What’s this I don’t even (2015 edit)

In case anyone’s wondering about the fairly illiterate title of this post (ED: like someone who has been living in a box for years and hasn’t heard of a meme that was very hackneyed even in 2011), the expression in question and variants of it have been popularised as a comment on videos posted on YouTube that the responder (usually some teenager who lrnd to spl by txt (ED: No, James, they’re called people making jokes. Please stop writing like an old person.)) considers incomprehensible or simply weird. I don’t visit YouTube much (ED: Ahhahaha, the irony! That was true in 2011, but certainly isn’t now.) , but I have sometimes visited exhibitions of modern art, and I’m afraid to say “What’s this I don’t even” about sums up my response to a lot of it.

It’s not so much that I can’t cope with the art itself. Whilst my personal tastes run more to good old fashioned paintings about, well, nice stuff, I’m not shocked beyond words that some artist considers a lightbulb turning on and off/an unmade bed/some old porn/photos of drunken, tattooed benefit-claimants arsing around to be art. If it looks interesting/funny or inspires thought, I’ll run with it, although a fair amount of the time the main thought thus inspired is, “This is meaningless crap. Why am I wasting my time looking at it?”

No, the biggest problem I have with modern art is with the efforts made by museum curators, art critics, academics and (less-often) artists themselves to explain these works, beyond, “Well, I think it looks cool” or “Well, I thought someone would like it (and hopefully buy it).” The only thing clarified by the resulting epics of pseudo-intellectualism is that the old Army saying that “bullshit baffles brains” is no lie.

By way of an example of this kind of explanatory material, and because I am nothing if not first with the news, consider the Exhibition Guide to an exhibition called “Altermodern” that took place in early 2009 at Tate Britain. This is particularly interesting because it possibly gives the aspiring modern artist some tips as to how to conduct oneself in life, besides the priceless examples of art-speak.

1. Artists should always come from places that sound as if you’d want to get away from them if you were a teenager

Wigan, Doncaster, Epsom, Rochford, Loughborough – it’s a catalogue of alternative settings for a version of Billy Elliot where he just wants to do collage. Even some of the overseas artists, who avoid the leaden blanket of English small-town dullness, seem to come from places where one might expect the idea of moving elsewhere to be present – like Cameroon or East Jerusalem. And on the name alone, I’m willing to be that there isn’t much going on of a weekend in Neumarkt St Veit, Germany.

2. They should always (probably in consequence) live now in places that are considered very cool 

I say “considered” because a lot of the artists in the exhibition now live in London, which I can assure you from personal experience is not really that cool a place to live. Still, teenagers in provincial towns often think it is (yes, I was that teenager) and some of the artists who actually grew up in “cool” places seem to have been impelled to migrate to even “cooler” ones, as if there’s  some kind of one-upmanship involved – from Copenhagen to New York or London to Los Angeles, for instance. Several claim to live in two places – beat that, squares! Heartwarmingly, however, one artist involved, Tris Vonna-Michell bucks the trend by being born in Rochford, Essex, and having moved no further than Southend-on-Sea, Essex (although maybe Southend is a cool and aspirational place these days (ED: No.)).

3. Someone in the exhibition must give weird-sounding biographical details (possibly including names that sound made up, even if real. Spartacus Chetwynd, anyone?)

One of the artists in “Altermodern”, Bob and Roberta Smith, is actually one artist operating under two pseudonyms, for reasons unexplained and probably fairly pretentious. That’s openly stated, however; another artist, Lindsay Seers, claims not to have spoken before the age of eight, possibly due to a condition called eidetic memory and, having lost that with the onset of language, to have literally become a camera i.e. by putting light-sensitive paper in her mouth and using her lips as the aperture and shutter. All this information was also part of a “quasi-documentary” on her life forming part of the exhibition. The final point is such a grotesque detail that some at least of this is presumably a joke and perhaps a Christopher Isherwood reference (“I Am A Camera” and so on). I can’t say I was terribly impressed. If I sent out a CV claiming to be a Zylon from the Planet Wibble, any potential employer would conclude I was an idiot (or mad) and certainly not employ me (ED: Take that, otherkin!). I also don’t believe in “quasi-documentaries” any more than being “quasi-pregnant”. It’s either truth or fiction.

However, the best example ever of odd-sounding biographical details came in a guide to a later Hayward Gallery exhibition including works by Yayoi Kusama, a Japanese artist, which stated that on returning to Japan in 1973 she “chose to settle permanently in a psychiatric hospital in Tokyo.” Now, does this mean that this lady is under medical supervision a la Richard Dadd, that she lives/works in an old hospital building, or is it some kind of joke? I have no idea (ED: And I still don’t).

4. There must be an incomprehensible explanation by The Great Curator

In this case, the Great Curator, M. Nicolas Bourriaud of the Gulbenkian Foundation, is French, giving him a head start in the making of incomprehensible explanations, since French intellectuals have come up with little else since the 1950s at least. “Altermodern is an in-progress redefinition of modernity in the era of globalisation, stressing the experience of wandering in time, space and mediums…(It) often functions as a hypertext, translating and transcoding information from one format to another.” Translation – here is a bunch of art from artists who move around a fair bit and do their art in various different ways about all sorts of stuff going on in the world. At least I think that’s what it means; I’m perhaps not the best person to tell you about postmodernism or any putative successor. I struggled with the Postmodernism volume in the “Introducing” series, and those books are both designed for the thick and illustrated with cartoons. Bourriaud’s probably read unillustrated books on the subject.

5. All explanations of the work of individual artists must provoke the reaction – “I bet s/he didn’t really sit down and think all that through before doing it.”

An artist called Nathaniel Mellors is described as exploring “moments of dissolution, and the breakdown of form and content, in a variety of scenarios…he sets up theatrical frameworks to test the line between meaningful content and incomprehensibility”. Maybe. Or maybe he just does stuff he thinks is cool/funny/interesting and it ends up achieving all that if you squint at it in the right way in the right light. Bonus points for this description including the word “practice”, which is apparently what artists actually do now they can’t be said to do (say) painting or sculpture and seem not to want to be regarded as doing “work”, perhaps because in some cases they can’t actually physically produce the objects involved and so have to get skilled craftspeople to do the work.

I should stress at the end of all this that I did actually like some of the art in this exhibition, especially Charles Avery’s drawings of an imaginary island and its wildlife and Olivia Plender’s museum exhibit on the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, a kind of militant Woodcraft Folk from the 1930s who sounded made up to me, but brilliantly enough, appear to have really existed (ED: They really did, folks, look them up in Wikipedia, they were mental). But the alleged explanations given for it all – what’s this I don’t even.

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