Password Shibboleth

By | October 31, 2007

When I told my artist mother that I had been to the Tate Modern to see the crack, she gave out a short laugh; this gasp was her way of saying, why on earth do you want to go and see that load of rubbish?

I found the experience exciting, as I always do when visiting these works designed specifically for this huge space. It is as much the responses to the work – as much as the work itself – which seem interesting. The probing, tracing, straddling public examining every little detail of this feature.  (As someone pointed out, this was a looking down experience and actually not about engaging with the great space of the Turbine Hall.) But what if the viewer simply looked at the piece in isolation – as if stumbling on it without hype or explanation?

Conceptual art in my mind easily spills into the space occupied by branding and advertising. Here, Doris Salcedo wants to communicate the idea of fractured society, but her canvas is not exclusively the concrete floor of the Tate Modern. The communication requires a strategy which includes press releases, photographs and editorial. It propagates through TV and radio, around the internet, through consumer generated content (like this piece).  By the time I arrive at the exhibition I am already warmed up to its gathering fame. The notes to accompany the piece give me plenty of context so, in some way, the work becomes more like the cover of an exciting book or the title sequence of a movie thriller; the real interest is actually behind the intriguing artwork or within the programme. In due course I go on to read more about Salcedo and so the experience is complete.

It is for this reason that I think conceptual art has a hard time with people like my mother. She sees the whole thing as clouded by its association with marketing and advertising – which, as we all know, is evil to the core. From within advertising, most creatives like to think of their work as art; they will do everything they can to pump up the cultural value of work for the likes of Sony or Guinness.

To give some more flesh to the piece, Shibboleth is after the Hebrew word that was used to separate the ‘inferior’ Ephramaites from the ‘superior’ Gileadites after he Old Testament’s bloodiest massacre. The few remaining refugees attempted to cross the river Jordan but were unable to pronounce the ‘sh’ of the password and so were slain. The act of differentiation between products and the propagation of ideas that set up divisions between ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ is at the heart of marketing, interestingly.

All this raises the age old question of what is art and why can’t we all be artists? Are there Ephramaites and Gileadites in the art world? I suppose we’ll know only when we look back and see a body of work settled in the historical flow.


Category: Art

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