Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Be Afraid of Ridicule

Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Be Afraid of Ridicule

Article excerpt

There is now a well entrenched convention that anyone who dares to criticise, condemn or even question the meaning of the work of many contemporary sculptors and artists is automatically reviled and ridiculed. The contemporary art establishment of dealers, gallery directors, critics and collectors, as well as the artists themselves, have an unshakable belief that their value judgments should not be challenged.

The fear of ridicule was brought home to me only recently at the unveiling of Maggi Hambling's sadly inadequate memorial to Oscar Wilde near Trafalgar Square. If ever a sculptor missed the point of the hugely flamboyant personality she was portraying with her granite sarcophagus, this was a perfect example. In the crush of the couple of hundred people who were at the ceremony, hosted by Sir Jeremy Isaacs, there were many disappointed faces and much furtive criticism. One very senior member of the academic world - not usually a person afraid to deliver robust opinions looked round very carefully before leaning close to my ear, agreeing with my reactions and venturing the thought that he was not at all surprised there had been difficulty raising the 175,000 needed to pay for it.

How wonderful it would be to be around in a hundred years time to see what posterity makes of the Britpack, Damien Hirst, Chris Ofili, Rachel Whiteread and so many others working in the late-20th century. I want to hear a new generation of art lovers shouting out without fear of ridicule that the emperor was not wearing wonderful new clothes. He really was naked. I have this fantasy about people such as the Tate's Nicholas Serota and the collector Charles Saatchi going home after a hard day's work keeping straight faces. They close their respective front doors and, after pouring large reviving drinks, collapse into their favourite chairs giggling helplessly about the endless joke they keep playing on a gullible and credulous public.

Our arts schools are churning out a generation of sculptors and artists who have had virtually no training in drawing and sculpting from life. They are graduating without even a basic understanding of anatomy, let alone how to model clay. One result, for example, was that only recently Madame Tussaud's had to search as far afield as Azerbaijan to find students with the basic skills who could fashion highquality, life-like waxworks. No young artists here were capable of the work.

It is depressing listening to someone such as Glynn Williams. professor of sculpture and head of the school of fine art at the Royal College of Art. He says that unless you make art colleges prisons, you cannot make the training something that is not appropriate any more. He concedes that figuration is `going through a bad patch' at the moment and makes the point that students are interested now in new pieces and innovative materials, and adapting materials in a provocative way. It is a view highlighted by Cathy de Monchaux (who was short-listed for the last Turner Prize) who fashions pieces of pink suede to look like female genitalia. She said that she had had no inspiration from the work of the Old Masters and without a hint of a blush thought it would be pointless to do work like Michelangelo. Contemporary artists are like social barometers, she felt, whose work reflects the time they are in.

Fine, but when someone with the authority of Leonard McComb, former keeper of the Royal Academy Schools, dismisses much contemporary work as being motivated by the ad man's world, then the process of ridicule I have already outlined begins. …

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