I've been following the mild ballyhoo (through the excellent ArtsJournal.com) that resulted when Kim Howells, a British junior culture minister, called the contenders for this year's Turner Prize (the most prestigious art prize in England) a load of "conceptual bullshit."
Now, Howells isn't known for watching his mouth. A year ago, he was severely taken to task for saying that listening to folk music was his idea of hell. (Being assaulted by wronged and righteous folksingers, on the other hand, is like taking tea with the late Queen Mum.) But people who watch their mouths aren't nearly as interesting as those who don't, and Howells' comments--while ill-considered and sort of hasty--at least revive the conversation about what art is and what it does.
Some people are trotting out the old arguments about art and ideas (which are true, but tired and losing steam and not very glamorous--perhaps we need a more glamorous spokesperson), but others are falling all over themselves to declare themselves the most resistant to new art. It's the new, hip pose--the proud philistine. Hilton Kramer, formerly of The New Criterion, now of The New York Observer, uses an interesting strategy: He simply denies that anything falling outside the purview of modernism--visual logic, rhythm, the primacy of the surface--is art. Now that's a worldview you can sink your teeth into, if only because it's more fun to form your own opinions in opposition.
And then there's the newest contender, syndicated columnist Dave Barry, who seemed weirdly outraged by last year's Turner-winning work: Martin Creed's installation of light bulbs going on and off in a vacant room. He takes a sort of B. F. Skinner view of art, suggesting that people who like art are engaged in a kind of ongoing dare with the "average" art viewer, to see what they can get included under this shocking new umbrella called "contemporary art."
But Barry isn't very nice to the public, either--unlike Howells, who seems at least to have the viewer in mind. One doesn't know whether Barry's tongue is wagging inside or outside his cheek when he wrote that the public likes Mike L. Angelo because the people look like people, and the public can relate to painting on the ceiling. His scorn is variable, unpredictable, mysteriously supplied.
Kind of like light bulbs blinking on and off in an empty room....