I have no desire to become a life-coach on matters of taste. Taste is all about discernment, about the exercise of mental vision. Alas, “tastelessness” is gaining global status not only in the art world but also in the media. It is fair to say that the masses have little discernment. They are ruled by money, evanescent fashions, personalities and, on the internet, in the mass-instinct for joining the most popular sites. The primary focus on cost, value and the monetary relationship to objects exposes a crucial lack of discernment in regard to taste. The overpowering force of money, greed and “the market” have all worked against taste in the Arts. The inflated auction values of works of visual art have not exercised a positive impact here. A glaring disconnect between taste and economics has arisen.
Even in these difficult economic times, perceptive critics could be influential in creating new closures, appetites and tastes. As Oscar Wilde declared back in 1891: “Without the critical faculty, there is no creation at all, worthy of the name.” What critic today is questioning taste in art? Who is the critic who points out that the emperor (Hirst?) has no clothes? Where now are the successors of such critics of the last century as Lawrence Alloway, John Canaday, Ernst Cassirer, Clement Greenberg, Robert Hughes, Max Kozloff, Hilton Kramer, Rosalind Krauss, or Harold Rosenberg? Altogether this galaxy catered to the finer susceptibilities of their readers. They furthered the development of critical taste by weighing the balance between taste and the intellect. Alas, the role of the art critic has diminished as print advertising has contracted. With less space for them in which to publish, the cultural level of their prose has fallen. Wrote Wilde: “Mediocrity weighing mediocrity in the balance, and incompetence applauding its brother, that is the spectacle which the artistic activity affords us…”1 What I suggest is that actively nurturing and promoting our critical faculties could be a boost to artistic taste in the 21st century.
In my role as a critic, I make no apologies for considering the drawings of Egon Schiele, George Grosz, Sonia Delaunay and Avigdor Arikha as inspiring and wonderful. On the other hand, I find that the so-called art of Tracey Emin , Sarah Lucas and Jean-Michel Basquiat to be a form of emetic for my eyes. I accept the view that Tracey Emin’s bed is no longer a matter of taste or art. But why then should an object of sociological interest be placed on view in a Museum devoted to art? This bed and its unclean contents are all about disorder, despair, confusion and a tastelessness on the part of the creator which I find pathetic. Emin’s sexual needs and frustrations may arouse the emotions of many women, but evoked no positive response from me. Some viewers may find unlaundered sheets provocative, but what is the connection to “art?” There is no trace of individual skill, craftsmanship, talent, development or even imagination. Semen stains may be emotional markers, as Bill Clinton demonstrated, but have little to do with genuine taste.
Emin and Sarah Lucas in many ways exemplify what could be called anti-art. Sarah’s giant inflated penises and artificial plastic vaginas pouting burnt out cigarettes currently being shown at the Venice Biennale may be more creative than Emin’s bed, but I find these void of any sense of appreciation for taste. Shock, surprise, amusement are the principal responses of the viewers. Much of Lucas’s effort seems simple, naïve to the point of childishness. None of it can be described as elevating, spiritual, or even contemplative. The matter of taste seems irrelevant. Once such offerings are appreciated merely for their novelty and the surprise reactions these may elicit, the objects become difficult to describe as art.
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s enraged and frantically created graffiti-like works also smack of the destructively infantile. This African-American rebel died from a drug over-dose at the age of 28 in 1988 and many of his scrawled paintings included skulls and skeletons. Often the writings on them were crossed out as he was obsessed with deconstructing the two-dimensional broomstick figures of his own torn and fragmented soul. The drawings and canvasses screamed: “I may exist but no one is here!” Such negative creativity was totally unconcerned with any kind of “taste.” Today, thanks to the clever and daring tactics of a small group of a well-funded ring of international dealers, Basquiat’s strokes of protest against African-American discrimination, which he expressed on stretched canvas, raise millions for investors and auction houses. It is the art world run amok much as poor Basquiat once did.
Much of our contemporary creation is focused on novelty, provocation and vulgarity. Some 200 years ago the English political writer William Cobbett described the commonness of vulgarity as being clumsy, dull and “torpid inanity,” that is, a lack of taste. Mark Akenside also asked:
What then is taste? A discerning sense
Of decent and sublime, with quick disgust
From things deformed, disarranged, or gross.2
The Victorian artist/writer John Ruskin posited that “Simple and innocent vulgarity is merely an untrained and undeveloped bluntness of body and mind; but in true, inbred vulgarity there is a dreadful callousness.”3
When I now appreciate a classic Van Gogh or Vermeer, there is an instant and almost instinctive sense of ‘yes’ which affirms my sense of taste and which may transport me, increase my heart beat, and open up my mind to the positive. I may be seized by the immediate and intuitive awareness of the soul of the painter as it was being created. I also am likely to be most impressed by the skill with which it was painted, but am unlikely to consider any metaphysical or other worldly reality. The blackbirds filling up the sky of Van Gogh’s closing days naturally bring up enormous and highly emotive symbolic associations. The painting is beyond any question of good or bad taste . It is a total experience.
1Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist, (1891)
2Mark Akenside The Pleasures of the Imagination III, (1744)
3John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies, 1865