School of Cliche

Art Life , Media , Op-ed Jun 25, 2010 1 Comment

The School of Saatchi is a reality show for art with a brace of contestants vying to ‘win’. At home, Carrie Miller is swearing at the TV…

Thanks to a TV show, I know what it feels like to hate contemporary art and the people involved in it.

Through its cliched representation of the contemporary art world, Foxtel’s School of Saatchi has managed to stir up the same feelings in me that people who say “My kid could do this” or “This isn’t art” must experience. Within five minutes of the first episode I was yelling at the TV with all the nuance of a drunk punter abusing the ref at a footy match.

The aim of the game is for six contestants who have been chosen from a cast of thousands by four art experts to be put through their paces through a series of challenges. They will be judged both by the panel and by the modern day de Medici, Charles Saatchi, himself (He doesn’t actually appear on camera as he’s “media shy” – I guess that explains the title of the show).

Eugene, some guy, Saad

My anger is mostly reserved for one particular contestant who manages to embody everything that many people think is wrong with contemporary art. Taking himself and his derivative ideas way too seriously, multi-media artist Saad proclaims during a collaborative challenge, “I can’t make work that isn’t about me!”, echoing Warren Beatty‘s comment about Madonna that “she doesn’t want live off camera, much less speak off it”.

It’s unfortunate that modesty isn’t one of Saad’s virtues as he has many reasons for it. Primarily because he makes banal, conceptually hokey work, but also because he’s so proud of the fact that he can’t draw – yet another thing that annoys mainstream audiences about ‘conceptual’ artists.

I can only hope that this lightly educated “genius” – an attribute bestowed on him by one of his ditsy sisters – who, by his own account, is very “academic” (he went to art school) has been purposefully chosen precisely for his capacity to make viewers shake with rage. Otherwise we are forced to confront the much more frightening prospect that mediocrity rises to the top in contemporary art as it does in other industries.

Some chick, Matthew Collings, Tracey Emin, some other guy.

As this is reality TV, let’s just pretend that it must necessarily lean to the mediocre and the cliched for the purposes of gaining an audience and that it doesn’t reflect the ‘real’ art world at all. It’s certainly true that the six contestants are archetypal. These include the exceptionally pretty, conceptually hip Eugenie, the scruffy, unpretentious, self-taught painter Ben, Suki, the clear-sighted, technically proficient Asian video and installation artist, and of course the perfect minority: the aforementioned multi-media artist Saad who proclaims his work is concerned with – wait for it – “identity”.

These are just a few of the stereotypes that people – fairly or unfairly – recognise in the contemporary art world. There could just as easily be a sexually ambiguous girl whose work is concerned with ‘memory’, a well-connected hipster who spends less time in the studio than on Facebook and at after-parties with the judges, the bad boy painter who’s romanticised for his obnoxious public outbursts and talks in sneering sound bites directly to camera, and the emotionally fragile female expressionist who owns a few too many books on Frida Kahlo and who would have to drop out the competition for “personal reasons”.

Even the four experts seem perfectly pre-packaged: the slightly harried, furrow-browed but lovable critic, the outspoken, mega-famous, controversial artist, the restrained, well-spoken curator, and the bloated, middle-aged art collector.

Of the experts, the two standouts are such for very different reasons. Critic and author Matthew Collings – so charismatic, so mesmerising, in his own tv shows on art – bumbles around with a mad rug that looks like he went to the barber and specifically asked for a ‘do’ appropriate for a project which is going to ruin his reputation and perhaps his career.

Tracey Emin, on the other hand, shines in this role in the way only Westies with a certain abrasive yet endearing honesty do on reality TV shows. She has a voice you could scrub a sink with and a personality to match and if she doesn’t like something then it’s “the biggest load of bullshit” she’s ever seen or heard.

Despite the fact that I don’t think I could bear to watch another minute of this rubbish, it’s managed to teach me something: what it feels like to have a visceral reaction against contemporary art and its cultural value and purpose.

It’s received wisdom that there’s always some people in the broader community that are blinded by such hostility to art. But what’s interesting is precisely the fact that they are so hostile. I’m not a big fan of spectator sport but I’m indifferent to it. I don’t feel the need to confront Matty Johns with the fact that he’s a fraud trying to fool the public and laughing all the way to the bank. And I don’t angrily question the wisdom of the judges of the Brownlow Medal. I think the fact that people have strong feelings about art, even if they’re negative, means that on some unconscious level they grasp that it has the capacity to take a critical stance on the world and its values. And that is actually a good thing.

Of course, sometimes contemporary art is just bad. But part of the reason that makes us so mad is because we have such big expectations of it.

Maybe that great contemporary artist Mike Kelly got it right when he said “people always expect too much of love and art”.

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Carrie Miller

One Comments

  1. Just turn it off – it’s evil.

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