Keith Arnatt: one man's trash

Keith Arnatt was an artist, an English maverick, who came to prominence in the 1960s for, among other work, Self Burial (1969) – which he made in the heyday of conceptual art (''happenings'' and the like), when art as an object – as a commodity – was thought bourgeois, anti-democratic and tied to Western capitalism and its paternalistic hegemony: it was hip for artists to reduce their work to just an idea. No object = no exploitation.


Arnatt’s response was to create Self Burial. Surely if ''good'' art leaves no trace, then ''great'' art dispenses with the artist...!


He’s sadly less well known for his photography – which was ignored until a decade or so ago. But he’s increasingly recognised as one of the most important contemporary British photographers. His colour photographs are especially significant: for example, in his series Pictures From a Rubbish Tip (1988–89) you can see echoes of the sublime – the awe and terrible beauty of nature that painters like Turner captured – yet at the same time you’re looking at mouldering food on a rubbish dump.



Keith Arnatt, Pictures From a Rubbish Tip (1988–89). © Keith Arnatt Estate


Arnatt elevates the discarded – the overlooked, the mundane, the everyday – to the same level as a wild storm or a majestic sunset, making us question which has the most worth and why; and also wonder if photographs are comparable to the kind of paintings hung in galleries.


As well as showing us rubbish literally in a new light, he also took shit photographs – of dog crap close up so it appeared to be abstract sculpture: utterly repellent (you know what you're looking at!) yet a beautiful object!


Despite once being internationally known as a conceptual performance artist, by the time of his death in 2008 Arnatt had largely been forgotten by the art establishment. (He rated a mere three lines in Wikipedia when I wrote this in 2014 – there's now a short page.) He spent the last decades of his life exclusively as a photographer, which doubtless contributed to his decline in prominence, The prevailing view back in the late 20th-century was that photography was a craft, a mere process: it either could not create art or if allowed it could, at best poor art – mawkish Victorian pictorialism or outmoded modernism, best left in the past. Photography’s principal job was to record – which was why conceptual artists used cameras to document their performances: photographing a performance did not create art. Ironically, these self-same snaps are now considered artworks in their own right... Today, attitudes have changed: photography is now considered equal to any medium, and the art world no longer argues about photographs being art.


There’s a nod to Arnatt in my Fast project, where I contrast food depicted in 18th-century still-life paintings with modern fast food.



Rich Cutler, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and McDonald’s Pie (2012).