Modern Art is Rubbish



(The quote is not new, but was said by the then chairman of the London Institute of Contemporary Arts.


Does your teacher talk to you about contemporary and/or conceptual art?

If so, what are the values and judgment he/she is passing on?


Of course, “contemporary art” is hugely diverse, and the label itself is broad and imprecise.


We could try to narrow it down – possible areas include ‘recent’ art (say, created since the year 2000), ‘conceptual’ art (although this has been existence arguably since 1917 when Marcel Duchamp first submitted a signed urinal for inclusion in an art show in New York), Outsider art, Transgressive Art, Intervention Art, Graffiti art and Post-modern art – but either way, one thing is sure – you can’t  assume that everyone will like it.


Conceptual and video-art

Examples of conceptual and video-art from the past 15 years, some nominated for or winning the UK’s contemporary art “Turner Prize,” include the following:

  • In 1999 Tracey Emin: part of her exhibit was My Bed, her dishevelled bed, surrounded by detritus such as condoms, blood-stained knickers, bottles and her bedroom slippers.
  • In 2001 Martin Creed won the Turner Prize for The Lights Going On and Off, an empty room in which the lights went on and off.
  • Also in 2001 Sam Taylor-Wood videoed Still-Life, a bowl of fruit showing it gradually rotting. (“In the celebrated film Still Life (2001), an impossibly beautiful bowl of fruit decays at an accelerated pace, creating a visceral memento mori In Prelude in Air (2006) Taylor-Johnson filmed a musician playing a piece of cello music by Bach, but the cello itself has been erased.
  • And in 2005, Simon Starling won the Turner Prize for Shedboatshed, a wooden shed which he had turned into a boat, floated down the Rhine and turned back into a shed again.


Are these artworks interesting and/or provocative? Maybe.

They all have an idea and we as viewers can think about that idea as we look at the bed, or watch the video etc.


But as the quote at the top says, even the chairman of the London Institute of Contemporary Arts was not overly impressed with some conceptual art. In January 2002 the Guardian reported that Ivan Massow, then chairman of the London Institute of Contemporary Arts, said the British art world is “most concept art I see now is pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat that I wouldn’t accept even as a gift.”


Sometimes visual art students take a conceptual approach to their art-making and submit images for assessment that are all about an idea, with no or very little technical or media skill involved.


For example, a bin full of rubbish or a black plastic bag are presented as a comment on the things we are doing to the environment and other ecological concerns.


As an examiner, I admit I’m a little concerned about some of the conceptual art created by DP visual arts students and uploaded for assessment, primarily because in many ways the current assessment criteria do not reward aspects of this art.

I “get” the overflowing rubbish bin/trash can – yes, humans waste too much and our rubbish is filling land-fill sites and polluting the oceans, we are running out of land, space and time, we need to change our ways etc. I agree completely with the ecological message.


But both in terms of the DP visual arts course, and in terms of the general quality of this artwork, in this case the concept is weak, obvious and simplistic. And the quality of the concept is the only thing that supports this kind of work – in the absence of any evidence of technical competence, development of ideas, inventiveness etc – so it’s hard to give it many marks.

And if the whole exhibition is conceptual, I’m afraid that the overall grade will be affected.


In the context of conceptual art, yes, a trash can/rubbish bin can relate to the detritus that’s part of the Emin 1999 bed. And there is a history of ‘rubbish art’ –and of gallery cleaners throwing out art that looked like rubbish…


If it looks like rubbish it must be rubbish – right? Cleaners in art galleries seem to have made their own judgments in some cases.

Damien Hirst’s artwork (beer bottles, coffee cups and overflowing ash-trays) was thrown out in 2001, a bag of paper and cardboard by German artist Gustav Metzger was thrown out in 2004, and recently – in February 2014 – a cleaner in Southern Italy threw out works made out of newspaper and cardboard, and cookie pieces scattered across the floor (part of Sala Murat’s display).

Go cleaners!”


But if you think that smashing a mirror, dangling Coke bottles from the ceiling, positioning a mannequin head behind a broken monitor etc is going to achieve a lot of marks as a “conceptual component” in your final art show, I’m afraid not only that I’ve seen all these before, but also that its highly unlikely that these artworks would generate many – if any – marks.

We need more than a one-off simplistic idea. The process portfolio, which is an important component in the new course, should encourage you to explore media and ideas, and experiment with different techniques, so that the final artwork is based on much more than a single thought.

1 Comment
  • weja
    October 31, 2014

    Modern art implies everyone has the right to express themselves. A Nobel thought on paper. But in reality the results are hideous and horrid.
    Its so ugly and jealous of pretty art. And is only trying to sheath this envy under the guise of expression. Modern art is a return to the primitive. And in fact there is nothing modern about it. Modern art would not be acceptable in the field of engineering imagine a car with one wheel or no wheels for that matter nobody would except it. But unfortunately art music and sculpture are open season.
    After all the liberal will say “who is to say what is wrong and right”?
    This implies that we are equal. Yes but not in the area of talents.
    Some people are artistically talented others are evidently not. So I suggest to the modern artist to get over your jealousy and find a day job

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