23 April, 2012Issue 19.1Politics & SocietyThe ArtsVisual Arts

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The Art Effect

Tom Cutterham

BritishSinéad Murphy
The Art Kettle
Zer0 Books, 2012
78 pages
ISBN: 978-1-84694-984-5


Perhaps to critique art is to critique everything that exists. In The Art Kettle, Sinéad Murphy doesn’t take aim at works of art per se, but at the concept and role of art itself in its relation to everything else. Her critique is, bluntly, a criticism. Like other Zer0 titles, it is a brief, un-footnoted polemic. Art is a form of kettling. Like the police tactic, it contains and channels “our capacities for creativity” into a cordoned, sanitised zone, “leaving the rest of social and cultural and political life free of such unpredictable, such potentially revolutionary, capacities.” Art is, Murphy writes, a force “for our uninterrupted control by the almost-global forces of mass uniformity” and of “capital”.

The central moment in Murphy’s book, the paradigmatic example of the phenomenon she describes, involves the winner of the 2007 Turner Prize, Mark Wallinger’s State Britain. That work was a faithful reproduction–indistinguishable from the real thing–of placards and other material items of protest created by the peace activist Brian Haw. Indistinguishable, that is, except that Haw’s protest took place in Parliament Square, and Wallinger’s work was shown in Tate Britain. The transformation of Haw’s protest into a prize-winning artwork operates, Murphy argues, “to reduce political action to a mere performance of action, to remake it as an “installation” with merely aesthetic import, and thereby to manage very well its scope and effects.”

What characterises art, here, is its propensity “to operate at the level of form rather than content”. The question we ask ourselves is not what is art for but only what is art, and the discourse around any particularly innovative work is invariably, is it art? Murphy’s criticism applies not to art itself, as such, but to its contemporary mutilation: “the manner in which art is constituted in our society”. The problem she tries to deal with is just how art got to be this way. What relationship did the historical changes in our understanding and practice of art have to historical changes in everything else?

Murphy’s polemic is deeply implicated in two contradictory answers. On one hand, that the theory and practice of art can have social and political effects; that it can kettle and control us. On the other, that it cannot: art is “merely aesthetic” and self-interested and powerless. Is this a dialectical paradox? If so, no synthesis seems to be born: we are in the realm of Adorno’s Negative Dialectics. Murphy is even more pessimistic than Foucault. Where he sees political potential in the “unreasonableness of art”, she wishes to “question” and “caution against” the notion of art as “resistance”.

Instead of bringing forth a new model for art, Murphy prefers to look backwards for her prescriptions to the 19th-century work of William Morris; as the blurb puts it, to a time “when fundamentalism was a kind of courage, art a kind of craft, and needlepoint a kind of revolution.” This involves a précis of Marx’s theory of alienation, and an inversion, derived from Morris, whereby alienation, “the separation of labour from life”, also applies to the bourgeois consumer.

What Murphy is really critiquing here is the liberal concept of freedom: the separation of life from the burden of sheer everyday necessity. Life in this state is truly a “museum without walls” for nothing in a museum is necessary, and all time spent there is leisure time. Work becomes “merely a means to a meaningful life” which takes its meaning from “non-ends-oriented activities”. These descriptions, which are here criticisms, would in another context form the central justifications of liberalism. Again, Murphy’s argument is dialectical, but without leading to synthesis.

Perhaps it is too much to ask that a critical theorist serve up an answer alongside her critique, unfair to chastise her for a job only half done. On the other hand, the only-half-complete nature of the project might hint at an only-half-formed theoretical mechanism. Where do we go from here? Back in time to a floral-papered and crocheted steampunk utopia?

Murphy might have discovered possibilities in an extended range of artistic reference. She might have noted how Damien Hirst, like Andy Warhol before him, makes the alienation of an artist’s labour an explicit aspect of the work itself. She might also have seen in his butterflies a metaphor for the self-contained art world, the kettle she identifies. And beyond the fine art world personified by Tate and Turner, she might have found the ubiquity of art in the ubiquity of more popular entertainment.

If fine art’s central flaw and also its driving concern is obsession with itself and its own form, the same could certainly be said about television. Take the recent Charlie Brooker-produced series Black Mirror. In the first of three episodes, it used a conflation of terrorism and performance art to make a very similar point to the one Murphy is making: we can no longer see the difference between art and politics, all the more so in their most extreme forms, and thus politics becomes art; that is, becomes pointless.

But Black Mirror, of course, made that point through art itself. The programme was part of the very process Murphy wants to criticise: art obsessively criticising and vainly assessing itself. As Murphy points out, this process places the question of form and content—the distinction and relationship between them—at its centre.

A more extreme example of art dealing with that problem is the stand-up comedy of Stewart Lee. There, content starts to consist purely in the iteration of form. As he repeats throughout his most recent show, “I’ve got nothing. I’ve got no ideas.” Lee’s comedy is and has always been about deconstructing the form and experience of comedy itself. Instead of asking is this art, we are enjoined to ask is this funny? Or more optimistically, why is this funny?

In this sense Lee should be compared with that quintessential artistic modernist Samuel Beckett. For both, the problem of the form in which to express the meaning, or meaninglessness, of the world is the central problem of politics and life. Something similar might be said of the self-referential visual artists Murphy criticises. Robert Ryman’s paintings, as she points out, exist only to enact the moment of their creation, the touch of brush on canvas, with no further content. It must be possible to escape forms that encode their own, unwanted meanings into expression; but at the same time, that escape does seem impossible.

Murphy valorises Brian Haw’s protest in Parliament Square as an act of true life, true politics, and true protest, as distinct from the artistic form given it in State Britain. But the truth is Haw’s protest was always already a kind of art: a form struggling to find voice for expression; an expression struggling to find meaning. Perhaps it is true that to critique art is to critique everything that exists. In their reflexivity, their self-obsession, artists like Lee and Beckett mean to expose the flimsiness of the media through which we can touch and hope to alter the world. We need to remain open to the idea that, when art diagnoses itself, it may be diagnosing us too.

Tom Cutterham is reading for a DPhil in History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.