Tuesday, November 09, 2021

Reply to Tony McKenna on art

Reply to Tony McKenna John Molyneux Tony Mckenna’s critique of my views on art https://www.counterfire.org/articles/opinion/22668-who-sleeps-in-the-unmade-bed-a-response-to-john-molyneux-on-the-nature-of-conceptual-art struck me as decidedly strange. First, the title, ‘Who sleeps in the unmade bed?’ is strange. It is strange because we all know the answer: Tracey Emin sleeps in the unmade bed – the piece is called ‘My Bed’. Many others of us also sleep in unmade beds, which is why Emin’s depiction of her own experience related to the experience of a lot of people, especially women who had been subject to ‘slut shaming’ on this account. That is the point of the work. McKenna ignores such matters. He seems to believe that sleeping in the unmade bed are the forces of ‘finance capital’. It is also slightly odd, given I have written on numerous artists over the years (Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Rubens, Picasso, Pollock, Bacon etc), that his first port of call is Emin. But maybe that was to be expected. Second: as I assume McKenna is aware, I recently published a book, The Dialectics of Art, which deals at some length with these matters. Strangely, McKenna does not even mention this but instead focuses on a single article, ‘The Legitimacy of Modern Art’, which I wrote 23 years ago. In fact it was one of the first pieces I ever wrote on art and had a specific purpose – namely to counter the view then widely touted in journalism and widely held on the left that virtually ALL modern art was ‘illegitimate’ or reprehensible. The reason I did not include the article in The Dialectics of Art was that I thought that particular battle had been largely won, rendering the article somewhat redundant. Third: McKenna presents me as a champion of ‘conceptual art’. This is both strange and not true. I defended conceptual art against the idea that it was all ‘rubbish’ or ‘not art’ but that was all. As with any art category – impressionism, surrealism, abstract art, abstract expressionism etc – the category of conceptual art contains some good work but also an awful lot of poor work which I wouldn’t champion at all. Fourth: it is strange given McKenna’s focus on conceptual art, that he never troubles to say what he means by this. Perhaps he thinks it is so generally agreed that no explanation or definition is needed. Instead he simply mentions in passing five examples: Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) , Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII ( 1966) which he just refers to as Bricks, Tracey Emin’s My Bed(1998), Damien Hirst’s ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’ (1991) which he refers as a shark pickled in formaldehyde and Hirst’s For the Love of God (2007) which he calls the skull studded with diamonds. Now Duchamp was a Dadaist who is often cited as a forerunner of conceptual art and Andre was a Minimalist (who I suspect would have rejected the conceptual art label), while the notion of a conceptual art movement arises in the late sixties and is particularly associated with Joseph Kossuth. Never mind these details you may say, we know roughly what he means, except that if conceptual art originates in 1917 or in the sixties it cannot be an expression or reflection of ‘the terminal crisis of late capitalism’ McKenna also writes as if conceptual art and the Young British Artists(YBAs) were more or less the same thing. Not so. The YBAs was certainly a label used in the media but it was never a coherent movement with a shared style or aesthetic philosophy (like cubism or surrealism). Some YBAs could, on a broad definition of the term, be considered conceptual artists but others (e.g Marcus Harvey, Gary Hume, Jenny Saville, Rachel Whiteread, Chris Ofili) were definitely not. Moreover, Emin produced some works that were arguably conceptual art (Everyone I ever Slept With, 1963-95 and My Bed) but an awful lot more, such as her numerous ink drawings , her appliquéd blankets, her bronze sculptures and her videos, which were not. Fifth: it is very strange that what McKenna believes is ‘the source of Molyneux’s theoretical confusion’ is a view that I do not hold at all and indeed specifically reject. This is the proposition that art is defined as art by being accepted and displayed in art institutions such as museums and galleries. This is what is known as ‘the institutional theory of art’ and is associated with Arthur C. Danto who developed it in response to Andy Warhol’s Brillo Pad works. I reject it because it is clearly circular. Just as the view that art is what artists do or what they say it is, the idea that art is what art galleries and museums display as art, begs the question as to what makes a person an artist or an institution an art gallery. The quotation from my article which McKenna deploys to bolster his assertions is as follows, ‘paint or other marks on a flat surface … only become [my emphasis T.M] art in certain social relations’. It is incomplete and seriously misused. I was not arguing about conceptual art only becoming art in the gallery, I was distinguishing between forms of writing and mark making that are not art (e,g. office memos or road signs) and those that are and the social relations I was referring to are not being placed in a gallery but the different social relations of the labour that produced them, namely alienated versus unalienated labour. The strange – perhaps disgraceful – thing is that the misrepresentation would have been clear if McKenna had included the very next two sentences in my article which read, ‘The question “What is art?” then becomes what is the social character of the labour that produces what we call art? The answer to this question is that ‘art’ is the product of non-alienated labour’. So slipshod is McKenna here that he even misattributes the quotation from Marx that ‘A negro is a negro. He only becomes a slave in certain relations’, saying it is from Capital , when in fact it is from Wage Labour and Capital. Also it is factually not the case that either Emin’s My Bed or her other work or Hirst’s shark and skull pieces or his other works only became art in the gallery. They were already works of art in the studio when they were made. McKenna makes the rather silly mistake (common among tabloid journalists at the time) of imagining that My Bed was Emin’s actual bed that she was sleeping in until the moment she ‘stepped out of it’ and transferred it to Tate Britain. No Tony, it was a construction, a made work just as much as Van Gogh’s painting of his bed in Bedroom in Arles, 1889. Sixth: speaking of Van Gogh it is very strange how McKenna, as a would-be Marxist, writes about him. In Starry Night, he tells us, ‘the Dutch master poured not only colours and shapes onto the canvass but also his very being’ and it ‘embodies the human essence of the artist Van Gogh’. Was this the same essence , one might ask, that Van Gogh poured into the very different The Potato Eaters or Sunflowers or his portrait of Postman Joseph Roulin. And does this apply only to Van Gogh or did Raphael, Velazquez, Canaletto, Constable, Manet etc. pour their respective essences into their work? And if indeed Van Gogh did this why should not the same be said of Emin and My Bed – it was certainly a very personal work? Seventh: there is the strange mess that McKenna gets into with the theory of value. For some reason he identifies Van Gogh with use value and conceptual art with exchange value. This makes no sense. Right at the start of Capital Marx makes a distinction between use value and exchange value– properties possessed by all commodities (if a commodity did not have use value it would not sell). Marx states: A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another. The nature of such wants, whether, for instance, they spring from the stomach or from fancy, makes no difference [My emphasis – JM]...The utility of a thing makes it a use value All art works which are sold as commodities, which is the bulk of Western art since the days of Rembrandt and Hals, have use value in this sense even if it is only the desire of a millionaire to appear cultured. There is no difference between conceptual art and pre- or non-conceptual art in this regard. As for McKenna’s notion that industrial capitalism was associated with use value whereas financial capitalism is about exchange value and that ‘one of the fundamental features of the 2007-08 economic crisis, for example, was the predominance of exchange over use’, I don’t think I will even try to unravel the multiple confusions involved as I should already apologise to the reader for the length of this piece. Unfortunately trying to set the record straight always takes more time than confusing it and in truth pretty much the whole of McKenna’s article is a stream of strange confusions. The only exception is the not strange but rather drearily familiar belief that a Marxist approach to art is about trying to establish mechanical and direct links between art and economic developments as in the idea that Hirst’s sale of his exhibition at auction reflects or corresponds to the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers a few days later or that Emin’s unmade bed reflects or signifies the disarray of financial capitalism.

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