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Ca c’est l’avant-garde?

October 25, 2009

On the face of it’s an exciting time on the London art scene just now. The Wallace Collection is hosting Damien Hirst’s first exhibition of paintings, renowned installation artist Anish Kapoor has become the first living artist to be given a retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts, while the nominees for the 2010 Turner Prize can currently be seen together at the Tate Britain Gallery. So, London-resident and slutty consumer of contemporary culture that I am, I dutifully stepped out today to see it some of it for myself on a sunny autumnal afternoon. 

What a disappointment that was.

To quickly dismiss the first two of the above in a sentence: Damien Hirst was as repetitious and uninspiring in this medium as any other, while Anish Kapoor can dazzle but ultimately suffers from an excess of showmanship over substance.

But the annual circus of media sensationalism that is the Turner prize was most disappointing of all.  Supposedly presenting the cream of British avant garde art, either the UK art scene is completely stale or the award is (and for the record I am almost certain it is the latter).  Why? Because not one of the nominees for the flagship award of the contemporary art actually engaged with the contemporary world

Ok I know art is a subjective experience, and yes there were some good things I could say about some of the work I saw, but hear me out because surely I can’t be the only one that finds this deeply unsatisfying.  

As I understand it most contemporary art generally doesn’t aim to be beautiful, but rather to embody concepts. So sure, there are interesting things you can do with space, material, and so on, as this year’s crop of artists demonstrated, but if you do not look outside process or the experience of what art is you are left with a bunch of concepts that are self-referential. This is art that is playing only with the artistic process or with ways of experiencing art.  But who then is this art for?

It was to parody the self-referential art establishment that Marcel Duchamp essentially invented conceptual art.   How uncomfortably it therefore now sits in the guise of precisely that same self-referencing establishment approaching 100 years later.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. giuseppecaruso permalink
    October 26, 2009 9:25 am

    Snug premising that i really like Anish Kapoor’s work (including his showmanship… which come to think of it has to do also with what i appreciate of Hirst’s positioning in the art world… but anyway) and that this won’t be the right place to discuss his work, i find this that you write most intriguing. I mean this:

    “most contemporary art generally doesn’t aim to be beautiful, but rather to embody concepts. (…) if you do not look outside process or the experience of what art is you are left with a bunch of concepts that are self-referential. This is art that is playing only with the artistic process or with ways of experiencing art. But who then is this art for?”

    now, what is it that i find intriguing exactly? Well not sure really… maybe the ‘most’ in first sentence, the ‘bunch of self-referential concepts’? or the apparent opposition between beauty and concepts (something an ‘academic’ has to cringe at, you’ll concede 🙂

    I feel that beyond the crucial question you ask (who is art for) which generates books and books of not really always beautiful conceptualizations (and engages all sorts of assemblages of ideas, money, power, institutions, blah, blah and blah), is it necessary, useful, beautiful or conceptually (ehm what? robust?) to separate beauty from concepts? And most importantly what is the problem with self-referentiality? Ok now i need to be careful not to generate anybody’s wrath. So let me be clear here: what i’m asking is really, probably, what is self-referentiality? Is it the reference that the self makes to itself? has it got to do with that? Well it is good that the self refers to itself isn’t it? 🙂 Or is it the inability of the self-to relate to others that you are considering? Now when i go around galleries and museum I see them insanely packed…

    Right this is what i was trying to ask you… how do you see this self-referentiality of contemporary (some, most, the shows you saw?) art vis-a-vis the stadium-like crowds it draws towards its most celebrated celebrities (and not only thank the gods)?

    “art that is playing only with the artistic process or with ways of experiencing art.” ………

    thanks for this piece!

  2. snugglebus permalink*
    October 27, 2009 2:48 pm

    fair point – pretty clumsy wording. I’ll try and restate what I was trying to say without a soiled nappy’s worth of fuck-ups…but I’ll probably just collapse again to polemic, so expect you to pick me up on all my inconsistencies!

    its obviously a pertinent question you ask…judging by crowds (and presumably by £££ or $$$ or €€€ generated…though I suppose this is possibly another issue), contemporary art has never been more successful. so if art is reaching more people than ever before then this surely has to be something positive (and something therefore that asks difficult questions of my accusation of self-referentiality)…isn’t this the quintessential piece of evidence that art is ‘relevant’ to ‘ordinary’ people – that people actually want to come and see it in such large numbers??

    trust me my instincts are populist…im not one of these people that sees this as somehow i sign of selling out or something. BUT as much as I believe in populism (I hope you will allow me licence to use this word loosely), I also believe in judgements of quality beyond mere popularity…

    the crowds attacted by these celebrity exhibits must obviously have something to with the way that the art-world, like most other ‘worlds’, has learned to package and sell itself? As someone put it to me, it can seem like the publicity machine is stronger than the actual art itself.

    so why do I feel this way? because I want to see art that gets in the face of the contemporary moment. to me art that just seems to want to speak to the creative process, or the way art itself is experienced, is therefore unsatisfactory. its self-contained and self-referential. its boring ultimately. is there really so much ‘new’ to say on these things? this i think links to this trend now of art as an ‘event’…its nice, but where then is the difference between art and the circus? (literally in kapoor’s case when one of his ‘rooms’ was a set of mirrors that made you look fatter or taller etc).

    but there are all these amazing dimensions of the “now” and if artists aren’t going to engage with them, with this actually world in which all find ourselves, to challenge or provoke not just for effect, not just to be an enfant terrible, but to actually make us think again about those things, then who is, and…I find myself thinking…what then is the point of art?

    • giuseppecaruso permalink
      October 28, 2009 9:04 am

      so where should i start from? would it be fair to start from the tears or hilarity raised by the fnunniest expression i’ve heard all week (about nappies but not only)? probably not but then again i’m sure you’ll forgive me.

      I should have probably started with what you call inconsistencies. yes that made me think. What you call inconsistencies are the things that (unless used instrumental and in bad faith) are what generate debate and inspire thought processes and feelings. So most welcome to any of those that you call inconsistencies.

      instead what you expose are tensions that traverse the huge (but in terrible – financial – crisis at the moment and yes slow to recover… it may take at least two years) field of art. And i want to expose myself by coming close to you, put an arm around you and tell you look at that translucid, overgrown, symbolic representation of what could look like a puppy, isn’t it ridiculous on top of the Met? Well that’s Jeff Koons for you all people. This to tell you that i do know wht you feel as i do feel it too at times. So i guess what i enjoed the most in your piece is the chance you gave me to reflect on this tension adding layers of complesity to my undersatnding of that tension. You made me think, by exposing, the “inconsistencies” between an ideal of art and a practice (i guess hirst and kapoor where the cases in point of a wider sentiment), of the deep currents that traverse the art world where financial speculation meets emotional torment and hegotistic and greedy trading meets timeless interrogations on the sense of existence. Quite an interesting set of “inconsistencies”. So once more thanks for the post

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