Currently Reading: Lost & Found by Mark Wilsner, Art Review #378, July-August 2014 (p5-7)
Mark Wilsner analyses three ‘mythical narratives’ of lost/found artworks.
Firstly he examines the subtext and misrepresentations of the mass media reportage of art works – specifically the recent global media attention to the ‘rubbishing’ of Paul Branca from the Sala Murat Gallery in Bari, Italy – being ‘mistaken’ by cleaners as rubbish and chucked out with the garbage; “The obvious subtext being that contemporary art is so wilfully obscure and opaque that it has become utterly unidentifiable to ordinary people.
He looks straight away at value and the two media-presented dichotomies; “There is clearly a juxtaposition that is set up between the €10,000 figure and the way that the artwork’s materials are so carefully listed in every version of the story as being ‘newspaper, cardboard and cookie crumbs scattered across the floor’. That phrase ‘scattered across the floor’ seems to imply a complete disregard for property, as obviously the only appropriate place for a work of art must be either on the all of set carefully on a plinth.”
He mentions the class element: “The idea of modern art being mistaken for rubbish and thrown away by a cleaner plays into society’s doubts about the validity of contemporary art, the pretentions of the art world and even class anxieties.” (But does not follow this point up further through his essay or link it in with his summary).
However, scratching beneath the globally reproduced media phraseology, Wilsner finds all is not as it seems. “The truth is that this was not an exhibition about the environment after all [one of the key mainstream media article highlights], but rather about modes of curatorial presentation.” And more crucially; “the works in question had in fact not yet been unpacked from their boxes. It turns out the cleaner never actually laid eyes on Paul Branca’s artworks, which were still inside their protective cardboard packaging when she encountered them. […] No one mistook an artwork for rubbish. The fact that they were made of newspaper, cardboard and biscuits turns out to be totally irrelevant.”
Secondly he looks at the rediscovery of previously lost artworks; “the rediscovery of a work that has been sitting ignored for years in a basement or storeroom, or, alternatively, the recognition that a work previously thought to have been of little art historical interest is actually authored by a famous names. Both require the crucial element of identification by an expert, and so in a way they are the inverse of the art-mistaken-for-rubbish-and-thrown-away-by-cleaner archetype: rather than a high value piece of fine art being transformed by accidental misidentification into rubbish, something that was previously thought to have little or no value is, once identified, magically transformed into art.”
The third narrative he addresses involves the use of non-art materials – as he describes in the context of mass-media narrative again as – the ‘and finally’ story where the focus is simply about the material rather than the institutional relationships that provide the key context to understanding the work (and hence the criticism of why art is obscure to the masses). “When an artist takes non-art objects and makes art with them nearly a hundred years after that mythical prank at the 1917 Independents exhibition, they are no longer testing the boundaries of institutional acceptance – it is just part of the established language of contemporary art. […] Mainstream media tend to assume that there is some inherent quality in a work that the cleaner misses, but which the connoisseur is able to discern. Of course no such material quality exists: ‘to mistake an artwork for a real object is no great feat when an artwork is the real object one mistakes it for, wrote Arthur Danto in 1964. He also mentions institutional theory of George Dickie (which has been aligned with my own practice in recent art press) and Pierre Bourdieu.
Wilsner’s point seems to be that it is the institutional theory and discursive framework that lacks in the mainstream media and public’s knowledge/discourse to enable the understanding of art beyond material concerns. Whilst this is probably quite accurate, particularity in the mainstream media’s part, it does nothing to address the general public opinion that art is obscure, elite and requiring identification by an ‘expert’; someone educated in these theories and frameworks.