Contemporary gallery art is a very expensive, publicly-funded white elephant, a crutch of the elite. To call today’s art education, which feeds the galleries with an unending supply of this visual tripe, a catastrophic disaster, would be an understatement. It’s time we stopped pandering to its promoters.
Today we live in a West where multiculturalism has all but made us forget that Post-Renaissance European culture is what shaped the world. Everywhere, people learn English. In India, Urdu is dying because students are taught in English.
Yet language is not alone amongst our triumphs. Alongside our technological and scientific prowess there is another pillar of our culture: our art.
Some time ago I watched something that impressed me deeply. In Eastwood Citywalk in the Quezon City, in the Philippines, my girlfriend and I were watching some bands performing a charity concert. A group of young women walked between us and the stage. Suddenly one of them pulled out her cell phone and held it up before her, arm outstretched. Her three companions immediately, reflexively, formed themselves into a group behind her. A selfie was taken.
Not a one of these girls was a photographer, I doubt. None had been to art school. But I am and have been and I watched, entranced, as they created, with no direction, no supervision, a perfect piece of art. They made an image, reflexively, drawing on the skills they had honed in hundreds or thousands of selfies just like this.
In that one gesture, that lasted perhaps two seconds, a perfect snippet of visual ballet, they showed everything that is wrong with contemporary Western gallery art. They showed why it is decadent, a failure, and irrelevant, along with the ‘art education’ system that maintains it at the cost of the public purse. It’s unnecessary. People know fine well how to make art. You just let them learn and they do it.
Art reflects culture
Art reflects culture, said the great scholar of the Renaissance, Jacob Burkhardt (Link to Civilisation of the Renaissance, full text pdf download.) How true. And we need look no further than our galleries to see the death of that culture. To see its putrefaction, its pale anaemic ghost. A culture that is throwaway would perhaps be forgiven for having a throwaway art, but the fact is we were there half a century ago with Andy Warhol.
Today, all that fills our galleries is the decrepitude of corruption.
How has this come to be? How could so vibrant a culture — one that actually
did put men on the moon, that did eradicate a list of diseases, that did end rickets, that did make the world we know today, that did make its people more free, healthy, better-educated and more comfortable than any other, ever, come to this pretty pass? To have a gallery art so pitiful?
The story is ill but it must be told, for in the corruption and death of our art we see the harbinger of the end of our culture.
Marcel Duchamp: a curiously French toxicity
In strictly formal terms, the beginning of the end of gallery art as a meaningful cultural product came in 1922 when a dilettante French dabbler in art called Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal, signed ‘R. Mutt’.
Duchamp was a dilettante dandy of the Parisian art scene. He was talented and well-trained; but he lacked the passion and earthy lust of Picasso, or the refined elegance of Matisse. Instead he encapsulated all that is worst in the French bourgeoisie: their ennui, their insufferable sense of entitlement and their abject self-detestation. To be fair, Duchamp was not the only such, nor was he alone amongst his class in injecting into Western culture the bacillus of death itself. But he was, as far as art is concerned, the most influential.
For Duchamp, passion itself was distasteful. He never married, and his sex life appears to have been limited to autogynephilic transvestism, in which he played a character called ‘Rose Selavy.’ Technically, Duchamp was probably an analloerotic transvestic autogynephile. Unsurprisingly, given that, he seems to have been asexual otherwise. His contempt for the physical and the brute reality of life is, of course, a well-known fashion amongst the French bourgeoisie.
Nevertheless, Duchamp was a powerful intellect, impressing everyone he met. His real life was not that of the painter with his pigment-stained skin and black fingernails, and certainly not the sweaty milieu of the sculptor. If anything Duchamp, as far as art was concerned, was a delicate child, a model maker.
Duchamp was no Cellini; art was just a model of what was in his mind; and in the fullness of time this idea would spread.
Art is no longer about making things.
Having achieved fame — and notoriety — between the wars, Duchamp decamped to the United States, where he became a feature of socialite parties. His visible oeuvre ground to a halt and he passed his time playing chess. It later transpired that he had secretly made his greatest model yet: a room which could only be viewed from one tiny peep-hole.
This, as much as the famous urinal, was a clear statement, which became a nihilistic manifesto: art is not about making things.
During the 1950s and 60s, Duchamp was eclipsed by Clement Greenberg’s troupe of brash new things, the Abstract Expressionists. These years in the USA, buoyant and wealthy after the War, were no place for an introspective self-loather like Duchamp.
His star rose again in the 1970s, on the back of a new movement which he had, in part, inspired: Concept Art. This actually had, originally, a far greater contribution from Performance Art. Who could forget Gilbert and George, those three wacky men who walked round England with a pole on their heads, after all, or Cristo with his wrapped-up buildings? Art as ephemera, art as sound-bite, art as tomorrow’s fish-wrapper. But with the fading of the fire of transatlantic self-confidence, particularly after Vietnam, the Duchampian bloodline — thin and anaemic though it was — waxed in strength.
The Post-modernist Fifth Column
Duchamp was joined by another French intellectual from the same mould. He was also a dilettante, educated and talented, who loathed viscerally the nature of the world he was forced to live in and, while not compiling deliberately impenetrable and, frankly, absurd tomes of undiluted opinion, spent most of his time extolling the virtues of death and mass suicide. This was Michel Foucault, one of the Three Monkeys of Postmodernism.
Though not the true progenitor of the movement, which dubious honour goes to Jacques Derrida and Francois Lyotard, two more self-detesting French Communists, Foucault became, in practical terms the father of Post-modernism. This was possibly because he lived in the USA and became popular on television shows, when a pseudo-intellectual was required for mocking. After all, it is much easier to ridicule a Frenchman in public on American television, than an American. And Foucault gave one plenty of ammunition.
Post-modernism was conceived as a form of literary criticism which proceeded from the presumption that there is no objective reality and instead, everything exists in terms of ‘narratives’. Alongside this is the presumption that no one narrative is inherently more ‘valid’ than any other, it’s just different.
No such thing as art
This produced absurdities outside the art world, notably in education, but within it, Post-modernism was seized on. After all, as the art historian E H Gombrich said, ‘There is no such thing as art; there are only artists.’ This was and remains read to mean, as Duchamp’s urinal had, that ‘art is anything an artist says it is.’
That this is a circular reasoning apparently escaped not only Gombrich but many others. It also encapsulates the sheer arrogance of Duchamp. To illustrate this, let’s rephrase it: Duchamp’s gesture, of the urinal, says ‘I say am an artist and so if I say it’s art, then it is.’
Immediately, any attempt at evaluation or qualitative criticism becomes impossible. If the only person who can pronounce on a piece of art is the artist who made it, then critics are redundant. While, during the post-war bubble of national self-confidence on both sides of the Atlantic, critics had the confidence to say ‘baloney’, when the post-70’s hangover came, things changed.
‘Concept’ art is by definition, ‘art lite’. All art has concept. The most mundane piece of pornography has concept. It is impossible to make art without concept. Our smiling Filipinas making their impromptu selfie understood full well the concept of what they were making.
What Concept Art did was to strip away the ‘making’. This, together with the related notions that only artists could define art and that ‘all narratives are equal’, meant that artistic criticism simply died. It was no longer possible to criticise an artist’s line when in fact he had simply called the local builder and given him a rough sketch on the back of a cigarette packet, after all.
The end of Gallery Art
This presented the first of several problems that were to destroy gallery art’s connection with reality or indeed, the public. When those girls made their selfie, without even thinking about it, they were using a method that I call ‘reflex and reflection’. It works like this: when we make a photograph, we should be spontaneous; this way our pictures will not be stiff. Later, we look at the image, and wonder how we could have made it better. When we go to take another picture, this reflection is still in our minds as we reflexively trip our shutter. In photography, these acts were once separated by the process of development, but not any more; we can take the picture, look, see if we like it and do it again.
This is exactly what a painter or a sculptor or any other artist does: make a mark, assess the mark, make another.
This implies, however, a dynamic process of criticism both of self and of created work. But in a Post-modernist, Concept Art world, there is no permissible criticism either by self or by other. The very process of learning to be an artist through making art becomes impossible. Since only the artist may define or explain the work, the business of assessing how good art might be devolves to how well the artists can write the ‘artist’s statement’ that today, is expected to accompany the oeuvre.
Gone are the days when one could simply wander around an art gallery and enjoy the imagery; now, one has to read and digest the ‘artist’s statement’ — frequently couched in terms that Foucault himself, who claimed to deliberately make 10% of his writing ‘incomprehensible’ would adore. Only then may one be permitted to appreciate — never criticise — the work.
The problem is that, as we saw with our selfie-girls, everybody knows how to make art. It is, literally, a process of action and criticism; but Post-modernism renders any concept of hierarchical value irrelevant and, worse, bourgeois . The result of this conflict is that art educators today spend most of their time teaching people how not to make art. They do this by implanting the seed of doubt that a person’s innate sensitivity to visual statements is worthless and even worse, that art itself cannot be criticised.
Common sense is dead
In the Concept Art, Post-modernist gallery art world, common sense is non-existent. Self criticism has been annihilated. The great English musician and performer Susan Janet Ballion, AKA Siouxsie Sioux, once said ‘If you do something for long enough, you can’t help but get better at it.’ Musicians the world over echo this: practise makes perfect.
Yet in contemporary art, this basic rule of creativity is not merely shunned, but denigrated. Art students who attempt to make their work ‘perfect’ are accused of nit-picking, whereas those whose work consists of sticking post-its on a wall are rewarded for their creativity. To call this ridiculous would be a kindness.
And yet it is these very people — the post-it stickers — who feed into the next generation of art educators. It is these people whose art is bought and put on display in public galleries.
As if all this were not bad enough, in the UK, a catastrophe in art education, begun in the 1970s, has come to its full destructive fruition.
The problem that set this off was that school art teachers, who previously held a Diploma in Art and Design, were paid less than teachers of other subjects who normally held a Degree. Rather than just fix the pay scales, the solution adopted by government and academy was to start offering Degrees in Art. This is why I have a BA Honours in Sculpture.
Unfortunately, Degrees could not be validated by Art Schools; only Universities could do that. The involvement of these institutions in art education was the thin edge of a wedge that cracked the system asunder. Universities began to see Art Schools as nice little earners and began actually taking them over. Art is cheap and students have to pay for their own materials, but their fees swell the coffers nicely.
It is quite safe to say, with no possible risk of contradiction, that Universities have not a clue about art or art teaching. None. Instead of learning to understand art and its internal systems of reflex and reflection, Universities wanted tangibles: essays, assignments and dissertations.
Which might have been all fine and dandy, if these had focussed on teaching the critical and self-critical skills an artist needs. But because of Post-modernism and Concept Art, these are both ruled out of bounds; so academic exercise in Art Schools devolves to teaching students how to write those highly impressive ‘artistic statements.’
I completed my undergrad Degree in 1983 and, after a career in the Media, an opportunity arose to take a Masters in 2010. I was curious to see what the state of art education really was.
I was not prepared for what confronted me. When I did my undergrad, 40% of the mark was drawing. Today I see degree students gaining firsts whom I would simply have failed, because their drawing was so bad. Why the high score? Because they were good academic writers.
So the teaching of art has been comprehensively destroyed, in the UK, by a combination of cultural regression which prevents an understanding of visual criticism and self-criticism and, at the same time, by the entirely unhelpful influence of universities which simply do not understand the principles by which art is made. Because of this, they have to assess students on the basis of written work, both in terms of academic papers and their ‘artistic statements’.
So the next time you hear about a pair of spectacles on the floor of an art gallery, you will know the reason why.
The solution will not be easy; there is much vested interest in play. If it is to be done, it must be by removing art training from the dead hands of Universities and reintroducing the teaching of visual criticism. Teach students to actually make things — to draw, to paint, to sculpt, make photographs, whatever. Teach them the intellectual processes involved in visual thinking; and the first of these is self-criticism. Teach them a visual — not a rhetorical or academic — appreciation of aesthetics.
Contemporary gallery art in the West is a bastion of the elite. It is made by sincere people who have been deliberately confused by a disgrace of an ‘education’ system, for the titivation of the chatteratti who pretend to ‘understand’ it. It is utterly irrelevant to life. No taxpayers’ money should be wasted on it, yet it is, in huge quantities.
Gallery art is irrelevant today because the people who make it do not understand the nature of meaning in art — though they might be able to write reams of supporting literature.
Today, when I indulge in the (usually depressing) act of going round such a gallery or exhibit, I make a point of not reading the ‘artist’s statement’. I take the view that a piece of art should stand on its own merit, without the bumph. I would not take kindly to having to read 5,000 words of verbiage to comprehend a film, or a musical concert, or a ballet. Why should I have to do that in order to ‘admire’ the latest ghastly confection served up by the Saatchis and their odious ilk?
It is axiomatic that art should speak for itself. The trouble is, most of the contemporary stuff doesn’t.