Circus Animals' Desertion


THE ARGUMENT about modern art is not going to go away. No. It seems likely to continue (apace).

Can we not just say, where art is involved, that everyone is entitled to an (equally valid) opinion, then? No. That is evasion of the issue, quite a serious crime in intellectual terms. Can we simply say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder? No.

That is trite and equally evasive. Must a stand then be taken? Well, sort of.

All right. Let us look at how a particular show in London has recently been reviewed. Strictly speaking, the show is a circus but it falls easily within today's broad definitions of art. The Canadian Cirque du Soleil's Saltimbanco show, now at the Albert Hall, has no elephants or tigers nor, as one critic says, any acts that occur in boastful isolation.

Well, of course, it hasn't. The one man show, and even the soliloquy, is hopelessly out of favour because proudly pretending no one else has contributed to the artistic quiddity of whatever endeavour you happen to be involved in is not on these days.

But look. The Times tells us that while the old style circus ignored the imagination, the Saltimbanco show fills and lifts it.

The Independent, however, gives out stink about its lack of coherent narrative and meaningless multicultural language and fey interludes and cutesy masked creatures and fancy lighting cues and says the show's wall to wall pounding New Aged Rock crossover music (whatever that is) dictates the mood and leaves nothing to the imagination.

Look. Do we not rely on artists of every kind, real artists, to have imaginations, vivid, lurid, fanciful or otherwise, and to use them? Is such usage not the basic sine qua non of artistic endeavour?

Why then this newly popular demand that the viewer/visitor should have to use his or her "imagination, too? Is it not enough to have to look at the stuff, maybe attend the opening, drink a glass or two of cheap wine, stay reasonably polite and sober?

After all, if I go to a super market I am not expected to help pack the shelves, mop up spillages, advise on bar codes. My role as shopper is clear. I am not burdened with the standard day to day tasks of the management or floor staff.

There is no question of "sharing" in an experience, and certainly not of contributing to it. The roles of shopper and shop owner are complementary, of course, perhaps even symbiotic, but in no way interchangeable.

If, as a viewer of art I am surreptitiously obliged to use my imagination then I am clearly being asked to do part of the artist's job. Apart altogether from the demarcation issue and the tasteless notion of double jobbing in an era of high unemployment, the etiquette of the thing is deplorable.

Look, Christian Boltanski has the right idea, well ahead of his time, too. You remember dear old Christian, who threw down a lot of old clothes on the floor of London's Serpentine Gallery not too long ago, invited visitors to take what they wished home with them, and got some splendid reviews?

Well, Christian is now exhibiting in a Gothic church in Santiago de Compostela. For this, his latest show, he has spread numerous overcoats "in a variety of cheery "colours" on the nave floor in a regular pattern which apparently evokes a vision of monks in prone adoration, facing the altar.

Christian has spread lots of coats, hundreds of em, no boastful isolation here. But hold on. The exhibition doesn't end there. No. The artist has explained that the coats are intended for Sarajevo and when the church element of the show is over, the coats will be transported there in a fleet of cars - one to each car (a concept, giggles one critic, "evidently stronger on symbolism than on practicality").

You expect me to snigger, too? No. Instead of demanding others to do imaginative work, Christian is himself providing practical work for a fleet of drivers. Nor will he require the lucky coat recipients in Sarajevo to exercise their imaginations in any way. All they have to do is accept and wear the coats.

I need hardly tell you it all has to do with death, transience, memory, ghosts. One reviewer dodges the silly question of it being art (or not): "It is just a mysterious evocative experience that visitors are offered, and what, if anything, they choose to call it is their concern."

This is where modern art is at, this is the way forward.