Magazine article The Spectator

Shot Down in Flames

Magazine article The Spectator

Shot Down in Flames

Article excerpt

I have long pondered what name should be given to contemporary art. It definitely needs one because much of it isn't art. The best I've been able to come up with is artlessness because one of its meanings is `without art or skill'. One could say to a friend, `Are you going to this new artlessness show at Tate Modern?' Anti-art is another possibility which I shall have to reflect on. And what should one call modem artists of the Damien Hirst variety, because that expression also requires redefining? Half-wits springs to mind but one needs something more neutral; eventers, perhaps, though that might summon up confusing images of showjumping.

One of the irritating things about arts programmes is how everything is discussed on the same level and how afraid so many people are of expressing a view outside the various fashionable mainstreams. Caravaggio is, therefore, on a par with Hirst and must be referred to in the same earnest way. Hirst is no more an artist than I am a composer; neither is he a half-wit as he has made a fortune from his artlessness. I'll stick to 'eventer' until I can think up something more appropriate.

So it was refreshing to hear a new arts programme on Radio Three where the presenter asked some blunt questions of various arts luminaries as well as listeners who'd been invited to call him. Norman Lebrecht, who writes about the arts for the Daily Telegraph, now has his own cultural forum on Radio Three and on the Internet, lebrecht.com. He's a sort of General Schwarzkopf of the critics, pursuing the Saddams of contemporary artlessness, not with tanks but with effective verbal firepower that some find difficult to answer. Stormin' Norman's tactics so stunned the woman from the Whitechapel Art Gallery that she couldn't complete her sentence, her voice tailing off in panic, and I imagined her throwing up her arms and surrendering.

There was a hilarious exchange between him and a Mr Ward from Southend. `You have strong views on modern music?' `Yes,'. though Mr Ward clearly spoke with less urgency than Lebrecht did, with his ground-to-air missiles. I sensed a get-onwith-it-you-old-fool coming on but he merely said, with only a hint of menace, `Tell us.' 'I don't think it's music at all.' `Since when?' `Since when?' repeated Mr Ward and I began to fear for Southend. Spit it out, man, or you'll be dead, I thought. `Since Rachmaninov died?' asked Lebrecht sarcastically, now wanting to clear a route through Southend to Baghdad. …

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