Workers' Liberty #59


The escape into wickedness

Steve McQueen, a film and video artist, has won the last Turner Prize of the twentieth century. The fascination of the Turner Prize, though, lies not in who wins and who loses, but in the publicity, the hype, the annual row about whether contemporary art is any good, or even art at all. Tracey Emin, who was shortlisted but didn't win, has had far more publicity out of it than McQueen ever will.

Why? Because she's this year's prize controversy - and that's what matters.

By Cath Fletcher

Contemporary art in Britain

How to set yourself up for success in British modern art at the end of the twentieth century? Video is "in", so are installations. Painting, at least realist painting, is out of the fashionable picture. Use art to deconstruct art, construct your work around its own creation. Art about its own process, about the role of artist, curator, gallery and public, is the definitive art for the end of the millennium. The fashionable art has turned in on itself, had some therapy sessions, and put its analysis in a glass case. The worse the analysis, the better.

Nothing gets the chattering critics of contemporary art chattering like a bit of controversy. Take Marcus Harvey. He made a picture of Moors murderer Myra Hindley from children's handprints. It was displayed in the Royal Academy and vandalised by outraged protestors. The vandalism became almost a part of the art work. It's the same in New York, where the same RA exhibition, Sensation, was banned by the Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, and then unbanned by the courts. It's even been dragged into a Senate election battle as the Republican Giuliani and his rival Hillary Clinton trade insults: moral turpitude versus the Great American Freedom of Expression. The lawyers love it. The National Gallery of Australia has bottled out of even showing the exhibition. But is the art any good?

Turner Prize winner McQueen has been praised for the lyricism of his art, its poetic quality. He's something rather different from the Emin/Damien Hirst/Sensation crowd, not, in my view, really better. But he's rather an exception to the fashion. And it's the fashionable, sensational art that I want to look at here. What's going on in British art today?

Art being art, and not science, it's tricky to be scientific about the whole subject. As anyone who read the newspaper coverage of the Turner Prize will know, it is easy and populist to rubbish contemporary art. There is even an simple if crude "Marxist" way of doing it: point at the Turner Prize shortlist, at Hirst and Emin and the rest, and condemn it as bourgeois decadence in the extreme, as elitist and inaccessible, as utterly irrelevant to the working class.

There's a certain amount of evidence for this. One of the leading patrons of the Brit-art brat-pack is Charles Saatchi. Saatchi made his fortune in advertising and his name as Margaret Thatcher's image guru. Shame he never commissioned Damien Hirst to slice Maggie in half and pickle her in a tank of formaldehyde, really. He's one of a very small group of dealers and gallery directors (a recent Spectator article put their number at just 17) who set the trends.

The Saatchi influence is most clear in the advertising that runs alongside fashionable contemporary art. Don't just pickle a shark, open a restaurant. Don't just paint pictures, picture yourself, like Emin, on a beer bottle (Hirst and Gilbert & George have also produced limited edition, not-for-sale bottles for Becks). Use the media, court controversy. Sell yourself, sell your self on canvas (or more likely video).

The great escape of contemporary art, the decadent art of self not society, is into wickedness, to borrow George Orwell's 50-year-old comment on Salvador Dali. It's good to be bad, to leave one's knickers lying around the Tate Gallery. That's what gets the critics going.

Of course scandal has helped for years to attract attention to art. Think of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, or Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Sexual, cultural, political, whatever: controversy sells. Engels complained last century:

"It became more and more the habit, particularly of the inferior sorts of literati, to make up for the want of cleverness in their productions, by political allusions which were sure to attract attention."

Today's scandals, though, are not only not political, they are not even particularly scandalous.

Let's take as an example Tracey Emin, shortlisted for the Turner Prize, the artist who put her bed in the Tate Gallery. Emin is one of the most talked-about of the fashionable young British conceptual artists.

Her art encompasses a wide range of media: video, watercolours, drawings, installations, appliqué. Her theme is her own life: she deals with her experience of rape, of abortion, of relationships. The shock factor? She gets drunk on the telly, she talks about sex, she is thoroughly "badly behaved". Yet although her experiences do relate to significant social questions, there is no sense of universality here, no feeling that this art is about anything other than Tracey Emin.

It could indeed be put like this: "Emin is by her own diagnosis narcissistic and [her work] is simply a strip-tease act conducted in pink limelight."

You wouldn't have been surprised to read such a comment in the reviews section of any of the newspapers recently. Emin's art, the subject of which is herself, has come in for a critical bashing. But the quotation isn't about Emin at all. It's what George Orwell, writing in 1944, said about Dali's autobiography.

The Dali of 1944, whom Orwell savaged in an essay called "Benefit of Clergy", bore more than a little resemblance to the artists of today.

Decaying animals (Damien Hirst), shit (Chris Ofili) and overladen sexual metaphor (Emin) were shocking audiences in the 30s and 40s.

Why the drive to be shocking? There is an easy answer: because there is nothing new to say. Culture has become so utterly sterile that the outrage route is the only one remaining to the attention-seeker.

Obviously there have been changes in modern art over the past 50 years. We have new technology: video, computers, which make possible forms of art that couldn't have existed a few years ago. Some of that new art is very striking indeed. But much of it is not.

The key question for Marxists in all this is that posed by Trotsky in Literature and Revolution:

"It is very true that one cannot always go by the principles of Marxism in deciding whether to reject or to accept a work of art. A work of art should, in the first place, be judged by its own law, that is, by the law of art. But Marxism alone can explain why and how a given tendency in art has originated in a given period of history; in other words, who it was who made a demand for such an artistic form and not for another, and why." (p.207)

So what characterises the art of Tracey Emin? I think it is above all about the individual, atomised, outside society or at least alienated from it. The only engagement with the outside world is the engagement of self-promotion, publicity and attention-seeking. This is the art of confession: putting the private life in the public sphere and making a statement of doing so. If it is therapeutic for Tracey Emin then that is no bad thing for her. But it has little of interest for me. On the (a)political level, it is the art of its time, of Thatcherism and post-Thatcherism. "There's no such thing as society" in it.

Now that is not to say that there is anything fundamentally wrong with art based around the self, around confession, if you like. But this, like any other subject in art, can range from the sublime to the pathetic. And it must also be seen in the context of its time. The first portrayals in bourgeois art of the human individual, rather than of classical or sacred types, represented huge progress. Today it represents nothing of the sort.

Many people respond to contemporary art by rejecting it in its entirety: please-sir-can-I-have-a-nice-still-life-with-apples. It is true that contemporary art is perhaps less accessible than previous periods of art, if only because it is not directly representational. For example, it is possible to look at a medieval religious icon and appreciate its beauty without knowing the Bible story to which it refers. With some modern conceptual art, that is much more difficult (although there is plenty which can be appreciated simply on the basis of what it looks like).

But it's also the case that when people argue that this art is inaccessible, they seem to forget that so-called 'high art' in bourgeois culture has always been the preserve of a very limited number of people.

When the Daily Mail, or whoever, demands popular art for all, they are crying for a mystical golden age that never existed.

We have to look at British contemporary art in the context of politics today. The class struggle is at a low level. Other radical movements are limited. It is not surprising that in a situation where there is no concrete alternative movement for visual artists to relate to that art begins to talk to no-one but itself.

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