Edinburgh Printmakers where I make my prints, describes its gallery as presenting ‘a year round programme of inspiring, innovating and challenging exhibitions.’ It is rather like going on an internet dating site and describing yourself as spectacularly good looking and absolutely wonderful in bed. These things are not conducive to self-evaluation. But I don’t blame whoever wrote the piece. Suggesting that you are not challenging in the current visual art zeitgeist, is tantamount to saying that you are not serious.
Yet what, in this context, does challenging actually mean? Let us look at one or two contemporary art works that might be considered iconic, another ubiquitous word in today’s art-world lexicon.
Rachel Whiteread’s cast of the interior of a house reversed the actuality of the building, making solid what had been previously empty. It was widely popular. Several years ago, the floor of the basement gallery in the Royal Scottish Academy building was completely covered by a shallow tray, which when filled with oil, reflected the interior and entirely changed perception of the space. Again, the public reception was enthusiastic. People have delighted in seeing a Parisian bridge, amongst other things wrapped in fabric. Each of these art works focuses on one particular thing.
Verisimilitude has had a new lease of life in the latest art. At one time the archetypical philistine statement occurred when a member of the laity was awestruck by an ultra-realistic painting and opined ‘ It’s just like a photograph and it’s all done by hand.’ Yet, the former puppeteer, Ron Mueck, produces very life like figures with all the details of blemishes and body hair and transforms them by dramatic changes of scale. There was even a section in the exhibition I saw in Edinburgh, once I had endured the slow-moving queue, where the craft of his simulating techniques were demonstrated. The ultimate in this type of naturalism may be the exhibit in a museum of modern art in Tasmania which imitates the digestive system and produces excrement indistinguishable from the real thing.
A writer in The Spectator pointed out that the public had taken the Brit artists so much to heart that they (Damien and Tracy) could be recognised by their first names. The Sunday Times art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, considered Andy Warhol’s greatest achievement was ‘to teach America to feel comfortable with its dumbness… to love shopping, to drink coke, to adore Disney, to worship Graceland Elvis.’
Perhaps it is a good thing that late 20th century and early 21st century iconic art is not elitist, but why should it be described as challenging? The word in this context can’t surely mean the same as in the phrase ‘the north face of the Eiger is challenging’ or even in the sense that James Joyce’s Ulysses is a challenging read.