Recently a thought-provoking article in The Art Newspaper asked the very pertinent question: “Is the cult of contemporary painting banishing older art to the Dark Ages?” Satish Padiyar, a lecturer at the prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art in London, no doubt could write an entire book on the subject, as indeed could this scrivener. Naturally, in the space of a brief newspaper article – or indeed, a blog post – one can only touch on a few of the factors which have brought about this cultural malaise. Indeed, if one needs further proof of the existence of such a malady, Padiyar rather shockingly shares the news that his institution no longer has a chair in the art of classical antiquity.
In his article Padiyar explores many of the social, technological, and economic factors which have led to the embrace of the contemporary over the appreciation of the past. “The cult of contemporaneity rises out of the felt social experience of new lives that are predicated on change, instantaneity and novelty, while many of the fundamental older forms of social binding and human togetherness are no longer operative or well functioning. If church attendance, family structure, social and political stability are eroded, or drastically experienced as “other”, then the older forms of art that picture these lost worlds and once rendered them enduring, daily lose their meaning.”
Before we get too precious about the “good old days”, we need to remember that at one time, all Western artists were of course contemporary, because they were painting or sculpting likeliness of people who were actually living, or illustrating scenes from the Bible, history, and so on using contemporary people as models. What united them across many centuries was the desire to constantly improve their skills. The study of science, experimentation with materials and methods, and the support of patrons allowed these contemporary artists to change over time.
Today when talent, craft, and technique are not even necessary for one to become a famous artist – e.g. Tracey Emin – reasonable people can observe that there is nothing left to shock us with. An actress such as Tilda Swindon can seal herself in a glass box at MoMA, as she did yesterday, and the only people who will care are the press, who need to write about something kooky in the contemporary art world in order to justify the expense of their shiny new iPads. No doubt, gentle reader, the news that this monumental artistic event took place yesterday has caused you great consternation, as we think about how women are trapped in a patriarchal box which they are unable to shatter due to the depletion of ozone and the crisis of global warming, thus preventing them from obtaining free abortions and medical marijuana? I thought not.
For getting back to the article in question, while Padiyar is correct in pointing out that the weakening and collapse of old bonds and values is reflected in the contemporary art world, I would reject his characterization that contemporary art is always in search of novelty. There is nothing novel about contemporary art, since it is all merely variations upon a single theme: Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” of 1917. This is not innovation, it is senility. Viewing much of contemporary art is a bit like watching someone try to tell a story while wearing an ill-fitting set of dentures. It can be done, but more often than not one is more amused in trying to guess when the upper plate will be accidentally shot across the room.
Thus, the contemporary art world promises to constantly titillate and surprise us, bringing philosophical challenges and exciting pleasures. Yet if everything is relative, and no one believes in anything any more, it seems difficult to understand exactly what it is challenging us about. In point of fact most of contemporary art is really just the same seedy old thing over and over again, like an ageing courtesan putting on more makeup to hide her crow’s feet and vericose veins. What was once tempting and dangerously seductive, is now just a bloated old tart, riddled with disease.
So thanks, contemporary art world, but no thanks – I’ll stick with my Raphaels.
Detail of “Salon of the Rue des Moulins” by Toulouse-Lautrec (1894)
Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi