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What is Art?

Originally Published 03 March 2002

by Sarah Shalgosky, Mead Gallery

Someone once remarked that the question 'what is art?' was as useful as the question 'where is God?' It depends from where you start and what you believe. A few centuries ago, painters in Britain at least were viewed more as decorators than artists as we understand the term today. They might paint a coat of arms on a carriage one day and make a ceiling painting the next. Artists would work together, the apprentices grinding colours, less experienced artists painting in the backgrounds and the outline of figures or filling in draperies while the master (and it generally was) of the studio tied the whole thing together, sometimes just by painting the portrait faces on top of the bodies.

It was in the 19th century that the artist became a genius - a figure outside society whose work was beyond that of ordinary people. Technically and spiritually removed from our experience, this unique product of an artist's elevated imagination was worth far more than the cost of materials, labour and overheads. And how much of a coincidence was it that the contemporary art market really took off in the nineteenth century?

Many of these 19th century views still inform our understanding of art. 'A child of three could do that!' is a favourite saying; in other words ? that work does not display the technical superiority by which I identify art. The practice of 20th century artists of using ready-made materials that come to hand in order to express their ideas receives very little public support. The coverage of Martin Creed's Turner Prize winning room with lights going on and off suggests that skill remains an essential component in most people's definition of art.

The Nothing exhibition (a selection of works is pictured right) houses few works where the process of making the work is evident. We do not know how many ideas, drawings and prototypes went into the making of these works. All we have are the final products. But the ideas are there - often multi-layered, complex and compelling and sometimes it is hard to get close to them without the decoding device of process. The concept of 'nothing' and the broad selection of works made in the last 50 years provides the audience with lots of other ways into the subject and into an engagement with conceptual art.

At the start of the 21st century, it is interesting to speculate why there is so much of this type of art about. The conspiracy theory of a grand plan between Nicholas Serota and Charles Saatchi, while vastly entertaining has perhaps less credence than the fact that, for the first time, a generation of artists has graduated from university. The amalgamation of art schools into institutions of higher education in the 1990s has led to the development of courses that embrace cultural theory as much as practice. Whereas in the past, most artists were trained to realise ideas through the act of making, nowadays students discuss ideas in a variety of contexts. Furthermore, the property explosion in London and across the country more generally has driven up studio rents and/or driven artists out of studios in favour of developers. Artists now work in smaller spaces, often on computers, planning projects.

The exhibition contains work by established artists and recent graduates. Some of the work is very accessible and funny. Some work is quite beautiful. Other work is more challenging. And there are actually three pieces that demonstrate fantastic skill in making. Nevertheless, many colleagues in other galleries, although admiring the work hugely, felt that it was too risky to present. The exhibition makes you think. It might not change any of your opinions but it will challenge them. And at Warwick, who's scared of an intellectual challenge?

'Nothing' continues at the Mead Gallery until Saturday 9 March. The Mead is open Monday to Saturday, from noon to 9pm.

What is art? Artwork from the 'Nothing' exhibition (2)
what is art? Artwork from the 'Nothing' exhibition (3)