Magazine article The Spectator

Here's Looking at Us

Magazine article The Spectator

Here's Looking at Us

Article excerpt

THE scene is a dinner party in London, and I've just received the opening volley in a ritual exchange I've come to think of as one of the occupational hazards of being an art critic. The beautiful person I'm sitting next to has bluntly informed me that modern art is rubbish. We're only on the soup, and a long evening stretches ahead. Whether or not we round this dangerous corner depends on my neighbour's tone of voice, which can range from raw aggression to lively interest. If it is confrontation she is after, the rule is: change the subject as fast as possible. If she persists, the rule remains: don't go there. But if, by now, she's on to Tracey's knickers, then I've got a full-blown case of modern-art rage on my hands.

This is terrifying and must be dealt with. First, a big smile to convey enthusiasm for hearing more about her views on art. So, she's actually seen the art in Sensation/ Apocalypse/the Saatchi Gallery/the Turner Prize? This should be a killer blow, because invariably people who dismiss contemporary art out of hand have never looked at it. But, surprisingly often, not having seen the work doesn't make the slightest dent in a cherished conviction that it is worthless. My only option, then, is strategic withdrawal. After a few seconds of meaningful silence, I raise both my hands and move them gently from left to right in what anthropologists call a `backing-off gesture to indicate politely that further discussion will get us nowhere. We must agree to differ. With luck, we can move on to the infinitely safer ground of her children's rehab. Release, for both of us, will come with the next course.

If, on the other hand, my new acquaintance actually wants to know what an educated adult could possibly find interesting about the art shown at Tate Modern, then I talk like a river. For the truth is, I love contemporary art - love looking at it, love talking means. In fact, since there is far more first-rate contemporary art in London than I could possibly write about in the space the Telegraph gives me, I recently started my own website to be able to cover a bit more of it. I must admit that I take a certain voluptuous satisfaction in counting the thousands of visits that www. artcriticlondon.com seems to be getting every week.

When I began writing art criticism 13 years ago, my books and articles were all devoted to 18th- and 19th-century British painting and sculpture. I quickly discovered that this background in the history of art was the best possible preparation for looking at work by young artists. When the Chapman brothers first turned our stomachs with statues of children sporting adult genitals on unusual parts of their little bodies, these mutating mannequins looked like the pathetic victims of genetic experiments gone hideously wrong. But you missed the tone of this work if you didn't catch its anarchic humour. In fact, the Chapmans are the descendants of the Victorian fairy painters such as Richard Doyle and John Anster Fitzgerald, and, like them, know that in the realms of art the rules of rationality, decorum, good taste and clean living are for the moment suspended. Conversely, the Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais's realistic depiction of Christ as an ordinary boy in `The Carpenter's Shop' caused far more outrage among those who first saw it in 1850 than Mark Wallinger's `Ecce Homo' did when it was shown in Trafalgar Square in 2000. If you don't understand the art of your own generation, you won't understand the art of the past either.

We have just lived through an extraordinary period in the history of British art. In the late 1980s artists such as Richard Long, Anish Kapoor, Richard Deacon, Richard Wentworth, Bill Woodrow and Tony Cragg were still in their thirties and working at the height of their powers. But before that generation had peaked, a second wave of even younger artists including Damien, Rachel, Tracey, and Dinos and Jake were already here and making an impact. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.