Forget 'Sensation.' Meet 'Intelligence'

Curators of art exhibitions, particularly selections of new and recent art, do love a buzzword title. They hope, presumably, that their exhibition, and their buzzword, will go down in art history as a crucial summation of some significant trend.

Sometimes this wish comes true.

Ironically, it did for a show called "Sensation." This exhibition, which presented certain aspects of recent British art calculated to jar visitors and stir controversy, began in 1997 at the Royal Academy, London. It was seen in 1998 in Berlin and then in 1999 in New York. Much discussed for its shock value, "Sensation" has had an extended shelf-life.

Time will tell if "Intelligence," a Tate Gallery - or what is now known as "Tate Britain" - exhibition of "New British Art 2000" curated by Virginia Button and Charles Esche, will outlive its closing date (Sept. 24). It might. It is an exhibition with a purposeful, if rather diverse, theme.

Much of the catalog is dedicated to explaining the choice of the word "Intelligence." We are to take it in its widest meanings: Capacity for thought. Intuitive understanding. Spying.

The art in this show might have, in fact, as easily been lumped under the caption "Information" (except that a 1969 exhibition in New York's Museum of Modern Art already nabbed that tag). The curators themselves mention yet another possibility: "Investigations." This seems to come the closest. These artists are in tune with the "information age."

What they are not doing is making art with utopian ideals. Instead, the exhibition asks questions. Lots of them. And its attitude toward its audience is not so much disruptive or disturbingly emotive as designed to elicit or encourage inventiveness and thought.

Which is rather refreshing. One has grown tired of "Sensation"-type art. There's nothing wrong with being shaken out of conventional attitudes. But there is something more profound than shock - if for no other reason than that to shock is to produce a temporary effect. I have gone back to an exhibition of such art to find out what happens on a second encounter. Nothing happens at all. Shock wears off.

Arguably, there has been a need to challenge the concept of art as objects or images that last forever. Museums and collectors have a vested interest in such a notion. But artists have persistently suggested that art may be a perishable commodity. After all, it has to do with experiences, and experiences may be short-lived. So why shouldn't works of art?

The "Intelligence" exhibition should last because in some ways it is a countermove against "Sensation." One wonders, though, whether art has changed its emphasis, or does each new show just present its curators' viewpoint? The "Sensation" artists are hardly a thing of the past, and one shouldn't overlook the need for museums to stage interestingly different exhibitions.

Whatever the truth is, this show is notably and unusually open to the participation of visitors. One striking example of an artist who is anti-celebrity, anti-commercial, and also an anti-career artist, is a man who goes by the name of Bob and Roberta Smith (he's actually Patrick Brill). His ploy is to paint on the gallery wall each week a selection of protest slogans on any subject posted by visitors. Thus, his "artwork" is essentially the work of visitors. He is essentially the selecting curator.

A video shows another participant, Mark Lewis, making a kind of impassioned act in a public place. It is a pitch for a film he wants to make whose cast would be made up of "extras." He would like to take ordinary people - rather like visitors to art exhibitions, perhaps - and make them no longer taken for granted.

Julian Opie's installation sets up a fictional gallery in which artworks and viewers alike are reduced to those vastly simplified sign-symbols used in road signs. The vernacular, the utterly ordinary, is presented as Art. And the art is on the same level as the viewers of it.

You might almost call this a feel-good exhibition. Parts of it, at least, make you, the visitor, feel really wanted.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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