Don’t tell the town-crier, but I kept myself well away from any bells on Friday morning. You will forgive me, but I was studying the form for the opening exchanges of the individual men’s archery competition at Lord’s cricket ground. What with the Olympic Games being a sporting festival and all. Others decided to make more of a din to celebrate the first day of the games. You will have heard, and may even have taken part in, Martin Creed’s “Work No 1197: All the bells in a country rung as quickly and as loudly as possible for three minutes”. It sounded quite fun, and evidently caught the popular imagination. But I was safely away from it all.
Nothing better symbolises the infantilism that seems to have afflicted the contemporary art world than “All the Bells”. Creed is the movement’s cheerleader. He has form. Most people first encountered his name when his painstaking engagement with a light switch, “Work No 227: The lights going on and off”, won the 2001 Turner prize. “His idiosyncratic stance is born out of acute indecision and a playful preoccupation with the conundrum of wanting to simultaneously make something and nothing,” gushed the Tate nonsensically.
More nonsensical still was Creed’s 2008 installation at Tate Britain, “Work No 850”, which consisted of average club sprinters running averagely fast in the gallery’s neoclassical Duveens space every 30 seconds. (“I think it’s good to see museums at high speed. It leaves time for other things,” said the artist witlessly.) As I said at the time, if Creed is genuinely interested in the allure of velocity, he should hang around for next Sunday’s 100m final.
Bringing Creed together with the Cultural Olympiad was always going to be a car crash. And so emerged “All the Bells”, a project which enraptured the most sober of spirits: “I am delighted we can play our part in this Martin Creed artwork,” said the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, speaking uncannily like a press release. He was talking about Big Ben’s role in the proceedings, ringing outside its regular schedule for the first time since the funeral of George VI in 1952. Expect it now to start clanging away for the opening of an envelope.
Look: I am not against people deciding to ring bells to celebrate the Olympic Games. It makes for a pleasant enough community project. But to dress it as art? I might have been convinced, were there any evidence of a sustained intellectual and/or emotional engagement with the work. I can be persuaded by the Romantic argument that it is the artist’s own struggle that can be more resonant than its results.
But here are Creed’s words, as quoted on the BBC website: “I thought that ringing lots of bells like that might be a nice thing to do. But I don’t know which bells are better, so I thought it would be best to try and ring them all. Me and the people organising it are like kids playing a game. We’re saying if anyone wants to play, they can. Hopefully lots of people will play.” As a friend observed, it is the language of an earnest parent addressing a church hall full of romper suits. You will search in vain in the quote for any sign of research, responsibility or higher purpose. It is the idea on the back of an envelope ennobled to resemble something meaningful.
A word of warning: I have found that to decry the pervading infantilism of art is to be cast as a curmudgeon, particularly in all matters Olympic. If, for example, you choose not to participate in Jeremy Deller’s interactive “Sacrilege” project, in which adults and children are invited to bounce on an inflatable replica of Stonehenge, you are spoiling the party.
But I grew out of bouncy castles some time ago, and still manage to play enough sport to know what it feels like to fall flat on your back now and again. Perhaps there is a whole class of art-world eggheads out there who need to rediscover what it is like to engage uninhibitedly with the physical world. In which case, I recommend psychotherapy, or trampolines.
In the spirit of the Olympic truce (another barmy idea) I suggest a compromise. These people can try to turn the world into a playground, as long as they forsake the privilege of calling it art. What they do possesses nothing of the traditional, or even the contemporary, requirements of art. It is not beautiful or thought-provoking, it does not make us look at the world in a new way. It is just quite fun. I have nothing against that, but don’t see why it should have anything to do with galleries or Arts Council funding.
There should be plenty of demand for these Adult Play Monitors, as we should call them, for they deserve a proper title. The world can be a melancholy place, and we all need to bounce, slide and make a purposeless noise now and again. What greater innocent pleasure can there be than to turn a light on and off? (Quite a few, but one step at a time …)
The lowlight of the Cultural Olympiad has been and gone. Fortunately there is plenty more to savour. Grow up and get with it.
More columns at www.ft.com/aspden