House Believes that conceptual art just isn't Art" Debate at the Oxford Union, 5 November 2009
Alice Thomas (Oxford student), David Armitage (abstract painter),
Mark Leckey (2008 Turner Prize winner), and Charles Thomson (Co-founder,
In opposition: Dr Stephen Deuchar (Director of Tate Britain), Miroslaw
Balka (conceptual artist), Adrian Searle (art critic, The Guardian),
and Matthew Collings (broadcaster and critic).
The motion was defeated by approx 200 to 60 votes.
speech, summing up for the proposition.
Video Footage Courtesy of Rick
speech (part 1), summing up for the opposition. Video Footage Courtesy of Rick
speech (part 2), summing up for the opposition. Video Footage Courtesy of Rick
enjoyed the Oxford Union debate. It was a thoroughly engaging and
entertaining session, which took place in a setting where custom,
convention, historical connection and continuity were imperative.
Even the photographs from 1992 were in black and white and achieved
a decayed elegance that made them look respectably nineteenth century.
I did wonder (given the wealthy endowments of the University) whether
central heating might be considered.
Thomas spoke with great eloquence and sensitivity to set the scene
for the honest appreciation of good art, which underpinned the argument
for the motion.
thought Dr Stephen Deuchar lost the argument when he high-jacked Picasso,
Rembrandt and Holbein to emphasise his point about conceptualism,
arguing, somehow, that conceptualism embraced any art that history
has shown to have enduring value. Prior to becoming an art establishment
careerist, he had dedicated his studies to eighteenth century art:
his concern that we should be caught in the past and be a Munnings
seemed like a fear of his own. His attempt at an historical assessment,
while striving for objectivity, lacked the sincerity of those speakers
who spoke subjectively and from the heart.
Armitage's jovial speed babble was difficult to comprehend even from
a few paces, and I think backfired. Perhaps this is a consequence
of being secure with ones place in the world. His story about the
lady incessantly championing conceptualism at a dinner party, the
tedium of which was only alleviated when a fish bone got caught in
her throat, may not, in the circumstances, have been lost on those
present in the debating chamber. Evidently David arrived as an artist
a long time ago. His reputation, it appears, gives him first call
on the gallery space in his Sussex locality. On a positive note, his
argument on the casual arbitrariness of conceptual art was well exemplified
with his imagining of an installation comprising one hundred wheelie
bins in different colours and permutations, suspended from a ceiling,
perhaps aligned to offer a vacuous context to demonstrate the mathematical
symbol Pi. It certainly emphasised conceptual art's boundless potential
took some lughole straining to understand what Miroslaw Balka was
saying, but it was worth the effort. Beneath the seriousness, which
resonated with all the fun of a cold rainy day in a gulag, his artistic
odyssey was poetic, although it is perhaps unfortunate that his journey
has taken him where it has
In the category of subjective speakers from the heart, I would include
Mark Lecky, although I did worry that he was waivering across the
floor. He nevertheless provided a colourful and intelligent counterpoint
to the debate. It is a pity that the constraints of the business did
not give his essay the time it deserved.
Searle's camp cynicism might have impressed some people, but I did
not find it particularly memorable. He was of course singing from
the same hymn sheet as Deuchar (and later Collings), emphasising the
need to peel back the layers to get to the meaning of the thing, even
if the thing was not itself art, but may actually have been, for example,
six self-induced abortions. In a way I feel sorry for Searle, God
knows what it must be like to live in such a convoluted world. At
least he remembered what he had to say.
Thomson did a first class job in presenting his argument for the motion.
It was a transparently genuine heartfelt appeal that impressed. He
was as commanding and convincing as any leading counsel I have instructed.
Perhaps he should now have QC after his name? And by the way Charles,
make sure you pronounce Miroslaw's name correctly next time. I did
detect a slight frisson of melodrama, as he shouted after you (without
first asking the President's permission), "I am Balka" - not Balak.
Collings' opening salvo, condemning an "innocent" view of art, was
revealing. Surely great art can be appreciated quite validly all levels,
by all people, as an inspiring and uplifting experience, evoking an
emotional response that does not require instant cerebral overdrive.
He digressed to the portraiture hanging on the walls, namely the slightly
"kitsch" Benazir Bhutto and the more subtle shades of some notable
scholar opposite. These were, he said, examples of art performing
some simple, perfunctory purpose, but nevertheless lacking the essential
work ethic demanded of the observer by conceptual art. To appreciate
good art we have to peel back all the layers, sort out the puzzle,
and read the artist's mind. He made interesting points, but relied
on Gauguin and Van Gogh, and did at least acknowledge that conceptual
art was something distinct and separate from painting and sculpture.
display in Oxford Union library
was a Stuckist display in the Oxford Union library of paintings and
placards from Turner Prize demonstrations with Edgeworth Johnstone
(dressed as a clown) and Shelley Lee handing out leaflets and badges.
Paintings - Mark D: Stella Vine: Go Fuck Yourself. Charles Thomson:
Woman in Black Hat with Outstretched Arm and Woman in Cowboy
Hat with Yellow Mug. Paul Harvey: Two Girls with Giotto Tree
and Gina (after a painting by Gina Bold).
Prints of Charles
Thomson: Sir Nicholas Serota Makes an Acquisitions Decision and
Is My Shoe Art?
Turner Prize demo
placards. Painting by Ella Guru: Lotus Poison
Turner Prize demo
placards. Paintings by Ella Guru:
The Forcibly Bewitched. Joe Machine: Sailor and Woman