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[Nettime-ro] parerea lor despre arta
bory on Sat, 13 Apr 2002 20:12:09 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-ro] parerea lor despre arta

Textul e un pic cam lung, dar merita citit - Garantat 100 la suta. Iata 
parerea unei anume parti a occidentalilor despre ce se intampla 
in arta contemporana. Parerea mea nu este departe de cele de 
mai jos, de asemeni, si cred ca nu sunt singurul care gandeste 
astfel pe aici.

Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday, April 6, 2002
April 6 2002

Dumbed down and robbed of the old taboos, contemporary art has 
lost its ability to move or stimulate us, writes John McDonald.

The battlelines were drawn when Ivan Massow, the chairman of 
London's Institute of Contemporary Art, described much of the 
work shown in the gallery as "pretentious, self-indulgent, craftless 
tat that I wouldn't even accept as a gift". He went on to accuse the 
art establishment of "disappearing up its own arse", and launched 
a broadside against
Nicholas Serota, the all-powerful director of the Tate Gallery, whom 
he characterised as a "cultural tsar".
Along with a talent for observation, Massow showed a gift for 
prophecy when he predicted his own immediate removal from the 
ICA's chairmanship. Within a week the board had closed ranks, 
and he was obliged to resign.
Predictably, Massow's comments elicited a huge public response, 
with most of the letters and emails congratulating him on his 
courage. To the "art establishment" this merely confirmed the 
philistine attitudes of the general public, and proved that their 
favourite artists were striking blows against cultural complacency. 
Yet this is precisely the conundrum that bedevils all contemporary 
art: a work may look like rubbish, but so long as it is exhibited in a 
gallery and implicitly validated by those elite guardians of taste, the 
curators and critics, it takes on an untouchable aesthetic value. If a 
member of the public persists in saying the work is rubbish, in 
defiance of the art experts, he or she will be dismissed as a poor 
benighted fool who doesn't understand the complexities and 
ironies of the field. In this way, an unbridgeable gap is maintained 
between the public and the art establishment.
There is a sense in which the industry of contemporary art is 
devoted to servicing that gap. The contemporary museums may 
express a desire to attract big audiences, emphasising their 
educational aims and links with the community, but their whole 
raison d'etre is to challenge public taste - or perhaps to "advance" 
public taste. There is always some resistance about exhibitions of 
realist art or landscape painting, for example - genres that have 
traditionally proved popular.
Conversely, those shows that fail to attract audiences can be seen 
as an artistic success, beyond the scope of the philistines. It is not 
the acclaim of the public but its indifference or indignation that 
makes them confident they are showing "cutting-edge" art, not 
rubbish. I don't think I'm alone in feeling the turn of the millennium 
brought about a hiatus in the relentless advance of the 
contemporary art juggernaut. For a moment the international art 
world paused, held its breath, and waited to see what 
developments would descend. 
The age of modernism was over, and so, too, was the belief that 
art "progresses" through a series of revolutionary innovations. In 
fact, that belief had looked pretty shaky for 20 years. The
postmodernist trends of the early '80s seemed to accept that a 
linear art history had run its course. The contemporary scene 
became a psychiatrist's couch, in which all the tendencies that had 
stalled or been repressed, were allowed to return. Expressionism 
was back, and so was classicism; geometric abstraction rubbed 
shoulders with a form of cack-handed surrealism that would 
eventually be dubbed "grunge". The only element common to 
these tendencies was irony - a quality Robert Hughes dubbed "the 
condom of our culture". Invisible inverted commas were placed 
around every born-again style, revealing the artist as a shrewd, 
clear-sighted manipulator of cultural forms, not simply a barbarian 
who charged into the studio waving a brush around in a frenzied 
attempt at "self-expression". From the early '80s, contemporary art 
has continued to diversify stylistically, while growing ever more 
cool and self-conscious in the way it addresses an audience. 
The result is a milieu in which the vast majority of practising 
artists, dealers and collectors, feels disenfranchised from the 
contemporary art institutions. They do not admire most of the 
"cutting-edge" art that is shown in these museums and in the big 
art festivals such as the biennales. They do not feel challenged or 
engaged by this kind of work - for the most part, they find it trivial 
and opportunistic. There was a time when everyone wanted to 
know what Picasso was doing next, but nowadays there is a 
strong sense in which the work of the most prominent 
contemporary artists is utterly irrelevant to our fundamental 
conceptions of "art". It is a sideshow that requires constant 
monitoring, but those pieces that prove moving or stimulating - 
indeed, those that make one pause for more than a few seconds - 
form a tiny percentage of the whole.
What we are witnessing is a gigantic dumbing-down of art, 
disguised as a series of intellectual and cultural breakthroughs. 
None of the earlier historical models is appropriate, although their 
influence lingers on. The one role that is excluded is that of 
pre-Renaissance times, when the artist was simply considered an 
artisan - one kind of tradesman among others, who sought 
commissions from the church, the nobility or wealthy citizens. It 
was through the extraordinary
abilities and personalities of figures such as Giotto, Michelangelo 
and Leonardo (and through Vasari's myth-making biographies), 
that a more heroic conception of the artist evolved. This reached its 
apogee in the Romantic era, when the master artist also became 
identified as a seer
and a prophet; a bearer of deep, universal truths, or a harbinger of 
revolutionary political change.
That Romantic conception of the artist lingers today, but as a kind 
of advertising agency parody. The turbulence of the 20th century, 
with its bewildering procession of "isms" - Fauvism, Cubism, 
Constructivism, Futurism, Expressionism, and so on - has left a 
flat and decadent legacy. Modernism burnt itself out in a blaze of 
confusion, and the cutting-edge art of today resembles a strange 
collection of makeshift huts erected on scorched earth. The heat, 
however, has faded. Nowadays, everything in art is lukewarm.
To a certain extent this is a historical inevitability. Alexis de 
Tocqueville, in his famous 19th-century study On Democracy in 
America, set out to measure the benefits of social progress 
against the losses. "There is little energy of character," he wrote, 
"but laws are more humane. Life is not adorned with brilliant 
trophies, but it is extremely easy and tranquil. Genius becomes 
more rare, information more diffused. There is less perfection, but 
more abundance, in all the productions of the arts."
This could serve as an accurate summary of Western democracy 
at the dawn of the 21st century. Despite our ongoing social 
problems, life is much easier for people in these societies than it 
is for those living under more repressive regimes. The price, 
perhaps, is solipsism and complacency - a sense that the rest of 
the world doesn't impinge on one's consciousness for longer than 
the duration of the evening news.
This kind of complacency has drawn some of the blame for the 
events of September 11. The subsequent hysteria is a measure of 
how deeply we were immersed in this more comfortable and 
stable view of the world.
Tocqueville's point about democracy leading to "little energy of 
character" is borne out by the political and cultural landscape of 
Australia, which may claim to be the world's most agreeable and 
stable society. Regardless of whether our leaders demonstrate 
little energy, their characters seem to have undergone a form of 
moral atrophy. The treatment of asylum seekers, the shameless 
political exploitation of public xenophobia, the Governor-General's 
reluctance to take the rap for his own moral cowardice - these are 
all signs of a society that has lost touch with civilised, humane 
qualities. "Character", per se, has been replaced by a set of 
expedient norms: admit nothing, take no responsibility, mouth 
empty slogans, be dispassionate and legalistic.
This barren scenario is reflected in the realm of culture: in an 
Australia Council that pours money into "industry" events such as 
Madrid's Arco art fair, and is more interested in "new technology" 
than art. There is growing concern with mere forms of culture, and 
less willingness to make value judgements between works and 
artists. Art criticism has reached its lowest ebb in 20 years, as 
critics seem overly concerned about what they should think, and 
should be saying, rather than responding to the work. This results 
in recycled press releases or feats of dubious, unargued 
This self-interested, defensive approach to political and cultural 
life is also apparent in the state of the visual arts, where, as 
Tocqueville says, "there is less perfection, but more abundance". 
After the death of modernism and the discrediting of Marxist 
politics, it is clear that hardly anybody still believes a work of art 
can have revolutionary, life-changing implications. One result is 
that many artists have taken a more introspective approach, opting 
out of the race, and concentrating on those things closest to home. 
Younger artists show a renewed concern for acquiring basic skills 
such as drawing and modelling, while the local success of so 
many Chinese emigre artists owes much to the rigorous 
academic training done in their native country.
In such cases, artists are seeking what is personally relevant and 
enriching, not making claims about the wider public value of their 
projects. The antithesis of this is the ongoing comedy of an 
"avant-garde", where all manner of political goals may be imputed 
to a work, albeit nothing concrete or achievable. The "relevance" of 
this kind of work is entirely abstract, or so vague and universal that 
it fits every agenda. We are told how one work makes us aware of 
oppressive power relations, how another heightens awareness of 
social inequalities. Works are said to "activate" space and subvert 
the institutions that house them. But viewers who fail to read the 
catalogues or wall labels could look at such works all day without 
feeling the least bit challenged.
In explaining his disparaging remarks about the latter-day 
"conceptual art" shown at the ICA, Massow claimed that he had 
long "harboured a vivid, romantic image of the institute as it was - 
a hotbed of '70s radicalism. It had gained a reputation for 
showcasing the daring and avant-garde and holding debates or 
showing the films and exhibitions that others were too frightened 
to. People went there to speak and hear the unthinkable But the 
irony is, now that 'shock' has become the 'new establishment', that 
the ICA has morphed into a pillar of the shock establishment - 
cultivated by the Brit pack. The protesters were there to complain 
that they're no longer shocked - they're bored. "Like me," he writes, 
"they've all sat and watched a naked woman fire a peach from her 
vagina knowing full well that it won't make the local paper (as 
intended). They've also smelt endless faeces, been titillated by 
pornography and scared by a chamber of horrors paraded as 'art', 
and yawned with the rest of us."
The point is simply made: when sex, shit and horror were taboo 
subjects, artists could feel that by exploring these themes they 
were acting in a way that was socially liberating. Now that 
tolerance levels have advanced to the point that '70s taboos are 
the stuff of an average evening's television, there is no longer any 
convincing sense of transgression. The cinema has made more 
powerful and far-reaching explorations in these areas, but other art 
forms such as literature and
the theatre are suffering from the same kind of "transgression 
fatigue" as the visual arts. The problem is that when audiences 
are pre-programmed with the expectation of being shocked, they 
are consequently almost shock-proof.
Perhaps the only genuine taboos left are religion, child abuse and 
murder, and when artists stray too close to the edge - as in Andres 
Serrano's Piss Christ, or Marcus Harvey's portrait of the Moors 
murderer Myra Hindley - the public reactions can be violent and 
extreme. This makes for great publicity, but the threat of vandalism 
tends to frighten off the large art institutions and their sponsors.
The kind of work that best represents the "New British Art" is a far 
more fatuous affair: think of the blinking light fixture that won Martin 
Creed the most recent Turner Prize. Neither should one forget a 
full ashtray by Damien Hirst that was emptied by a cleaner who 
failed to recognise it as a work of art. Characteristically, the artist 
laughed off the destruction of the piece and said he could easily 
make a new one. Yet even this induced a sense of deja vu, 
because a few years ago a cleaner in Germany had similarly 
disposed of a lump of fat by Joseph Beuys.
Massow refers to such gimmicks as "conceptual art", but they are 
a long way from the dry, rigorous experiments that made up the 
original Conceptual Art movement that swept the world in the early 
'70s. There is no philosophical program behind these new pieces 
of "idea art", merely a puerile desire to give the finger to the public, 
and to art itself. This kind of art has often been described as 
nihilistic, and that is a hard label to refute, since it seems to serve 
no higher purpose than to promote its makers' media profile.
Today's fashionable artists would like to be media celebrities, 
enjoying a frisson of notoriety like the lads from Oasis. Art itself is 
only a means to an end - a taste of fame that could come from pop 
music, football or movie stardom. Increasingly, there is little to 
separate the world of contemporary art from so many other fields 
sheltering under the umbrella of popular culture.
Nothing could be further from the Romantic cliches, in which 
some heroic creator is driven to extremes of ecstasy and despair 
in his (always "his") quest for self-expression. The successful 
contemporary artist is cool, calculating and market-savvy, not given 
to emotional outpourings. As a sign of the times it is now common 
to hear of artists being praised for their "professionalism", as 
though they were barristers or medical specialists. It would not be 
unusual for them to walk around with paging devices, being called 
away from dinner parties because of some unexpected exhibition 
opportunity. As professionals it doesn't matter what old rubbish 
they produce, it will always be taken seriously by their equally 
professional colleagues who sell the work, write about it, or buy it 
for a public collection.
"Life may not be adorned with brilliant trophies," as Tocqueville put 
it, "but it is extremely easy and tranquil." It is easy because the 
machinery of packaging and promotion has taken over from the 
awesome responsibility placed on the shoulders of the individual 
artist to strive towards perfection, towards the unknown 
masterpiece. Even to broach such a concept seems vaguely 
embarrassing in these rigorously "professional" times.
If there is a way out of this cul-de-sac, then it may come from those 
artists who can no longer stand the poker-faced hypocrisy that is 
furthering the great divide between art and "cutting-edge" art. In 
fact, the time is not far distant when the word "art" may be reserved 
for the efforts of the institutional avant-garde, while more 
conventional forms of painting and sculpture are referred to
as "craft". Naturally the paintings and sculptures of the past could 
keep the title, because they were the "cutting edge" in their own 
It may sound absurd, but contemporary art has a habit of 
outstripping one's wildest imaginings.
For instance, could anyone not hell bent on parody have predicted 
that Mike Parr would be exhibiting buckets of his own urine at 
Artspace last year, or that Martin Creed would create a "sculpture" 
consisting of a screwed-up ball of paper, recently shown at a 
gallery in Sydney? Art today is ripe for the most gargantuan satire, 
and those artists who can laugh at themselves and the scene they 
inhabit may represent the best chance to save art from itself.

John McDonald is an art critic and former head of Australian Art at 
the National Gallery of Australia.

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