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).
If great art traditionally was characterised by craftsmanship, dedication, thought, spirituality (at least in the case of religious art), contemporary cutting edge art seems to have some or all of the following characteristics:
1. It must have a shock element: 1997 was the annus mirabilis for some, horribilis for others, when Charles Saatchi consecrated shock in the famous Royal Academy show Sensation, from whose loins the YBAs, Hirst, Emin, Quinn et al, sprang: we were treated to sculptures made of frozen blood, a portrait of child-killer Myra Hindley made of children’s hand-prints, photographs of the artist’s own tattooed parents drunk, crawling on the floor and throwing up, a Virgin Mary painting wreathed in elephant dung, Tracey Emin’s Everyone I have Ever Slept With tent (naming the 102 men she had slept with) and of course Hirst’s shark in a tank. We’ve had Emin’s used tampons at a recent show at the Hayward; Gilbert & George’s semen; and faeces (old hat now – trailblazer Manzoni’s tinned Merda d’artista was produced back in 1961). Baselitz’ masturbatory Die grosse Nacht im Eimer, which provoked outrage in 1963, looks very tame and even naive now. French artist Orlan displayed her sexual organs under a magnifying glass during menstruation… There ain’t that much left that could shock.
2. It should be crudely made, since well-made work, showing hours of dedication, smacks of old school and conservative values. Art is more accessible. Many disliked Marc Quinn’s sculpture of Alison Lapper on the 4th plinth in Trafalgar Square as they found the image of an armless, disabled, pregnant, naked woman distasteful, but, on artistic grounds, the problem was that it was just a very poor sculpture – in fact just a mould, with no interesting finish, betraying the fact that the artist has no skill.
Emin’s puerile and illiterate and usually misspelt scrawls on paper (e.g. ‘Everything for you’ or ‘When I was last in love’ inscribed on hearts) or ineffably trite neon works (‘I promise to love you’, ‘I didn’t want to leave you’) have all the profundity of teen magazines. With these works selling for hundreds of thousands of pounds, recently appointed Professor of Drawing at the RA, figuring in the Sunday Times Rich List, honoured with a CBE, now a staunch Tory and close chum of Princess Michael of Kent, Emin is, whatever we curmudgeons think of her, clearly deemed a success even by the Establishment.
3. It can be very well-made – but not by the artist: Hirst and Jeff Koons are the most obvious suspects here. High production values and impeccable finish imply a team of workers, the hand of the artist appearing only to pick up the fat cheque.
4. It should be abnormally large: something that looks trite and uninteresting seems to gain artistic credibility when it is made ten times larger: e.g. Mark Wallinger’s poorly sculpted 150 foot White Horse, as gigantic as its price (£15 million) – the project has stalled, thank god, because the funding has not been raised. Bigger is more striking but not better art. Elmgreen & Dragset’s 14-foot Boy on a Rocking Horse now in Trafalgar Square arguably has a meaning (a satire on heroic equestrian sculpture?).
5. It should not be the traditional subject of high art, it should be a banal object, that looks banal but is actually made in steel or bronze: Jeff Koons is the master here e.g. balloons shaped like poodles or a swimming pool inflatable or a Michael Jackson statuette. The element of surprise is also in the price tag – usually $5 million plus.
6. It should be a banal object, that you think is made of bronze or steel, but is not – it is just an object found in the kitchen or garden. Frieze is always packed with examples of ‘readymades’: a banana, bits of twig, plastic bottles, radiators, stepladders, old phones, shoes, worn inner soles, clothes hangers etc etc. – enough to make traditionalists fly into a frothy frenzy or simply sigh in resignation.
7. It should confound most people’s common sense: e.g. in 2010 the Turner Art Prize was won by a ‘non-visual art work’: Susan Philipsz sang Scottish folk music which visitors heard via speakers. A non-visual art work?
8. Kitschy: sophistication is out and tacky is in. Cool contemporary artists seem to like facile, slushy sentimentality e.g. Emin, Hirst, Koons all like heart-shaped works – from which most traditional artists would recoil.
9. It should be based on popular culture: since Warhol brilliantly celebrated popular culture, today art works inspired by Michael Jackson, Marilyn etc. are more likely to do well than works inspired by Shakespeare or Witttgenstein etc. Evidently, the (young) public can identify more easily with these figures.
10. It must have the imprimatur of Gagosian, White Cube, Haunch of Venison, Hauser & Wirth, Victoria Miro or a handful of other hallowed galleries, whose directors are regarded as the high priests of the contemporary art world (Sir Nicholas Serota being the highest of high priests).
So why is Contemporary art so popular? Why are former collectors of Old Master painting turning to Contemporary art? One reason is that it is generally perceived to be sexy and cool. And who doesn’t want to look sexy and cool? Old Master paintings used to be the auction houses’ glorious flagship department – it is now an ailing barge watching the sleek speedboat of contemporary art whizz past.
But then, if contemporary art is so dire, why are all the contemporary art fairs and biennales packed? The fact is people who go, do so, as contemporary art fairs have become, above all, a socio-cultural phenomenon: people go not just to see the art, but to see other people and be seen, to enjoy the festive atmosphere, often to have their prejudices confirmed or maybe, au contraire, to challenge their prejudices.
So, one might conclude that art has come to have a different value and status compared to the art of the past.
One big change is that, as conventional forms of investment prove unreliable, art is increasingly seen as an asset class. It had already become trophy art – what one buys after the plane, the yacht, the jewellery and the various properties. Now, art is being seen as a good form of investment, again, mainly by new money – e.g Russian, Chinese and Middle Eastern buyers.
The fact of the matter then is that art has changed its meaning, role and status. In Renaissance Italy, art meant mainly religious or ‘history’ paintings (i.e. on mythological or Biblical subjects) or portraits, commissioned by the Church and the aristocracy. In 17th century Holland, art was mainly secular, commissioned by the middle classes. Art has always evolved and carries on evolving – only faster now than before.
Old Master painting has been done so no point trying to emulate it. Older folk take solace in the belief that many contemporary art works are faddish and will fall out of favour – ‘they won’t stand the test of time’. But the people who will judge art in 50 years time are not the current oldies, but today’s youth, most of whom seem to quite like the art that their parents loathe. Their values and tastes are different. Few young people love or even understand Old Masters, which in 50 years time they might well relegate to the dustier corners of museums. Few of them are interested in religion, mythology, portraits or still lifes. Raised in a sound-bite world, they want something that gives a quick hit, a few seconds of pleasure that derives from the zany, the funny, the off-beat – but not the pleasure that comes from technical prowess or spirituality or from antediluvian notions such as beauty.
It could be argued that proponents of contemporary art prefer art that makes them think (if only briefly), rather than art makes them dream: concepts are more interesting than beauty, a narrative that connects with everyday reality is more interesting than a beautiful depiction of a biblical episode. Basquiat, yes, Reynolds, no. A landscape, whether by Gainsborough or Poussin, will always be just a view of the countryside, with no intellectual or conceptual content. I can sympathize with that view to a degree.
Though my tastes cover a broad swathe from Classical Greek and Roman to the 18th century, I must confess my soul lies in the early Italian Renaissance. I do get a few hits of transitory pleasure and stimulation at art fairs, but absolutely nothing compared to the deep sense of mystery, awe and exultation I get from seeing Simone Martini’s ethereal Maesta in Siena or Piero’s Resurrection of Christ in San Sepolcro or the Ghiberti’s ‘Gates of Paradise’ for the Baptistery in Florence or, more profane, Cellini’s Perseus, in the Piazza della Signoria.
Piero della Francesca’s 1463 ‘Resurrection of Christ’
Fresco at Pinacoteca Comunale, San Sepolcro
Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa in the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence
Because of my education, training and maybe genetic make-up, yes, I do have a preference for workmanship, detail, finish; I do like to sense thought, intelligence, imagination; I do like something which is aesthetically pleasing. I am, for example, deeply moved by the spirituality of Sienese and Florentine quattrocento works, the elegance of 18th century portraits and the sheer exhilarating brilliance of Bernini, but of course there are many works of these periods which are humdrum and banal (go view the Old Master auctions at provincial auction houses): it is only a small number of masters who seriously impress.
Unlike many traditionalists, I don’t want to retreat exclusively to art of the past: I believe art should express the Zeitgeist and mirror our time, and our time must have some art which future generations will think of as capturing the spirit of the late 20th or early 21st century (in the way we think of some art as being archetypally 18th century). I will relentlessly visit art shows in search of good contemporary art which says something about our time and occasionally, I do find something stimulating and good. Artists today cannot be Simone Martini or Piero, they have to find some other way of expressing their own creative instincts and making a profound or worthwhile statement about the human condition in our time.
I do believe that an awful lot of contemporary art at the art fairs is absurd and mindless – such thought and imagination that goes into a pair of inner soles or a radiator or Tracey Emin’s drawings is so small as to be negligible. The phrase ‘the Emperor’s new clothes’ constantly springs to mind. Nor do I share the general excitement over even ‘established’ modern masters such Cy Twombly, Dan Flavin, Christopher Wool, Anish Kapoor, Barnett Newman, Agnes Martin, Tom Wesselmann and many others who fill the pages of the smart, multi-million pound evening sales catalogues at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
Perhaps we must simply accept that there is too much art being produced and 90% of it is crap and most of those who vaunt it or buy it have succumbed to the power of marketing or the persuasive influence of gallerists and auction houses.
We should also accept that contemporary art may reflect much of the vacuity and shallowness of contemporary life: the lack of culture, literacy and knowledge amongst the young (e.g serious archival research vs wikipedia); the emphasis on sound-bite information; the unbalanced and inordinate interest in transitory values, promoted by the media, such as fashion (who doesn’t have a stuffed wardrobe today?); the desire – and ability – to make a fortune without years of effort (e.g. the power of X-Factor and the internet to make teenagers millionaires overnight); the inanity of much tweeting, blogging and facebook communication; the flimsiness, precariousness, sexual and moral profligacy engendered and fostered by all the online social networks?
The challenge for us today, as always, therefore is to chivvy out those special works, like discerning rummagers in a flea market. As Matthew wrote, there will come one day the day of judgement, when the Lord will come, “whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge the floor, and gather his wheat into the garner, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire…” Let’s hope there will be lots of wheat and little chaff.
TERENCE RODRIGUES, besides being an author and critic, is an international art consultant, advising private clients on art sales and acquisitions.
Tel: 07905 474 394 (m) & 0207 828 9255 (w)