Example: "A sudden vision - an all-encompassing spectacle. Block-like monumentality transformed, rekindling in garish, regimented, smudged hues the dreamlike consciousness of a clannish struggle of mysterious yet emblematic significance: a tartan torrent of anguish."
Translation: "Sleepily descending the stairs, I was startled to discover that my husband had draped our plaid-flannel-lined sleeping bags across the living-room furniture to air."
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Artspeakers are gearing up for December 5, 2005, when the Tate Britain will announce the winner of the £25,000 Turner Prize. The 1995 winner was Damien Hirst, whose works include Mother and Child, Divided, a formaldehyde-preserved cow and calf in separate glass cases. In 1998 the winner was Chris Ofili, whose paintings incorporate elephant dung. The 2001 winner was Martin Creed, whose Tate display, an empty room with a light switch, was entitled Work No. 227: The lights going on and off.
Every year the announcements of the Turner Prize's short-listed nominees and winner are major media events. Every year the exhibition of the nominees' work is disparaged either as a dismal farce or as shocking sensationalism. Every year advocates of contemporary art assert that the real benefit of the Prize is that it gets the public talking about art.
If the point of the Turner Prize is to promote public discussion, let's encourage the public even further by speaking comprehensible English (or American), eschewing Artspeak's pompous polysyllabic platitudes. Toward that end, here's a translation of descriptions of the four short-listed artists from the Tate's website.
Starling is "fascinated by the processes involved in transforming one object or substance into another." In other words, he likes to see things change. His work is "the physical manifestation of a thought process" - he thinks, then acts.
On display at the Tate is Tabernas Desert Run, one of the works for which Starling was nominated. Next to the electric bicycle on which Starling rode across a desert is the watercolor of cactus that he painted using the bicycle's waste-water. "The contrast between the supremely efficient cactus and the contrived efforts of man is both comic and insightful, highlighting the commercial exploitation of natural resources in the region." Machines are silly and wasteful; cactuses are good at what they do.
Also on display at the Tate is Shedboatshed, a wooden hut whose disassembled boards Starling used to build a boat. He loaded the remaining boards into the boat, sailed six miles down the Rhine, then reassembled the hut. The hut and the bicycle provide "a kind of buttress against the pressures of modernity, mass production and global capitalism." He prefers an isolated, stagnant medieval village where everything's hand-made to a twenty-first century city.
(Simon Starling was eventually declared the winner of the 2005 Turner Prize.)
Almond "uses sculpture, film and photography, and real-time satellite broadcast to explore the effects of time on the individual." He uses technology to show that we're affected by time passing and things changing. "Harnessing the symbolic and emotional potential of objects, places and situations, he produces works which have universal as well as personal resonances." Objects can remind you of other things, and can make you and lots of other people react.
In the exhibition, Almond is represented by a four-screen video installation. One screen shows his recently widowed grandmother reminiscing in Blackpool, where she spent her honeymoon. Another screen shows an illuminated windmill in Blackpool, a "poignant metaphor for the reality of passing time and the inevitability of death." The windmill reminds us that time flies and people die.
Lambie "takes the ephemera of modern life and transforms it into vibrant sculptural installations." He works with junk. "He selects materials that are familiar and have a strong personal resonance, so that they offer a way into the work as well as a springboard to a psychological space beyond." He uses stuff we recognize so we can think about it. "Lambie’s prime concern, however, is the immediate encounter between viewer and work." He wants us to react.
Among Lambie's works are enlarged ceramic bird ornaments, dizzying floor patterns reminiscent of 1960s Op Art, and conglomerations incorporating used stereo speakers, shoes, belts, handbags, mirrors, and so on.
Carnegie's "ongoing series of 'bum paintings' are experiments in composition, light, colour and technique." She likes depicting human buttocks in many different colors and lights. "In other works, Carnegie capitalizes on the tension between subject and medium, her brush strokes both affirming and contradicting what they depict." Sometimes she paints things as they look, sometimes she doesn't. "Despite her dingy palette and quiet imagery, her works [in the Black Series] have a charged energy that brings attention back to the personality manipulating the paint." You look at a landscape painted in black on black and you wonder, "What the devil was this artist thinking?"
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This year, instead of discussing whether the Turner Prize exhibition is more dismal than shocking or vice versa, let's have a public debate on more fundamental issues. What is art? Is it whatever any self-proclaimed artist produces? (Can I submit my living room furniture and sleeping bags to next year's Turner Prize competition?) Is art whatever a museum curator or gallery owner puts on display? (But then how did the Egyptians and Greeks know they had art?) Is art simply anything pretty or spectacular? (Is the Superman balloon in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade art?)
I'll start the discussion by proposing that what separates visual art from other forms of human endeavor is that its creator conveys a vital message, by his choice of subject and his emphasis in presenting it. He says: "Pay attention: this is important about humans and the world we live in." Ayn Rand, with her customary precision, defined it as "a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments." Michelangelo’s 500-year-old David makes a statement about what man can and ought to be that we can still grasp and react to. Can we grasp anything of similar importance from looking at a room with a light that goes on and off? No. An unmade bed? Hardly. Cows in formaldehyde? Don’t think so.
Defining art is only the beginning. What is its purpose: to teach, to inspire, to illustrate, to shock? How can you identify its message? What if you and your friend disagree on the message? What makes you adore a piece of art that makes your friend's eyes glaze over? What makes a work of art good, in purely esthetic terms?
If we discuss these kinds of questions with clarity, precision and passion, the rest of the public won't need to be shocked into thinking about art - they'll be hooked on it.