Beyond the froth and jargon

We all write resignation letters in our heads, telling it as it is. Dave Hickey, eminent American critic and university teacher, actually sent his. Last month Hickey announced that he was quitting an art world that had turned “nasty and stupid”, where writers, dealers, curators, advisers have become “a courtier class – intellectual headwaiters to very rich people”. For this 0.01 per cent, “art is cheaper than it’s ever been” but “nobody cares if it’s any good, and everybody hates it when something’s really great”.

The straw that broke Hickey’s back was an invitation to sign a 10-page contract for talking at a Guggenheim museum seminar – to which no one came, because “secular” interest in art has fled bureaucratic professionalism and an all-must-have-prizes culture. “When they make me president,” Hickey concluded, “I’m going to ban all group shows – exhibitions that emphasise the least interesting aspect of the work ... and demonstrate the vaulting ‘intellectual’ ambition of some preening curator ... I want to see a one-person show, I want some f***ing substance, but we can’t do that, because we have to be fair.”

Is Hickey right? If so, why have these developments happened, and what can we do about them?

Small, unregulated, making capital – and, increasingly, professional careers – out of the wildest outpourings of the creative imagination, the metropolitan art world has always teetered on the edge of fantasy. So at least I found when I returned to London from living in continental Europe to become this paper’s art critic in 2004.

The first Tate exhibitions I reviewed were excellent retrospectives of Edward Hopper and Luc Tuymans. Introducing herself, Tate Modern’s press officer was embarrassed. “It’s very peculiar,” she apologised. “Two exhibitions of painting – we’ve never had that before!” Then, tentatively, “Do you like painting?”

Does anyone ask literary critics if they like books, or architectural writers if they like buildings?

Having lived largely abroad since 1990, I had missed experiencing Cool Britannia, and took time to accommodate to the wonderland where the Turner Prize had recently been won by an artist switching a light on and off, and a potter more celebrated for transvestism than for potting. “The Turner Prize no longer means anything,” an artist who had won the prize in the 1990s reassured me. YBA queen Tracey Emin told me she was sure she was not a great artist; I could see that she could not draw, yet soon she became the Royal Academy’s Professor of Drawing. And the country’s two major collectors declared their collections historically irrelevant: Charles Saatchi (“every artist other than Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd and Damien Hirst will be a footnote”) and Frank Cohen (“I’ve bought a load of bullshit”).

It is a truism that today’s celebrity and wealth among artists and collectors – Emin, Hirst, Saatchi – is unprecedented. Hickey says of the art world that “the main change, which people haven’t noticed, is that there’s no middle class any more”. I think there still is a middle ground but to find and consolidate it we must refuse to be intimidated by the chief enemies Hickey identifies – money and over-professionalisation.

Both have great power because, the faster and louder the art world spins, the more it harbours doubt about its obvious froth and mediocrity. And that doubt hides behind two things: prices, and professional jargon.

The first confers on fashion a spurious objectivity (“What’s aught but as ’tis valued?”), and accounts for the billionaire careers of kitsch merchants such as Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, who exploit brand-name identity with just enough irony to flatter their herd-like buyers.

‘Woman Cello’ (2007) by Philip Firsov, at Twenty Two to Twenty Six gallery

In the 21st century, a new breed of often historically illiterate international collectors, for whom art is a refuge for surplus funds and a bid for status in a globally competitive world, is both raising prices and creating a climate where, as gallerist David Zwirner noted when I interviewed him on these pages, “connoisseurship is really not valued, sometimes it is even looked down upon”.

It is inescapable that the connoisseur has declined, too, as the art professional has risen, with the empirical language of the former – brushstrokes, colour, form – drowned out by the theory-drenched jargon of the latter. Professional jargon is pernicious because it legitimises anything, especially weak, dry, over-theoretical art that cannot stand on its own legs. It keeps afloat, for instance, the current Turner Prize, whose works are impenetrable without explanatory captions.

Since today’s curators tend to be products of a conceptually-driven rather than connoisseur-based education, this jargon dominates group shows, which have political not aesthetic agendas and rarely include great art for fear of exposing the rest as second-rate. Examples this year are Tate’s Migrations, which excluded Chris Ofili’s “No Woman No Cry”, a notable painting of black British experience, in favour of insignificant work by ethnic and feminist minorities, and the National Gallery’s photography show Seduced by Art, which shows trivia by market-hyped names (Maisie Broadhead, Sam Taylor-Wood) but omits most of photography’s serious contemporary practitioners.

The market loves theory because it spares the need for discrimination. It is a triumph-of-capitalism paradox that the theoretical approach to literature and art, born in the social revolution of the 1960s, has been so thoroughly co-opted by the market.

The expansion of the art world in the 1960s, just like that of university education, rightly challenged the old elites. David Hockney and Peter Blake were among the first to engage with music, fashion, celebrity; the democratising agenda of that epoch also shaped our most influential museum director, Tate’s Nicholas Serota, whose instinct for accessibility and education, tied to quality, remains an important force.

What could not have been predicted, however, was that within a generation of critical theory hijacking academe, a revolution in humanities teaching – employing semiotics, structuralism, the idea that culture and society form a system of self-referential signs and symbols – would empower a conceptual art that depends on curators and advisers to explain it. As this became a professional business, the chatter of deconstruction-lite morphed into a self-contained, deliberately obfuscating gallery-speak that, Robert Hughes already noted in 1989, “extorts assent as the price of entry”, and urges a critical vacuum. “If all signs are autonomous and refer only to one another, it must seem to follow that no image is truer or deeper than the next, and that the artist is absolved from his or her struggle for authenticity,” the late art critic wrote.

Two decades on, that gallery-speak has become the lingua franca of a highly professional, self-enclosed contemporary art system, its intimidating but empty phrases ringing out across Regent’s Park at Frieze Art Fair, the Grand Canal at the Venice biennale, the Mersey at the current dismal Liverpool biennial, determining how thousands of people experience, or fail to experience, art.

This stranglehold is tightening. Compare, for example, the Hayward’s pluralistic British Art Show 2000, whose artists ranged from Martin Boyce, Grayson Perry, Simon Starling to painters Michael Raedecker, Hockney and Paula Rego, with that of 2011: a focus, apart from Christian Marclay’s magnificent “The Clock”, on exclusively vapid conceptual work.

‘Winter in the Jardin des Tuileries’ (2005) by Gerald Mynott, at Francis Kyle gallery

Examples include Juliette Blightman’s arrangement of a vase on a shelf (“how to judge this aesthetically, or indeed how to look at it all, is a question on which the viewer may be guided by the title”); Elizabeth Price’s video of dolls, disco balls and PowerPoint presentations (“I don’t want my work to be seen as institutional critique ... I’m interested in working with it not as a failed project but as an unfulfilled narrative.”)

What self-referential, self-indulgent rubbish. “Changes in curatorial approach have radically affected our perception of what art means,” cheered Hayward director Ralph Rugoff. Precisely: the concept-drenched curator becomes artist.

But the reign of theory is not inevitable. The best response is what Cyril Connolly called “the resonance of seclusion”. Hundreds of artists still battle alone in studios to make authentic work that does not need a curator to explain it. Where are they? Collectors, commentators, art lovers, must venture judgement and independent taste to find them.

Several such artists resisted fashion for decades but became famous anyway – Frank Auerbach, Howard Hodgkin. From younger generations, examples of some of this year’s thoughtful, refreshing exhibitions, with affordable prices, are the Béninois sculptor Gérard Quenum at October Gallery, Russian narrative painter/sculptor Philip Firsov at Twenty Two to Twenty Six Gallery, painter/guitarist Nick Goss at Josh Lilley, Gerald Mynott’s cityscapes at Francis Kyle. These serious, diverse central London spaces neither show at Frieze nor supply work to institutional group exhibitions.

There is, anyway, a new hunger for work that engages with lived reality. In London, 2012 may be a watershed year. Figurative painter Hockney (more than 700,000 visitors to the Royal Academy’s A Bigger Picture) beat conceptualist Hirst (463,000 visitors to Tate’s retrospective). The gravitas of historically aware Frieze Masters outshone the trendy tat at Frieze Art Fair. Every age has to cut through its own academicism – salon pictures in the 19th century, theory and money today – to get to art that is original and matters: a challenge but also a pleasure.

Jackie Wullschlager is the FT’s art critic

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