During the last few years, the world of contemporary art has undergone a number of drastic changes, which many leading participants seem extremely reluctant to acknowledge. In particular, I think it is no longer possible to cling to the idea of a unified avant-garde, firmly based in Europe, plus North America. The diversification started quite a long time ago, with the growth of a distinctive Latin American art, from around the mid-1920s onwards, and had now progressed very far, aided by the rapid extension of the world-wide web, which has put non-European cultures in communication with one another, and of course with Western Europe and America, in a way that was impossible previously.
My view is based on three things:
1. Extensive travels on the web, looking at a lot of contemporary cultures, but also getting acquainted with what technology is doing to the attitudes of the audience, and the possibilities for both making and presenting art that technology offers. This technology is developing and mutating with extraordinary rapidity, but it doesn’t make us *see* differently, as the Modern Movement tried to do in its early to mid 20th-century hey-day.
2. Almost equally extensive travels physically. I’ve been in contact with a lot of cultures, all of them producing art, but responding to very different traditions in almost every case. This isn’t the same thing as going to international art fairs and biennales. Over time, I’ve had a great many one-on-one conversations with influencers worldwide.
3. A mistrust of the top-down attitudes of organisations such as the Tate, and those of Tate’s equivalents elsewhere. There’s a lot of lateral communication going on, peer group to peer group, independent of official structures and facilitated by the web. In any case, the old 20th-century ‘avant-garde’ formulations no longer work, especially when they fall into official hands. The idea of an ‘official avant-garde’, as propagated by Tate and similar organisations, is an oxymoron: a very evident contradiction in terms.
I think it is no longer possible to cling to the idea of a unified avant-garde, firmly based in Europe, plus North America.
Where Britain itself is concerned, and Tate in particular, there are deep cultural splits between the metropolis and much of the rest of Britain. This despite the fact that Tate has two galleries of its own outside London (Liverpool and St Ives), plus a large number of partnerships throughout Britain, through Tate Plus.*
A recent case in point has been the failure of the shiny New Art Gallery in Wallsall, now just over fifteen years old, to gain any real traction with its local community. This despite the fact that it has a smart building designed by fashionable architects Carusio St John. It was built with £21 million of public funding, including £15.75 million from the UK National Lottery.
There is also an increasingly marked split in Britain, and to some extent at least abroad, between the art favoured by museums and the art – also firmly labelled as ‘contemporary’ – that fetches sky-high prices at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and which is presented for sale at top-level international art fairs.
Partly this split is economic. The museums simply can’t afford to acquire art priced at this level from their own funds, or from public money. They have to look for an extremely generous private or corporate donor, or a plurality of such donors.
Partly, however, it is also a matter of bureaucratic puritanism and moralism. Museums tend to love causes – artists from the impoverished Third World, more equal representation for women – and they are offended by the flip-and-cash-in attitudes of today’s art market, where art is of interest, not for reasons of aesthetics, or simply for its own sake’, but as a financially interesting ‘asset class’.
Here in Europe, and also in the USA – that is to say in the formerly hegemonic cultures, which tend to cling to the idea of a control of events, which is theirs by right – there is in addition, a tendency to put the emphasis on artists who come from the new plural art worlds, but who have moved to the West, for political and/or economic reasons, and who are known directly to the Western guardians of supposedly avant-garde truth.
The artists are often political dissidents and are increasingly out of touch with the societies they come from. Supporting them appeals to the Western sense of intellectual and creative superiority. The current western cult of Ai Weiwei is a case in point. Ai is undoubtedly an important force in contemporary art. He has more continuing influence in China than some western specialists in Chinese culture are willing to admit. Living in Germany, as he does now, he reaches an audience back in China through a savvy use of Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.
But neither he nor these followers, though I suspect they are quite numerous, are central to the way in which contemporary Chinese culture seems to be developing. For one thing, Ai has never been, at any point, linked to the major Chinese academies, the China Academy in Hanggzhou, and the Central Academy in Beijing, and these play an absolutely major role in the development of the cultural discourse within China itself.
One thing that has become very noticeable is the fact that the idea of ‘seeing the world anew’, which was central to the early Modern Movement, has been more or less abandoned, defeated by the urge to be populist, to reach a mass audience through contemporary means of communication.
Today what is called avant-garde art tends to define itself, not in stylistic terms, but through an enthusiastic embrace of supposedly radical views in the political sphere, and also by supposedly radical ideas about sexuality. In doing so, it is, in fact, reverting to norms established in the first two-thirds of the 19th century, before the shock of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. That is, its major ancestors are Géricault, Delacroix, Courbet and Manet (his Olympia, replacing a traditional Venus with the image of a contemporary courtesan), rather than the Fauves or the Surrealists, or even the Abstract Expressionists.
Where politics are concerned, the supposedly radical is now often enthusiastically (and also at first sight paradoxically) something supported by official institutions.
A good example is Mark Wallinger’s 2007 prize-winning Turner Prize show State Britain at Tate Britain – a detailed reconstruction the activist Brian Haw’s Peace Camp, originally set up without permission in Parliament Square, directly facing the Houses of Parliament, and finally dismantled by the authorities. Which was more likely to make converts to a cause: Haw, a lone radical confronting the seat of government, or Wallinger, safely ensconced in an official institution? Basically, Wallinger’s prize-winning work (now acquired by Tate for its permanent collection) was and is an example of the age-old practice of preaching to the converted. One suspects that, in his own day, Courbet may have had a greater degree of genuine political impact.
Equally, obviously, the era of artistically productive sexual shock is now over. Tate Britain will soon open an exhibition devoted to Gay Art. The reaction is more likely than not to be “Ho-hum – been there already, seen that. What else is new?”.
The truth is that we now live in an epoch where the old forms of radicalism have been embraced and smothered by the official directors and promoters of culture. The winds of change no longer blow, except in the sphere of technology, where they are more than ever at gale strength. The problem is that technology, as applied to the visual arts, is almost invariably about how you can most effectively communicate something already known, rather than being about presenting – creating – something that is entirely new, never imagined or thought of previously. As Serge Diaghilev once said to the importunate young Jean Cocteau: “Jean, étonne moi!” – “Jean, amaze me!”
Words:Edward Lucie-Smith © Artlyst 2016
Arnolfini, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Cornerhouse/HOME, Firstsite, Glynn Vivian, Grizedale Arts, The Hepworth Wakefield, Ikon, Kettle’s Yard, mima, MOSTYN, Newlyn Art Gallery and the Exchange, Nottingham Contemporary, The Pier Arts Centre, Towner, Turner Contemporary, Whitworth Art Gallery, Wysing Arts Centre,
Artes Mundi in Cardiff, Camden Arts Centre, Centre for Contemporary Art Derry-Londonderry, Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester, Chisenhale Gallery in London, The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast, Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston, John Hansard Gallery in Southampton, Liverpool Biennial, The MAC Belfast, MK Gallery in Milton Keynes, Modern Art Oxford, The Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in Sunderland, the South London Gallery and Spike Island in Bristol.