BEHOLD TWO public displays: One is an immature stunt, the other a work of art. Can you tell which is which?
Display No. 1: In an empty room in Boston's South End, track lights go on and off at five-second intervals. The lights illuminate nothing except the bare walls and floor. This is "Work 227: The Lights Going On and Off," the brainstorm of a Scotsman named Martin Creed, who has explained it in these words: "It's like, if I can't decide whether to have the lights on or off then I have them both on and off and I feel better about it."
Display No. 2: An MIT student walks into Logan International Airport wearing a sweatshirt adorned with a plastic circuit board, on which a handful of glowing green lights arranged in a star are harmlessly wired to a 9-volt battery. On the back of the sweatshirt is scrawled "Socket To Me" and "COURSE VI." The student is electrical engineering major Star Anna Simpson, and the outfit, she explains, is an art project meant to attract attention at an MIT career fair.
OK, so perhaps you already know that Creed's flashing lights won the $30,000 Turner Prize, a highly prestigious art award presented annually by London's Tate gallery, in 2001. And maybe you're aware that Simpson, the 19-year-old MIT sophomore, was arrested at gunpoint at the airport and charged with disorderly conduct and possession of a "hoax device." Creed's bright idea can be seen through Oct. 28 at the Boston Center for the Arts; Simpson's could lead to a five-year prison sentence. But I'd still like to know: What makes his an award-winning work of art and hers a juvenile prank?
Martin Creed. Work No. 88. A sheet of A4 paper crumpled into a ball, 1995
After all, if turning lights on and off qualifies as fine art, then anything does. I can wad up a sheet of paper and call it art. Oh, rats -- Creed beat me to it. In 1995 he devised "Work No. 88: A Sheet of A4 Paper Crumpled into a Ball." (Note: This is not to be confused with Creed's 2004 inspiration, "Work No. 384: A Sheet of Paper Folded Up and Unfolded.")
I hasten to add that Creed's ingenuity doesn't end with lights and sheets of paper. Here is Roberta Smith of The New York Times, extolling a survey of Creed's work now on display at Bard College: "Mr. Creed's penchant for provocation is even clearer in two short videos. In each, a person walks in front of a camera trained on an empty, pristine white-on-white space and either vomits or defecates before walking away." Grossed out? Don't be: Smith reassuringly notes that "the performers manage to maintain both their dignity and their privacy."
Poor Star Simpson. If only she had thought to declare her electrified sweatshirt a work of art before she was arrested at Logan Airport. And it wouldn't have been a bad idea to have lined up a curator or an art critic to admire it, or at least filed a grant application with the National Endowment for the Arts. Andy Warhol is credited with saying, "Art is what you can get away with," and it's easier to get away with fobbing off garbage as art if you create a paper trail to go with it.
I use the word "garbage" advisedly. When Creed won the Turner Prize, the Daily Telegraph reported that one of the finalists he beat was Mike Nelson, who "works with rubbish" and had exhibited a stack of planks. The Telegraph also remarked that the Turner Prize is known in some circles as "the Prize for the Emperor's New Clothes."
And that, really, is what it all comes down to, isn't it? Either you are sophisticated or cynical enough to gush over the emperor's wonderfully postmodern and transgressive new duds, or you are one of those reactionary rubes who get all hung up on the fact that the emperor actually happens to be naked. If talent and skill aren't required to produce a work of art, if a striving for truth or excellence or beauty has nothing to do with artistic greatness, if craftsmanship and effort matter less than attitude and gimmickry -- in short, if there are no standards, then why not fawn over an "artist" who "works with rubbish?" Why not bestow a prize named for J.M.W. Turner -- the greatest landscape painter in English history -- on a chucklehead who crumples sheets of paper and films people vomiting?
Someday, perhaps, the art world will rediscover the standards it has abandoned, and blush when it remembers the way it honored quacks like Creed and treated silly stunts as works of genius. In the meantime, "Work 227" makes a fine metaphor for what that world has become: The lights may be on (or off, or on again), but nobody's home.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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