The good, the bad, the overpriced
Have the ideas run out? And are all the best artists now designing iPhones?There have been mutterings and rumblings in the art world, and now there is some shouting. Two prominent critics have said they will no longer sully their keyboards with words about art. In the US Dave Hickey says, “What can I tell you? It’s nasty and it’s stupid.” In the UK Sarah Thornton, the author of Seven Days in the Artworld, gives “10 reasons not to write about the art market”, which include, “You end up writing about paintings by white American men more than is warranted,” and, “The most interesting stories are libelous.”
At Frieze Art Fair in London last month it seemed as if everyone was looking for a trend, but none emerged. And, to cap it all, Camille Paglia, the deliberately controversial and contrarian US writer, upset everyone, except perhaps collectors of early-1970s art, by announcing in the Wall Street Journal that “no major figure of profound influence has emerged in painting or sculpture since the waning of Pop Art and the birth of Minimalism in the early 1970s”.
So if the world is full of overpriced, stupid and bad art, only you can’t say it because you’ll be sued, why does anyone bother? Have the ideas run out, and are all the best artists, as Paglia suggests, now designing iPhones? One answer is that we can’t know yet. With the exceptions of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, who made game-changing gestures – Duchamp’s infamous urinal, Fountain, from 1917, and Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans, from 1962 – influence can take longer to emerge into the popular consciousness, and even consensus. Lucian Freud was relatively unrecognised in the 1970s but is now agreed to be one of the most important painters of the 20th century. It takes time for a reputation to settle.
In the late 1980s and 1990s the Young British Artists, led by Damien Hirst and including Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas, Liam Gillick and Michael Landy, were seen as defining presences, yet now, despite the subsequent careers of some of them, it’s clearer that the “movement” was more of a marketing gimmick. Ten or even, at a pinch, five years ago Hirst and Jeff Koons would have been considered hugely significant; now their glossy productions and assistant-created multiples are more of a footnote, or a relatively pointless cul-de-sac, in the story of contemporary art.
Tate Liverpool’s head of exhibitions, Gavin Delahunty, who previously worked at Project Arts Centre in Dublin, agrees that time is key. “To become a ‘major’ figure requires a degree of retrospective reflection, by which I mean I’m sure the artists Paglia signposts were not considered in this way at the time. It’s not so much the artist but their public and critical reception that invariably comes into play.”
There is also a difference between celebrity and influence that gets increasingly lost in a world of reality TV and manufactured fame. Born in Roscommon but based since the 1950s in the US, Brian O’Doherty is one of the generation of artists Paglia lauds as the last to have influence. “The stars,” he says, are Gerhard “Richter, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Matthew Barney (maybe). But they are not influences. The last influential generation was my lot (Sol [le Witt], Dan [Flavin], and Co). The 90s mined our ideas. We were part of the great paradigm shift that ended the idea of influence and the artist-hero.”