Thursday, November 26, 2009

Art Reality TV



I was trawling through the wires at the newspaper yesterday and came across a story about School of Saatchi, Charles Saatchi’s new art reality TV series, which is showing in Britain at the moment. It was quite an illuminating article: the reality TV show is bringing sharply into focus the public’s concept of contemporary art and their (traditional) expectations of ‘art’.
Firstly, the writer, a certain Sean O’Grady, from our Independent offices in London, suggests that “modern art is supposed to shock” and his distaste for the offerings from all the wannabe artists in the series is predicated on the fact that the “shock” factor is absent from their practice. I find it so interesting that the British public have this expectation from contemporary art; that art is meant to fly in the face of good-taste and push at the boundaries of middle-class morality. Is this an inherent feature of art or a contrived element engineered to steal attention? Certainly, this is not a criterion that factors into my assessment of contemporary art; yes, I hope to be challenged, but not necessarily ‘offended’.
It seems as if art has become to be seen as less of a visual spectacle and more of a spectacle of ‘obscenity’. Nevertheless O’Grady evinces a desire for art to similarly fulfil a traditional concept too, when he expresses his disgust that artists in the series can no longer “draw for toffee” and he finds amusement in the fact that he too can apply to art school and produce art because his writing is “an art installation, this piece of prose a work of performance art, and can use, if you wish, this newspaper as a "found object". Turn it upside down if you like, or put it on a turntable and let it run round and round for ever. Or pulp it. Whatever you like; I'm an artist, you see.” 
Thus there is this sense that because artists no longer create figurative or representational work – which is not necessarily true: many contemporary artists employ or should one say appropriate this mode of expression – that the profession demands no specific skill set; that it is open to any old Joe Bloggs: because art can be anything made by anyone. Yes, it can and it can’t.
What interests me the most about O’Grady’s naïve and dated observations is what appears to be the ever widening gap between the general public’s misconceptions about art, especially in a country like Britain, where I found when I lived there for awhile, that the average person is a lot more visually literate than the average South African. Will, can or should the reality series act as a mediator between the public and the art world? Is it the appropriate vehicle to do so? (I kinda doubt it) Or will this reality series simply further misconstrue the public’s notions about art?