It's Not Art That's in Crisis but the Society That Inspires It; No Matter What the Critics Say, the YBAs Are Head and Shoulders above the Latest Crop of Young Pretenders

The Evening Standard (London, England), November 2, 2012 | Go to article overview

It's Not Art That's in Crisis but the Society That Inspires It; No Matter What the Critics Say, the YBAs Are Head and Shoulders above the Latest Crop of Young Pretenders


Byline: Evgeny Lebedev

RT, we are told, is in crisis.

AFor the past couple of weeks, we have been treated to a flurry of debates about whether contemporary art is actually any good or is simply a big confidence trick.

The BBC's arts editor Will Gompertz kicked things off with his claim that curators have been moaning about how the works of the so-called Young British Artists -- that generation of enfants terribles who erupted on to the scene in the late Eighties and Nineties -- were "greatly overrated".

These curators complain that the Marc Quinns and Tracey Emins dominate the galleries solely because of the vast sums their art fetches in the auction houses, rather than any intrinsic artistic value.

They seem to be suggesting that really good, new art is struggling to elbow its way on to the scene because these (not so) YBAs don't give them a look-in.

I can't agree. You see, I spend a fair bit of time around galleries, artists and curators. And I'm afraid the truth is somewhat simpler. The reason there are so few new pretenders to art's top table is that more than two decades on from that gilded Goldsmiths generation, frankly they're still the best reflection of our times, now more than ever.

You only had to suffer the tide of rubbish at Frieze this year to realise that there is nothing anywhere near as explosive or revolutionary as, well, Freeze -- the 1988 show led by Damien Hirst which planted his generation on the London art scene map. The best art at Frieze over the years has still been by the likes of the Chapman brothers, Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume.

It has become the fashion to blame this paucity of radical new movements on the megabucks industry that has built up around contemporary art. Influential US critic Dave Hickey says he is packing his bags and leaving modern art altogether.

But he and Gompertz are missing the point. The galleries and dealers they say are conspiring to inflate prices aren't doing anything wrong. In fact, I admire them. If they can persuade a rich idiot to spend a million dollars on bad art, so what? Who gets hurt? It's not a fraud, they're not Bernie Madoff. From what I know of these kinds of collectors, the dealer makes his money far more honestly than the guy he's selling to.

No, the "problem", if there is one, lies in our society and its values. Art will only ever reflect and react to the culture around it. We live in a non-spiritual world. All the best art over the centuries has been inspired by religion. Who can argue that Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Theresa is not the greatest masterpiece of all time? Rather than a world of spirituality, today we live in one obsessed by celebrity, money, consumerism, greed. Little surprise, then, that art is, too.

Art college lecturers and tutors whom I talk to say young artists themselves are influenced by the same obsessions. Where the Hirsts and Chapman brothers would have asked their tutors: "How can I find truth in my art?" the most common questions now are: "How do I get the right gallery to represent me?" and "How do I get the right articles printed about me in the right places?" In other words: "How do I get rich and famous?" Perhaps we live in too comfortable times -- for the echelons of society who buy art, at least. …

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