Question: if a piece of art can literally be mistaken for rubbish, does that make it rubbish? No, not necessarily '“ but it does raise an interesting and valid question about whether art can ever be called 'bad' (or 'good') and whether it is purely subjective. You may have heard that, a few days ago, there was an incident involving an overzealous cleaner who scrubbed an installation by Martin Kippenberger to within an inch of its life in a museum in Dortmund. And I don't mean to rub any salt into any fresh wounds for Kippenberger's fans, but with a title like When It Starts Dripping From the Ceiling, that does sound like more of an accident than a piece of art, doesn't it?
I've blogged before about art that completely and utterly fails to move me. Meredith Ostrom paints pictures by writhing around on a canvas, using her breasts to create her 'art'. That's a boob job not worth having, in my opinion. And although I actually have some corner of my soul which does warm to Tracey Emin for the personal battles she had to face growing up, I simply can't bring myself to like any of her artwork. In the same way that I was more amused than sorry when I heard that When It Starts Dripping From the Ceiling was 'destroyed' by the cleaner scrubbing away at the layer of paint at the bottom of the sculpture, I didn't feel any artistic outrage when Emin's My Bed was jumped on by two Chinese art students.
When they were later released from Belgravia police station (without charge) the two men insisted that their performance was not an attack on Emin. Jian Jun Xi, said, "We are simply trying to react to the work and the self-promotion implicit in it. We wanted to push her work to further limits, make it more sensational, interesting and significant. We're trying to challenge these artists."
My Bed was later 'reinstated' by the museum (presumably from photographs). The cynics would say it wasn't art anyway and was a hideous and gratuitous mickey-take of the art world '“ and that there was nothing to reinstate anyway. It's possibly rather significant that neither Emin nor the Tate Gallery actually minded about this artistic vandalism '“ perhaps because it was intellectually and artistically justifiable...?
Art and music are supposed to move people; would most of us agree with that truism? So if art such as Kippenberger's can be mistaken for rubbish or an accident '“ even when it's in an exhibition '“ could one therefore infer that it has failed to speak to the general masses? Are only the 'elite few' capable of appreciating it? If that's the case, then that's rather sad. And arguably rather pointless. But just to offer a balanced contrary view, Emin's My Bed clearly DID arouse a reaction...just not the reaction she necessarily wanted or expected. Or did it?
There have been numerous examples of artworks being destroyed by accident. Back in 2001, at the Eyestorm Gallery in London, an installation by Damien Hirst, featuring empty beer bottles, used coffee cups, newspapers and ashtrays, was thoughtfully cleared away because the cleaner thought they'd been left there after a party. The cleaner was quoted as saying, 'As soon as I clapped eyes on it I sighed because there was so much mess. I didn't think for a second that it was a work of art '“ it didn't look much like art to me. So I cleared it all into bin bags and dumped it." Unfortunate, yes...but to be expected? I would have to say yes to that, too. Interestingly, Hirst himself thought the mistake was 'fantastic' and 'very funny'. Call me cynical, but doesn't that suggest that he knew it was literally and artistically rubbish himself?
And not that I want to labour the point, but, in 2004, a cleaner at the Tate threw away what he thought was simply a rubbish bag filled with paper and cardboard. The cleaner didn't realise that it was actually part of an installation by Gustav Metzger, catchily entitled Recreation of First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art. Although the bag was retrieved, Metzger said it was now too damaged to display...so he simply replaced it with another bag. No doubt Westminster Council were only to happy to oblige with some rubbish set aside from Friday's recycling collection.
Clearly Martin Kippenberger is highly regarded; his work has also been on show at the Tate and the Saatchi Gallery, as well as the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Perhaps that is why, since the accident, When It Starts Dripping From the Ceiling hasn't been removed from the Ostwall Museum in Dortmund. Ah, but does that therefore mean that, although it has apparently been damaged to the tune of £690,000, it is still just as valid as a piece of artwork? And if so, does that make it nonsensical that it was ever considered art? (Oh, and who priced the slats of wood and rubber trough at £690,000 in the first place?)
If the same accident had happened to any other piece of (let's say) traditional art, it would have been deemed ruined and removed from public view. The fact that When It Starts Dripping From the Ceiling (above) has not been affected in this way and is still on show might suggest that there wasn't very much to destroy in the first place. And I would not be surprised one iota if, since the accident, its value goes up because people start flocking to see it when previously they may have just walked right past it.
It's a contentious subject and I might well be shot down in flames by others who possess a greater knowledge of modern art than I do. After all, Martin Kippenberger was apparently widely regarded as one of the most talented artists of his generation before he died in 1997. But it's certainly a valid question. No, of course I didn't want it to be deliberately vandalised. But if its value goes up as a result and it becomes even more noteworthy, something somewhere must have gone a bit wrong, mustn't it? The emperor's new clothes and all that?