Monday, May 5, 2008

Robert Hugues and the Shock of the New

As I wrote in my LJ journal, my area is filling up with art galleries catering to the hipster crowd. Most (if not all) of the art is either mediocre or pretentious or youthful posturing. When I was young, all of us art students carried paperback books where the author was prominently displayed - Hesse, Satre and the Kama Sutra were favorites, if I remember correctly. Nothing has changed but the names. Robert Hughes said it better in "The Shock of the New."

"The period has been full of conceptual art, but conceptual art makes for utterly droning TV. On the other hand, there are a few - a very few - artists of the "neo-expressionist" generation whose work continues its efforts to take on the burden of history, to struggle to explain our bizarre and terrible times to us in memorable visual terms, and one of the most complex and rewarding of these talents, uneven though he can be, is surely Anselm Kiefer."

No less so is Paula Rego, a painter I'd hardly heard of until a few years ago because she was scarcely known in the US - but how strongly put together, how viscerally and deeply felt, are her renderings of bad parental authority and of the psychic nightmares that lie just be low the supposedly sweet surface of childhood! Rego is a great subversive without a trace of the dull, academic conceptualism that renders the more approved American radical-feminists of the 80s-90s so tedious - and she draws superbly, which her sisters across the Atlantic have either forgotten or never learned to do. Like Kiefer, but unlike most painters at work today, she does art with a strong political content that never turns into a merely ideological utterance. It used to be that media-based, photo-derived art looked almost automatically "interesting". It cut to the chase instantly, it mimicked the media-glutted state of general consciousness, it was democratic - sort of.

"The high priest of this situation was of course the hugely influential Andy Warhol, paragon of fast art. I am sure that though his influence probably will last (if only because it renders artmaking easier for the kiddies) his paragonhood won't, and despite the millions now paid for his Lizzes and Elvises, he will shrink to relative insignificance, a historical figure whose resonance is used up. There will be a renewed interest - not for everyone, of course, but for those who actually know and care about the issues - in slow art: art that takes time to develop on the retina and in the mind, that sees instant communication as the empty fraud it is, that relates strongly to its own traditions. It doesn't matter whether the work is figurative or not."

"Sean Scully's big abstracts retain much more than a memory of experienced architecture, but they relate to the human body too, and there is something wonderfully invigorating about the measured density with which their paint brings them into the world. Not everything of value is self-evident and there is no reason in the world why art should be. Nor is it true that instantaneous media, such as photography and video, should or can deliver "more" truth than drawing. All you can say is that they offer a different sort of truth. This is an issue with which an artist like David Hockney has been struggling for years, and it's fascinating to see how he has given up on the photographic collages he used to make in favour of pure recording in watercolour, of which he is such a master."

"Styles come and go, movements briefly coalesce (or fail to, more likely), but there has been one huge and dominant reality overshadowing Anglo-Euro-American art in the past 25 years, and The Shock of the New came out too early to take account of its full effects. This is the growing and tyrannous power of the market itself, which has its ups and downs but has so hugely distorted nearly everyone's relationship with aesthetics. That's why we decided to put Jeff Koons in the new programme: not because his work is beautiful or means anything much, but because it is such an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks. Koons really does think he's Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can't imagine America's singularly depraved culture without him."

"He fits into Bush's America the way Warhol fitted into Reagan's. There may be worse things waiting in the wings (never forget that morose observation of Milton's on the topo-graphy of Hell: "And in the lowest depth, a lower depth") but for the moment they aren't apparent, which isn't to say that they won't crawl, glistening like Paris Hilton's lip-gloss, out of some gallery next month. Koons is the perfect product of an art system in which the market controls nearly everything, including much of what gets said about art."

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