Top 10 things that Jonathan Jones overlookedEdwin Coomasaru // 12 July 2014
Jonathan Jones, good at listing things.
Jonathan Jones’ attempt to catalogue the whole of Western art in his ever-growing assembly of ‘top 10 things’ is growing a little tiring.1 This form of art-writing-lite-click-bait isn’t necessarily bad in of itself: we live in Buzzfeed times and not everyone is interested in reading lengthy, academic art historical work. The anxiety I get when I read Jones’ ‘greatest 10 things’ has more to do with the act of curating as a practice. These articles are exhibitions (of sorts).2 Like most curators (myself included), Jones masks his own subjective opinions as objective facts. This is problematic because entrenched value systems such as sexism, racism, hetero-normativity, anthropocentrism and militarism have historically been mythologised as ‘natural’ by claims they are somehow innate to the supposedly ‘top’ artwork.3 That’s not to say that Jones is necessarily the worst offender in this regard – he’s devoted more space to women than most commercial galleries.4 However, a list is just as notable for what is has excluded, ignored or branded ‘not good enough’. In response, I’ve decided to write my own: top 10 things that Jonathan Jones has overlooked.
1. The top 10 corpses in art.5
Steve McQueen, Hunger (2008).
Steve McQueen’s harrowing depiction of Bobby Sands’ painstaking death while on Hunger Strike in the Maze Prison/Long Kesh in 1981 is one of the most potent portraits of a human being at the very extremes of being. As Sands makes his final gasp of breath, he succeeds in wrestling complete control of his body from the prison regime. But what kind of freedom or empowerment can be gained at the point of death? Hunger (2008) makes clear the full toll of Sands’ act of resistance: a powerful portrait of the consequences of military struggle on the body.
2. The top 10 animal portraits in art.6
Barbara Boxer presenting Subhankar Banerjee's photograph to the US Senate (2003).
Photographer and environmental activist Subhankar Banerjee’s image Polar Bear on Bernard Harbor (2001) was presented by Senator Barbara Boxer to her colleagues in the Senate in 2003. George Bush and other Republicans had hoped to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, but Boxer argued that Banerjee’s photograph demonstrated that such development would threaten the habit of the animals that lived there.7 As a result, the Senate approved Boxer’s amendment, suspending plans for fossil fuel extraction in the area. Banerjee’s portrait did not just represent the animal visually, but also politically: a powerful testament to its right to survive.
3. The top 10 male nudes in art.8
Jennifer Chan, Young Money (2012).
As a feminist, Steve Garlick’s article ‘Masculinity, Pornography, and the History of Masturbation’ completely changed how I thought about sex and gender. The conventional art historical position, epitomised by Laura Mulvey’s famous argument that ‘[i]n a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female’,9 is that all pornographic or sexualised images of women are oppressive. Garlick’s opening premise is a direct challenge to this assumption: ‘contemporary pornography is, in a significant sense, about masturbation’.10 Garlick traces how masturbation has been considered deeply disturbing from the eighteenth century onwards, signifying a threat to standards of masculinity and heterosexual reproduction. The fear in 1766, as for the Daily Mail today,11 is that masturbation would turn men away from their idealised role as fathers towards sexual ‘deviancy’. Young Money‘s (2012) unflinching portrayal of male masturbation is so potent for its examination of masculinities outside the hegemonic norm and the political potential of taking such bodies seriously.
4. The top 10 greatest works of art ever.12
Hito Steyerl, Liquidity Inc. (2014)
Greatest works of art ever is a hard call to make, particularly as there’s quite a bit of human history yet to be made. However, for me, no work of contemporary art better captures our current historical moment than Hito Steyerl’s Liquidity Inc. (2014) – and in such a poetic, philosophical and political way. Aesthetically innovative and sharply critical, the film draws links between financial markets, masculinity, war, surveillance, new technologies, climate change and nonhuman agency. The film asks what being water might mean for each of these elements: what is the significance of thinking through and perhaps as water? Could it be a means of contesting militarism and global warming, or is liquidity too deeply implicated in the mechanisms of neoliberalism?
5. The 10 most apocalyptic floods in art.13
Otolith Group, The Radiant (2012).
Anjalika Sagar and Kodwo Eshun’s film The Radiant (2012) examines the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi diaster in Japan. The nuclear meltdown caused a flood of extremely radioactive particles invisible to the human eye. The post-apocalyptic scene is clear to see however: highly contaminated houses and parks have become a desolate no man’s land, empty save for the few elderly individuals who have chosen to return to their homes to test the effects of radiation. Contrasting the current devastation with archival footage extolling the optimism of early nuclear energy, The Radiant serves as a stark warning.
6. The top 10 artworks of the 20th century.14
Olia Lialina, My Boyfriend Came Back From the War (1996).
A pioneering piece of net.art, Olia Lialina’s My Boyfriend Came Back From the War (1996) is composed of a number of webpages hyperlinked together. Recognised for its contribution to contemporary culture in the Barbican's current exhibition Digital Revolution (2014), this artwork deserves its place in a list of the top twentieth century artworks not only for its innovation in terms of technique and medium (its interactive, online, networked nature). Amongst the disorientating darkness, fragments of text and low-resolution graphics, is also a sharp exploration of the (gendered) consequences – and trauma – of war.
7. The top 10 female nudes.15
Mary Bond, autodissociate.me (2013).
While a lot of shallow newspaper analysis has been quick to dismiss selfies as some kind of narcissism epidemic, Mary Bond’s autodissociate.me (2013) explores the complexities of self-representation in relation to the nude female body. The work takes the form of a website with a collage of intimate images of the artist taken via webcam by Ian Aleksander Adams. The images of Bond, often nude, are overlaid with text quoting responses to the work, which fiercely debate the project’s politics. Is self-imaging an act of empowerment – and if so, on whose terms? Bond's self-portraits both reproduce and contest norms of femininity: from her thin body to her armpit hair.
8. The 10 most shocking performance artworks ever.16
Friedrichshof Commune (1972-1990).
Set up by artist Otto Muehl, Friedrichshof (1972-1990) was a far-left commune and authoritarian sect located outside of Vienna. Connected to the Viennese Actionism movement (though not technically a performance artwork per se), the project was an experiment in radical communal living: the 600-strong community participated in daily sex with different partners (couple relationships were banned).17 Muehl was subsequently convicted of widespread sexual abuse of minors and sentenced to seven years in prison.
9. The top 10 monsters in art.18
Kennard & Phillipps, Photo-Op (2005).
I can’t think of an image that better captures the full weight and toll of monstrosity. Peter Kennard and Cat Phillips’ Photo-Op (2005) lays bare the horrific consequences of Tony Blair’s messiah complex. The Iraq invasion and occupation left a death toll in the hundreds of thousands and a legacy of instability in the region. Blair’s inability to accept any responsibility for his role in the current rise of Isis beggars belief.19 In 2014, the centenary of the First World War, the consquences of Britain’s colonial conquests for oil are painfully clear.20
10. The top 10 crime scenes in art.21
Ursual Biemann, Deep Weather (2013).
Ursula Biemann's Deep Weather (2013) explores the devastating consequences of oil extraction, a crime scene of planetary proportions. Aerial images of the Canadian tar sands' scarred landscape give a sense of the vast scale of the damage: ashen contours, littered with the occasional digger, stretch over an area the size of England. A similar price is also being paid in places like Bangladesh: the subject of the second section of the film. The global South may not have reaped the benefits from petroleum mining further north, but the borders of nation states are no limit for global weather systems. Without any oil-funded machinery or vehicles, the people in Bangladesh have to use their bare hands to try and build up futile defences against the rising sea levels.
That’s my top 10 list. Now make your own.
Edwin Coomasaru is the Director of the International New Media Gallery and a research student at the Courtauld Institute, studying Northern Irish masculinity and the legacy of the ‘Troubles’.
1 See Jonathan Jones, ‘Jonathan Jones on art + Top 10s in art’, The Guardian (Published 2/7/14, Accessed 2/7/14, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog+series/top-10s-in-art).
2 Edwin Coomasaru, ‘(Im)material Museums: Evolving the Exhibition’, International New Media Gallery Blog (Published 10/3/14, 10/3/14, www.inmg.org/blog/immaterial-museums).
3 See Michael Camille, Zeynep Çelik, John Onians, Adrian Rifkin and Christopher B. Steiner, 'Rethinking the Canon', The Art Bulletin, Volume 78, Number 2 (June 1996), pp.198-217.
4 See Carolina A. Miranda, ‘Galleries Are Man's World and Micol Hebron is Keeping Score’, KCET (Published 3/4/14, Accessed 3/7/14, www.kcet.org/arts/artbound/counties/los-angeles/micol-hebron-the-gallery-tally-poster-project.htm).
5 Jonathan Jones, ‘The top 10 corpses in art’, The Guardian (Published 19/6/14, Accessed 19/6/14, http://gu.com/p/3q95d).
6 Jonathan Jones, ‘The top 10 animal portraits in art’, The Guardian (Published 27/6/14, Accessed 27/6/14, http://gu.com/p/3qfd9).
7 Finnis Dunaway, ‘Reframing the Last Frontier’, Alan C. Braddock and Charles Irmscher eds., A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History (Tuscaloosa: Alabama University Press, 2009), p.254.
8 Jonathan Jones, ‘The top 10 male nudes in art’, The Guardian (Published 10/4/14, Accessed 10/4/14, http://gu.com/p/3zbdp).
9 Laura Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, in Amelia Jones ed., The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader (Routledge: London, 2003), p.47.
10 Steve Garlick, ‘Masculinity, Pornography, and the History of Masturbation’, in Sexuality & Culture, 16:3 (2012), pp.306-320, p.306.
11 'Internet pornography destroying men's ability to perform with real women, finds study’, Daily Mail (Published 21/10/11, Accessed 21/11/2013, www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2051902/Men-use-internet-porn-likely-hopeless-bedroom.html).
12 Jonathan Jones, ‘The top 10 greatest works of art ever’, The Guardian (Published 21/3/14, Accessed 21/3/14, http://gu.com/p/3nm5e).
13 Jonathan Jones, ‘The 10 most apocalyptic floods in art’, The Guardian (Published 17/2/14, Accessed 17/2/14, http://gu.com/p/3mz7y).
14 Jonathan Jones, ‘The top 10 artworks of the 20th century’, The Guardian (Published 30/4/14, Accessed 30/4/14, http://gu.com/p/3zzne).
15 Jonathan Jones, ‘The top 10 female nudes’, The Guardian (Published 15/4/14, Accessed 15/4/14, http://gu.com/p/3ze62).
16 Jonathan Jones, ‘The top 10 most shocking performance artworks ever’, The Guardian (Published 11/11/13, Accessed 11/11/13, http://gu.com/p/3ka94).
17 Jonathan Margolis, ‘The price of free love’, The Guardian (Published 8/10/99, Accessed 9/7/14, http://gu.com/p/t9c3).
18 Jonathan Jones, ‘The top 10 monsters in art’, The Guardian (Published 15/5/14, Accessed 15/5/14, http://gu.com/p/3p9a3).
19 Patrick Wintour, Tracy McVeigh and Mark Townsend, 'Tony Blair: west must intervene in Iraq', The Guardian (Published 15/6/14, Accessed 15/6/14, http://gu.com/p/3q5fg).
20 James A. Paul, 'Great Power Conflict over Iraqi Oil: The World War I Era', Global Policy Forum (Published 10/02, Accessed 10/5/14, www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/185/40479.html); Nafeez Ahmed, 'Iraq invasion was about oil', The Guardian (Published 20/3/14, Accessed 20/3/14, http://gu.com/p/3nydt).
21 Jonathan Jones, ‘The top 10 crime scenes in art’, The Guardian (Published 23/4/14, Accessed 23/4/14, http://gu.com/p/3zjg3).