o Nick Cohen
o The Observer, Sunday 1 March 2009
An emotion close to panic is haunting the art world. Call it a half-understood fear or an intimation that a formerly predictable world no longer makes sense, but supporters and critics of what, for want of a better term, we call conceptual art sense that a shift in taste is upon us.
Prices at auction have collapsed. Last year, Damien Hirst made £95m at Sotheby’s for works he cheerfully admitted had been produced by employees in his art factories. With a grim but pleasing symmetry, Lehman Brothers went under as the hammer was going down. The attraction for oligarchs of Hirst and his imitators is over. No one is going to pay £50m for a diamond-encrusted skull now. Marxist critic Julian Stallabrass told me he could see the recession destroying the old career structure, in which artists hit on a successful style, usually decorative, and then repeated it ad nauseam to please the paying public.
Stallabrass’s economic determinism can only take you so far, however. The wine business is in as much trouble as the art business – the price of a case of 2005 Château Lafite-Rothschild fell from £10,000 to £7,500 after Lehmans went bankrupt. But no one in the drinks’ trade doubts that buyers believe that Lafite is still a fine wine. They do not worry that their customers will suddenly decide that cru-class clarets are hackneyed and ridiculous. The boosters of contemporary art enjoy no comparable confidence.
The best place to analyse their self-doubt is in the pages of Frieze magazine. It is the Pravda of the art world: charmless, conformist and intolerant of dissent. The current issue turns on heretical critics for giving the Altermodern exhibition at Tate Britain, curated by Nicolas Bourriaud, an unparalleled rubbishing.
The newspapers ought to respect “someone’s gender, race, age, sexual orientation or nationality rather than using them as an excuse for smuggling prejudice and cheap jibes in under the banner of art criticism,” it intoned as it delivered the charges of ideological deviation. Specifically, it accused the press of feeding the deep and deplorable Anglo-Saxon prejudice against Parisian theorists.
As a writer on the Observer, I oppose racism of all kinds. Of course I do. Yet even the most tolerant journalist would be hard-pressed to deny that Bourriaud is the type of French intellectual who makes the English wish the Channel was a thousand miles wide.
His theory, unsupported by anything as mundane as evidence, is that we are no longer in the modern society, or even the postmodern society but the Altermodern society, in which artists are no longer the products of specific cultures but of a “globalised cultural state … based on planetary exchanges, on translation, on the intertwining of space and time in a multilayered world”.
In short, Monsieur Bourriaud believes that he is not French.
A visit to the near empty galleries at the Tate left me baffled by the blandness of the work Bourriaud’s radical theories have produced. Take one of the better pieces in the show, Darren Almond’s long-exposure photographs of moonlit landscapes. They are pretty and inoffensive. Why, then, the furious critical reaction and the equally furious and faintly fearful counterattacks?
To understand the crisis in modern art and the anger it is producing, you have to grasp that it comes in two forms. Hirst produced private sector art which appealed to the hedge fund managers and the City dealers. The Great Crash of 2008 destroyed its economic logic. The Tate, however, is in the public sector. It does not show art for oligarchs, but art which can be theorised at conferences and taught at the universities. Tellingly, the only visitors with me at the Tate were schoolchildren, ordered to appreciate Bourriaud by their teachers.
At first glance, public sector art appears protected from the recession. Yet as with bankers’ salaries and bids for the Olympic Games, artistic poses, which could be tolerated in the bubble, look like luxuries now times have turned hard.
The foremost pose is that public sector art is somehow subversive. Bourriaud quotes with approval the pseudo-leftist line of political philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri that anyone in the postmodern – sorry, Altermodern world who is against America or the West is somehow a radical worthy of support. This thinking dignifies the misogynist, the homophobe, the antisemite, the book burner, the theocrat and the psychopath.
Nevertheless, I at least expected the Tate to give me art I could argue with. But argument was on offer only in the catalogue. It was only by reading about Almond that I discovered that he had travelled the world to take his pictures from places of “economic, historical and ecological significance”. There was no economic, historical or ecological significance evident in his pictures.
The critics are turning nasty, I believe, because the central claim of the Tate and, indeed, nearly all public sector art promoters that such work is subversive now feels absurdly dusty. When Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in a New York gallery in 1917, it was a genuinely seditious act. But 1917 is almost a century away and what was once radical is now conservative. What few visitors there are to the Tate will not be shocked to see a Duchampian battered fridge with a sign next to it saying: “I was up all night making this.” The sight of a watercolour would be far more transgressive.
As with the rest of the public sector, the day of reckoning for public sector art will soon be upon us. Last week, Steve Bundred, chief executive of the Audit Commission, explained that public sector borrowing was heading to Italian levels. An “Armageddon scenario” in which lenders refuse to fund British debt is beginning “to look a distinct possibility” and sweeping spending cuts were inevitable. Unfortunately, it won’t only be the admirers of Monsieur Bourriaud, living in an “altermodern globalised cultural state”, and delivering state-sponsored radicalism at taxpayers’ expense, who will suffer, but those who provide and rely on decidedly old-fashioned local services.
• Nick Cohen’s Waiting for the Etonians: Reports From the Sickbed of Liberal England is published by 4th Estate