Bourriaud, N. (2009) Altermodern: Tate Triennial. (s.l.): Tate Pub.
It’s very difficult to know where to start describing this book, or explain how informative/useful it has been.
Maybe a little anecdote, when my son was about 11 he got into rugby in a big way and by 14 was playing for the county team. This was a huge world that I knew nothing about. Every Sunday round the country parents and children gathered, coaches screamed and matches were played… there was training in the week, fundraisers and social events.
This book did the same for me for international conceptual art. Reading a few pages every day for six weeks was like being part of a community, or living briefly in a foreign country. I read every word in the book, looked up all the artists and academics… and where there was a possibility of decoding a sentence (one that was not so grammatically tortuous as to be meaningless) I looked up all the words/theories/references that I didn’t know.
It has helped me understand the art world and draw some boundaries around my opinions. I now have reasons for my beliefs rather than feelings, can defend my position, and am much clearer about where I am/want to be in the art world.
It now seems clear to me that that there are two kinds of art, object based art and ideas based art. Before I go any further I should add that though the extremes are black and white there are all shades of grey (and many hybrids) in between.
Object based art at its purest involves making objects with a high degree of skill that communicate meaning without words and almost always have a degree of beauty. Traditionally this has been painting and sculpture. And I would add dancing and music.
A closely allied group would be performances involving words such as film, TV, theatre and songs.
Intellectual art (at its purest) is an idea with no object… though in practice the idea is often reified – object here can be anything from a network of connections, through performance to a physical installation or individual object. If there is an object it’s making involves no skill (so if the object was a dance the artist would not be a professional dancer) and the object is meaningless without the idea.
Both forms of art are surrounded by different cultural infrastructure (though some institutions overlap). For object based art we have galleries, art critics, museums, universities, art historians, collectors, buyers and commodification (and financial elitism)… and for intellectual art we have an infrastructure that though selling itself on public access and relevance, seems highly intellectual and elitist. The effect of the language in Altermodern is to exclude most of the population and privilege those earning a living from it, both the ‘creators’ and the ‘commentators’.
Most of the work in Altermoden is very worthy and on a societal level imperative, but I would not call it art. I think there needs to be another word. Activism, politics, social awareness… giving the public experiences that allow they to reimagine and question society… education… elements of entertainment.
There are two things about intellectual art that I don’t support. Firstly, the judgemental and dismissive attitude (unconscious bias?) towards object art. And secondly the fringe elements that seem to have no meaning…. such as the artist who goes into a trance and moves about naked with a giant strawberry. Or making a shed into boat, sailing it down a river, and turning it back into a boat (assuming that this really happened and has been evidenced).
In reference to the shed boat, we re-purpose materials all the time. There is a wonderful guitar maker, Rick Kelly, in New York (Carmine Street Guitars) who makes beautiful handmade guitars out of reclaimed wood from demolished buildings (put up in the 1850’s) from trees that germinated 400 years ago. He trained as a sculptor and each guitar is unique in sound, shape and appearance – they look like sculptures but happen to be functional. He does not wrap them in words or make claims about meaning, but they are by their nature filled with both meaning and history.
If he called them art would the Tate Modern exhibit them… if he wrapped them in opaque language would they become intellectual art?
I think they are object art and have the capacity to be intellectual art, though I would put them in the object art box. He chooses to define them by function (their practical usage) and sell them as guitars rather than sculptures, but why should art be functionless? Can a sculpture only be a sculpture if it has no practical function?
To pull my thoughts back to my practice, this book has allowed me to cross the border from object art to intellectual art and be a nomad for a while. This has allowed my to return to my object art with renewed understanding and confidence.
I can now have pride in seeing myself as an artist who makes objects. It is very easy to get pulled into the feeling that the best art/and only true art is intellectual art and that if you make something beautiful with skill and an interior meaning (such as your own subjectivity) you are not an artist but a craftsman.
I think the world of intellectual art is culturally imperative but it’s not my world. My world is Matisse, Picasso, Hockney and Doig (to name but a few) and even if I only ever reach the foothills of their genius that’s where I want to live. I have visited the greener grass on the other side of the fence and found it was bitter. I prefer my field full of buttercups, daisies and clover.