Sometimes, a work of art changes the world. The Turner Prize 2002 is one such work. As a direct result of this endeavour, it has become socially acceptable to use the word "poo" in polite discourse.
It is only a few weeks since the BBC felt the need to apply the censors "beep" to Harrison Ford when he confirmed in an interview that he had indeed told George Lucas that "You can type this poo, but you can't say it." But when no lesser person than What's-his-name, the Minister For Culture, expresses the opinion that the Turner Prize Exhibition is "conceptualist poo-poo", then poo is on everyone's lips. In parliament. On serious arts programmes. Even on pre-watershed news programmes.
Modern art is poo. Is modern art poo? Perhaps modern art is quite good, and it is Labour arts policy that is poo?
Excrement is an important part of modern art, which is not necessarily the same as saying that modern art is excrement. There was that French fellow who signed the men's loo and put it in an art gallery. In 1998, the Turner Prize was awarded to Chris Ofili who drew his paintings in elephant poo. In 1999, Banksy, Bristol's very own artistic vandal, broke into a Pimlico railway station on the night before the prize-giving, and spray-painted the phrase "Mind the Crap" on every step.
I felt that in fairness I ought to have a very good look at the poo before condemning it out of hand. Just think of this article as one of those German lavatories.
The Turner exhibition consisted of four rooms, each representing the work of one short-listed artist. At some point, some judges will decide which they liked best and give the artist a cheque for lots of money.
One of the exhibitions contained some genuinely impressive work that I would like to know more about: two of them contained objects which were clever, but seemed only to contain a single idea; and one of them I genuinely couldn't see the point of, and am prepared to believe is actual poo-poo.
Room 1 (Keith Tyson) consisted of strange machines, sketches and diagrams of strange machines, and other attempts to visualise philosophical concepts. One of the sketches was for a large pointing device which would always point to the astronomical centre of the universe. Another was a list of strange concepts and images that were passing through the artists mind, painted in different colours. I could not quite follow in what sense the large black block represented "thought"; but enjoyed the bubble flow-charts representing time and simultaneity. The mirror with the LED counter underneath seemed fairly pointless. There was a lot of text making the whole thing a little like a graphic novel. Some of the writing put me in mind of Neil Gaiman, sort of Sandman meets Heath Robinson. It appeared to be done with some craft; certainly, I would not have been able to reproduce it. I spent 30 minutes studying the room, and I could have taken longer over it. It is obvious that this one should win, and equally obvious that it won't.
Room 3 (Catherine Yass) was two "video installations". I confess that the whole concept of video installation confuses me. Why is this being exhibited in an art gallery rather than at a film festival, I am tempted to ask? Because real filmmakers would laugh it out of court, I am tempted to reply. That said, the film of going up and down Canary Wharf in the fog, and the other film of flying around London in a helicopter were diverting for their three or four minute running time. There was a sense of "familiar things from odd angles", particularly as you gradually worked out that the film of the elevator was being shown upside down. I had not seen anything similar to them before, but I believe that if I had a camcorder and a budget, I could have created something similar myself.
Room 4 (Fiona Banner), contained this year's "everyone write to the papers" piece. One whole wall of the gallery was entirely covered with text. I have never seen a whole wall covered with typescript before, and constructing it presumably involved a reasonable amount of hard work. From a distance, you couldn't necessarily tell that you were looking at text, and certainly not read it; you just perceived the shape of the text, and in particular, the patterns made by the spaces between words. (I wondered if the spaces were intended to represent something, in the manner of that "concrete poetry" people used to do, but I think that it was probably random.) As you got close, you could read the text; but as you did so, you became aware that it was a description of a pornographic movie, containing words even ruder than "poo-poo". However, once you were close enough to read the individual words, you were also too close to read the whole thing. I thought that this was playing around, quite cleverly, with the fact that language is both meaningless patterns and a signifying system that you read automatically: the words had to be shocking to make the point that text communicates whether you want it to or not.
I might have thought that this was quite clever, if not for the fact that there were two other walls, also covered in text, in different typescripts. And large sheet of paper covered in dots, which I took to be full stops with the text removed. This makes me think that said artist has a grand total of one idea.
Scattered around the room were large black plastic balls which were apparently full stops. Ho ho.
Room 2 (Liam Gillick) was, er, a ceiling made of coloured glass. I couldn't tell if you were supposed to be attending to the ceiling, or listening to the patterns which the light made on the floor. (The room was brightly lit, so there wasn't much sense of the light being coloured.) I have seen interesting installations which involve the placement of lights: the "art" consists of shadows or other lighting effects. This was not one of them. Having paid money for my ticket, I had resolved to spend at least ten minutes in each room; I ran out of ways of looking at the ceiling after thirty seconds. There was also a cabinet containing what appeared to be architectural plans; so it is possible that this fellow makes ceilings and windows which are supposed to be incorporated into restaurants and shopping centres. In such a context, the ceiling might possibly have had some point. On the other hand, the plans might have been part of some conceptualist joke.
Given that three out of the four exhibitions seemed to be playing around with the viewers reactions, and in some cases depended on an element of surprise, I particularly enjoyed the introductions printed by each doorway, which explained what the artist was doing and how you were meant to react to it.
The best part of the exhibition was the comments room, three whole walls covered with memo pads and pencils, on which members of the public were invited to write. It was on one of these memo slips that the Culture Minister put his "poo-poo" comment. Most of the contributions which I read appeared to agree that Mr Tyson should win the prize.
Some wit had attached a piece of chewing gum to a memo slip and written underneath "if this exhibition is art, then so is this."
Having been very naughty at school, I was sentenced to Sociology, a cruel and unusual subject invented by Marxists and suicidal Frenchmen. One of the essays which you had to memorise so you could reproduce it in the final exam was "Is sociology a science?" to which you were expected to answer "yes." It occurred to me at the time that a better question would have been "Is sociology interesting; is it useful; is it worthwhile; is it true?" (To which the answers are no, no, no and no, respectively.) It has occurred to me since that an even better one would have been "Why are sociologists so keen to prove to school children that their bunkum discipline is a science?", or more simply "Why does it matter whether or not sociology is a science?"
The futile question "But is it art?" should be approached the same way. When you see a dead cow, the question to ask is not "Is it art?" but "Is it interesting? Is it spectacular? Was it worth seeing? Have you seen anything like it before? Could you have done it yourself?"
Last year, the English National Opera put on a performance of Verdi's Masked Ball in semi-modern dress; and apparently included a scene depicting the chorus in a public convenience. (More poo.) I didn't see it. Nor, I assume, did the great majority of people who said that this was a travesty, that it was not according to the composer's intentions, that producers and production ideas were, in general, an evil, and that opera was really only about fat people standing on the stage singing the famous bits.
If you worry too much about privileged concepts like "art" and "opera", you pretty much ensure that no one will produce interesting objects, exhibitions, or pieces of musical theatre.
I hate philistinism far more than I hate pretension. I'd sooner look at a three naked emperors than miss one really impressive set of coronation robes.
On my way out, I paid my respects in the Blake room, as I always do when I go to the Tate Gallery. In a different age, Blake would have been the world's greatest comic-book illustrator, or maybe Kirby would have been a revolutionary poet. (Come to that, maybe he was.) I spent some time looking at the sketch of the soul of a flea as it appeared to him in the night. It's nice to be reminded that there was a time when artists were relatively sane.