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More thoughts on the Tate Triennial and contemporary art in general

From: blp
Category: Art
Date: 04 March 2006


These things tend to go in cycles I suppose. I hated contemporary art in the eighties, liked it in the nineties, now I hate it again. It was bad all over in the eighties and neo-expressionism was the seemingly willful standard bearer of badness, but England depressed in its own furrow with the deathly dull large professionalism of Helen Chadwick, Richard Deacon, Anish Kapoor, David Mack.

I remember the first time I heard about the Goldsmiths generation, seeing Damian Hirst’s fish in resin piece in a Sunday magazine, Opposing Forces Swimming in Different Directions for the Purposes of Understanding and thinking ‘why is this art?’ and being interested in my own art moment - for the first time really. I still think they were good, the best of those people, in their day: Hirst, Lucas, Wearing, Wallinger, Whiteread, Fiona Rae, Steve McQueen, even Georgina Starr very early on, though one grows up and realizes that some of them, I mean Douglas Gordon, were just very very lucky little chancers.

A lot of younger artists seem to hate these people now. One or two have told me that they do. It shows in the work. At some point, some general feeling seems to have arrived that something was to be said that couldn’t accommodate the clean edged rectangle that defined minimalism and engendered conceptualism. Suddenly, bursting out of those straight lines, it’s all baroque phantasmagoria, already patinated with the brownish grime of junk shop history.

Adrian Searle’s review of the try-anythingial talks about the stated curatorial ambition to represent art dealing with appropriation without irony or jokes. Maybe the lack of jokes is because of a lack of any intent of detachment. The idea seems to be now, if you like it, just point at it or make it again: recreate performances you’ve seen in books, design things that look like the trash culture you grew up with the eighties, use film rather than video to get that Kenneth Anger look you like and, when you frame things up, use gilt and curlicues – anything to avoid those minimalist sharp edges.

The lack of faith in the present – even in the possibility of critiquing it – is palpable and suffocating. We’ve had postmodernism for years and referencing the past was nothing new even before that, but supposedly avant-garde art has never looked or been so reactionary. Pound’s dictum ‘Make it new’ is always about a relationship with the past. The only thing new now, ironically, is revivalism – fashion-driven nostalgic salivating over romantic pasts. Seventies revivalism never muddied up the nineties cool school, however much it did the culture at large, but eighties revivalism’s all over the current stuff like shit. There is no intent to critique and nothing to critique, the past being gone, just a desire to live out a fantasy (think of the way Michael Jackson would say the word to get my full revulsion for it). The fallacy is that, intended detachment or no, the artists are detached from what they’re referencing whether they like it or not. Nothing ends up being revived. We just get a bunch of mummified corpses dragged into the gallery and crudely reanimated. Meanwhile, in this dimwittedly permissive theoretical environment, the door swings open to all kinds of other rigourless tat – even fantasy art itself.

You could argue that, by setting up the minimalist box against this, I’m just engaging a subjective clash of tastes. But that boxiness was never just about the look of the box itself, but about the relationship of the box to the space around it and the viewer, an acknowledgement that art was not hermetic, but had an unavoidable relationship to its context, to the reality around it and a professed desire to be part of that reality. That’s how we got from there to conceptualism. Critics such as Harold Rosenberg warned at the time of the dangers of minimalism being no more than design and, of course, later artists like Julian Opie ignored the warnings (and got rich), but it doesn’t matter. The core idea was good and it’s that that I’m lamenting, not some style I just happen to like better than the one around now. What’s gone – arrogantly, contemptuously gone – is the contemplative, any sense of fascination with phenomena and, therefore, anything that might wake a viewer up. We go to sleep, instead, in perfumed rooms, and dream up monsters.

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