07 October 2006

The ideology of contemporary art



The pseudo-excitement of Britart and its heirs is back in the news.

First, Charles Saatchi has organised a new exhibition at the Royal Academy, showcasing fashionable American art. The exhibition, entitled “USA today”, includes a work depicting a young teenage girl performing sex acts, and a fabric sculpture of a man adorned with a giant phallus and the words “I want kids”.

According to Martin Gayford in the Telegraph, what Saatchi likes is art that is "head-buttingly impossible to ignore". Well, cultural head-butting seems to be what it's all about these days, whether we're talking TV comedy, advertising or contemporary theatre.

Second, the somewhat farcical Turner Prize has come around again. More or less everybody, including — probably — the people behind the Turner themselves, seem to regard the whole thing as a bit of a joke. "What does it matter if it gets people talking about art?" is a standard line. Or, if you're anti, "who cares if a bunch of establishment people want to get off on rubbish, or even pay ridiculous prices for it?" Indifference: a key theme of mediocracy, but no more useful a reaction to culture than to an attack on civil liberties. As someone* once said, "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men and women to do nothing."

Apart from tedious-looking installations by Phil Collins, we have Rebecca Warren's sculptures of "cartoon-like women with humongous knobbly breasts and enormous bobbly buttocks". According to the Telegraph's Richard Dorment, Warren "uses parody and humour to deflate the pretensions of a medium that seems to invite over-interpretation and a sense of reverence that the artist may never have intended." Mediocratic cultural box-ticking: deflation, good; reverence, bad. And banal textual art, in the form of slogans done up in kitsch graphics by Mark Titchner, who Dorment expected

would walk off with the Prize this year simply by exhibiting his backlit, billboard-sized text works, each with a message of ferocious optimism or imperious command, lifted by the artist from corporate mission statements, political manifestos, or just songs and advertisements.
Derivation, recycling, ironic references: essential components in the toolkit of mediocratic art.

The other entry for this year's Turner is Tomma Abts, whose work I quite like. (Yes, it's true — I don't hate all contemporary art.) Picture on right is Pabe, courtesy Gallery Giti Nourbakhsch. But I doubt she'll win, because her stuff is too traditionalist. It's actually fairly aesthetic in the old-fashioned sense of that word. Unless the judges go against their own ideological preferences just to prove they're not always anti-traditional. But that seems a bit too subtle for the artaratchiks.

Is shock value an inherent part of modern art, asks the Telegraph. Yes, but only a particular kind of shock. Visceral yes, ugly yes, intellectually challenging – no. There is usually a note of mockery or ridicule – the good old postmodern 'irony', now pretty tiresome. It’s not that anyone still finds this ‘shocking’ stuff surprising or original, but it continues to have a mildly nauseating effect.

What is the underlying ideology of sculptures that emphasise sexual mechanics or physiological decay? A kind of uber-realistic, in-yer-face grimness, intended to deflate bourgeois aesthetic preferences. At least Picasso had serious intentions; Britart just seems to want to say “nothing matters, everything is degraded”.

* attributed to Edmund Burke

Update
Tomma Abts won the 2006 Turner Prize.