77. Personal Tastes

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

36. Why CREED?

“What’s the point of it” is the title of the retrospective exhibition of Martin Creed at the Hayward Gallery in London right now. I find no merit whatsoever in the show, so what is the point of my writing about it? Exactly that. I wonder what leads a Gallery director to select such a show which advances nothing, certainly not popular understanding? What do the members of the Hayward board give as an excuse for promoting so much vacuity, such latter-day phenomena as Blu-Tack stuck onto a wall? Does the trodden chewing gum on the pavement not deserve equal exposure?

How can we, collectively, have come to this without howls of protest? Is it a sign of the end of excellence or spirituality in cultural phenomena?  Namely, is there no point in our being on this planet? In this spacious gallery there is no tragedy, zero empathy, absolutely null meaning, no hint of beauty, and certainly nothing new or ground-breaking in terms of sculpture, painting, or art.1 Admittedly, there is an abundance of denial. There is, indeed, no end to the symbolic presentations of the chaos and confusion of our times, to self-indulgence, to the repetition of the gaping void, to spiritual emptiness. Perhaps that is why this show features the cinematic presentation of a woman defecating as emblematic?

Now Creed, who is a conceptual prankster, is frank in admitting that he has no idea what art is, nor for that matter, what an artist is. OK. I grant him the absolute right to put on whatever nonsense he wishes. The critics, however, are another matter. They take it all rather seriously and a few even sing modulated praise for this exhibition. So how are the school children being taken to this show at the cost of £4 per head going to be affected by this? It is certainly not going to help them distinguish between the acceptable and the discreditable, between art and pretense, between junk and craftsmanship. Defecation, as depicted in this show, cannot lead to anything new in our perception nor can it be improved upon as such. It is part of the dead ends dominating an entirely by-passable show.

Early in the 21st century it seems no longer acceptable for the cultural literate to call crap, crap. Saying that such an exhibit should never have been staged is regarded as a sign of snobbish elitism. Yes, perhaps really great art, like the Elgin marbles or the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, cannot be appreciated by everyone. But to attempt to diminish these by branding them as “elitist,” may be fashionable but serves to reveal both ignorance and stupidity.

Perhaps because humans are now being so flooded by images on television, the internet, films as well as printed media, they are no longer able to distinguish between the immaterial and the valuable, between the meaningful and the vacuous. I am continuously embarrassed by visitors unwilling, or unable, to say “I like” or “I don’t like” when visiting a gallery or a home. They remain silent perhaps because they are afraid to reveal their ignorance, possibly  cause offense, don’t want to pass judgment or may be unaccustomed to expressing an opinion.

It is significant that in this show at the Hayward one learns nothing about the creator of this jumble — except that Creed has an intense desire for notoriety, fame and appreciation. He does not offer a clue about his own feelings. Nor is there any notion that the work is driven by passion, by talent, or by the spirit. Supporting descriptions in the hand-outs state he grew up in a Quaker background with little appreciation of the decorative. This minimalist background might be significant but one cannot deduce it from what is displayed.

So who has promoted Creed to have this one-man show in a huge London gallery? First of all, of course, himself. He is tireless when it comes to giving long introspective interviews. How he won the Turner prize with the creation of an empty white room filled only with a flashing light bulb filled me with bewilderment at the time. The endorsement of Sir Nicolas Serota, Britain’s foremost museum director, may have played a role here. His own gallery, Hauser & Wirth, naturally gave him unstinting support. There has been no one to say that the artist has no clothes.

Alas for Creed, the Shock of the New of the 1960’s has turned into the Big Yawn of the first decade of the 21st century. All of his conceptual gimmicks and fatigued concepts are an unattributed rehash of what had already been exploited over the last three generations.

The curatorial fashion of our time is anti-chronological so many exhibitions have been focused on the thematic. This encourages the professional curatorial world to embrace the chaotic, the thematic, and the vacuous.2 21st century galleries like the Hayward are primarily out to attract ever more visitors so that they can collect more money. This is perfectly legitimate but to present non-art, in the form of Hirst’s pickled shark or Tracey Emin’s unwashed sheets, or Creed’s haphazard enthusiasm for Blu-Tack, undermines the very legitimacy of the institutions presenting it as art.

What attracts visitors? Scandals, shocks, porn, the “New,” anything to do with the famous or ultra-rich. None of which have any relationship to the spiritual, to inspiration, to introspection nor to craftsmanship which are of the essence in art

Artists through the centuries have drawn on their heritage, on the traditions with which they grew up. They have enlarged on what preceded: Picasso, for example, drew heavily not only on the African masks he admired in Paris, but on the experimentation of the group of artists around him, such as Matisse and Gris. One does not encounter such engagement in the work of the likes of Tracey Emin or Creed — whose work is not based on any artistic heritage. For them there is no real history, only the present. Works created out of all context are rarely works of art. They seldom inspire a following and because of their intrinsic vacuity are unlikely to have any positive impact on our future.

I believe it is essential that art and its interface with truth and beauty lead us out of this protracted period of value-free nullity in which we have become afraid of letting emotions establish any kind of preference. If modernism was guided by new perceptions and movements conspicuously breaking with traditions and optimistically looking to the future while trying to break with the past, post-modernism recycled existing values so as to render them meaningless.

The great Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, declared in a famous address to the National Arts Club3 that “For a post-modernist the world does not posses values that have reality. A denial of any and all ideals is considered courageous. And in this voluntary self-delusion, post-modernism sees itself as the crowning achievement of all previous culture, the final link in its chain.”

I see little hope in the current approval ratings of conceptual art. If this category has any rules, parameters or system, I am unaware of these. For all I know, conceptual art ultimately may prove highly popular among astronauts winging it to other planets, but it lacks the solidity on which we can build a more artistically blessed society.

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1 Farah Nayeri, “When art is beside the point,” New York Times, January 28, 2014

2 Jackie Wullschlager, “Thoroughly Modern,” The Financial Times, July 14, 2012

3 New York, January 1993