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Four decadent “late phases” of great art styles. 1. Mannerism: Susanna and the Elders (16th century) by Alessandro Allori 2. Rococo’s “heavenly soft porn” replaced baroque’s classical values: The Toilet of Venus (1751) by François Boucher
Man Ray and Joseph Beuys, the readymade was a means of redefining the creation and perception of the work of art. An object could be used to subvert fundamental definitions of art (Duchamp’s famous urinal), explore the unconscious (Man Ray) or be deployed for symbolic purposes (Beuys).
oday, however, the readymade becomes an expression of the view that all human experience can become “art” the moment an artist displays it as such. Rirkrit Tiravanija puts a reconstruction of his apartment in a gallery; Richard Prince photographs cigarette adverts and frames them; Carsten Höller builds big theme-park-style slides in Tate Modern. Despite postmodernist pledges to debunk the mythology of the artist, artists appear to me to have become more mythologised than ever thanks to this kind of imperial ambition.
he shininess of art today—the commercialism of contemporary artists, the celebratory tone and mass production of work—are legitimated by curator-critics as a reaction against the drily intellectual years of conceptualism, when art was a scribble on a piece of graph paper. But what a small and conservative act of rebellion this glossiness is. Art has become small, superficial and self-indulgent in its emotional range: sentimental rather than truly intellectual or moving.
he styles of minimalism and conceptualism, for instance, originally served the purpose of expanding the definition of the art object: they sought to overcome sculptural and pictorial conventions and to explore visual perception. A sculpture could be laid out on the floor, like Carl Andre’s bricks. It could express the simplest empty spaces, like Donald Judd’s boxes, or scare you with its apparent precariousness, like Richard Serra’s sheets of steel. An abstract monochrome painting, like those of Ellsworth Kelly, would overturn centuries of assumptions by discarding the frame or setting the picture at a diagonal angle.
ow, these styles are applied to sentimental ends. Like rococo’s pastoral scenes, Hirst’s monochrome butterfly paintings purvey a pretty and frivolous aesthetic. His Modern Medicine series, of prescription drugs in cabinets, presents contemporary versions of the paintings of the muses to be found in the salons—vague paeans to the power of art. Tracey Emin’s casts of children’s mittens and coats, exhibited in public locations at the 2008 Folkestone Triennial, Takashi Murakami’s cute Japanese cartoon characters, and Jeff Koons’s enormous balloon dogs operate in the same dewyeyed register as Bouguereau’s images of children nursed by their mothers and surrounded by cherubs. Once again, these works of art are not necessarily “bad”—neither are the paintings of Bouguereau and Boucher—but they are kitsch.
4. cynicism Contemporary artists and their curators and theorists concede many of these faults, but invoke in their defence a critical atti
62 · prospect · june 2010 arts & books
3. Salon or “academic” art, the ossification of neoclassical style: Day (detail, 1881) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
4. Postmodernism, the grave of the modernist project: Second Mission Project ko2 (1999) by Takashi Murakami feature s pre ss/rex sipa
tude towards their material. Yes, Koons’s shiny balloon dog is kitsch—but it thereby subverts hierarchies of taste in art. Yes, Hirst’s gold-plated cabinets containing grids of industrial diamonds are glossily vacuous, but they are a critique of the society that admires them. Other artists have made works about their own shortcomings. One of Maurizio Cattelan’s brilliant early works, in 1993, was the installation of a live donkey and a chandelier in a New York gallery, to thematise his inability to come up with a good idea. The German artist Martin Kippenberger (1953-97) spent much of his (now acclaimed) career making art that described his frustrating quest to make important works of art. A surprisingly honest sense of failure, hopelessness and a bankruptcy of ideas are fundamental components of this end-phase of modernism.
ococo and academicism also witnessed this kind of confessionalism. One of Boucher’s better paintings is of his most important patron, Madame de Pompadour at her Toilette (1756). The mistress of Louis XV sits in front of her mirror applying the white powder and rouge that was de rigueur at court. But this is not just a court portrait. Boucher was often criticised for painting women who had already “painted” themselves with make-up and for his use of unnatural pinks and violets. In this work, however, he embraces this critique by painting the making-up. In a further twist, Madame de Pompadour is depicted looking at her reflection, and holding her powder brush as if she is an artist painting a self-portrait. Here is art celebrating its own superficiality. In doing so, it absorbs any criticism made against it, like Warhol’s celebrities—or Hirst’s Golden Calf, which ironises the adulation and criticism his art receives.
whose reputation will survive? Shortly after the end of the 19th century, the market in academic painting collapsed. Instead of commanding thousands of pounds (the equivalent of millions today) works could be bought for a couple of hundred. Some collectors had already turned to the “alternative” art scene of the day—Édouard Manet, Gustave Courbet, Edgar Degas and the impressionists. The work of these artists was exhibited and collected at the time—if not on the same scale or accompanied by the same hype as the salon artists. But unlike the salon artists, the reputations of these “alternative” artists survive to this day.
here have been inspired and important artists at work during the last ten years, just as there were in the late 19th century. But in order clearly to see what is in front of our eyes, we must acknowledge that much of the last decade’s most famous work has been unimaginative, repetitious, formulaic, cynical, mercenary. Why wait for future generations to dismiss this art of celebrity, grandiosity and big money? To paraphrase Trotsky, let us turn to these artists, their billionaire patrons and toadying curators and say: “You are pitiful, isolated individuals. You are bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of art history!”
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