There are increasing signs of conflict between the two wings of the avant-garde – currently so-called – in the visual arts. I say ‘so-called’ because in fact neither wing has a firm claim to this much-coveted description.
On the one hand there is the increasingly crazy and shady world of the big art fairs and major auction rooms. On Friday 3rd June the London Times carried a big piece headed ‘A hotbed of corruption’: insider gives art auctions a hammering. The insider was Kenny Schachter, a well-known London-based dealer and curator. He railed against the use of third-party guarantees, where one potential, but hidden, buyer commits in advance to buy a particular work at a certain price. Guarantees of this kind are particularly prevalent in sales devoted to the work of big name contemporary artists, many of whom are in fact now safely dead and in no position to protest about the practice. Rothko, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Bacon, Basquiat: gone and safely canonised, joined in their Valhalla by a very few, very senior living artists such as Richter and Jasper Johns. This part of the art market, with its colossal, utterly breathtaking prices, is one from which even the greatest museums are shut out. They can’t afford the entrance fee. They do, however, need the support of the high net-worth individuals who can do so, as governmental support inexorably dwindles. This can produce some uncomfortable situations.
Art fairs are a little different, a bit more democratic, but they tend to be a bit of a shark tank, full of buyers looking for art that’s hot enough to flip. The result is a hectic market in what is best described as ‘novelty art’. A lot of careers are made and unmade in this context. Up like the rocket, down like the stick.
Great museums, by contrast, are inherently bureaucratic – all the more so if they are directly supported by central government. They also – ahem – tend to be puritanical, run by Roundheads, never by Cavaliers.
An avant-garde run by, and almost wholly dependent on, official patronage is inevitably an oxymoron. The one thing a genuine avant-garde can’t afford to be is the obedient client of the State. This remains true even when the servants of the State, the promoters of officially approved avant-gardism, are, in their own view at least, determinedly populist.
One result has been a lumbering rush towards kinds of art that can be seen as being safely divorced from the hysteria of the market. Let the super-rich put trophy art on their walls We may flatter a few of them with trusteeships, or positions on safely castrated advisory committees, but we needn’t rubber-stamp their taste. We will instead pursue a different, self-evidently virtuous course. The new, vast extension of Tate Modern, very soon to open, will, we are told, feature a great deal of safely ephemeral performance art. Plus, one expects, a good deal of video. Plus see-them-while-you-can installations: once dismantled, gone forever. Nothing that will later clutter up museum storerooms already crammed with half-forgotten stuff. Recent Turner Prize exhibitions, for example, have shown a determined march away from anything that could be regarded as being even remotely ‘commercial’.
All this, of course, in the service of top-down populism. ‘Boys and girls, we museum daddies know best. You’re bloody well going to like what we tell you to like. After all, it’s your taxes that are paying for it.’
The paradox is, that while the original Roundheads closed down London’s theatres, their museum administrating descendants are all for art-as-a-circus. Strictly on their own terms, however.
Photo: Courtesy Sotheby’s © all rights reserved