BBC4's recent mini-season on conceptual art was something of a mixed bag - as you'd probably expect with such a remit. My July trip to Tate Britain's retrospective on British conceptual art hadn't been entirely satisfactory but I was curious to learn more. Find out if I'd been missing something.
By that reckoning I was in the same boat as Dr James Fox who presented the opening show, 'Who's Afraid of Conceptual Art?, by ramping up his reservations about the whole thing only to let them slowly subside as the show went on. A friend of mine thought him completely the wrong presenter for the show but I don't think he was as wet behind his ears as he pretended to be.
He began by opening a package he'd ordered from Martin Creed. It cost him £180 and inside it was a rolled up ball of paper. Nothing more. Nothing on it. That's one expensive, and slightly ruined, sheet of A4. Creed pops up again later but to tell the story of how this kind of thing could come to pass off as art Fox went right back to the chain smoking sphinx.
Marcel Duchamp, with his famous 'readymades', was the first to suggest that beautiful artworks and prosaic artefacts could be, even were, interchangeable. Like Creed, and unlike many others who followed in his path, there was humour at play in Duchamp's subversion. You were even allowed to spin his bicycle wheel round. Though it seems not piss in his urinal.
Duchamp eventually gave up art to become a professional chess player and the Italian Piero Manzoni picked up the mantle. Both conceptually and in the realms of bodily functions. Manzoni signed real bodies, drew supposedly never ending lines, and claimed his own breath (which he'd used to pump up balloons) was art. He then shat into ninety tins and enclosed them. So if you think modern art is crap you're totally right.
He sold the canned turds for the equivalent price of their weight in gold. You may feel those that bought it were the mugs but it's now worth more than 200 times the price of gold. Providing it's left unopened. So, is there even any shit in the can? Does it even matter? Manzoni's not here to say, he died aged just 29, but defenders of conceptual art would say it doesn't at all. It's the idea, not the physical manifestation of it, that is the work.
Martin Creed's also a fan of defecation. He's filmed people shitting which surprisingly didn't gain as much attention as his empty room with the lights going on or off or his tiny piece of blu-tac attached to a gallery wall. Fox meets him. It seems apparent that Creed is a bit of a chancer with no firmly held beliefs about anything. His punk-pop band are decent enough but he brings far more to his own bank balance than he does to our story.
In the sixties there was a movement to purge art of frilliness. Words started to replace pictures (I think we're seeing the reverse of that now as clickbait dominates over the long read) and, in 1973, Michael Craig-Martin made his Oak Tree. As many of you will know it's a glass of water that Craig-Martin insists is an oak tree. A painful interview between him and Fox becomes an utterly pointless exercise in semantics. Much like Xmas presents I've given my mum it turns out 'it's the thought that counts'.
There's certainly a lot of thought, and of course shit, gone in to Mary Kelly's Post Partum Document. Logs, quite literally, of mother and child's life together inscribed on to stained nappies may be a bit self-indulgent - or smelly - but are a great example of high conceptualism and how feminist artists took the boy's toys and played a more grown up game with them. A document about the nurturing of a new life. What could be more vital? It's just a pity the trailers for the series used a cookie cutter nagging woman's voice to portray the supposed philistine unable to comprehend this stuff.
Kelly's work will always remain relevant, though not to the taste of all, and I'd like to think Robert Montgomery's will too. His installations also had a beating heart and I liked the fact that he'd taken them to the streets to interact with people who may not choose to spend their free time inside art galleries (they exist?). Ghost, in Bermondsey, touched the hearts of many strangers. Much as everyone can appreciate the joy a new life gives we can all understand how important it is to find solace after the loss of a loved one.
Other conceptual artists were more concerned with making you, or even theirselves, uncomfortable. Vito Acconci stalked people. Yoko Ono sat impassively in New York as the audience cut away her clothes, and, in 1974 Joseph Beuys flew into JFK covered in felt where he was taken by an ambulance to a gallery to spend three days in a room with a wild coyote. An allegory or a social sculpture about peace, tolerance, and respect for nature? Or just a big show off? You decide.
Another place conceptual art took on new meaning was under the Brazilian military dictatorship of the sixties. Not for it. Against it. As Os Mutantes soundtrack Cildo Meireles 'Yankees Go Home' Coke bottles I think I'd liked to have heard a bit more about the Brazilian scene but this is a whistlestop tour and we're soon moving forward a decade.
By the seventies, as predicted by Marshall McLuhan, the medium had become the message. Not content with having himself shot Chris Burden crawled through 50ft of broken glass on his stomach in just his pants. A comment, a bloody painful one, about how we'd become desensitised to the violence of the Vietnam War. Burden bought air time and made adverts that sold absolutely nothing. A refreshing change to the artist-as-tycoon model we sometimes see now.
Fox ends by meeting bollock naked German artist Christian Jankowski. The interview takes place with the Vision On music in the background but luckily Wilf Lunn doesn't rock up with his cock out. Even though his proto-hipster 'tache would've fitted right in. Jankowski is essentially a prankster. But he's a good one. His casting for Jesus along the mould of Pop Idol was somewhere between Jeremy Beadle and Duchamp.
It's certainly a long way from Carl Andre and his pile of bricks. Or Equivalent VIII to give them their proper name. The second show of the three focuses on the time Britain was outraged that the Tate could spend money on such a thing. It was even mentioned on John Craven's Newsround. As it was 1976 there's a good chance I watched it.
As strikes and inflation ground the country down, and uplifting disco pop rang out, members of the public were interviewed. 'Taking the piss' and 'wasting taxpayer's money' seemed to be the general consensus. The Tate did receive a grant to spend on art so these were not unjustified concerns.
Carl Andre had been born in Quincy, Massachussetts 41 years earlier. He was, by 1976, an ex-railroad worker with a silly beard and dungaree combo. Which made it hard to warm to him.
The Tate had held minimalist works (which isn't really the same as conceptualism so not quite sure why this programme was even in this strand) for some years. They'd examples by Dan Flavin, Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Sol LeWitt, Agnes Martin, and Robert Ryman. There'd been no fuss but now The Sunday Times wanted a fight.
It didn't help that the bricks were exhibited at the same time as the Tate was hosting a blockbuster Constable exhibition so many who'd visited to have a look at the landscapes of East Anglia made a special diversion to be offended by Andre's offering.
Brian Sewell, perhaps surprisingly, makes a very good point - and one that could've saved a lot of fuss. He thought, and I agree, that by not buying the whole Equivalent series (all bricks but all arranged in different ways) the artwork just didn't work. Andre was happy to pocket the cash and the renown didn't hurt him so badly in the long run but it was a while before Britain was truly comfortable with modern art.
There's a somewhat bizarre coda when a guy who daubed blue dye on the bricks jocularly relates his story and how he made it in to The Sun (on Page 3, underneath the tits). Though he still stood by his protest he doesn't take it too seriously.
Something you could never accuse Vic Reeves of. Using his real name Jim Moir he's heading up the third and final part of our conceptual trilogy with a look at Dada. It began in Zurich (cue yodelling, cheese, and cuckoo clocks) in 1916 during World War I as an exile protest moment.
In an absurd world the Dadaists strove to be deliberately so. Thus was born the Cabaret Voltaire. On the first night Romanian poet Tristan Tzara cast a tribal Maori spell, people wore cardboard masks, a dozen balalaika players took to the stage, and some German bloke hit a drum with a riding whip whilst shouting 'Pig's bladder kettle drum cinnabar cru cru cru'. All those made up words. Uvavu indeed.
Warming to his mission Vic/Jim gets dressed up in an outfit that sits somewhere between The Pet Shop Boy's elongated pointy hats and New Order's True Faith video. There doesn't seem to be much reason for this which, I guess, is in keeping with Dada principles.
Five months after its opening night the Cabaret Voltaire closed. The venue was, after all, primarily in the business of selling sausages and beer. Dada didn't die though. Quite the contrary. Richard Huelsenbeck returned, from Zurich, to a devastated Berlin and the movement then got very political.
John Heartfield hung a dummy from a ceiling dressed in a German military uniform and with a pig's snout. Otto Dix painted disabled war veterans and Hannah Hoch's Cut with the Kitchen Knife pioneered photomontage. By all accounts German society was shocked.
Elsewhere the japery continued. Dada chief and self-proclaimed President of the Earth Johannes Baader wrote his own obituary and then pretended to be resurrected. Huelsenbeck was well jel. In New York Duchamp's fountain/urinal showed up (tying things up neatly). Duchamp also displayed a closed window, a snow shovel, and, of course, the bicycle wheel. He then defaced a copy of the Mona Lisa and called it She's Got a Hot Ass. Inspired by this Vic and the artist Cornelia Parker carry out their own Dadaist intervention on the Bond Street memorial to Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt.
Back in Zurich Tristan Tzara mockingly issued a fake press release that claimed he'd been involved in a pistol duel. It looks now like something from The Day Today. Tzara also invented the cut'n'paste technique which later inspired William Burroughs, Cassetteboy, and even those of you who like to make fridge magnet poetry.
You'll not have to look too far, either, to find modern versions of Cologne's 1919 take on Dada. There they went for shock for shock's sake. You entered the gallery through a pub bog where you were showered with obscenities and, on arrival, you were encouraged to destroy the art on show.
Michael Landy, having destroyed everything he owned once, is clearly the right man to chat about this. Instead Vic Reeves puts a plate on Landy's head and then knocks it off with a broom handle smashing it to smithereens.
It's funny. It's generally quite entertaining to watch and perhaps that's the point of Dada. At least now. A silly respite from all the horrible things that are happening. The wider remit of whatever conceptual art is, however, remains as thorny as ever. These programmes, of varying quality as they were, don't necessarily make it easier to grasp but at least provide a clue as to why, more than a century later, people are still arguing about it.