What Is Art? Martin Creed Doesn’t Know

What is art? Even Martin Creed, winner of the 2001 Turner Prize, doesn’t quite know. In a talk titled, “What is Art?” that took place on the first public day of Abu Dhabi Art, the artist and musician took to the auditorium stage holding a guitar, with his harmonica swinging from his neck. A woman stood behind him, repeating his physical movements in an unexpected parody. Creed, who has made waves in the past for saying, “I don’t know what art is,” and “I wouldn’t call myself an artist,” admitted to having grappled with the talk’s title: “I didn’t want to have a title because I don’t think it’s good to say what you’re going to do, so I don’t really like titles.” This aversion to definitions has become so extreme that the artist opts to number rather than title his works. They are all classified on his website in crisp, identically proportioned thumbnails like rare butterflies pinned to a board.

Martin Creed at Abu Dhabi Art. Image Courtesy of The Cool Box and Abu Dhabi Art

Martin Creed at Abu Dhabi Art. Image Courtesy of The Cool Box and Abu Dhabi Art

In his lulling accent, Creed went on to suggest, “Art is anything that anyone thinks is art.” This open-ended admission clearly amused the rows of teenage students from Raffles Academy kicking their feet up in the balcony. In school and in the art world alike, definitions often denote superiority, and it is rare for someone—let alone a leading expert— to admit that they don’t know or aren’t quite sure of something. Thought, according to Creed is what often controls art.

From the time he was in art school studying painting, Creed rebelled against the notion of thought, attempting to “start out from zero without knowing beforehand what a work would be” or how it would develop” (for an example of this technique, he showed a slide referencing No. 263, an installation concerning a protrusion from a blank white wall).

Martin Creed and an accompanying performance artist. Image courtesy of The Cool Box and Abu Dhabi Art

Martin Creed and an accompanying performance artist. Image courtesy of The Cool Box and Abu Dhabi Art

In later years, he’s set out to create a visual work that is like a piece of music in the immersive experience it provokes in the audience. To illustrate the parallels between art and music, the artist performed a series of original songs including one with the telling lyrics: “I was thinking, and then I wasn’t thinking, and then I was thinking.”

Although the unrestricted nature of the talk was refreshing, it was lacking that the artist elected not to express a more specific vision concerning the role of the artist in society, and the function of art in general.

Martin Creed performing original music at Abu Dhabi Art. Image courtesy of The Cool Box and Abu Dhabi Art

Martin Creed performing original music at Abu Dhabi Art. Image courtesy of The Cool Box and Abu Dhabi Art

Good Ideas: Abu Dhabi Art runs through 8 November and is open to the public and free of admission with registration. For more information go here.

A version of this review is co-posted on The National’s Art Blog