There's an interesting piece in this month's Prospect, which seeks to place what's currently being made in the context of a theory of a 'late style' in art movements. This time, the focus is not the prices (although these are still described as 'absurd') but on an attempt to answer a question that's bothered more than the odd art historian and really has to be asked in the incredulous and querulous tones of a Brian Sewell:
Why is so much contemporary art awful?
We’re living through the death throes of the modernist project—and this isn’t the first time that greatness has collapsed into decadence.
There's a common 'late style'...
...a pattern typical of these end-phase periods, when an artistic movement ossifies. At such times there is exaggeration and multiplication instead of development. A once new armoury of artistic concepts, processes, techniques and themes becomes an archive of formulae, quotations or paraphrasings, ultimately assuming the mode of self-parody.
The immediate comparison is with the rococo painting of the eighteenth century:
...there are compelling parallels between much of the contemporary art of the last two decades—not only the work of the expensive artists who made the headlines like Hirst, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, but also many of the conceptual artists patronised by public galleries—and French rococo, a movement that extolled frivolity, luxury and dilettantism, patronised by a corrupt and decadent ancien régime. Boucher’s art represented the degradation of the baroque school’s classical and Christian values into a heavenly zone of soft porn, shorn of danger, conflict and moral purpose. Similarly, Hirst’s work represents the degeneration of the modernist project from its mission to sweep away art’s “bourgeois relics” into a set of eye-pleasing and sentimental visual tropes.
Personally, I enjoy occasionally wallowing in a 'heavenly zone of soft porn, shorn of danger, conflict and moral purpose' (T's not so keen). And I have to say I enjoy doing so in the company of a Jeff Koons (below) - an artist who I've always found intellectually fascinating and visually intriguing, not least because of his conscious reworking of rococo and the Baroque for a mass consumer age - as well as in the more decorous surroundings of the Wallace, which abounds not just with Bouchers but also some precious Watteaus and Fragonards (above) (Hirst, for me, not so much).
This kind of art is not all “bad.” A late style may dazzle us with its beauty, amaze us with its scale, impress us with its craftsmanship, charm us with its wit, or stun us with its excess and opulence. It always trumpets the spirit of its age—and is often highly valued by many critics in its own day.
Other 'end-phases' are identified in some of 'the styles of the 16th, 18th and 19th centuries', namely 'mannerism, rococo and academic painting'. What do all these styles - along with today's contemporary art - have in common? They're all formulaic, narcissistic, sentimental and cynical (each term is convincingly described and justified in the piece).
So what is to be done?
There have been inspired and important artists at work during the last ten years, just as there were in the late 19th century. But in order clearly to see what is in front of our eyes, we must acknowledge that much of the last decade’s most famous work has been unimaginative, repetitious, formulaic, cynical, mercenary. Why wait for future generations to dismiss this art of celebrity, grandiosity and big money? To paraphrase Trotsky, let us turn to these artists, their billionaire patrons and toadying curators and say: “You are pitiful, isolated individuals. You are bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of art history!”
I'm not really comfortable agreeing with Trotsky, not least because he was very often wrong. But there's surely something in this proposal. And perhaps the most interesting question that follows from it is whether there exists today an equivalent of the Impressionists, a set of artists who are working outside the confines of official art, and doing something different and exciting but currently unappreciated?