September 20, 2013 7:07 pm

The new, in thrall to the old

Contemporary artists will install the weirdest thing they can think of in a square commemorating the UK’s past military glory

Last Sunday I had lunch with my family at a restaurant that had been open for only 24 hours. What’s more, it will no longer exist after this Sunday. It is a symptom of the times. Pop-ups have fast become a feature of London’s cultural life. Impermanence is here to stay.

This particular venture, part of London Design Week, was a collaboration between Peckham Refreshment Rooms, designer Sebastian Wrong and the Danish brand Hay, which displayed some of its wares around the building.

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Peter Aspden

There was a cheerful vibe around the place, and the staff were extremely friendly, even while explaining that the borlotti beans were “off today”, and that the polenta cake had all gone. It didn’t seem to matter: not here today; gone tomorrow. You don’t engage with any branch of contemporary culture unless you are braced to celebrate its ephemerality.

What was most striking about the experience was the venue: a beautiful Georgian townhouse in St Anne’s Gate, overlooking St James’s Park, which was formerly the headquarters of St Stephen’s Club. Established in 1870, and counting Benjamin Disraeli among its founders, the club achieved a brief spasm of 21st-century fame (or was it notoriety?) when David Cameron chose it as a venue to make his historic offer to the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition government in 2010. Earlier this year, it closed for lack of interest. (The club, that is, not the coalition government.)

I could feel the hovering ghosts of the club’s power-brokers as I sipped my craft lager, munched on fennel salami and shards of parmesan, and mourned the premature exhaustion of polenta supplies. The building was largely denuded of any remnants of its past glories, and yet it felt substantial, and important.

It was a clever way to present new design, hitching some contemporary edginess to a place of solemnity and tradition; allying boldness of innovation with a sense of timeless elegance.

If I am starting to sound like an advertising slogan, it is no surprise.There is a name for this strategy: the classic-with-a-twist manoeuvre. Here is how it goes: take any part of aesthetic life that has remained constant for decades, or even centuries. Sneak in and update it with a pinch of contemporary daring. The alchemy is irresistible. Boom! You have it all: old ways refreshed, and new things given a patina of gravitas.

Britain leads the world in classics-with-a-twist. They are everywhere you look. Last week saw the opening of the new Ian Schrager-designed London Edition hotel. Pictures showed a stately, darkened vestibule, all red woods and marbled columns, overlooked by what seemed to be a giant mirrored egg (“an oversized custom Ingo Mauer polished silver sphere light”). Archetypal classic-with-a-twist, and undeniably fetching.

And now this coming week sees the announcement of the shortlist for the Fourth Plinth commission at Trafalgar Square. This will involve six contemporary artists fighting to install the weirdest thing they can think of in the corner of a place designed to commemorate nothing weirder than Britain’s past military supremacy. Even Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, a man steeped in classics but a couple of steps short of a twist, professes admiration for the Fourth Plinth project. What’s not to love?

Where did the classic-with-a-twist come from? I once accused Sir Paul Smith – who, of all fashion designers, is most in tune with British sensibilities – of having invented the phrase. He looked sheepish, and confessed that he might indeed have been responsible. “Nudging the classics,” he preferred to call it: Prince of Wales suits in light blue, Bengal stripes in pink and white. Armed with his effete weaponry, Smith has conquered the world with a dash and daring that would be the envy of those fellows on the other three plinths.

. . .

Where fashion goes, art slavishly follows. Today there is no cultural institution that does not dip a toe into the wild waters of the contemporary scene, if only to refresh its own brand. The complementarity of the old and the new, the regimented and the risky, has become a cliché. All well and good. In achieving a synthesis of long-held certainties and explosive ventures into the here-and-now, a mass audience is found, and sated.

But let’s not pretend that it is any more than an aesthetic compromise, a safe zone, a something-for-everybody. Those who like more pepper on their art will feel disappointed by these acts of seamless co-option. The impact of some of our most potent artistic movements is rooted in their very refusal to be commodified and sold in this way.

The past 100 years have a proud history of art that refused to cosy up to the past. Works as diverse as The Rite of Spring and Anarchy in the UK triggered riots. Of course the rest of the world caught up with them, eventually. But they stood boldly as primordial acts of creation, and made sense only to small bands of devotees. They refused to be assimilated. They mocked the classics, and their twists hurt.

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More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

peter.aspden@ft.com, Twitter: @peteraspden

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