Art can be crazy, and the art world — you know, all those stuffy, know-it-all judges and critics who tell us what’s worthy of our interest — can be the craziest of the lot.
While reading from an art history textbook recently, I came across an amusing little story. It made me laugh. I rolled my eyes a bit, too. I found it so amusing that later I shared the story with my husband.
But as I thought about it more, I began to wonder… is it really so funny? I don’t think so.
Here’s the story.
In 2006, a British artist — David Hensel — entered a sculpture in the internationally renowned Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition. A large piece titled One Day Closer to Paradise, it was apparently shipped in two different pieces, or somehow separated upon its arrival. Either way, upon its arrival, it was judged as two separate entries for the juried show.
Here’s how the completed work looks. It’s a huge jemsonite head placed on a slate mortuary slab.
But here’s what happened.
The head was rejected. The empty slab was deemed to have artistic merit, was accepted for the show, and was exhibited at the prestigious event.
The artist remarked:
“The art world itself seems to be engaged in a cultural performance about our times, a parody about duplicity, marketing tactics, and acquiescence.”
The museum’s statement was this:
“Given their separate submission, the two parts were judged independently. The head was rejected. The base was thought to have merit and accepted.”
Now, if that’s not enough to make you cringe a bit, roll your eyes a lot, and shake your head a few times… well, I don’t know what to say.
Here’s what viewers to the exhibition saw:
This, my friends, is art, at least in the eyes of the Royal Academy’s curators back in 2006.
If you’d like to read more about the incident and ponder a lot of questions about the why’s and wherefore’s of this ridiculous look at the art world, you’ll find a great article here: Artnet – Irreverent Truths.
There are, in fact, several articles available online that were published at the time of the exhibition, all poking fun at the Royal Academy. According to these articles, the artist never got too upset.
“The great big laughing head is a kind of image of what one might feel about the idea of going to paradise. From one angle it’s complete laughter and from another the face looks completely horrified. That’s why I wanted it to be loose. The base is made from mortuary slab and the little piece of wood that was meant to keep the head in place looks like bone. So the fact that the head has disappeared is entirely in keeping. Maybe it achieved transcendence. I think it’s totally delightful.”
Of course, the incident certainly called attention to the artist and his work, so he no doubt received a lot of publicity and interest.
Hensel also said of the incident, “I’ve seen the funny side but I’ve also seen the philosophical side … It shows up not just the tastes of the selectors but also their unawareness,” he said.
And for me, this is the key point, what we might call the moral of the story. Art is definitely subjective, and even those who stand as “gate-keepers” to tell us what is or is not art aren’t always right.
So, did they decide to admit their mistake, reunite the head with the slab, and show the entire sculpture? Or did they cling to their judgment that only the plinth had merit?
“Now it is going to remain separate, just the plinth on show, and that suits the next development, which is that The Times is going to auction it as it is, accompanied by a documentation of the event so that it can be seen as a new work of art about the failed one.” — David Hensel in an interview with Stephen Williams
The plinth did, in fact, become art in its own right, a sculpture that spoke about the world in which we live, about the foibles and follies of those who believe that they alone know what is good and worthy in the art world. It’s a statement about punctured dignity — the words of Hensel — and we sometimes enjoy seeing snooty art critics get a comeuppance.
Ultimately it comes back to this simple truth: no one can say with certainty what is or is not art, and when all is said and done maybe we should take comfort in that.