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The dimmer the better

Half-way through his review of the first episode of BBC 2’s School of Saatchi — X-Factor for artists — AA Gill starts to get serious. Before that he merrily dumps on the contemporary art establishment, skewers the theory regarded as axiomatic by swathes of art critics that Marcel Duchamp’s “bloody urinal” is the pivotal work of art of the 20th Century, and brands all the show’s proto-artist contestants as sub-Jedward. Touché.

It’s when Gill switches to talking about the practice of making art that he gets interesting. He’s already made the observation that the artists in the programme are “mostly, very, very dim”. But could this be a prerequisite for the calling, he asks.

So far, so sardonic. But now he presses his real point: which is that there is something in purely visual creation that works best when disengaged from the intellect. “For every polymath Leonardo,” he says, “there are dozens of thuggish Caravaggios”. In short, says Gill; the less you think, the more you look — and that’s good for visual art.

Put another way, the dimmer the artist the better the art.

I’m not sure the contestants on School of Saatchi are really all that dim. But they do struggle to explain how and why what they do is art. And since the show’s judges were almost comically persistent in asking the artists how and why what they do is art, a highlight of Episode 1 for me was the mounting indignation among the artists over this line of questioning.

At one point, 23-year old art student Saad Qureshi protests to his colleagues “I really don’t think at this stage in our careers we should be being asked to justify what we’re doing as art.” When, inevitably, it’s the first thing he’s asked by the judges Saad gives his best perplexed look and implores “Why isn’t it art?”.

Before tailing off into Charles Saatchi-directed bitchiness, Gill pursues his point about what art is and how it is validated. This process he says is a vital to keep the art machine oiled and the cash flowing. Why? Because investors and institutions “trust explanations more than they trust bricks”. Validation usually comes from one of the three Cs – curator, critic or collector — as Gill puts it, “someone fluent in the florid art-speak that is the technical jargon of galleries”.

Gill is right that old explanations of what is art no longer pertain. But that’s probably been the case for the past 40 years. Art’s inability to speak for itself just seems even more obvious in the age of un-art. So much contemporary art is based around the aesthetic of unaesthetics (randomness and accident, faux and genuine cack-handedness and so on) that it’s hardly surprising we need the supporting texts.

In that sense, School of Saatchi serves a useful function. It‘s a very good introduction to both the thinking, and the absence of thinking (not necessarily a bad thing, as Gill says), behind contemporary art. And when one of the judges, Matthew Collings, occasionally stops being a reality TV presenter and reverts to being our most reliable separator of artistic wheat and chaff, the programme is genuinely illuminating.

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