The disappearing original…

by Marie Marshall

Regular readers will know that from time to time I write about art in general. It is not an easy subject to write about, strange though that may seem, because each one of us has prejudices that are difficult to shake off. To one of my readers, for example, technique or technical skill is all-important. To that person, Caravaggio’s work is ‘better’ than Rothko’s because the former’s is representational and skillfully so. Yet as a writer I know only too well that Virginia Woolf, Tolstoy, John Steinbeck, J K Rowling, Barbara Cartland, E L James, and I all use the same technical skills as each other in writing, and that nevertheless we do not produce works of equal – what? – worth, quality, whatever. Nor do we all enjoy equal success, nor is that success necessarily commensurate with any particular literary merit, nor, to come full circle, is that literary merit necessarily relative to our levels of technique. To my mind this subverts the idea that technique is an over-riding rubric for judging artistic worth.


Duchamp, ‘Fountain’, 1917

“But this argument,” my reader who values technique above all may object, “has been used since the early twentieth century, as an excuse for treating as high art presentation after presentation where skill and care have been abandoned in favour of facility of execution. A child could have painted some ‘modern art’. A chimpanzee could have. Experts have been fooled. A urinal, bought no doubt from a builder’s merchant, has been exhibited as a sculpture.”

I dare say that is all true. And I dare say that my friend never ceases to be irritated therefore by the whole idea of Conceptual Art. This was defined by American artist Sol LeWitt thus:

In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.

It is an attitude that uses what is presented as art to question the nature of art itself. I dare say that during the period of its currency, a lot of people have jumped on a clever-clever bandwagon. Nevertheless I would say that as a broad movement in art it has certainly made us think. Specifically it has made us think hard about the authorial presence in art. In my own writing – although of course I do write conventional novels, short stories, and poetry – I have never ceased to question my own ‘presence’, and have experimented with work outside my ‘normal’ field. For several years in my regular poetry blog I dispensed with the idea of ‘text’ as it is commonly understood, and presented poems as jpg images. These have looked like text in Courier font, but they have all been images. Though I hardly ever stated this much, I hoped that people would question whether they were looking at words or a picture. Did anyone? I don’t know.

Also I wondered whether it served any purpose to caption each one “© Marie Marshall”. It often seemed an act of desperation rather than fact, an attempt to re-establish the authorial presence where I had only just abandoned it, or where it was at the very least debatable.

Recently the affordance of regular space on someone else’s blog prompted me to carry out a conceptual experiment. Here’s how it went:

The main concept was an exploration of what was an ‘original’ piece of art. I was approaching it in a way that only the technology of the internet could afford – I dare say this concept is not unique, but it was to me. I started with a piece of scrap A4 paper, some magic markers, and some highlighters. On the sheet of paper I made one rectangle of red and one rectangle of yellow. In the red rectangle I placed an upper-case letter ‘F’, and in the yellow a lower-case ‘f’.

The presence of the letters was itself a supplementary ‘concept’. The ‘Ff’ asked viewers – or readers if you prefer – how minimal a presentation recognisable lettering could be and still convey some kind of meaning; and if that meaning contained expression, was it in any way ‘poetic’. I did not and do not invite the answers yes, or no, or maybe, although I know at least one of my regular readers will give one without hesitation. I merely posed the question and let it hang there.

Anyhow, the next stage was to scan the piece of paper. Having made a scanned image, I shredded the paper. Then I used the standard image-handling programme on my computer to adjust the colour and sharpness of the image. Next I posted it to the blog where I was guesting. Lastly, I deleted the image from my own computer. The only place where the product of all this activity was viewable was on a web page which, when the site owner closed the guesting period, was out of my control.

I won’t labour this point, but having revealed the process, I was asking people viewing the final product whether they considered what they were viewing to be an ‘original’, or whether an ‘original’ existed at any ‘stage’ of the process.

It has always made me chuckle that although one raison d’être of conceptual art has been to challenge the commodification of art, some works have attracted big money from collectors, galleries etc. My ‘Ff’ had, like so much on the blogosphere, no commercial value whatsoever.

You may be wondering why I haven’t included in this article a glimpse of ‘Ff’, or at least a link to it. That’s because the owner of the blog recently removed all the guest items. I took a deliberate step of placing ‘Ff’ in peril when I put it somewhere over which I had no control. That was part of the concept. Its disappearance now adds another layer of questioning. It existed. Does it still exist in the memory* and experience of those viewers and readers who looked at it? Does it count as my work at all, now that it is ‘lost’? Does ‘lost’ work belong in the recognised corpus of any artist or writer, past or present?

It would of course be counter-productive to attempt to answer any of my own questions.


* Memory is not like a photograph album anyway, but rather it is like a million-million tiny bombs of sensation, each exploding in an instant – there and gone – each somehow related, sometimes arcanely, to the next. A sight, a sound, a feeling, a scent, they populate a space in your mind that sometimes seems infinite, more often like a room in a house…