MY FIRST observation in the current exhibition in the Hayward Gallery was not of the pictures there but of their guardians, hangdog in expression, their repetitive pacing reminiscent of wild animals imprisoned in their cages. Within a moment, the reason for this pattern of behaviour, just short of head-banging, was unarguably evident. The reward for being such a guard must be not the tiny weekly wage but the privilege of keeping company with masterpieces.
Imagine days spent with paintings by Rembrandt and Rubens in the National Gallery, or with the Greek and Roman sculptures in the British Museum one would have to be a mutton-head not to benefit from such imprisonment; but then imagine days, weeks, even months, trapped in what is in many ways the worst-designed gallery in Britain, the most hostile to both the visitor and the things exhibited, hung with a hundred of the worst pictures ever put on view in a major London art gallery, and you will understand why the guardians are as behaviourly disturbed as the lions and tigers at the zoo.
The curator of the exhibition, Ralph Rugoff, who doubles as the director of the Hayward Gallery, exploits the history of art to justify his title for it, The Painting of Modern Life, for this immediately conjures (at least for some of us) the ghost of Charles Baudelaire, one of several celebrated fathers of art criticism in the 19th century but perhaps a little too much revered. He published a long essay late in 1863 under the title The Painter [not Painting] of Modern Life, for it was specifically about one artist, Constantin Guys, a prolific minor draughtsman whose obsessive business it was to sketch (often to the point of caricature) the manners and morals of the middle classes of his day, and contemporary political and military events; he was never a painter Baudelaire uses the term only in its most general sense.
Rugoff, though utterly ignoring Guys (who has had no successor since Forain made his excursions into social satire before and during the First World War), has drawn from Baudelaire conclusions that he now applies to a generality of figurative painters active in the later 20th century and the first years of this, using Warhol, Hockney and artists of the Pop Art movement to demonstrate what he sees as unbroken continuity. The thesis creaks with insecurity: one might with some small reason look back a century from Baudelaire to the little French painters of low and everyday life in the 18th century but to link him to our present day, our manners and morals, makes no sense at all.
Examining his choice of paintings, Rugoff's alternative thesis that painters are now dependent on preliminary photography rather than preliminary drawing is demonstrated well enough, but as this is self-evident and has been so for decades in every exhibition of contemporary portraiture and figurative subjects, he need not have made the point. Everybody knows it and every reasonably educated adolescent could have made it at least as well as he; even I could have made it but then my interpretation of precisely the same material would have been that only one 10th of one per cent of paintings has in any way drawn benefit from a photographic root. Forty years ago, Richard Hamilton, father of Pop Art in this country, argued that he was, as a painter, trying to get as close as possible to photography without losing his identity as a painter. This may well be so but the sane man must ask why? What is the attraction of photography to an artist who has technical competence in the ancestral businesses of drawing and painting, and the intellect and imagination to apply them to an idea or observation? Is it the laziness of the short cut? The use of photography to those who are technically incompetent as draughtsman or painter is, in this exhibition, immediately obvious, for it makes incompetence more spectacularly evident.
This exhibition is typical of the modern curator, generated not by an academic with something worth saying to demonstrate, not by the need to take a long, hard, retrospective look at an artist worthy (or unworthy) of his reputation and commercial status but by a curator who deems it his job to mount exhibitions that attract visitors. For this, as with Pavlov and his dogs, particular bells must ring if visitors are to salivate and come running; bells marked Warhol and Hockney will do that and so, to some smaller extent, will a bell marked Baudelaire. Any shoddy second-hand thesis will do, for curators are not now connoisseurs of quality but zombies who have been trained in the mechanics of exhibition production, and this they can do with any rubbish.
The profession of curator can we still call it a profession? has close parallels with television; the television producer knows nothing of his subject, cares nothing for it, gets his information from ignorant researchers who trawl for it on the internet, and he has a fixed formula to follow that can be applied with equal shallowness to pigbreeding or Picasso, the finished work presented by some popular nincompoop who will not be embarrassed by the crass rubbish he presents. SIMILARLY, the curator revives a tired idea to which popular names can be attached.
He writes a stale essay for the catalogue and so too do as many compliant buddies as he can muster, greedy for the fees as they check their computers for old material that can be rehashed; they all use the same jargon (jabberwocky if American), fraudulently enlist the authority of established old masters, peppering their names in every text on contemporary art (in this case Ingres, Magritte, Gorky and Manet), and they quote at length from the writings of an agreed list of modern (and preferably foreign) philosophers and aestheticians that few of us have read and fewer still have understood look out for Barthes, Foucault, Adorno, Agamben, Mayakovsky, Walter Benjamin, Clement Greenberg and many more who provide the primordial soup of justificatory precedent. It is, indeed, not uncommon for a catalogue essay to consist entirely of such quotations, so dependent are modern curators on authority.
The one thing a modern curator must never do is ask himself whether the paintings about which he writes are good enough to merit such attention. He must not ask himself because he does not know, and he cannot ask another of his ilk because he too will not know. He lives in a Cartesian world not of He thinks, ergo He is, which had some merit, but of This Is a Picture, ergo it is a Work of Art, which is the biggest and most repeated mistake of modern curators.
A work of art may be a picture but only one in a thousand pictures is a work of art. ? As Rugoff has only a hundred pictures in his exhibition we are extremely fortunate in having one canvas that is historic enough in subject, tragic, cruel and terrible enough, to be counted as a work of art in an ancestral sense. Richard Hamilton's The Citizen, of 1981- 82, hangs in the gallery and is reproduced in the catalogue without explanation, yet it offered Rugoff as theorist and exegete the perfect example with which to explain Hamilton's skating between painting and photography, for it is an image entirely constructed from photographic fragments and a television documentary.
The surface slithers between the unpleasantly lubricous blur of the over-enlarged photograph and the occasional glimpse of painterly handling but Hamilton has never been an accomplished painter at ease with the medium; here, however, his unevenness is of scant importance, for with this image he rose in quality to match the subject, giving us an icon that will stand for political protest as long and tellingly as Goya's 3rd of May 1808. In painterly terms it is no match for that great evocation of heroism, but as an icon it will do very well as a document of human dignity and purpose when confronted by unreason and inhumanity, the finest example of political art in Britain since the end of the Second World War. Of this aspect of the picture, too, Rugoff utters not one word.
The exhibition includes work by many of the big brand names of modern art Warhol (who seems to me never to have been a painter), Richter, Kippenberger, Tuymans, Doig and the execrable Marlene Dumas among them but with examples that prove how weak they are, how shallow; some of the older examples those by Hockney, for example are not helped by their grinding familiarity and are beginning to look, technically, very tired. As a drag through the crosspollinations of photography and painting in the later 20th century, it is deeply unrewarding compared with an investigation of the same phenomenon in the days of Degas and Sickert, earlier by a century and more.
Even if there were some intellectual excuse for the exhibition, it would be undone by the wretched absence of every quality from Rugoff 's examples poor even by the standards of the rural amateur who ventures to show work at village fetes and festivals. To have been inspired to mimic the newspaper illustration, the cinema hoarding and the casual snap is deplorable enough, but to have borrowed so uncritically and painted the borrowings so badly, with no redeeming lateral merit of the kind that lifts Hamilton's Citizen, deserves only contempt and prayer for another Momart conflagration. Wretched though these pictures are, the sadder sight sadder even than the pacing guardians is of schoolchildren with sketchbooks diligently copy- 'This exhibition is devoid of intellectual and aesthetic merit. Nothing is beautiful and the excuses for mounting it are pointless' ing this trendy rubbish. What possible benefit can they derive from drawing as they were A Transsexual Getting Down Stairs, painted in 2001 by Liu Xiaodong, a middle-aged Chinese painter who imitates the most banal images of Western figurative art. Consider the folly drawing a copy of a painting that is a copy of a photograph; the students would have been better advised to draw each other descending the staircases of the Hayward Gallery; the observation then would have been direct and not at two removes from the original. If this is how adolescents are taught, there can be no hope for art.
THIS exhibition is devoid of intellectual and aesthetic merit. Nothing is beautiful and nothing well-painted (by which I mean painted with any feeling for or understanding of the medium), and the excuses for mounting it the supposed descent from Baudelaire and the supposed need to re-examine a relationship between painting and photography are pointless, the first feeble and the second stale. Alas, the director-cum-curator of the Hayward Gallery is clearly a man of all the current orthodoxies of contemporary art, a man who not only believes that every picture, simply by virtue of being a picture, no matter how bad, must be a work of art, but that everyone who paints, no matter how badly, must be a genius.
The painting of modern life needs not the hundreds of compliant Rugoffs who now decide what we shall see and how we must see it but curators with an eye for quality, who can distinguish good from bad, spiritual from banal, and make judgments that purge art of its worthless hangers-on. Unwittingly, of course, Rugoff has, for the intelligent visitor of independent mind, achieved the very reverse of his intention he has proved that unless a painter is a Sickert or Degas (and nowadays there are very few of these), photography has been a disastrous influence on art. The Painting of Modern Life is at the Hayward Gallery (020 7921 0813, www.hayward.org.uk) until 30 December. Open Sun-Thurs 10am-6pm, Fri-Sat 10am-10pm. Admission Pounds 8, concs available.…