A pile of chairs

23rd July 2011 | Daily Life, Musings | 9 comments

To the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, where the first thing one sees is ‘Work no 998’ by Martin Creed, four chairs balanced on top of one another in a tapering pile, an orange office chair at the bottom, a child’s formica chair at the top. This is the kind of thing which makes me feel I have become an old fuddy-duddy. I look at it and can’t see anything more than the barest of ideas. The explanatory plaque on the wall said, ‘Four chairs are balanced on top of each other as they ascend towards the ceiling, asserting their defiance while struggling to avoid collapse.’ Indeed? I could feel ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’-style letters to newspapers writing themselves in my head.

When I came back through the room a bit later, an RA ‘interpreter’ was showing ‘Work no 998’ to a group of children and teachers. ‘What skills do you need to make this?’ he was asking. There was a longish silence. Someone said, ‘Imagination?’ ‘Yes!’ said the interpreter. ‘Balance?’ ‘Yes!’ Another pause. ‘Cheek?’ said someone. ‘Yes, cheek! I think cheek is very important!’ beamed the interpreter. ‘This work is by a very famous artist, a famous minimalist artist’, he told them. ‘What’s minimalist?’ someone asked. ‘The artist is interested in how little you have to do to make art’, said the interpreter. The children looked intrigued. ‘What do you guess is the price of this work of art?’ Everyone knew this was a trick question, so they just giggled and whispered to each other. ‘Sixty thousand pounds!’ said the interpreter triumphantly. ‘What do you think of that?!’ And they all went off to make things from egg boxes and tissue paper. It does, as they say, make one think.


  1. rootlesscosmo

    I’m leery of the fuddy-duddy pitfall too, and a dear friend is doing a Ph. D. in Conceptualist Art of the 1960’s, so I try extra hard to avoid harrumphing. That said, it seems to me (and I’ve said this to my friend) that most of the Conceptualist work I’ve encountered (“seen” doesn’t always apply, because sometimes the idea for the work is all you get) has a kind of self-limiting quality: once I’ve got the idea, the political point, joke, social comment or whatever, it’s lost its effectiveness for me. I agree with a lot of what Jenny Hauser has to say; I would agree if she wrote her ideas into an essay or a book (though I think readers would expect her to develop her arguments breyond one-sentence declarations.) But once I’ve seen them turned into neon signs or electric-bulb arrays, I can’t see why I should revisit them.

    Something analogous–not identical–has been going on in music. I think I get what “In C’ is about–improvisation within pre-defined limits, the nearly infinite range of possible sonorities, the indeterminacy of how players interact with each other. Also,it’s about C major. These are valid (if not very original) ideas, but being reminded of them holds my interest for a few minutes, at most; the piece goes on, without formal limit but in practice usually for an hour or more.

    My point is that what I find unsatisfying isn’t the underlying principles–I don’t think Conceptualist art or Minimalist music are morally obnoxious, or symptoms of general social decay, or “a waste of tax money” (the classic fuddy-duddy clincher, which can be countered by comparing the amount of tax money spent on art of all kinds with the huge sums spent on war.) Rather, I think much of what I’ve seen or heard is thin stuff: there’s something there, but it takes no work to discover it, there are no complexities that only repeated exposure and close attention will reveal. One of LaMonte Young’s composition’s consists of a single pitch with the notation “to be held for a long time.” Well, yes, all right, I get it; will I want to come back to it as often as to (say) the Berg violin concerto?

    • Susan Tomes

      Very good points, and I share your views. There’s something so arrogant about the ‘If I call it art, it’s art’ approach. This morning I walked past a charity shop, and outside it in a heap of things for sale there was a formica chair, with two pink stools stacked upside down on top of it. Was that art? If I ‘interrogated’ it with my conceptually-trained gaze, would it become art? If there was a price tag of x thousand pounds on it, would that make it art – or only if someone paid that for it?

  2. Roger Roser

    In the words of the great Brian Sewell – “If it is in a gallery it is art – if it aint in a gallery it aint art”

    Perhaps we pianists should try to make a few quid from “playing” or even improvising on THE famous piece by John Cage.

    • Susan Tomes

      Great idea …. we could follow LaMonte Young’s example and instruct ourselves to hold each ‘note’ of Cage’s piece for as long as possible. But then it would have to be given a new title.

  3. Roger Roser

    Yes indeed. I’ve always felt a “special affinity” with the piece and long to perform it. But, as I arrive early for everything, would be fearful of ending it prematurely thus destroying the magic.

  4. Steve Zade

    John Cage was much influenced by Marcel Duchamp whose ‘objets trouvés’, like the famous urinal, were supposed to debunk establishment Art, and were never intended to be seen as works of Art in their own right. The whole point of conceptualism is perhaps to make a point about art rather than to create a school of it. Once accepted by the art world, however, these objects become ‘works of art’ and worth a fortune, which is the most ironic comment of all on the world of art. And now there are artists who are indeed making hay from the conceptual sunshine, which takes one a ridiculous step further in the wrong direction.
    I have listened to various performances of Terry Riley’s “in C” which is maybe minimalist, but not “conceptual” music. It is improvised only in the sense that the combinations of parts will vary from one performance to another. Otherwise each instrument will only play the 53 fragments as written. It is the overlapping of these written fragments,which will produce differences according to instrumentation used and time spent on each piece. The result I think can be surprisingly beautiful. It is not a work one can really ‘go back to’, because it will be a little different each time.

  5. Susan Tomes

    A lot of this stuff about the conceptual art world seems to me a bit like the banking crisis, where money that seemed to be real, and unstoppably generating profit, was suddenly revealed to be an illusion based on skilful game-playing.

  6. peter

    Well, as someone trained in pure mathematics, I often find great beauty in minimalist visual art, especially that which plays with multiple combinatorial alternatives of some basic patterns. As with minimalist music, what you look for, and what you look at, is different than for other types of art. Listening to minimalist music usually requires paying attention to different aspects of the music than for other genres – listening, for example, to subtle changes in the rhythmic patterns, or changes in the rhythmic overlay of parallel lines, say, rather than for harmonic progressions or for classical-style melodic developments. This is what is beautiful about the music of Reich and Riley and Glass, and the visual art of Judd and LeWitt and Flavin.

  7. Roger Roser

    To think my unmade bed circa 1970(sans ‘prophylactics’)may have won me a prize. Could have done with a few bob in those days!


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