Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Miami: The Desperate Search for the Avant-Garde

The weirdly named Art Basel Miami Beach is about to start. Art Basel sounds about right, but adding Miami Beach sucks all the seriousness out of it. Meanwhile, the Turner Prize has been won by a painter and Damien Hirst is exhibiting his collection. Contemporary visual 'art' is highly successful. Like gold, it works as an absorber of surplus cash. But, unlike gold, it is not clear what it is. I have often heard fashionable gallery owners, over-excited critics and verbally-challenged academics explain works in terms that I can only describe as illiterate and ignorant. They are doing so, of course, because an unprecedented number of rich people, often with 'art advisers', want to fill their walls and spaces with stuff labelled as 'art'. But they seldom, if ever, make any sane distinctions between art and not-art. Instead, they just seem to endorse the whole lot. Yet I like looking at contemporary 'art'. It is often highly decorative and well-done. Occasionally, it is, without question art. But, most of the time, it is just pretty things done by pretty young things seeking to 'subvert' something or other. They are all in desperate pursuit of the avant-garde, the one thing they cannot have because what was avant-garde has become the orthodox mainstream. There is nothing to subvert and nobody to shock. There's too much 'art' because there's too much money. As for art, well there is as much as there always was - very little.


  1. Rough weather on the ocean waves must be preventing my comments- in morse- from getting through. What's wrong with a good seascape I say. Well, the tall, monosyllabic German woman won the Turner Prize with her fey little canvases, and the chap who set up a TV production company to advertise people who had been hurt by 'reality TV' didn't. I thought Rachel Campbell-Johnson was spot on when she said that the biggest 'shock of the new' would have been not to present the prize at all. It was revealing that the night's compere, Nick Serota, felt unembarrassed about having been a Turner Prize judge for 18 years.....sure its all about money Bryan, but what isn't? Polly, Polly, alive, alive o.

  2. Well, coming from an artist myself, the Turner Prize did go to a worthy winner. It's not often i say that. But i did quite like her work. Yet the show felt strangely subdued for the TP, and possibly a flashback to the 1990's!? Maybe it really is time to bring back 'real' art. Who knows it may shock us!

  3. Hey, Cap'n -- "Red sky in the morning; sailor's warning" -- hey, didn't you take a dawn reading with Polly?

    Bryan, dear boy, where have you been? Avante-garde is over -- now it's a rear guard action. I love going to galleries and I've been delighted to note that everything old is new again and figurative paintings are back in style.

    Give me a good Lucien Freud any day.

  4. As I wrote the other day, most modern art exists for the sole purpose of being talked about by well to do intellectuals. The work is justified by these people talking about it, and these people are justified by doing the talking. What I mean by "modern art" will hopefully be understood without me having to specify.
    Art is the union of technique, intelligence and feeling.
    I wrote a line a while back, "An awareness that attempts to subordinate itself to reason and nothing but, must end in absolute nihilsm, ie total sceptism about thought itself." In art, we could substitute technique for reason and the same applies. It's a kind of path of inevitality from cubism to the suicide of painting if this path is followed. And of course it was followed by more than a few. So we ended up with "artists" of ill-developed technique and like the extollers of Reason as if it existed apart from life, generally similarly ill-developed feeling for life. Though in the great tradition of inventing philosophies after the event, these souls could console themselves with thoughts such as technique would have hindered the expression of their unique and fascinating selves, and when that grew flimsy that painting had run its inevitable course. And from there to an unmade bed and wallowing in discussion about the psyche of she whose bed it was.
    Technique is what enables the artist's vision to pour forth; the artist is not there to let the technique pour forth. A very naive trust similar to that in the idea of Progress which is imagined will lead itself towards promised lands, with the sole requirement of the human being to follow its path. And thus lies the joys of Modern Art- next to nothing to say, and lacking in the means to say it. I think much of what I that I am attacking could be summed up best by one exhibit I saw in Geneva consisting of a video of the artist stuffing his hand down his mouth till he would retch and be forced to take it out. And feeling the worse for wear, undaunted he would repeat the procedure until, if I remember right, he eventually passed out. The artist having cut himself off from everything else, now finally turns on himself.

    Hopefully noone wll tediously point out that there are some fine artists out there. Like people like Paul Klee there is no reason the above path must be followed.

  5. The art scene in Ireland right now is appallingly philistine and vulgar (like nearly everything else that our tiger economy has got its claws into). Just imagine purchasing a painting, not because you thought it had any merit or was beautiful, but instead because you thought it might appreciate in value. What? Yes. It's true. Art as investment! You're right Bryan: too much art and definitely too much money. I feel nauseous again and there isn't a politician in sight! Bacon fan myself, by the way. Dublin inherited his studio. Unfortunately, I haven't had time to visit yet. Bloody kids; they have ruined my life (but in a good way, of course).

  6. Though Wilde wrote of it at the front of Dorian Gray, though I'd do anything not to fall into this trap yet again, still I must ask it, Bryan:

    What is art?

  7. Of course, there are some fine artists out there. I'm not bad myself. I'm as good Tony Hart, I reckon, but not quite as accomplished as Rolf Harris. What I lack in technique, intelligence and feeling, I make up for in chutzpah. I once sold a used teabag for less the than price of a unused teabag. I thought that was a clever reversal. Called 'Tea for None', it symbolised for me the the loneliness of man in the postmodern, consumerist age, the breakdown of social networks, secularism and the general decline in Western values (and the failure of Ireland to qualify for the last World Cup).

  8. I think I should perhaps refine my description to read: Art is the distillation of life, achieved through the union of technique, intelligence and feeling. With regard to what does or doesn't purport to be art, not that I've much/any interest in such questions, it might be useful to wonder in what sense life is being distilled . For example, art along the lines of Mondrian, with its neat displays of lines...Perhaps it's the distillation of the artist's liking for neat coloured lines.
    I am, much as it pains me to say it, quite sceptical of Neil's artistic teabag. I discern little in the way of true artistic technique or feeling, and in the place of intelligence merely animal cunning in the selling of it. Which isn't to say it shouldn't win a Turner's Prize.