My ongoing response to The Great British Art Debate. Dear readers, have patience, the end is nigh.
Does the art of the past have anything to say about the world of today?
One of the most impressive shows I saw seen in recent years was during a visit to New York, USA in 2007, and was a privately funded exhibition of German, wood-carved memento mori from the 16th Century. I was stunned by its graphic intelligence and technical mastery. It’s a shame they wouldn’t let me photograph it and it is also a pity that death has become so unpopular.
On the contrary, one of the worst shows I have seen in recent years is the Altermodern show at Tate Britain in 2009. The only three pieces of work in that sprawling mess that seemed interesting at the time were by Mike Nelson, Lindsay Seers and Olivia Plender.
Previous to this trip I had witnessed a dismal talk by Plender and her work about the “Kindred of the Kibbo Kift” which was actually much more interesting in the flesh than she made out in her talk. At the time, Lindsay Seer’s work seemed strange, enigmatic and quite fascinating. What a disappointment to hear her talk about it. I was recently at an artist’s talk where she mumbled and bumbled and jumbled about and managed to bore the pants off us, rambling from one apparently unrelated matter to another, for a whole hour and then had the cheek to accuse some of the audience at the back for falling asleep. Sorry, love, but if you are the one giving the talk, and you can’t keep the audience awake, then I think the blame for any social faux-pas lies closer to the stage.
Neither of these artists would win a personality contest and it is plain to see how Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin stepped over them. I pray that I will never be present to hear Mike Nelson talking about his work or the remaining piece of apparently interesting work in Altermodern may be ruined for me too. Most of these artists’ work would not represent them favourably in five years, never mind another five-hundred years, whereas the masterworks of unnamed 16th century craftsmen are still inspiring, humbling and communicate ideas more sophisticated and intelligent than the knee-jerk primitivism of the spiralling reductive altermodernism.
Strangely, I identify with the “constellation” idea that Nicholas Bourriaud, the über-curator of Altermodern suggests for that which comes after post-modernism. It’s just a shame he chose to show the most random “constellation” of shit that I have wasted money on in a long time. Whilst writing this I looked for the catalogue but I am fairly sure that I binned it. Hardly a loss.
I often ask myself these questions about contemporary fine art. Did you notice it? Can you remember it? Would you pay for it? Would you miss it?
Try it. It’s very revealing.
I remember the Turner Prize 1999 exhibition and being extremely depressed by the random nonsense of the winning artist, Steve McQueen. On the plus side, Tracey Emin’s work rewarded me for the time and money wasted elsewhere. Her “My bed” (1998) is a truly enlightening journey into a troubled mind and a connection with the fragility and ultimate futility of life, but without cynicism. Photographs in tabloid newspapers did not do justice to the tragic density of its details and it is a modern memento mori.
“Thinkers” such as Bourriaud seem to entertain an idea that art has a progression of improvement. Given the barely evident work of artists such as Martin Creed the if this progressions is linear then we are at the end of a very short and narrow cul-de-sac. If it is a detour then we have merely been taken on a diversion.
According to Bourriaud: “Artists are responding to a new globalised perception. They traverse a cultural landscape saturated with signs and create new pathways between multiple formats of expression and communication.”
What he is referring to here is nothing more than the random “shopping” of post-modernism, actually. These idiots have no idea what a disservice they have done to art with this incoherent drivel, and how unfortunate that the little cartoon explanation on the website of what alter-modern means reveals nothing more than the fact that art has become an emulsion of tedious cultural simulcra, repeated endlessly across the globe, rather like the Starbucks on every corner or the Gap on every high street or the iPhone in every pocket. Art has become an atomized and homogenous continuum of cultural approximations that are less than the sum of their constituent parts.
In opposition to Bourriard I propose a new term, “con-modernism” (no irony intended), meaning “with modernism“. Not post-modernism, not pre-modernism and certainly not alter-fucking-modernism. Maybe Bourriard is mistakenly using the word “constellation” (meaning: a group or cluster of related things – source Latin constellatio ‘group of stars’) instead of the word “confusion” (meaning: lack of understanding or uncertainty – source Latin confundere ‘mingle together’). The prefix “con” is from Latin meaning with. This persists as a word in Italian and Spanish (as in “con leche” – with milk) and in English as a prefix. The English slang term “con” is short for “confidence” as in confidence trick, and is from (you guessed it) the Latin word “confidere” ‘with faith’ .
The word modern also comes from a Latin word meaning “just now”. The English term “modern” means the recent as opposed to the historic. Arguably, we will never be post-modern, and by extension never post-anything. We are successively standing on the shoulders of giants who are standing on the shoulders of other giants. To talk of post-anything is an artificial distinction already redundant because of our inability to separate ourselves from what precedes. Once we are aware of a new influence we are never free of it even if we reject it.
The art of the past, particularly the death-obsessed work of the middle-ages, tells me that the world of today is a corrupt, cynical and status-obsessed world that is desperately trying to reach an imagined Emerald City in search of progress, immortality and salvation.
We are on the brink of the multiple imminent disasters of global warming, nano-technology, nuclear power and genetic engineering and it is time to re-connect with the fatalistic values of past, rather than kidding ourselves that we have surpassed them. The concept of con-modernism does not deny the past but entertains the idea that art can continue the traditions of the past whilst taking the ideas of modernism with us.
We have come too far down the yellow brick road to turn back now but let’s hope there is still room in this ruined world for courage, intelligence and compassion. The present is our home and there’s no other place like it.