Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Into the dustbin of art history

I do like a grand, sweeping historical theory. Particularly when it's applied to the state of contemporary art: I mean, it's not as if it's not in need of a bit of broad-brush explanation; there's so much that is puzzling and absurd.

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).

But then:
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?


worm said...

v.good! And very true - although one has to wonder if this 'end of days' is like the other, previous 'end of days' because it would appear that unlike past art burnouts, this time perhaps art has eaten itself too much and there's nothing left..?

This 'late style' stuff is very prominent in the fast moving world of dance music - genres rise and fall in the space of a couple of years

ps. arn't the 'set of artists who are working outside the confines of official art' that group of not very good painters who call themselves The Stuckists?

Barendina Smedley said...

Personally, if we're tipping some notional 'set of artists who are working outside the confines of official art' - and I've got to say I've got enormous problems with the whole concept of style on which the Prospect piece, interesting though it is, operates - I'd go for the artists who are still doing more or less what all artists did up to the late eighteenth century or so, which is to say, not creating 'art' as an end in itself, but rather, creating visual culture as a means to other ends, e.g. advertising, illustration, interior decoration, video games, propaganda, pornography, comic books, architectural drawing, formal portraiture, cartoons, you name it - as long as it isn't the sort of 'art' that has spent the past two centuries struggling to justify itself as 'art', and hence has largley lost the plot when it comes to achieving anything much or indeed looking good.

Recusant said...

So are you going to tell Sir Nicholas Serota, or am I?

Barendina. Hear, hear. It illustrates John Kay's theory of Obliquity: that if you aim directly for something - profit or 'art' - you, more often than not, fail, but if you aim to do the right thing well, you achieve the other - profit and art - as a function of the underlying performance.

Peter said...

They're all formulaic, narcissistic, sentimental and cynical

Perhaps, Gaw, but it's time for the man in the Clapham omnibus to weigh in. Although a rank amateur, I detect an important distinction in your two images. The first is trying to entice me (with no small success) to lewd fantasies involving voluptuous aristo-sluts. The second is putting me off my biscuits by depicting sex under bright lights with a neurotic, flat-chested nerd.

Gaw said...

Worm: I wonder has it always been difficult to conceive of what might be thought of as 'new'? Or whether art has eaten itself and there's nothing left, as you say?

Barendina: Excellent point and most likely the way out of the impasse Worm adverted to.

BTW why don't you like this concept of style?

Recusant: I'm not sure he'd listen, not matter who told him. You don't get to do what he's done by admitting doubt!

But as Barendina has brilliantly pointed out elsewhere, his greatest creation, Tate Modern, justifies itself in spite of its contents.

Peter: Wasn't there some theory derived from Aquinas that said true art should neither attract nor repel? On that basis, I recommend that the MotCO contemplate both images in a state of objective and disembodied aesthetic bliss.

malty said...

Say what you like about Frankie Boucher but his portrait of Louise O'Murphy, post bonk, allowing the bits to cool down, beats any of elberry's softcore.
If anyone needs a refresher of the utter silliness of large swathes of modern/conceptual stuff, go spend an hour in Bonns Museum of Modern German Art, this does not however include the Richter's and most of the Polke's, Gerhard being almost godlike (he is now on Nige's list of good people), his mate Sigmar being not far behind.
The recent documentary about Valentino, although mostly about a pair of raving old Itie poufters, did highlight the fact that not all good art need hang on gallery walls, his schmutter is art.

Barendina Smedley said...

Gareth, in brief - and sorry if this is all a bit broad brush - my problem with the concept of style utilised in the Prospect piece is as follows.

'Style' is absolutely fine with me as shorthand for the general way a work of art looks, when and where it seems likely to have been produced, the historical and associational baggage that comes with it, i.e. if someone writes about 'Rococco excess' or 'Baroque splendour' or whatever it might be a bit lazy, admittedly, but the words do convey something.

The problem sets in, though, when people confuse 'style' in this weak sense with e.g. 'movements' in art. 'The Baroque', though, to use that shorthand again for a moment, simply was never a 'movement' or 'project' in the sense that, say, the Futurists or Situationist were a 'movement' - a group of artists consciously working in association with one another, probably with a manifesto, formal leadership structure, common goals, etc. If it even existed, 'Baroque' is a label that art historians have pasted, ex post facto, onto art that seems to the art historians to share certain affinities.

So to say, as the author of the Prospect piece does, that the Roccoco 'ended' with the French Revolution is in itself something of a boring little orgy of tautology - what he is saying, in effect, is that the class of cultural endeavour he has arbitrarily chosen to link together 'ends' at a date he has arbitrarily selected for it.

I could easily give you examples of cold, classicised, very 'revolutionary' French portraiture that pre-dates the Revolution by decades, just as there are plenty of rather frou-frou, frivolous-looking pictures that postdate the Revolution. But then that's yet another problem with 'style' in this sense. People get so preoccupied with pasting on those 'style' labels - fitting always into these now well-established conceptual categories - that before long they stop looking at the paintings themselves, stop considering seriously the patronage and cultural circumstances that encouraged their creation, refuse to see them as anything other than good or bad 'examples' of some 'style' which nineteenth century art historical scholarship has foisted upon them. This is a gilt-edged invitation, then, to absolutely awful, sloppy, deterministic art history.


Barendina Smedley said...


But worst of all, perhaps, are those cases - and the Prospect article is a prime example - where 'style' - these inherited conceptual categories to which we've all grown so very accustomed - are seen to take on a life of their own, above and beyond the dumb pictures tasked with instantiating their values. 'Styles', it seems, are born, thrive, get a bit senescent and eventually pop their clogs - because they deserve to pop their clogs, with a younger, hotter style racing up behind them to occupy the role they could no longer fulfill.

Really? Surely, this is one to be consigned to the archives of 'influential historical paradigms that turned out to be not only considerably too neat, but also slightly dangerous'?

In truth, people have always produced a lot of visual culture. Much of it is, and always was, total rubbish. The good stuff tends to survive longer than the dross. There's a lot of bad art around today but - as mentioned in that earlier comment - art history and art criticism have to share the blame for creating some cossetted 'art' space in which these visual artifacts don't have to achieve anything - don't have to convince, amuse, inspire, entertain, explain, arouse, disgust - as long as someone can make a case for them in purely art-related terms. And once again, style is part of the problem here, because the whole story we have been taught about this imaginary procession of hegemonic or competitive styles can be made to serve as a justification for why certain visual artifacts apparently deserve attention, respect and admiration, solely because of what they achieve within the logic of this style procession. Don't like a new conceptual work? That's clearly because you're some fuddy-duddy Luddite who doesn't 'get' tomorrow's style, sadly limited as you clearly are to appreciating yesterday's styles instead ...

As a substitute for real argument, the logic of style is once again incredibly useful - but when it comes to making sense of individual pictures, it all too often gets in the way.

Whereas, once again, I think we'd be better off concentrating a bit less on the big-picture stuff, epochal commentary on where we are now within the meta-history of cultural enterprise, and perhaps thinking a bit more about whether individual works actually do what they are supposed to do, whether the craftmanship behind them is impressive and whether, putting everything else aside, we can actually feel ourselves responding to them in any authentic, unforced and direct way.

Does that help? Finally, sorry if all of this sounds as if I didn't enjoy reading the Prospect piece - on the contrary, I found it genuinely thought-provoking - just had a few issues with the conceptual basis!

Gaw said...

Malty: I truly wish that one of the broadsheets would take you on as art critic. It would be a treat.

Barendina: Comments like that are a big part of why blogging is such an engaging and rewarding past time. Of course, you're right and I hope today's post goes some way to illustrate why I think so. However, I must admit I can't resist these big, procrustean theories. And I guess playing around with platonic forms (as Brit at ToE would have it) is harmless as long as you know that this is what it is, no more than a sort of parlour game.