Historically, there has always been popular and critical dissent over art. Not everyone at the time thought Michelangelo or Caravaggio were geniuses, for example. However, the arguments were generally over content: few would have disputed their technical merit. Workmanship was always one important criterion for art (remember ‘ars’ in Latin means ‘skill’). Well, that’s gone for a Burton. So what’s left?
Today, we have a very strange, indeed anomalous and contradictory, situation in the art world. Martians visiting planet Earth (or cultural sociologists on planet Earth) would not be sure what to make of it. Contemporary art is in and it’s big: there is probably more art being produced all over the world today than ever in history.
But most people, and certainly most people over 30, regard most contemporary (i.e. ‘cutting-edge’ art, that dominates the auctions and the catalogues of the top galleries) as ‘a joke’, ‘meaningless’, ‘just decorative at best’, ‘a total con’, ‘just about making money’, ‘a scam orchestrated by art galleries and auction houses’, ‘too conceptual for its own good’ etc. A much heard lament is: ‘the so-called artists don’t even make the art themselves but just employ a team of students’ (a jibe aimed mainly at Damien Hirst, the highest paid artist in history).
Yet, contemporary art galleries are packed, contemporary art fairs, such as Frieze or Art Basel or the Venice Biennale, are also packed.
Do we lay the blame at the door of Duchamp and Warhol who asserted that anything could be art and that anyone could be an artist? For millennia, an artist was someone who either had an innate, technical skill or who had trained for decades. But art work is no longer something painstakingly produced, it is often something one can find in the street or in a supermarket or indeed on a rubbish dump (a ‘readymade’) or that one could produce in a couple of minutes or even seconds (e.g. Turner Prize winner Martin Creed’s crumpled up bits of paper).
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