Contemporary art is big business nowadays, in more ways than one. It is has become a major refuge for equally major money, preferred to more traditional versions, such as gold or land. All over the world, from Switzerland to Singapore, customs-free enclaves now exist, where the rich can stash their treasures, safe from the attentions of the people who would like to levy taxes on holdings of this kind. And, as a recent special report in The Economist pointed out, museums of modern art now play a leading role, economic as well as purely cultural, in a number of contemporary societies. In a list of the ten most popular institutions of this sort, Tate Modern takes first place, and the privately funded Saatchi Gallery in London ranks fifth. New York is our nearest competitor, with MoMA as third most-visited and the Guggenheim Museum coming eighth. Other institutions listed include the Pompidou in Paris, the Reina Sofia in Madrid and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. China is hurrying to catch up. In 2012 four-hundred-and-fifty-one new museums were opened, bringing to total number in this vast country to three-thousand-eight-hundred-and-sixty-six. Quite a few of the newcomers are privately funded, and devoted to contemporary work.

One problem is, however, that art as a repository for wealth is often in direct conflict with the kind of thing museums of contemporary art now want to show. What all museums are traditionally meant to do, as The Economist suggested, is ‘to preserve and safeguard the collections entrusted to them.’ Yet the populist policies now imposed on them by their role in our current ‘bread and circuses’ culture means that they increasingly see their function as being that of entertainers, rather than preservers. Added to the duty to entertain there is often a compulsion to preach. Yet social criticism, offered in such a setting, tends to have had its balls cut off.

Add to this three other things. First, that the steep rise in prices for supposedly ‘important’ contemporary works has tended to shut even major museums out of the very top of the market. Second, that museum exhibition spaces, not to mention their storerooms, are often so full, even in institutions nominally devoted to the new, that finding a place to put any acquisition of ambitious size becomes a problem. This is particularly the case because of the current fashion for large-scale installations. After a first showing, these tend to disappear for good. In any case, it is difficult to reconstruct them correctly unless the artist is present to supervise. Third, there is the fact that contemporary art has become a kind of alternative religion, whose theology is often focused more on personalities per se, rather than on what those personalities physically produce. The current cult of the performance artist Marina Abramovic offers a case in point, as did the rapt attention given to the personality of Joseph Beuys in the 1980s. Beuys’s legacy of objects is not to me a very impressive one, since their function tends to be crudely symbolic, rather than aesthetic. His ‘actions’, or performances, which could have considerable emotional impact, are inevitably fading from collective memory. In fairness, however, it must be admitted that much of the art of the past was also ephemeral. When we look at Leonardo da Vinci’s activity at the height of his career in Milan, we discover that much of his time was spent in devising two elaborate masques for Sforza family weddings. Only written descriptions of these remain, plus a few drawings tentatively connected to them by modern scholars.

The real problem with what is happening now, however, is confusion and lack of any clear stylistic direction, combined with a lack of anything resembling objective correlatives. Here, for example, is A. A. Gill’s scathing description, written for Vanity Fair, of the recent Frieze London art fair:

‘A big, awkward, pile-’em-high contemporary warehouse, wall-to-Walmart. The cacophony of the avant-garde: messy, smudgy, bad breath, raw, and loud. The walls shout at your eyes till they just go blurry. The problem with art is that the bad obscures the good. It’s like a choir where only one person can sing in tune and everyone else bawls. Altogether, it looks like an early round of a TV talent show for painting. Part defiant posturing, part insecure overstatement, and part immature enthusiasm – with a modicum of talent.’

It’s a situation that makes even the best-informed commentators feel insecure. One striking symptom of this insecurity a plethora of lists, all of them trying to define what contemporary art is really about, and where it may possibly be going. Among the more significant of these attempts to clarify the situation is Vanity Fair’s recent poll of a panel of a number of the art world’s supposedly great-and-good, who were asked to identify the ‘six most important living artists.’ Add to this Kelly Grovier’s coffee table book for Thames & Hudson, 100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age, published last year, and a list of The 100 Most Iconic Artworks of the Last 5 Years, published on the web by Blouin Art Info in September 2012, and one has a good sampling of what supposed insiders think is significant.

The Vanity Fair selection is the most conventional of the three. Most of the star artists are of mature years. The German painter Gerhard Richter heads the list, with twenty-four votes, closely followed by Jasper Johns, aged eighty-three, with twenty. The others are Richard Serra (19), who voted for himself whereas Johns elegantly declined to participate, followed by Bruce Nauman (17), Cindy Sherman (12) and Ellsworth Kelly (10). Cindy Sherman is the only woman in the top six, and also, at fifty-nine, the youngest. Other artists who figured in the discussion were John Baldessari, Jeff Koons, William Kentridge, and Ai Weiwei (five votes apiece), and David Hammons, Brice Marden, Ed Ruscha, James Turrell (four apiece). Damien Hirst makes almost the bottom of the list, with three citations. Anselm Kiefer got just one vote, as did the controversial American appropriationist, Richard Prince.

Among the more conspicuous absentees is Frank Stella, very big in the 1970s and 1980s. Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente, also stars in the 1980s, are no-shows, as are Georg Baselitz, one of the biggest stars of German Neo-Impressionism, which made such an impact thirty years ago. Also absent is Chuck Close.

The names on the list are predominantly American, with two African American artists, Davis Hammons and Kara Walker. There are two German artists (Richter and Kiefer); one white South African (William Kentridge); one Chinese artist (Ai Weiwei) and two Brits (Damien Hirst plus David Hockney, who, also with three votes, trails beside him in the rear). Women artists, apart from Sherman and Kara Walker, are conspicuously absent, though Louise Bourgeois might perhaps have made the cut, had she lived just a little longer. Though three of the top six are painters, the choices give a feeling that art is moving away from painting as a major form of expression.

If one looks at Kelly Grovier’s 100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age, written by an American living in Britain and published by a major British imprint, the balance is very different, though here, too, painters tend to be pushed into the background. The list is, like the Vanity Fair equivalent, predominantly Anglophone, but here there are thirty-two artists out of the one hundred choices who are either wholly British, or individuals who choose to spend most of their time in Britain, as opposed to twenty-eight who are either American born or domiciled in America. These statistics are based on the biographical apparatus provided in the book itself. The Americans listed overlap to some extent with the Vanity Fair choices. Of Vanity Fair’s top six, Bruce Nauman, Cindy Sherman and Richard Serra are present, Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly are absent. Non-American overlaps include Richter, Kiefer, Kentridge, Hirst and Hockney. And also, inevitably, Ai Weiwei, who has so much caught the imagination of Western art pundits, though the now booming Chinese art world tends to regard him as an Americanised outsider – of more interest politically than he is artistically. For example, Ai Weiwei has no real links with the two premium academies, the Central Academy in Beijing and the China Academy in Hangzhou, which between them tend to dominate the Chinese contemporary art world, through both their teachers and their graduates.

Forty of Grovier’s ‘defining’ artworks are installations, by far the largest category in his book. No fewer than nine of these were to be seen at various branches of the Tate (eight in London, one at Tate Liverpool). Fifteen in all were shown at British institutions, and another nine in the USA, including a Martin Creed piece that was also presented at Tate Britain. That is, the choice asserts that the various Tate galleries offered as many globally significant installations as were offered in the last decade or so by the whole of the USA. Installations shown in London and the USA thus occupy nearly twenty-five per-cent of the book. Only two of the installations listed in the book were shown in commercial galleries, both in New York: one at Paula Cooper and the other at Gagosian. These percentages suggest that much of what we still call avant-garde art has in fact become official art, with symbiotic links to other aspects of official culture. Where it expresses apparently radical political views, as it quite often does, these are safely neutered by the setting. For example, the current main collection installation at Tate Britain gives a large room to The Chapman Family Collection, a group of parodies of ethnographic sculptures by Jake and Dinos Chapman, purchased in 2008, with help from the Art Fund, for £1.5 million. These have been previously shown at Tate Liverpool, with an accompanying text that stressed their criticism of ‘the role of multinational and global capitalism in cultural imperialism, as well as the way we are ‘fed’ corporate brands through marketing logos’. The irony is that this re-installation is sponsored by BP, a representative of multinational global capitalism if ever there was one.

The Blouin Art Info list of The 100 Most Iconic Artworks of the Last 5 Years has some overlaps, in turn, with the choices made by Grovier. Among them are Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull (truly iconic in the way that it seems to sum up an age of vulgar bling, but with the artist as a willing participant, not as a critic). In Blouin, there is also Hirst’s multi-gallery, multi-location exhibit The Complete Spot Paintings, organized by the Gagosian Gallery before they parted company with the artist. Present in both lists are Marina Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present, Ai Weiwei, and Mark Wallinger’s State Britain – yes, the one that involved making a reconstruction of the late Brian Haw’s Peace Camp, originally sited in Parliament Square, in the Duveen Gallery at Tate Britain. Wallinger won the Turner Prize for this in 2007. The Guardian reported that the judges commended the piece for its ‘immediacy, visceral intensity and historical importance,’ and called it ‘a bold political statement with art’s ability to articulate fundamental human truths.’ From this distance in time – just over six years – it seems like yet another example of preaching to the converted. The visual sermon, in any case, reached fewer people from its pulpit in Tate Britain than it did from its original outdoor, very central London location.

The Blouin list differs from the one constructed by Grovier because it contains a much higher proportion of purely American, and also of non- institutional choices. Things like Nest (2007) – a human-sized nest of torn up pieces of paper, installed by the late Dash Snow and his collaborator Dan Colen at Deitch Projects in New York, caused scarcely a ripple on this side of the Atlantic. Nor did the tragic career of Snow himself, an American rich boy gone bad, who was related to the great de Menil family of collectors in Houston. Among the odder picks are Christoph Büchel’s installation at MASS MoCA, Training Ground for Democracy, which wildly overran its budget and never opened to the public, leading to a long legal dispute between artist and institution. Plus the clumsy restoration of a damaged church painting of Jesus, by the elderly Spanish amateur artist Cecilia Giménez, which for some reason became a sensation on the Internet, perhaps because it made Christ look like an orangutan.

One characteristic of the Blouin list is that a great many of the artworks list- ed can be tracked down most usefully on YouTube, because they depend on moving images. When you encounter them there, it becomes evident that many have only the most tenuous relationship with traditional ideas about art. Christian Jankowski’s Casting Jesus (2010), for example, is just what the label says on the tin – a casting call for actors wishing to play the part of Jesus in a film. As such, it of mildly documentary interest, and is also, as it happens, mildly amusing. Of either aesthetic or genuinely conceptual con- tent there is little trace. Martin Creed’s All the Bells in the Country Rung as Quickly and Loudly as Possible for Three Minutes, a project subsidized by the Arts Council for the London Olympics, was, like nearly all the official art projects for this otherwise successful event, a complete bust. I live in a large block of flats with many doorbells, close to a couple of churches, in a densely populated part of London, and didn’t hear a tinkle. If I remember correctly, newspapers reported at the time that professional campanologists were deeply hostile to the whole thing.

Toiling through the Blouin list on my computer, one of the things that struck me most forcibly was the way the whole thing depended for its credibility on access to the web. It was not just the large number of YouTube videos

I needed to look at. There was also the fact that at least one of the choices, ‘RMB City’, by the Chinese artist Cao Fei, exists only in computer land. It is a virtual city in the online world Second Life. To quote Wikipedia again: ‘As a model of avant-garde urban planning, it traverses the boundaries be- tween past and future, real and virtual, to link China and the cosmopolitan contemporary world.’

A large number of the Blouin choices – like those in Kelly Grovier’s book – are already fading gently, but also quite rapidly, into the past. The supposedly ‘iconic works’ they celebrate are, in both cases, turning into impalpable wraiths as you look at them. This is something the computer tends to emphasize, while a coffee table book suggests a false solidity.

Yet how quickly and shamelessly opinions can change! To take a case in point, there is the installation by Martin Creed already referred to. Entitled The Lights Going On And Off, it won the Turner Prize for the artist in 2001, six years before Wallinger. In 100 Works Grovier describes it as ‘elegant’. More recently, however, he wrote a review for the Times Literary Supplement of Creed’s retrospective, shown this year at the Hayward Gallery. Here is his verdict: ‘Creed’s existence as an artist seems to rely on the humiliation of others and in particular on the debasement of those who devote time to staring at his work.’

There remains, however, another crisis in addition. The desire of the inter- national rich to use contemporary art as a refuge for money is at odds with its growing elusiveness. Museums need the rich – that has always been the case. And more than ever the rich need museums specializing in the contemporary, since these are the authorities that can most effectively certify the value and importance of what they now invest in. Yet the two sides, increasingly, have an adversarial relationship, because institutions (and with them their jackals, the curators and the critics) are now tending to promote art that can’t be safely stashed, ready for a rainy day, in some customs-free haven. What happens when the treasure chests are thrown open a few years hence and the contents are found to be nothing but dried out butterfly wings and obsolete computer memory cards? The vulgarity and clutter of the most recent Frieze London art fair suggested that there is no comforting answer.

Frieze London Art Fair 2013 ©Edward Lucie-Smith
Frieze London Art Fair 2013 ©Edward Lucie-Smith


Frieze London Art Fair 2013 ©Edward Lucie-Smith

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