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PC's Opinion: Return Of The Con Artist

This opinion piece is the tenth in a new series of "PC's Weekly Opinion" - a pithy, heavily spiced editorial from Peter Cresswell that can be delivered to your in-box once a week. If you like what you read then feel free to forward it to everyone you've ever met, and to subscribe at

PC's Weekly Opinion
Return of the Con Artist
By Peter Cresswell

Andy Warhol is exhibiting again, opening at London's Tate Gallery this week.

Fifteen years after he died, Andy is still making waves. Indeed, in an artistic climate in which dissected animal carcasses are displayed floating in formaldehyde and semen-stained blankets are described as "haunting, powerful and provocative," Warhol's simple images seem relatively benign by comparison.

Sure, Warhol's early work did "explore images of death" like electric chairs and car crashes, but today he is remembered more for his charmingly clumsy commercial images of soup cans, Marilyns and Elvises and for his camp films, silver wigs and overweening obsession with celebrity.

Andy was an artist - a con artist. He realised early something many of his predecessors never did - that the 'art' they were producing was rubbish, but with the necessary intellectual collusion it sold by the truckload anyway. Agreeing with P.T. Barnum that one should never give a sucker an even break, he set out to test the limits of what the pretentious suckers would fall for. It turned out they'd fall for an awful lot, just as long as their pretensions could remain un-punctured: The rich saps queued up to buy whatever overpriced trash he and his offsiders produced. It turned out that Andy's art (such as it was) lay in knowing how to play this scam to its limit. He made an entire career out of fooling most of the people all of the time.

Most are still being fooled today by new artists with the same con. The con is so simple that infant readers of 'The Emperor's New Clothes' can see through it, yet the pretentious poseurs of the artistic establishment persist in willingly blinding themselves to the ineptitude of the Damien Hirsts, the Martin Creeds and the Colin McCahons at whom they blow today's faux kisses. They wander black-clad through galleries with unmade beds, flickering lights and urine-soaked Christs, and wallow in the 'sophistication' of 'sculptures' made from elephant dung and human faeces. Meanwhile the ghosts of Duchamp and Picasso and Warhol piss on them with knowing laughter.

But not all of the people are being fooled. People who do have eyes to see are (thankfully) beginning to see through the con - a few people in the artistic mainstream are beginning to point out that these enfant terribles of the artistic world in fact have no clothes:

In the early nineties a small gallery off London's prestigious Cork Street eschewed the formaldehyde, the faeces and the semen stains. Its mission, said gallery director Alice Jackson, was to hang and sell only figurative art - and not just the limp apologia of the tourist trade but sturdy, inspired figures worthy of heroic contemplation. The reaction to this heresy from the artistic mainstream was predictably dismissive, the Evening Standard's 'reactionary' art critic Brian Sewell one of the few not to patronisingly pan the gallery. Jackson's gallery sold few paintings and closed within the year, but the first shot had been fired.

A decade later, the attacks against the con artists are becoming bolder. In the January New Statesman, Ivan Massow, then head of London's Institute of Contemporary Art, confessed: "For a number of years, I've had a nagging voice in my head telling me [contemporary art] is all hype and frequently no substance." He attacked so-called conceptual art as "pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless tat that [he] wouldn't accept even as a gift," and warned that the art world is in "danger of disappearing up its own arse."

By any objective measurement he is of course right on the money, but the reaction from the poseurs has been swift, virulent and venomous - not to say utterly predictable. Massow was fired from the ICA on Monday but remains unapologetic, comparing his sacking to "facing a really bad firing squad" and beginning to put together a group with which to brainstorm that includes painter Michael Newberry

Massow has chosen his allies well. Newberry himself recently declared that he wanted to re-conquer the world for "real art," issuing a manifesto calling for a "moral revolution of human values in the arts," and penning a piece in which he compares post-modern art to terrorism. "Post-modernists have infiltrated our civilisation's greatest art institutions," he says, "and they have done it with our naïve blessings." Like Osama bin Laden's Twin Towers' terrorists, the aim of the post-modernists is the destruction of beauty and of all human values. He says we should make it clear to both the terrorists and the post-modernists that their nihilism is not wanted.

Newberry has a point. Art is too damned important to leave to the pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless gits who would disappear up their own arse without the establishment's accolades and cash being showered upon them. Art is the only way we have of seeing our own souls on show for our own contemplation - to remind ourselves of the beauty, the possibilities and the glories of our human potential.

The squalid souls of the post-modern con artists may well be best represented by semen stains and formaldehyde, but the rest of us should refrain from giving their stuff house-room.

We have nothing to lose but our pretensions. We have our souls to win.


Michael Newberry's essay Terrorism & Post Modern Art can be found online at , and his 'Conquer the World' manifesto at . As part of his 'Conquer the World' campaign he will be at the SOLO Conference in New Zealand, Waitomo Caves Hotel, Feb 22-25. Conference details at .

© 2001

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