Writing, life, politics

Art or Memorabilia: A Case Against Modern Art

A lot of people are quite dismissive about modern art, typically arguing that artists should produce “paintings” of actual things: portraits, landscapes, still lives. When it comes to people like Michael Landy, who has just installed his Art Bin at the South London Gallery, public reaction is often quite dismissive.

So is Michael Landy an artist, and is his Art Bin art?

I’m not quite ready to say no, but I confess that I have a hard time accepting work such as his as actual art. And a little while ago, I think I figured out why.

Let’s first start with a couple of definitions:


The quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance. [Dictionary.com]



Objects valued for their connection with historical events, culture, or entertainment: posters, publicity photographs, and other movie memorabilia. [Dictionary.com]

There is an important distinction between the two. Art has an intrinsic value that is unrelated to its creator. If a literary critic would to be given an unpublished proof of a book that was supposedly the latest Salman Rushdie and proceeded to gush liberally about the quality of the text and story within, you would not expect him or her to then retract that positive opinion were they to be informed that the book was actually the work of (say) a fifty-five year old unpublished binman from Tower Hamlets. After all, it would still be the same book.

But would Tracey Emin’s unmade bed have been regarded anything like as highly by the art establishment had it instead been the unmade bed of a nineteen year old physics student who’d had one too many the night before?

I think not.

If Damien Hirst were to take a dump on a glass coffee table, Charles Saatchi would no doubt pay a lot of money for it. (Although given the “workshop” way in which Damien Hirst operates, it would likely be an assistant who actually had to climb up onto the table to take the shit. Whether or not that would change things would be something you’d have to ask Mr Saatchi.)

But the point is that I’m not going climbing up on any coffee tables is search of a big pay day any time soon.

There was a telling point in the article I linked to above:

A busy Twitter feed (@LandysArtBin) reveals the YBA generation is queueing to dispose of work. Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing and Gavin Hume have all recently brought forward creative failures, as have Michael Craig-Martin and Peter Blake.

Celebrity Art Bin?

It seems to me that when it comes to the unmade beds, tents, pickled sharks and truncated calves, the degree of interest generated in the art establishment is more down to the fame / profile / marketing / notoriety of the artist, rather than the intrinsic worth of the art work itself.

And that’s no more art than John’s Lennon’s scribbled shopping list would be. It’s memorabilia, not art.

1 Comment

  1. Henryk Fantazos

    Good distinction between art-work and a piece of memorabilia.It does not divide real art from idiocy sufficiently though.Lennon’s scribblings might be memorabilia because of Lennon; music while Damien H. is famous because Saatchi made him famous. Saatchi can make anybody famous according to his whim.Such is the power of his resources.Destroying culture has some rewarding rush and a giggle.For more reflections on that sad subject :againstmodernart.blogspot.com

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