JUNK, AND DANGEROUS JUNK, TOO; as Britain Goes Warhol Mad, a Top Historian Argues That the Death of REAL Art-As Opposed to Today's Soup Cans-Is Damaging Society

By Johnson, Paul | Daily Mail (London), February 9, 2002 | Go to article overview

JUNK, AND DANGEROUS JUNK, TOO; as Britain Goes Warhol Mad, a Top Historian Argues That the Death of REAL Art-As Opposed to Today's Soup Cans-Is Damaging Society


Johnson, Paul, Daily Mail (London)


Byline: PAUL JOHNSON

THE Modern Art juggernaut lumbers on, crushing all opposition in its path. We are all commanded to worship, as immortal masterpieces, worthy to rank with Leonardo's Mona Lisa or Michelangelo's Pieta, a soiled unmade bed, an empty room with a bulb, piles of old tyres, an oblong of bricks, and canvases covered in paint dribbles.

For daring to criticise this kind of trash, flamboyant millionaire businessman Ivan Massow was instantly ejected from his position as chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Art. Note: Massow was not saying that such 'art' should be banned, merely that it should not be the sole or dominant form of contemporary work patronised by the artistic establishment.

In short, he was protesting against art dictatorship, of the kind once practised by Stalin in Russia and Mao in China. So out he went.

Tracey Emin, creator of the Unmade Bed and current darling of the dictatorship, professed herself pleased by Massow's downfall. Well, she would, wouldn't she? With minimal talent but plenty of nerve, she has become a rich woman thanks to the crazy way in which art is now run.

Another artist who made a fortune out of the art circus was Andy Warhol, whose paintings of tins of soup and copies of newspaper headlines were sold for millions.

HIS genius is at present being celebrated by a huge exhibition in London, crowded by the hard-faced traders of the commercial art world and by the fashionable and cool whose 'Oohs' and 'Aahs' help to push up prices.

Warhol will eventually be remembered not for his works, which are silly and ephemeral, but for his definition which sums up the ethics and aesthetics of the Modernist game. He said: 'Art is what you can get away with.' His life proved the truth of his contemptuous cynicism.

Two questions need to be asked. First, how did we get to this state? And second: does it matter?

To answer the first question, we need to go back to the opening decades of the 20th century, when Cubism, Surrealism and all the other 'isms' first took over.

Art has always been a combination of superb skill - craftsmanship taken to the level of genius - and novelty. The skill was acquired by long apprenticeship in the studios or workshops of the leading artists, and by the devotion and patience with which these skills were improved over a lifetime.

The Renaissance sculptor Ghiberti, for instance, began working on the marvellous bronze doors of the Baptistry in Florence when he was 23.

He completed the two sets of doors over 50 years later, when he was in his 70s. His workshops trained scores of other sculptors and painters, seeking to raise them to the perfectionist standards he demanded of himself.

Ghiberti was an innovator in many ways. But his new ideas were solidly based on superlative skills and techniques in handling bronze, learned the hard way.

Similarly the works of Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo were the product not only of arduous training but of thousands of drawings, many of which survive, testifying to the almost superhuman devotion with which these men built up their masterpieces.

Raphael, who died in his 30s, wore himself out by his conscientiousness (and, it must be admitted, by chasing women).

Fine art, therefore, can properly be defined as a combination of extraordinary skill with a degree of originality and new vision.

Novelty must be there, but skill must be predominant.

If the novelty becomes predominant and the skill is pushed into second place, eventually becoming unimportant, the work ceases to be fine art and becomes fashion art.

AS SUCH, it has no more long-term significance than the chop and change in the rag trade, where women's skirts are raised and lowered at the whim of the designers.

That is what occurred in Paris between 1900 and 1930, when fine art gradually gave way to fashion art. …

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