That’s a big question, but two recent exhibition visits have led me to ponder, and think about the essential Duchamp revelation that if you put a urinal in an art gallery, it becomes, art.
The Stanley Kubrick exhibition at The Design Museum and The William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain are two of this year’s blockbuster London shows but both throw up as many questions as they answer.
The Kubrick show explores his visual iconography, allowing the viewer to step into iconic film moments and examine details with a surgeon’s precision. It’s often a little like visiting one of those open house exhibitions where you see someone’s time warp house decorated from the 70s, it’s kind of funky and fascinating, but you wouldn’t want to see it everyday, unless you really loved a white plexiglass penis. Even the most familiar piece of design, the Overlook’s geometric carpet, has become so well known, it loses its power to surprise and delight.
Ultimately what makes Kubrick great is the combination of visuals, dialogue, acting, editing, tone etc, by choosing to dissect these elements and analyse them individually, they ultimately lose power rather than become more essential.
There is a similar malaise at the heart of the Blake exhibition in the Tate’s choice to focus only on his visual work and put his poetry on the back burner. I fucking love Blake’s art, I find it spiritual, dark, funny and engaging, but I would not for one moment hold it up as great art. It’s the dichotomy that exists in all visual arts about what you love and what you admire. The Scorsese film I love most is New York New York, but even I, would struggle to argue that it’s his best. I would rather own a Blake etching than a Rembrandt painting, but I’m not even going to pretend that Blake is on the same artistic level.
The Tate show unfortunately emphasises this, throwing multiple work on multiple walls and losing the focus and clarity you have when this when you see this work in isolation. The addition of a room re creating his failed exhibition and another that projects his work onto the walls both feel fanciful and faux genuine, adding a slightly amateurish feel to what is an otherwise serious show.
I really love this show because I love Blake, but I don’t believe it truly serves his art well. It’s a blockbuster exhibition for the least blockbuster artist in history.
So, what is art? It’s anything you really want it to be. It’s my kids' crayon pictures on my fridge, it’s the Sistine Chapel, it’s a Provence sunset, it’s just not always what galleries tell you it is.
Simon Amster is creative partner at JSR Agency.