(Image courtesy of The London Times.)What is art? When confronted by that tricky question often the best answer the average person can come up with echoes Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous statement about pornography: "I don't know what it is, but I know it when I see it." Library administrators at The University of Edinburgh in Scotland see it this way: if it isn't uplifting, positive, and celebratory, it isn't art.
To add a final flourish to the December 2009 unveiling of the remodeled ground floor of its main library, the University commissioned a work of art. The artist chosen for the plum assignment was Glasgow native Douglas Gordon. At first glance the choice seems an inspired one. Gordon is a renowned painter and filmmaker who has won the three biggest prizes the art world has to offer: the Turner Prize, the Hugo Boss Prize, and a prize at the Venice Biennale. His work has been exhibited in museums around the globe including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Tate Modern in London, and the National Galleries of Scotland. Gordon's work often centers around wordplay, textual interpretation, and books. Perfect for a library, right?
Well, not so fast. Gordon had proposed to inscribe a wall of the library with gold lettering reading: “Every time you turn a page, it dies a little.” But as Andrew Patrizio, a member of the university’s advisory panel, told the London Times: “Several people felt the wording was not celebratory enough, even though the artist had not been briefed to create a ‘positive’ commission. Though one could read it negatively, it is important to stress that nobody had ever asked the artist for something celebratory.” What we have here is a failure to communicate. And so, at the last possible minute, the entire project was cancelled, leaving Gordon fuming, and more than willing to share his indignation with the press.
Gordon's anger and humiliation are readily apparent in this excerpt from his open letter to the University: “I will never again accept a public commission in my home country. I felt I was being treated like a 16-year-old apprentice and not a professional. It has become impossible to work with the commissioning body. Many artists are treated disrespectfully by the institutions they are making commissions for. Most think they cannot afford to say 'No', but I can.”
30 Seconds Text consists of a single hanging light bulb that goes on in a previously pitch-black room. The bulb illuminates a text printed on one of the walls, which describes an experiment carried out in Montpellier in 1905 to see how long a man retains consciousness after his head has been severed by the guillotine. Apparently, it takes 30 seconds. It also takes 30 seconds to read the whole text. After this time has elapsed, the light goes out and we are plunged back into darkness." Not exactly Norman Rockwell.
It remains to be seen what, if anything, will end up being the University of Edinburgh Library's "celebratory" work of art. But here's a piece of advice to anyone considering giving a commission to an artist: Take a good, long, hard look at the artist's work before you hire him. That way, when you see his creation, you'll know it's art.