Looking for Meaning; Now That Galleries Display Pictures of People Looking at Art in Museums,has Style Finally Triumphed over Content?

Article excerpt

Byline: ANDREW RENTON

ONE of the criticisms that I always hear levelled at contemporary art is that it's really just a neat bit of design in disguise. There's no "art" or soul left in the work. It's a tough proposal to counter, so I jumped at the chance to talk through some of these questions last week with Hal Foster, one of the world's leading art historians, in front of a packed audience at the ICA.

Foster is Professor of Art and Archaeology at Princeton, and there can't be a clued-in art student who hasn't grappled with one of his books.

Throughout his career he's looked at various movements central to 20th century art, such as minimalism or surrealism, and has managed to change the conventional wisdom on the subject. He's a founder and coeditor of October a journal so overwhelmingly influential in the past decade that, in the art history corridors of the world, the word itself is almost synonymous with art criticism.

But Foster has been a bit troubled of late. He's hungering for something new in art, and all he seems to find is a slick product. Design, by any other words. And he has just published a book, Design and Crime, which pinpoints this designas-art crisis and might just offer us an escape route into a 21st century culture.

After all, he says, we live in a world that's just so much design.

From designer faces (surgery) to designer personalities (drugs), even designer babies through genetic manipulation, we're constantly surrounded by design.

The result is that we're inhabiting an increasingly smooth, glossy and superficial culture. And it's a culture looking for a subject. In Foster's words, design is the "package" that "all but replaces the product".

Weren't we warned never to judge a book by its cover? Foster cites Canadian uber-designer Bruce Mau, whose two huge doorstop books, S, M, L, XL (in collaboration with architect Rem Koolhaas) and Life Style, aren't so much to be read, or even placed on the coffee table they are the coffee table. And look at the irony of that first title - it's culture, any size you want it.

Design moves product so successfully that the product can't catch up and design becomes the driving force. Foster called this the "political economy of design". This is the late-Modernist equivalent of putting the cart before the horse, doing the packaging before there's something to be wrapped up.

Design doesn't need to be the devil's work. It clarifies and clears the cluttered space of so much of our world. The problem is, we're left wanting something more.

Something we can't quite reduce to stylistic flourishes.

We feel this most in the museum

- the place where, as a last resort, we hope art might touch us. Often we find that we're no longer engaging with the object, but a digitally manipulated version of it, where the artist mediates our very own view for us.

We see it most clearly in the works of two Germans, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth, the world's most successful photographic artists.

Their photographs build the act of seeing into themselves.

Struth, for example, often returns to the museum to make his work, photographing some of the world's masterpieces in situ, with crowds of tourists also milling about in the frame of his lens. …

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