Charles is notoriously private. Ironically, Saatchi and the panel prefer the artwork which the public liked the least (but that’s to be expected in the art world).
Next the artists have to create pieces for an old castle with a well-to-do family still living in it. This is not as interesting a challenge as the prior – scale, for one, is much more limited – but it goes along reasonably well, and the artists produce satisfactory pieces. The process remains the most engaging thing, witnessing the artist’s struggle to come up with something. I guess I’m a bit of a sucker for reality art shows, as I also enjoyed the series on students at Goldsmith’s which I saw a couple years ago. But, really, the main thing here is that those who hate conceptual art on rhetorical grounds, might be able to gain some insight and be much more forgiving when they see the process and especially if they insert themselves into it. I had the type of art education where I was forced to do stuff I had no interest in, which I did think was a good thing: only problem was I wasn’t able to do what I really wanted to do.
The next and most critical stage is when the artists must produce individual pieces for the Saatchi gallery. They now have complete free rein. Everything hinges on what they will come up with, and their future careers, or lack thereof, are in the balance. Here the artists revert to what they are most comfortable with. One artist does a bit of a cop-out by ordering a Tesla Coil online from America, with the plan to put a wig on it so the artificial hair stands on end. That seemed too easy and far too reliant on what would come through the mail. Another student reverts to identity politics art, including lovingly painting a racial slur against his kind on a giant, fabric-covered circle. Another makes a safe bet on a small white structure with a ladder in it that one can climb up into in order to view white space. The most ambitious attempt included making a caravan (as in a camper) out of wood and whatnot, and inside creating the hermetic living space of an imaginary person. The last remaining artist struggles with a visual metaphor of anchoring herself, by painting some foam tubing silver, shaping it like an anchor, and hooking it on a white shelf high on the wall. About this piece, Collings stated, “”I feel insulted to have to look at this”. It looked like crap.
The artist behind the anchor, 20 year-old Eugenie, is flailing about with nothing until on a walk to the hardware store she notices a section of a tree trunk impaled atop a green metal fence. Obviously the tree fell over on the fence, and its sheer weight forced the ends of the fence uprights inches deep into it, while also bending them. Workers had cut around the intersection of tree and fence, and just left the remainder there. It was pretty cool, in a way. Well, Eugenie got the flippant idea of cutting out a section of the fence and plopping THAT in the gallery, which is just what she did.
It looked cool. But that’s it. In the end, despite Eugenie being the least strong or consistent artist throughout the series, she won all with her relocated stump of tree wedged in a fence. And this is where the whole series became a joke played upon itself. It’s not just because the winning piece is a ready-made, because within the context of contemporary art that’s a long tradition, and people have put whole trees in the gallery before. I don’t remember the name of the artist but I saw such a tree – maybe it was upside down – when I went to the Pompidou in Paris many years back. Artists have put horses in the gallery, and filled it with dirt. This is all perfectly legitimate within the context of the series. It’s a little more disconcerting that there wasn’t any thought behind the piece, and she didn’t go out expressly looking for something like that based on some convictions. It was a rather desperate grabbing at anything at the last minute. She wasn’t making a big deal about the IDEA of bringing a ready-made into the gallery space, either, as everyone involved would be overly familiar with such a practice. All she had to say was that she saw it and it looked cool. The joke the series played on itself was that all the artists’ work could be beat by something one could find a block away if one cared to take a stroll outside the gallery.
Normally the ready-made – in the Duchampian tradition – is pitted against easel painting, not against anything-goes conceptual art. It didn’t have to be the fallen hunk of tree on the fence. It could have been any number of similar things, basically any hunk of outside material that could be transferred into the gallery space – perhaps an old staircase rearranged on its side or inverted. A trip to the junkyard might have been fruitful. On top of that, the tree/fence was the winner partly because it was the most visually satisfying. Historically speaking, ready-mades were never intended to be visually appealing, but studiedly innocuous, so that they intellectually thwarted aesthetic considerations. It’s something different when a found object is more aesthetically appealing than artists’ deliberate attempts to be visually engaging. This isn’t like Duchamp snubbing his nose at traditional art, this is unintentional pseudo conceptual art trouncing the deliberate attempts of cherry picked conceptual artists. In other words, not only did the fence with the tree trunk beat the other works aesthetically, it did it conceptually as well (and I don’t mean the concept of putting a non-art object in the gallery space, but the concept of a tree impaling itself on a fence,…). Found art beat deliberate attempts at art on all fronts. BOOM!
Despite the ending which rhetorically undermined the more positive elements that support conceptual art, something of the middle of the series remains potent. I believe there is no reason that people can’t be creative and make things without using traditional, or conventional mediums.
I’ve thought something similar about more traditional art. If you put an artist in a prison cell for a year, and only gave him or her sheets of paper and #2 pencils, he or she should be able to make some sort of good artwork out of it. Let’s just say you were also restricted to drawing, and, y’know, couldn’t eat the paper as performance protest, or write on the paper. If you are an artist, you should be able to figure out how to draw something of merit over the course of a year, especially as you wouldn’t have much else to distract you. Don’t take this too seriously, it’s a hypothetical. But I’d say the same of conceptual art. If you were put in a cell with access to an array of objects, and you weren’t allowed to draw, if you are an artist you should be able to come up with something interesting in a year’s time.
After watching this series, I was sufficiently enthralled with reliving art-school (even if in a sort of reaffirming misery-loves-to-laugh-at-company way), I watched a few other videos which happened to be painting critiques. What became painfully obvious is that if you are a bad painter, you can’t hide it. With the conceptual artists, like Eugenie, well, the experts, including Mathew Collings, couldn’t decide whether she was a “bullshitter” or a “genius”. You don’t have this sort of problem with painting, because you can spot a bullshitter in a split second, unless they stick to appropriation (in painting a visual equivalent of a ready-made).
Painting can really expose your weaknesses, because everything’s visually evident within seconds. It takes a lot longer to really engage the image, even purely formally (if it’s good), and then for meanings to emerge. But there’s no place for the artist to hide. If you have bad technique it’s obvious, and painful. I don’t mean if you can’t draw realistically, but rather if you just can’t tell what even looks good. It’s one thing to not be able to mix colors well, and it’s another to serve up an abomination unknowingly.
Painting is a lot like singing. You just can’t get away with singing if you have a terrible voice, unless you are Yoko Ono, in which case you can only sorta’ get away with it. You are really exposing yourself when you make a painting or sing a song. But when you do appropriation or ready-mades, there’s so little of your hand in it, and so little of your personality, that it’s hard to tell whether the work is priceless or garbage, and a lot of that has to do with “bullshitting” about the art. This isn’t true with the kind of conceptual art I like, which is where people do something creative with non-traditional objects, but is often the case with appropriation type art, like Eugenie’s tree/fence.
So, whatever the medium used, if you can’t tell if the art sucks or not, you can’t tell if it’s great or not.
PS, more art reality TV, please.