What’s the point of pointless art?

Art that isn’t good for anything can often be very good indeed


Look closely at the hoarding, just at the St Patrick’s end of The Coombe in Dublin, and you’ll see a piece of drainpipe hanging down. Look again, and discover a pair of holes at eye level. Peer in, and realise that the drainpipe is a periscope, and that behind the hoarding is an urban lake. Formed in the foundations for an unbuilt apartment block, the lake is something of a secret wonderland. Wildlife has swarmed in, there are reeds, ducks, foxes… The drainpipe/periscope is an artwork, part of the Rotator project at Pallas Projects, by Ruth Clinton and Niamh Moriarty. But what’s it for?

The same question comes to mind on a visit to the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray. A rope bridge lies on the floor of the gallery, its slatted footboards apparently painted in colours derived from Edouard Manet ’s famous 1882 painting Le déjeuner sur l’herbe. Another art duo, Anne Ffrench and Brian Harte made the bridge, and briefly installed it in late 2012, to link the uninhabited, rocky Sovereign Islands, off the coast of Kinsale.

The visual art world has diversified, and polarised. In one corner is the art market, where it’s easy to see what art is “for”, as price stands for value, and our national collections become trophy cabinets of worth. Opposite this is the art that can’t be bought and sold, art that is about ideas, which themselves are sometimes so vague and elusive that it’s difficult to know if it’s actually “about” anything at all. Texts proliferate. Writers and curators talk of “practice”, and objects as the residue of that practice, while audiences either buy in wholeheartedly or else remain outside, excluded by their bafflement.

Muddying the waters further, especially in a recession, are the arguments made for the continued funding of the arts. While the arts portfolio was under the same umbrella as tourism, these revolved around the idea of Ireland’s artists as a magnet for visitors. Now that it’s Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the arguments are more nebulous, implying some idea of cultural “good” that ultimately benefits us all. For a steady, if not always well argued, demolition of the idea of the visual arts having any intrinsic “good” at all, see John Carey ’s book What Good Are the Arts, 2005, in which he runs through the social, educational, moral and aesthetic cases for the arts, before coming to the conclusion that the only worthwhile art form is literature.

Emerging from the artisan (paintings of religious figures, and of wealthy patrons to demonstrate their power and prestige), art’s function changed utterly, not only with the invention of the camera, but also with the emergence of mass literacy. With a reading public, art didn’t have to show and tell in quite the same way. From the early nineteenth century, adherents of the Avant garde in Europe were insisting that art be used to shake up society, promote social reform, bring in change and revolution. But at the same time, the L’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake) movement, with which the Avant garde later became associated, was demanding a space for art to be about nothing but itself.

It’s harder than you might think to make something that has no purpose. Even if that’s not your intention. Funding structures, the gallery system and the whole apparatus of the art world may co-opt it to be about something other than it is. Land Art: those huge earthworks by artists including Michael Heizer with Double Negative, 1969 in Nevada, Robert Smithson – Spiral Jetty, Utah, 1970, and Walter de Maria with his Lightning Field, 1977, in New Mexico; was initially made to be unsaleable, to escape the gallery and market system, although galleries now sell photographs of, and artefacts from these projects. In a way, it’s unsurprising, art that seriously moves you is ripe for co-option to various causes.

The problem with all this is, that when art has no other purpose than itself, how are we to judge it? Is Ffrench and Harte’s rope bridge a “good” rope bridge? Is Clinton and Moriarty’s video, made by rotating a camcorder inside a circular opening in an old wall, a “good” video? When the art work is aiming for beauty, it’s easy because we can assess it as to whether, to us, it is beautiful. But what are we to do with art that deliberately avoids beauty? Unless we find ourselves moved, intrigued, or inspired to insight; all that remains is to look at what the artist was hoping to achieve, and to make a judgement on that basis. Too often, in those cases, the texts that accompany the work don’t seem to bear any relation to what we are faced with in the gallery, or the artist will “explain” an idea that isn’t necessarily present in the work.

The philosopher Theodor Adorno, in a 1965 talk, entitled Functionalism Today, spoke of “art’s definitive protest against the dominance of purpose over human life,” and I’m inclined to agree with him. Some of the very best art is completely pointless, unsullied by market values, and untainted by aiming for social, educational and practical “good”s. But within that, the artists themselves have a responsibility to make the very best pointless art that they can. It may not always succeed in its aims, but I’m glad I live in a world where I can stumble upon a periscope hanging on an otherwise anonymous hoarding, that gives away the secrets of a hidden urban lake.

Gemma Tipton

Rotator runs until April 6th, with a performance on March 27th. pallasprojects.org

The Sovereigns is at the Mermaid, Bray, until April 11th, with a special film screening on March 28th. mermaidartscentre.ie