Sunday, 20 September 2009

   

 

THE AVANT-GARDE DELUSION

 

The contemporary art world constantly asserts its unshakeable confidence that it is embracing the future. Accumulated evidence shows that this is radically untrue.

We tend to forget that art can be looked at in more than one way. For example, we can look at the actual content of the artworks presented to us. Alternatively, we can look at the institutional structures that support art making as an activity. This is much the less popular approach, but it has a great deal to tell us.

 

What supports contemporary art today? Despite the activity of private patrons, buying art for extravagant sums at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the essential structure is institutional and official. Contemporary artists make their reputations through showings at museums that are state-supported institutions – certainly in Europe. In America museums owe more to supposedly private foundations, but these too have now acquired and official character. They also make their reputations through inclusion in various biennial and triennial exhibitions, such as the Venice Biennale and the Cassel Documenta. These too have an official character.

 

The structures we now have bear a startling resemblance many that already existed more than a century ago. In particular, we forget both the prevalence and the success of official exhibitions throughout the 19th century. I am thinking not only of the annual Paris Salons, and of the Royal Academy Summer exhibitions in London, but of the various so-called ‘universal exhibitions’ that made such a stir in the second half of the 19th century. Attendances at these exhibitions were often vast. For example, the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878, staged to mark the French recovery from the disaster of the Franco-Prussian war, attracted more than 16 million visitors during a run of six months – early May to early November. The Universal Exhibition of 1900, held in the same city, attracted just over 50 million. These exhibitions were certainly not entirely devoted to art, but the art of the day was always a component, and we must assume that quite a high proportion of visitors saw what then contemporary artists had to offer, within the context of the show. To offer a perhaps relevant comparison, about 8 million visitors are expected to make their way to London for the Olympic Games of 2012 – half the number that came to Paris for the Universal Exhibition of 1878, and less than 20 per cent of those who came to the same city in 1900. For these visitors, too, there will be artistic events to sample, in addition to the purely athletic ones.

 

The annual Paris Salons also attracted high, though of course much smaller attendances. In 1787, when Paris had only 600,000 inhabitants, and travel was much more difficult and laborious, the official Salon had 21,000 visitors. It ran for only a month. By the second half of the 19th century, it was attracting 23,000 visitors a day.

 

Today the Centre Pompidou in Paris attracts around 7 million visitors a year. Tate Modern and Tate Britain have a combined total of over 6 million. The Frieze Art Fair in London this year attracted 63,000 visitors in just four days. The Venice Biennale, generally regarded as the pre-eminent exhibition of its sort, currently attracts just 300,000 people during a run of seven months, and attendances are said to be declining. Relatively few of the visitors come from the territory immediately surrounding Venice – the majority are non-Italian tourists. The most recent Cassel Documenta – Documenta 12 – attracted around 700,000 during a run of 100 days.

 

Even though conditions of life in the early 21st century are apparently so different from those in the second half of the 19th, I think the similarities of organizational structure are obvious. What we call ‘the art world’ has not changed as much as we might think.

 

It is also obvious that, despite attempts at democratization, and the large numbers of visitors attracted by institutions like the Pompidou and the Tate, going to exhibitions of contemporary art is still essentially a middle-class occupation. One reason for this is cost. In Britain the basic job seeker’s allowance, otherwise known as the dole, is currently £57.45 per week for people aged over 25, and £45.50 per week for people aged 18 to 24. The full price of admission to the Frieze art fair this year was £18.50 – almost exactly one-third of this. Though admission to the permanent collections at the two Tate Galleries is free, a visit to the current Louise Bourgeois retrospective at Tate Modern will cost you £10, unless you qualify for a discount.  To be a really committed aficionado of contemporary art you must, in addition, have both the money and the leisure to travel. Here, too, things seem to have changed very little from what was the case in the second half of the 19th century.

 

Many people will think this emphasis on the consumers and the ways in which they get access to art is wrong-headed and pedantic. Contemporary art defines its ‘advanced’ position in a number of ways, but very largely through a commitment to controversial subject matter, above all through themes that relate to sexuality and politics. Yet, far from being genuinely shocking or anti-establishment, the principal themes of today’s art are deeply traditional, though they often try to disguise themselves as the opposite.

 

In particular, our art scandals today – events that play such a powerful role in promoting contemporary art – are more or less the same as they were in the days before the Modern Movement was invented. They dwell on the theme of sexuality, which played a prominent role in Salon art through its history, but which has a much less integral connection to the Modern Movement than it is now fashionable to suppose. Hints of sexual outrage brought the crowds to the annual Salons –  famous examples are Jean-Baptiste Clésinger’s Woman Bitten by a Serpent and Manet’s Olympia, both now in the Musée d’Orsay. In both cases the outrage was caused by the subtext, rather than what was actually depicted. The subject of Clésinger’s statue seemed to be writhing in the throes of orgasm. Even before Freud, a snake was a well-established sexual symbol. Manet’s nude was a paraphrase of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, but her challenging gaze and the presence of a maid bringing a bouquet suggested that she was a contemporary demi-mondaine. The 19th century audience was fascinated by the demi-monde, witness the success of Verdi’s La Traviata. But they liked repentance and, if possible, a tragic end. What upset people was that Olympia seemed to be fully in charge of her situation. One sees what is essentially a very similar reaction to certain contemporary works – one triggered by guilt and self-righteousness. Often today the outrage seems to be manipulated by the promoters of contemporary exhibitions, This happened with Sensation! the 1997 event at the Royal Academy that made the reputations of a whole generation of new British artists.

 

One of the artists featured in Sensation! was Marcus Harvey, whose portrait of the murderess Myra Hindley made using children’s handprints was skillfully hyped to the British press at the time of the exhibition. Relatives of the children she murdered were informed of the painting’s presence in the show and encouraged to protest. Also included were sculptures by Jake and Dinos Chapman featuring child mannequins with penises for noses. These, too, played on the contemporary panic about pedophilia, without much claim to being in any way radical in a purely artistic sense.

 

Another important aspect of contemporary art, certainly in the view of its supporters, is its involvement with radical politics, specifically the politics of the left. In fact, there are many misunderstandings about this. If we look at the history of the Modern Movement, the most prominent artists of its earliest phase were either a-political, or else involved with the radical right. The first fully organized Modernist art movement, Italian Futurism, had links to Mussolini’s Fascism. Its chief theoretician, F.T. Marinetti, merged the political party he founded, the Partito Politico Futurista into Mussolini’s Fasci di combattimento as early as 1919. The attempts of experimental artists to identify themselves with left wing politics were based on an assumption that radical ways of seeing had an organic connection with  a desire for profound social change. There is no real proof that this is in fact the case. In the turbulent early years of the 20th century, the proposed alliance was either rejected outright, as happened in Russia, or attempts to achieve it produced situations that bordered on farce. A good example of the farcical was the Surrealist Movement’s abortive attempt to ally itself with orthodox Communism.

 

If one looks at the history of Salon art in the second half of the 19th century one finds a large number of artworks that deal with the social issues of the day in ways that express the artists’ sympathy with the industrial underclass, and their keen awareness of the industrial unrest that was prevalent in the closing decades of the 19th century, and which prolonged itself until the outbreak of World War I. This awareness is never so clearly expressed in the art of the same period that we now describe as avant-garde. An exception made for the history of art in Russia, where a direct line can be traced from the art of the group called the Wanderers to Soviet Socialist Realism these left-wing, socially conscious paintings have largely been written out of the art-historical record, and have disappeared from the walls of museums. Often they appear to have been destroyed. It is worth remembering not only that they existed, but that they, like the socially conscious artworks exhibited in museums of contemporary art today, owed much of their prominence to their place within official culture. That is, the 19th century system was in fact capable, at least to a certain extent, of criticizing itself.

 

In some respects, however, the artistic situation is very different from that which existed during the earliest years of the Modern Movement. At that time, artists defined as radical or experimental were supported, when they were supported at all, by an elite of private patrons and sometimes by visionary dealers. There was, in the early years of the 20th century, a sharp distinction between official and unofficial art that no longer exists today.

 

One of the most ironic events in the whole history of Modernism is the Entarte Kunst, or Degenerate Art, exhibition organized by the Nazis in 1937. It opened in Munich, then toured to eleven other German cities, attracting over three million visitors. This was in fact the first real confrontation between the ‘advanced’ art of the period and a mass public. No exhibition of contemporary art attracted an audience of this size until well after World War II, and the attendance figure is one that exhibition organizers would strain to achieve today, even given the services of something resembling the Nazi propaganda machine. Here, too, the cry of ‘scandal’ played and important part in raising attendance. People went hoping to be shocked, just as they sometimes went to the official Salons hoping to be shocked.

 

Yet the Nazis also acknowledged the effectiveness of some aspects of Modernist art. The poster for the Entarte Kunst exhibition was a close paraphrase of El Lissitzy’s famous image showing the Red Wedge breaking the White Square –  Bloshevik propaganda was seamlessly transformed into Nazi propaganda.

 

The defeat of Nazism validated the art that the Nazi regime had opposed. Despite this, a close examination of actual subject-matter tends to show that the role of art in our society has increasingly tended to revert to a pre-Modernist situation, where artists offered a large bourgeois audience narratives of all kinds, often with strong – some would say crude – moral overtones of a sort that the leading critics of the 18th and 19th centuries, men such as Denis Diderot and John Ruskin, would certainly have recognized. As I have already pointed out in some detail, the social and economic mechanisms that support and promote these narratives bear a close resemblance to those that existed during the second half of the 19th century.

 

How has this situation come about? Basically because the art we have now represents the gradual conquest of genuinely radical thinking about the visual world by bureaucracy and money. Even in democratic societies, the powers-that-be do not like creative manifestations that cannot be controlled. In the case of Modernist and Post Modernist Art this control has been exercised by the gradual absorption of experimental art by public institutions. Inevitably, as this happens, the art tends to lose its genuinely experimental character. Experiment that can only take place within known frameworks inevitably loses most of its vitality

 

There are also a number of other factors involved. Because the presentation and promotion of supposedly avant-garde art involves the expenditure of public money, there is an increasing feeling that this art must be ‘popular’. This has led to the perception that at least some of the art on view must have a fairground quality - must invite very direct physical engagement, like the helter-skelter slides by Carsten Hıller presented at Tate Modern from October 2006 until April 2007. There was nothing wrong with the public’s enjoyment of these. They were good old fashioned fairground entertainment - something that has its own well-established tradition. What was questionable was their claim to be art and the fact that they were situated in and sponsored by a major art museum.

 

At the other end of the scale there is the increasing passion for contemporary art shown by the very rich. It is now sometimes said that art is what you spend money on when you have bought everything else you could possibly want and still have plenty left in your pocket. The rich have always pursued art, but in the course of a hundred and fifty years things have come full circle. The collectors of the mid-19th century were impassioned buyers of the art of their own time, in whose enduring value they had every confidence. Then, with the rise of a more scientific attitude to the history of art, and thanks in part to the opportunities for direct comparison offered by photography, which meant that secure attributions of art works from earlier epochs were easier to make, the art of the past became financially dominant. Today, the supply of historic masterpieces available for purchase has dwindled and historical perspectives have dramatically shortened, to the point where contemporary creations are once again the market leaders.

 

It is, however, clear that this is not all there is to it. Avant-garde art has become a vehicle for wild financial speculation. Collectors of contemporary work often do not live with their art - much of it indeed has no place in a domestic or even a corporate setting. They wrap it carefully, put it in a warehouse and wait for the value to go up, meanwhile making regular phone-calls to the dealer of their choice to see how prices are moving.

 

The situation has a striking resemblance to the Tulipomania that swept the Netherlands in the early-17th century, rising to a peak in the years 1636-7. As early as 1623 a single tulip bulb could cost more than 1000 Dutch florins, at a time when the average yearly income in the United Provinces was about 150 florins. An ironic aspect of the boom was that the variegated patterns so much prized by speculators were in fact the result of a virus. The rarest bulbs were diseased. Traders sold bulbs that they had not yet planted, or which they merely said they intended to plant. This sounds very much like the sale of copyrights in certain works of conceptual art, where what the collector acquires is the right to have the artwork created at some future date, not necessarily by the artist himself.

 

As Grayson Perry, himself a recent winner of the Turner Prize, pointed out, in a column published in TheTimes on October 24th 2007, this frenzied financial speculation still goes hand-in-hand with the conviction that contemporary – or if one prefers it – avant-garde art must be left wing: ‘There is the idea [he said] that revolution and innovation, stock-in-trade for the art business, are seen as the preserve of angry young reds. A lot of art bods still seem to believe in lefty street-cool. The content of art may be sticking it to The Man, but most contemporary art is not made in a socialist cooperative. You have only to wander through the Frieze Art Fair to come to the conclusion that most contemporary artists are happy to manufacture an investment commodity beloved by darkest-blue capitalists, a consumer durable par excellence. Business recognizes that creative rebels are intrinsic to capitalism; it is their natural home. No matter how many antiwar shows and charity auctions we put on, the art world cannot escape the fact that a lot of us need rich City collectors to pay the bills as much as they need bohos and radicals to enliven their walls, their social circles and their investment portfolios. It was ever thus, except the fat cats used to be popes or kings rather than hedge-fund managers.’

 

A slightly different and perhaps even more enlightening comparison with the current state of things in the world of contemporary art can be made with the trade in relics that flourished in the Middle Ages. At that time a thorn believed to be from the Crown of Thorns could be far more valuable than any art work, however ambitious it might be, however accomplished, however valuable its intrinsic materials. The value of a relic did not derive from its appearance, but from its supposed association with the person of Christ or one of his saints. The Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, one of the most sumptuous buildings of the Middle Ages, did not exist for its own sake, but for what it contained. Similarly, in contemporary art, the focus is increasingly not on the object itself, but on its association with a particular personality that is thought of as possessing magical value.

 

Yet here, too, there is a paradox. It is notorious that many celebrated contemporary artists, member in good standing of the avant-garde, have large workshops, and a substantial number of assistants, whose job it is to do the actual physical work of making art. In many cases, indeed, the process of fabrication is not done in the artist’s studio, or even by workers directly under his own control, but is sub-contracted to specialist workshops. The artist is simply the person responsible for the idea – its execution is left to others. This too is not entirely new. One things of the vast output of Rubens’s studio, and of the numerous Rembrandt Self-Portrait that are in fact the work of pupils, whose products Rembrandt sold under his own name.

 

The conviction that the artist’s personality is more important than any object he may produce, or order to be produced, is nevertheless a defining characteristic of the present situation.. An extreme example is the legacy of Joseph Beuys, who was perhaps the most influential artist of the second half of the 20th century. Much of what Beuys left behind has no real claim to be art in any of the ways in which that term is usually understood. It is valued purely for its association with his shamanic personality, for example the display of props used in his performances and the blackboards used in his lectures, now with their chalk marks carefully preserved.

 

If Beuys was one of the most influential personalities to have arisen in the world of contemporary art, the most influential single object is Duchamp’s Fountain [1917]. In December 2004 a panel of 500 carefully selected British art world professionals, brought together by the BBC, voted that it had exactly that status. Fountain, a urinal bought off the peg in a shop selling sanitary fittings, became art because Duchamp designated it as such. This began a process whereby art gradually lost its transformative power - the found object sufficed, no transmutation of forms was necessary. Linked to this process was another - the explanation became more important than the object. And this explanation did not have to be obvious, or even, for that matter, logical. One is now told what things ‘mean’, but increasingly discouraged from asking the ‘why’ questions. ‘Why do they mean what you say they mean? What makes the explanation inevitable?’

 

Duchampian attitudes have had an enormous impact on current art production, and they often lead the critic into dangerous territory. I have mentioned the ‘why’ questions. Here are some examples taken from the history of the Turner Prize, Britain’s pre-eminent award for young artists. In 2005 Simon Starling won the prize with ShedBoatShed. This was – as its name might suggest – a shed converted into a boat [when the artist then sailed down a stretch of the Rhine] then back into a shed. This object was ‘art’ because an artist, a museum and a particular group of jurors declared it to be art. Remove the object from this authoritarian context and it is difficult to see how the label can be justified. It fits no established criterion of aesthetic value.

 

A particularly troubling aspect of supposedly avant-garde contemporary art is its propensity for what is called appropriation. Artists have always borrowed from other artists. To cite Manet once again, his Dejeuner sur l’herbe is closely based on a Marcantonio Raimondi print after Raphael showing the Judgment of Paris. However, Manet always gives his borrowings a subversive twist. This has not been the case with most contemporary instances of appropriation. They are usually larcency without irony. In recent years there have been many instances of theft by established avant-garde artists, often from sources that were not declared until journalists tracked them down. One example was Damian Hirst’s sculpture Hymn [1996], hugely enlarged from an anatomical toy intended for children designed by Norman Emms and marketed by Humbrol. Another, shown in the Turner Prize exhibition of 2000, was a large painting by Glenn Brown that was a simple scaling up a cover illustration for a Science Fiction novel created in 1973 by Tony Roberts. In both cases the original artists threatened legal action and received compensation. The intellectual difficulty here is not so much the theft itself, but the fact that we are clearly meant to see Hirst’s sculpture and Brown’s Science Fiction painting as immeasurably more important, culturally and aesthetically, than their source material. It seems a big step to take, since the only real difference is the scale. One is led to the conclusion that the Hirst and Glenn Brown versions are superior, in the eyes of the contemporary art world, because the people who made them are seen as being in some way ‘magical’ individuals – superior beings – while those who are in fact the true inventors – Emms and Roberts – cannot aspire to that condition.

 

The idea of the magical individual fits together very well with the religious or cultish aspect of contemporary image making – an enlightening comparison can be made, for example, between the most widely circulated image of the revolutionary leader Che Guevera and the head of Christ as it appears on the Shroud of Turin. And a further comparison can be made between these images and Andy Warhol’s depictions of some of the major celebrities of our time, such as the actress Elizabeth Taylor. In each case the image has been radically simplified, and reduced to a immediately recognizable iconic form.

 

A further enlightening comparison can be made between these three images and the way in which painters of the Counter-Reformation period depicted the head of Christ as it appeared on Veronica’s Veil.

 

This fact, plus the general comparison already made to the medieval trade in relics, leads one towards the conclusion that the state supported world of supposedly avant-garde art is in fact a sort of church - the physical embodiment and carapace of a fiercely defended but fundamentally irrational belief system. In this respect at least it differs from the system that existed in the 19th century, which was, if unimaginative and sometimes repressive, far more rational.  Museums of contemporary art, and associated events such as the Venice Biennale and the Cassel Documenta, have become the refuge of crude metaphysical concepts that are extremely vulnerable to close examination. History seems to teach us that the more official a religious system becomes, the more swiftly it moves towards being both intellectually and financially corrupt.

 

At the same time, the art of our own day has acquired, through the ways in which it is presented to the public, a complacently official character that fully bears comparison with the state-supported  art world that existed before the birth of the Modern Movement.

 

This site was last updated 20-09-2009