Deep in August, gazing at the rather forlorn contemporary art landscape that is standard for this time of year, when major exhibition openings are lacking, I’m left wondering why in fact it seems a good deal more forlorn than I expect. This, despite the fact that the new extension at Tate Modern continues to attract thousands upon thousands of visitors. Also despite the fact that ‘contemporary art’, so called, continues to wipe the floor with every other collecting category in the big auction rooms, even though sales totals tend to be sharply down.
I think there are quite a number of reasons why the art world is in trouble – kinds of trouble that seem likely to get worse rather than better.
One major reason is that the whole notion of avant-gardism, as this was understood throughout most of the 20th century, seems to be in trouble. This has been the case ever since the terms Post Modern and Post-Modernism became current, which happened some time ago now. What both these phrases tell you, with perhaps more force that those who originally coined them intended, is that the great age of radical re-invention, both of what was seen and also of ways of seeing it, has come to an end.
In many ways, we have reverted to 19th-century norms. Radical art currently expresses its desire to be thought of as radical, not by seeing the world afresh, but by embracing political causes, just as it did in France during the period between the French Revolution and the catastrophe of the Franco-Prussian War. And it does so within the framework of major official institutions, such as Tate. Or through various state-supported international cultural jamborees, such as the Venice Biennale. Political and social rebellion, thus supported and endorsed, is an inevitable contradiction in terms.
When the political impetus in art collapsed in 19th century France, as the result of military defeat, one result was the invention of Bohemia. That is to say, of a parallel cultural world, largely uninterested in politics, and inhabited by a mixture of outsiders from all classes, from the richest to the poorest. A paradigm of this world is offered by Renoir’s painting The Luncheon of the Boating Party (1881), which features a Russian Jewish millionaire; a French baron, former cavalry officer and after that Mayor of Saigon; an Italian journalist; an official at the French Ministry of the Interior with an interest in the occult, plus a local boatman, several actresses and the seamstress who was to become Renoir’s wife.
The composition makes a striking contrast with Courbet’s The Studio: A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life (1855). Here the artist not only enters the political sphere directly but claims to be a major player within it. His self-portrait, working at the easel, occupies the centre of the composition. If one wants to think of a contemporary parallel, that’s easy: go to the work of Ai Weiwei, as seen recently at the Royal Academy.
Though The Studio was excluded from the Paris Salon of 1855 and had to be exhibited separately, there is, in fact, a continuous history of left-leaning, socially conscious art in late 19th and early 20th-century European painting, as exhibited in the various national Salons of the time. Anyone who doubts this should look at an old book of mine, Work, and Struggle, written in collaboration with Celestine Dars. The illustrations were sourced from Salon livrets, or their non-French equivalents and the present location of these often-ambitious compositions is largely unknown. Perhaps they survive, dusty and neglected, in remote storerooms in dusty provincial museums. Or maybe not. They made a lot of journalistic noise in their time, as their equivalents do today. In general, much more noise than the work of the then nascent experimental avant-garde whose rebelliousness we now routinely celebrate.
Speaking of these early manifestations of the avant-garde impulse, it is also worth noting that they were in general non-political. It’s hard to see any political content in Cubism, for instance. Where political content exists in this context, as it does in Italian Futurism, the politics are as likely to be those of the right as those of the left.
As the comparison between Courbet and Ai Weiwei also suggests, one piece of common ground occupied by both artists is not only political commitment but also solipsism. The artist’s personality is the filter through which everything else is perceived. Solipsism is still very much in evidence in the supposedly avant-garde art of today. Rembrandt produced, in terms of his time, an unusually large number of self-portraits, but they still form only a small fraction of his surviving oeuvre. In the work of Georg Baselitz, a leading figure in the German art world of today, self-portraits preponderate to the exclusion of almost any other subject matter. When Jeff Koons, one of the two or three biggest names among living American artists, wished to produce a series of erotic sculptures, the male protagonist in all of them is recognizably himself. Real avant-gardism may have died, but the ironclad egoism of the 19th century Romantic Movement lives on. Koons is a recognizable descendant of none other than Wordsworth (The Prelude) and Byron (Childe Harold).
There is, however, one striking division between the various forms of activity embraced by today’s so-called avant-gardists – a division that is so clear and obvious, so very much a given, that it is seldom addressed by professional commentators.
This is the split between what official organisations would like artists to supply, and what the market, outside of the official circuit, demands. The official organisations are all out for ‘democratic’ – ahem! – populism. Hence the increasing emphasis on performance, participation, artists’ video, here-today-but-not-necessarily-reconstructible-five-years-from-now installation works. Things that don’t cost a bomb, don’t eat up storage space and make official institutions look convincingly down with the kids. The market, on the other hand, wants things that look convincingly pricey – high-ticket items that are fitting adornments for millionaire/billionaire living rooms.
The major contemporary art dealers, the international art fairs, the big auction houses are, in contrast to this, chiefly into money. If possible, very large sums of money. As other kinds of quality goods – Old Master paintings, fine 18th century furniture – become scarcer and scarcer, the kind of art labeled ‘contemporary’, but not always necessarily from right now, has become a major repository of financial value. Ownership is a signifier of personal prestige. A market of this kind has existed, in various forms, ever since the rise of bourgeois capitalism – certainly since at least as early as the opening years of the 17th century, when artists began to make works without waiting for a patron to commission them. At that point, artworks began to compete directly with other forms of luxury goods. Things you don’t need, but long to have. But never in quite as unstructured and irrational form as happens now.
The result has been the creation of a random A-list of artists, not always with any perceptible characteristics in common, and most of them safely if fairly recently dead, who collectively certify the prestige and glamour of contemporary art. Richter, Johns, Koons: still alive. Bacon, Freud, Basquiat, Warhol, Rothko, Lichtenstein: safely dead. This rarefied world has very little to do with the kind of populism now being embraced by Tate.
There is one disturbing link, however, which is that in both these apparently opposing worlds it is all too easy to enter into the realm of magical thinking.
Because it is increasingly difficult to offer art criticism with a rational structure, fully defensible judgments in art and of art, both in the heady world of the A-list buyers and also in the now rampantly populist sphere of government supported arts bureaucracies, are harder and harder to sustain.
Where the A-list is concerned, as a recent Knoedler Gallery court case amply demonstrated, about the only way of distinguishing a Rothko fake from a genuine Rothko is the existence of a solid, verifiable provenance, plus chemical analysis of the materials used. An educated eye and long experience of art are no longer enough. The stylistic criteria offered by a Rothko abstract aren’t complex enough. You can’t just look at it, add up the criteria, and know. Or, maybe, in the world of magical thinking, you can.
Where the museums chasing big audiences are concerned, they are now from time to time happy to play host to what can only be described as demonstrations of shamanism. Marina Abramovic seated mute on her hard chair in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, as the physical embodiment of the proposition that The Artist is Present – what could be more shamanistic than that?
Photo: P C Robinson © artlyst 2016 CHARLOTTE COLBERT ORDINARY MADNESS Gazelli Art House London