Sensationalists: people who might convince us.

I have covid, and maybe some of that ‘brain fog’ so this may be foolish on all kinds of levels. But I want to write something about modern art and I have just watched Saatchi, Hirst, Emin & co on the tellybox.

Let’s start with a wee bit of credit. BBCiplayer Arts is a treasure trove; one which I dip into regularly, especially when that What’s On, Bruv? moment drops. (There’s always something on the iplayer).

More rank positivity: it’s my opinion that the overwhelming majority of artists (yup, even contemporary ones) work with a huge amount of integrity and even honour. They ask the Big Questions for us and almost without exception their work is deeper, better and more multi-layered than we perceive. Broadly, we chronically undervalue what they do.

Public understanding of and respect for modern art is generally an embarrassment, reflective of the stupidity and bigotry of (for example) The Daily Mail – which unsurprisingly features in the 3-part series.

Morons at the Mail, poor or tokenistic arts education and profound levels of ignorance have engineered a situation where we are a) visually illiterate b) suspicious and small-minded and c) too bloody lazy to stand in front of an artwork and let it do its job – beguile us, transport us, challenge us. This, for what it’s worth, is my context; the belief that art matters and that artists carry that privilege of being our conscience with courage and often a deep, deep, incorruptible honesty.

I’m happy to out myself as some kind of enthusiast rather than a bona fide expert. I watch and read about art and even Theories of Art. ( I know, weird). So Sensationalists, a series about Young British Artists/that London scene, whilst not necessarily being top of the list, was always going to get a look.

I found it relatively disappointing. The subtitle ‘Bad Girls and Boys of British Art’ maybe didn’t do us any favours. It wasn’t entirely cheap and headlinetastic but the casual clumping-together of two very different social phenomena – punk and the dance/rave scene – was just one example of rather lazy inference. Those warehouse parties were all bout loved-up escapism. Punk spat at the politics of the universe and the depravity and (yes!) immorality of capitalism/the Music Bizz.

I’m not sure if any of the YBA were punks. There was subversion, yes, of the laughable Arts Establishment and there was lots of punky mischief. And of course that whole being on the lash thing smacks of ‘edginess’. But the utterly central role of Saatchi and (some of) the artists’ complicity in both the rather shameless hedonism and ultimate gentrification of parts of East Landun do ask questions. Whilst respecting that right and even imperative for artists to ask those Big Questions, might we ask why much of the YBA cannon is apolitical? (Cue the arguments for it being ‘bigger than politics’)…

Hirst is a fascinating man. Perverse, savvy, brilliant and possibly lost. I may need to look harder at the whole of his output because it’s ver-ry easy to conclude that his obsession with the business of art is a joke that only needed telling once. I really don’t want to traduce him so let’s put on the record the signature contribution – telling, shocking, reverberating, truly powerful works of art. (You know which ones). Installations which announced something new and did transform a feebly necrophiliac industry. But, in the absence of a killer interview or similar, and with the sense of potential wankerdom looming largeish- Groucho Club Laddism, endless wealth-gathering – what are we to make of him?

My default position remains. That shark/those cattle were profound.

Sensationalists is okaay and I recommend you watch. Understand we need Popular Arts Coverage but I wanted and think the seismic lurch into scary, conceptual art required some elite-level voices. (They don’t have to, obvs) but many wonderful artists talk or write spectacularly about art, or their work.

A recent doc on Munch and Emin utterly vindicated the latter as a Serious Artist. Her real, human messiness and her cheapish, temporary East End Squat-zone Posse mischief rightly got an airing in the series but, interestingly, pretty much the only Brilliant Mind on display in Sensationalists was Jake Chapman. (I know – FUCKFACEs!)

Emin can talk. Chapman can plainly talk. Given the poor understanding abroad for the leap into Art of Ideas, we needed more articulate people. People who might convince us.

Your own… personal… Mu-nich.

The Munich Trove. What a great story. The spiriting away of proper high-end modern art – Chagall/Picasso/Dix etc etc – by sleeping cohorts of either greedily ambivalent or conflictingly discerning Nazis, bearing canvases through dark tunnels in hay-carts or on dark, dark trains. Or by packing them on reluctant mules for clandestine hikes over the Schwarzwald. Or somewhere – somewhere misty. This is surely so-o fabulous we may have to wheel out the You Couldn’t Dream It Up subheading. More fun though, methinks, to dream up our own, life-changing stash…

Except maybe not a stash; not something the buggers could legitimately take back. No – NO – a gift, a spectacular, real, fuck right off GIFT that The Authorities could gawp at all they liked but never take away. So you can choose to openly display it – put one in the conservatory dwarling, put one right there in the front fucking window!! Wherever you want. And there’s no denying it’s yours. Phew. Woddablast that would be. In my head now it’s already sorted.

So yeh My Inheritance of absurdly wonderful art-stuff happens thissaway – in a whirl. I’m in Venice… and there’s a mighty storm… and everything must surely be lost ’til I swallow up the sea and spit it back out, harmlessly into er… The Dalmatians. And the Richest Man Ever Ever –who has been watching from an unsinkable mega-schooner thing, whilst supping fine Prosecco – sees, and promptly magics up, without my knowledge, the following. For me. To keep.

(If that was all a bit urgent it’s because I just want to get to the bit where I think about which paintings really quick, okay?) Because, yeh, it feels like I kindof get to choose… or does the Rich Bloke like … read my mind?

Hmm. Not clear on that. But whatever, suddenly, they’re all there! On the carpet. With the dog still sleeping under-neath! WOW!! Or should that be POW!!?!!

You Couldn’t Dream It Up But…

The first thing I see is yeh – the biggest. Back there, behind the dog, the parcels and everything. Parked against the wall but taking up half the goddam room. A ginormous box-like rectangle, like a fish-tank only I don’t know yet what’s in it because it’s wrapped in stuff. If I unwrap it now… OMG!! Shark!!

Settle down and think.  And try to be articulate.

Never known how much I like this but ‘The Impossibility of Death or Whatever Thingy’ – Damien Hirst. Bloody great shark in the living room. And what’s the label saying? Oh yeh. Maybe the title is massive on this one. ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. How brooding and primeval and slow (actually) and bewitching and swallowing and challenging is that? Great work, RB and thanks for the early monster red-herring curve-ball. It’s awesome. I know that’s a totally naff and inadequate word for it but close up, that is awesome. And yeh – a surprise.

Whoa. Okay so clambering into this pile here now and… it’s hilarious this. Propped against each other. Just plonked down, pretty much.

Oh, okay – this is great. This is great. This I’ve always loved or been drawn to; David Bomberg – The Mud Bath. Always just thought it’s remarkable and somehow has so many levels, only about half of which I’m getting. But it really pays to look. Nationalism and chaos and blood/mud, I imagine… but there’s something both kinetically charged and sophisticated going on here. It’s a radical British treasure; absolutely e-ssen-tial. Nice one – great start.  Chuffed with that.

Just realised we’re effectively into a Desert Island Discs thing here. How groovy is that? 20-odd artefacts here though, by the look. And they’re all ‘modern’, I think. So it is my Munich.

I’m just going to pull them out and see what’s here. Almost brutally. Line them up or separate them. Jesus. Be careful enough Vinnybach.

Okay, this is really interesting because RB has obviously caught hold of something here; my sense of what’s bloody magnificent or powerful or attractive, rubbing up against conflicting (used that word already I know but it’s right, again) emotions around the artist. Lucian Freud. Part of me thinks genius, part of me thinks brute. The flesh and the eyes; painted or flippin’ ravaged? Incredibly sexual workings-over of the subjects – the people. Unbelievable – no! Corporeal/supra-believable. Hugely, intimidatingly present bodies… and those eyes.

Brilliantly, this one’s a subtler variation. Girl in bed, 1952. But it’s still all eyes. Beautiful. Welling. Meaning (I’m guessing) this man can’t have been a complete brute; there’s just too much poignancy here. What’s next?

Okay. So we’ve gone back a bit. Vlaminck. And I saw a painting of his in Helsinki, I think… but was it this one? No. But it was… it made me think, it made me re-appreciate Vlaminck, position him way higher. This isn’t it. This is ‘Under the Bridge at Bezons’, 1906 and it’s strong again – from that heavy-daubed fauve scene. Colourful ,obviously. Strongish whiff of Van Gogh maybe. Wouldn’t immediately have chosen that. Maybe that’s the point? Move on.

Now this is fantastic. Inspired work by the RB Geezer. A Rothko, but one of the earlyish ones, before he really got going on the Universal wotnots – the ‘mausoleums’ and all that. (Which I love.) Untitled (Subway) c. 1937. Saw this on ‘Power of Art’ – the Simon Schama thing – which I also loved. Weirdly seductive crazee-mirror people on a platform which is also a trance… deeply fascinating. And so, so hinting at the godlike free-form genius to come; a revelation because of the contrast with Seagram murals and all that. A much littler story but a wonderful one. 

And now immediately a BI-IG Print. Of a Richard Deacon sculpture/installation. Whorls of bentwood. Okay… and this would really be about the object’s presence in the room, in the space. But I’ve got it in the two dimensions. Interesting. ‘What Could Make Me Feel This Way 2’. Airy and modern and kindof unstill in a way I’m still trying to get to grips with. Wouldn’t fit so in cibachrome.  Top choice again – think something about the beauty of diversity and open-mindedness is being suggested here. Fabulous.

How many things do they get on Desert Island Discs? Is it eight? And two luxuries? Well I’ve got more than that here but for my next gift (or choice) I have… something again I recognise but which is reduced (as it were) from installation to print form. Judy Chicago’s ‘Dinner Party’. Epic and genuinely significant feminist statement from the seventies – still major now. A table laid in celebration and observance of brilliant (largely forgotten) women, controversially featuring ‘vaginal forms’ as plates. Iconic. Massive. Demanding. Demanding recognition. Stunning. If the original installation is still in the Brooklyn Museum(?) let’s us blokes hire a plane and go pay homage. Seriously. Flog a painting or two and go. Onwards.

Last of my eight for now (I’m saving a shedload for private viewing)is… a Miro. A Miro because I love his range. From surreal poetry to polemicist to farm-boy naif to metropolitan boxer. With that particular Catalonian angle, broiling with heat and deftness and parochialism and utopian heart. ‘Constellations’. Symbols that I can’t yet read. Wow, wadda gift. What a mixture of gifts we have. What are yours like?

Hirst; they think it’s all over- is it, now?

Damien Hirst has continued his druggie/pardee/easy-teasy relationship with the unfortunate non-Damien Hirst World this week by – as is his want? – TAKING OVER.  He has gone smotheringly, ballistically wider and in your facier than his previous bigtime best, by commandeering space in 11 Gagosian galleries around the world simultaneously.  As always with the regal brit-popper, beneath this cultural blitzkrieg there is that subversive prickle within the detail – some of the works being provocatively titled, with hallucinogenic associations

Paintings being exhibited are entirely appropriate to the Hirst-obsession with WHAT THE MARKET WILL TAKE.  So this current ruse of (imagined?) flooding or testing our/THE MARKET’S capacity to engage is what it’s about.  As much as the paintings are.  Again.  Arguably.

This may on the one hand be a perfectly acceptable creative response, honourably reflecting Hirsts’s entirely legitimate and punkily energised worldview; (that) the Art Market is obscene/absurd/necrophiliac and it must be defrocked, demystified and disembowelled in a creative and entertaining way.  Or it may be another lazy spin of another formula designed at the Hirst Ruse Emporium, centreing again on his own importance; or does it challenge that too?

Hirst knows that the scale of the project and of his celebrity tanks these paintings in formaldehyde.  Indeed if a shocking generalisation were to crop up here it might be that Hirst’s ouevre is relentlessy concerned with his knowingness.  But in my view it would still be foolish to underestimate either his integrity or his concern with the making of worthwhile art.  Thus my own sloganeering is more in sympathy than in irony.

Interestingly, Adrian Searle in today’s Guardian seems clear that there is no discernible benefit to looking at these paintings as individuals – suggesting I think that this offers little reward, or no individual unique viewing experience, even though they are hugely different in dimension and subtly different in colour(s).  I disagree.  (If you are unaware of the nature of the paintings, now might be the time for me to tell you that they are all ‘spot paintings’ – arrangements of coloured dots along an imaginary grid system.  ‘Traditionally’, they are the kind of (arguably) abstract or conceptual painting that might demand a degree of contemplation from the viewer.)

I think the artist may argue that it is a travesty to suggest these paintings are in any way ALL THE SAME.  I think, however, that he seeks to lever out that very response, at whatever level, from his punter.  Hirst is standing again on the chest of the Market, crow-barring open its ribcage for fleeing or inveigling opinions – offensive or otherwise – to worm a way in or out.  The paintings – all made by assistants, I believe – are both a challenge as an understood group AND as individuals AND as a relevance (or otherwise.)  They are not to be dismissed without due consideration because that is a purpose of all art; to demand or engineer consideration.

So look at these paintings.   Allow yourself to feel them.  Is there anything there for you?  If so, what?  Have fun trying to work that out!  If nothing alights, firstly look some more then consider whether they make a contribution – uplifting/degrading or bland or quietly humming? – to an individual moment, or to an easy or a teasy conversation you might have… after too much wine, or some drugs maybe, at a noisy metropolitan party.

Saatchi and me…

Is the currently invigorating air of free-market/un-market revolution swirling and beeping its way into the contemporary art scene, I wonder?  Is it even being blackberried by its very own, from within its very own hub, rather than from without, by militant techno-geeks or the Urban Poor?   What, in fact, is occurring bro’?

If Charles Saatchi (himself) is sending out the incendiary messages – whilst presumably firing up on latte and danger-muffin in some metropolitan caff – then maybe, on this occasion, the New Disillusioned are superfluous.  The art scene may implode without recourse to occupation/immolation from uncutters or black blockers or

Those of you who missed the minority interest hoohaa not kicking but maybe shuffling off last week following Saatchi’s Guardian article please sign on here; for another thoroughly modern story is being (un?)told.  Here is the alleged figuration thing … the facts as recognised or… performed.

The boy Saatchi – actually too super-annuated to be coolly associated with rebellion, despite his impressive record for supporting Wacky New Stuff – has really launched one, really gone off on one against his fellow contemporary art enthusiasts.  (And frankly – good on ‘im!)  The essence of what he says is that being a buyer amongst the current crop is “comprehensively and indisputably vulgar”.

He goes on

It is the sport of the Euro-trashy, hedgefundy Hamptonites; of trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs; and of art-dealers with masturbatory levels of self-regard.

He goes on again

Do any of these people actually enjoy looking at art? … Do they simply enjoy having easily recognised big-brand-name pictures, bought ostentatiously in auction rooms at eye-catching prices, to decorate their several homes, floating and otherwise, in an instant demonstration of drop-dead coolth and wealth?

It is, therefore a pretty spiky appraisal of those he rubs shoulders with.  Surprisingly, I have no direct contact with either Mr Saatchi or the average oiligarch, so please take any remarks I contribute with a substantial pinch of something that may or may not be actual salt or a symbol of salt.

However, Charles and I are alike in that we do have a certain general respect for contemporary artists, whilst knowing that this goes against the grain of popular understanding.  He has I think genuinely supported – arguably ‘made’ – substantial British artists such as Hirst and Emin through a belief that they say something real and important about now as well as because of their capacity to excite coverage.  He (no doubt having read my authoritative material on the subject) fully understands the difficulty many folks have with Modern Art; namely that they just don’t get it because it either doesn’t look like what it’s supposed to or ‘any fool could do it’.

Saatchi has put a considerable wedge behind the argument that c’mon, you just really have to look – engage – a bit more and other things become apparent.  For art is no longer (just) about how masterfully you can draw or paint.  It may now be the case that is essential to enter the construct that is the painting/photo/video/performance in order to make judgement upon it.  This might admittedly be more ‘difficult’ than was historically the case but THAT IS PROGRESS.  You, the viewer, have been having it too easy and you may now have to a) gawp for longer and b) even earn the right to make a decision about the artist’s talent and authenticity.

Okay I’m offering a lot given my unfamiliarity with Charles’s everything but these are surely logical extensions, or possibly prefixes, to where he ends up – i.e. IN DEFENCE OF THE REAL ARTIST – who may, surprisingly, be alive now, making art through signs or symbols or soundscapes rather than with lines we immediately recognise.

It may be argued that a leap of faith is necessary to accept some contemporary art as ‘real’, as ‘true’.  That’s maybe fair.  However it has always been the case that critical faculties must be exercised in order to appreciate.  Allow the artists to work.  Do not mistake lack of figuration for lack of quality or integrity.  Contemporary artists are making a massive and honourable contribution to our cultural lives – to our lives.   That’s not a quote from Charles Saatchi but I tell you what I think it could be.  And that’s why the presence of so many wealthy airheads on the floors of major gallery openings offends him. desperately oppose both the cheap assumption that contemporary art is mainly crap and the notion that it’s okay for the inevitable art market to be populated by phonies.  We are together on the barricade – his a Sheraton Bureau, mine a shopping trolley – lobbing respectively cut glass and potato peelings at the barbarian hordes.  Shouting “Love Not Money!”

So… in this cultural riot… are you with us?