‘The finished work of art must appeal first to our hearts, not to our minds'
A major exhibit of new Canadian art ends this week at the National Gallery in Ottawa. Pluralities 1980—four expensive floors of angle iron, plywood runways, creeping Pintos and reverently framed “working drawings”—occasioned cultural breast-
beating and disparaging comment alike. Perhaps the oddest opinion (in print, at any rate) was that this was a “fun show.”
Pluralities 1980 is no fun at all. Much of it is Conceptual High Seriousness, with the artists’ names writ appropriately large. My own response to the show was nostalgia: the exercise reminded me of open house at the Lab.
Let me explain. When I was a graduate student in biology, the university administration, shrewdly recognizing that the hand that fed it operating grants was attached to the body politic, indulged in a yearly orgy of public relations known as open house. In every laboratory benches were tidied, signs lettered, obsolete oscilloscopes dusted off and professors emeriti awakened; when all signs of academic torpor and wastage of public monies were eradicated, the doors were thrown open to the unwashed populace for two days of knob-fondling and minor theft. Graduate students were prodded into delivering aggressive little monologues whose collective effect (duly reported in the press) would be to give the impression that breakthroughs (but expensive breakthroughs!) were just around the corner. My job was to give a five-minute rundown on “the theory and practice of electron microscopy and its application to biology.” I performed this absurd task on a mass-production basis; audience after baffled audience found themselves momentarily trapped in a tiny dark laboratory, stumbling and shuffling around several hundred thousand dollars worth of gadgetry, while I bravely babbled and gesticulated. I am sure that most of what I said was incomprehensible to them.
Now the similarity between my short-order students in electron microscopy and the average visitor to Pluralities 1980 is very close and has unfortunate implications for the future of art. In science, public support for research has resulted in our tunnelling into a new dark age where specialties pile upon specialties; the corresponding phenomenon in the arts has been the rise of the “academic artist.” I cannot help thinking that the Roman playwright Terence was anticipating this development when he wrote: “Here is a man who with a great effort is about to say something very silly.” Perhaps to forestall this problem, artists have borrowed a diversionary tactic from science, and have developed languages that only the initiated can comprehend. The headiest jargon of all is that of Conceptual Art.
I will not attempt a criticism of Conceptual Art: others have done so, and there is always the risk of having one’s words considered part of the Conceptual Art Work itself. I will, however, say that what an artist may be thinking about is of little interest to me; I am more interested in what he or she produces. I am married to an artist who has developed the thought process to the point of blatant procrastination; at the end of it all, though, she still feels obliged to produce a work of art that can stand on its own. But since the artists on display at Pluralities 1980 insist on aping science and speaking in tongues, I suggest that they be exhibited along with their creations; like me and my electron microscope, they should be obliged to stammer out the incomprehensibilities of their chosen field: that the thought process is now the message, that those untidy heaps of rubble in the middle of the gallery floor are the
merest detritus of the creative act, like tracings on the phosphor of an oscilloscope tube. Had I not been present to ? give my frantic monologue in e the darkness, the visitors to 1 open house would have been 2 reduced to fingering the stain£ less steel knobs of the machine 1 and to wondering at its cost. £ This, in effect, is the public re| sponse to shows like Plurali2 ties 1980. In this sense both the g university open house and the ~ Conceptual Art exhibit might 8 better be described as techno« logical crafts fairs, and I have ~ often wondered if it would be ° better to speak of artisans, not
artists. The only problem here is that most of the “installations” in Pluralities 1980 are rather crudely put together.
Some will object that I am advocating giving the public what it wants; that artists should buckle down to turning out endless photo-realistic studies of Canadian waterfowl. I am not. I am arguing only for a clarification of roles. The intellect functions best in the absence of jargon, and to speak of an artist, musician or even scientist as an intellectual is usually to contradict terms. This is not to deny the role of the intellect in the creative process, but the finished work of art must appeal first to our hearts, not to our minds. Stripped of the carapace of jargon, many scientists today would be revealed as wholly uninspired technicians; sadly, most of the artists represented at Pluralities 1980 would appear to require a refresher course in gluing and pasting skills to become even tolerably good craftsmen.
Perhaps the name for this exhibit, so baffling at first glance, is, after all, astutely chosen: one of the definitions of plurality is “the holding by one person of two or more offices or positions at one time.” Whether in this case the artists are masquerading as thinkers or the thinkers moonlighting as artists, each runs the risk of permanently alienating the audience of the other.
Brian Harvey is a biologist with the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa.
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