Can you pick 100 works of art that define our time?by Sebastian Smee / November 14, 2013 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2013 issue of Prospect Magazine
Matthew Barney, Cremaster 4, 1994
How many full-throttle, age-defining artistic masterpieces made between, say, 1700 and 1730 can you name? Not too many? The period produced no shortage of art. And yet, compared with our own era, which has witnessed—and is still witnessing—a deluge of artistic production, the early 18th century was arid.
What, then, from our own era, will be remembered as the art that defined our age? Will the explosion in production be reflected in a boom in epochal works? Or will it all pass through a sieve so coarse that only one nugget remains? And if so, which one? Will it be (my vote) Christian Marclay’s The Clock? Or Jeff Koons’s Puppy? Will it be a monumental steel sculpture by Richard Serra? Or a photograph of a man in a suit holding up a sign that says “I’m desperate” by Gillian Wearing?
All these works, and many more besides, are proposed as “works of art that will define our age” in a handsome new book by Kelly Grovier. My first reaction, upon opening it, was to think that any question answered by an alphabetised list of 100 examples is not worth asking. The very attempt implies a kind of panic endemic to our era. It is the recoil of an absence of valid criteria; a vacuum that is filled, reflexively and repeatedly, by recourse to statistics and lists. As an exercise in discrimination, then, 100 Works of Art That Will Define Our Age (Thames and Hudson, £35) is about as meaningful as 99 Medicines That Might Save Your Life. The book is destined for a six-month stint on a neglected table at the back of a museum gift shop near you. There it will bask in its own cheerful fatuousness alongside 1000 Works of Art You Must See Before You Die and 50 Paintings That Will Make Your Child Smarter and More Empathic.
Except… Hold on, damn it. We can’t let this one slide by. To start with, it promises so much fun! Here we all are, flailing about in our choppy ocean of contemporaneity with no land in sight. Month by month, if we happen to follow such things, we find ourselves registering, however dimly, contemporary art setting auction records, contemporary art offending archbishops and imams, contemporary art taking its place among the billboards of Times Square, the statuary of Trafalgar Square, and the crowds in the Turbine Hall. Contemporary art is now a painting, now a photograph, now a painting that looks like a photograph, now a video of painted photographs, now a skull encrusted with diamonds, now an empty room with lights going on and off, now a gas chamber, and now merely an unrealised idea (innocuous in itself until you learn that the unrealised idea belongs to the German artist Gregor Schneider—who aims to realise it—and it is to turn a person’s dying into art).
Art is being re-defined, re-framed, and re-conceived at such a rate that just to contemplate the whole business can trigger befuddlement and senseless babbling (otherwise known as art criticism). Do we want someone to tell us what it all means and to freeze this churning, talk-heated sea into a placid Arctic expanse with a small field of exemplary icebergs?
Do we ever. Do we have that someone in the form of Kelly Grovier? I would say not. A poet and regular reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement and the Observer, Grovier has insights aplenty but he sprinkles his short, whispered meditations on these 100 works with far too many puffs of poetry and philosophy. Passages that might benefit from being intimate and conversational are more often wheezy and pompous. A paragraph, to take a random example, that slides from Ozymandias and Shelley to TS Eliot on John Webster, concluding with a six-line quotation from Webster, in no way deepens one’s insight into Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God—the notorious, diamond-studded skull.
And yet when Grovier asserts, in the next paragraph, that the skull “defines our age eloquently, an era of recycled retro that forgot it was retro,” a window opens, the smoke floats out, and insight drifts in. There are many such moments but they are obscured by a lot of literary striving.
Of course, the book’s whole premise is maddeningly slippery—as conceited, in its way, as the fussiest conceptual art work. It’s not, as it could be, 100 Works of Art I Believe Deserve to Stand the Test of Time. That premise—although just as preposterous—would at least involve Grovier staking a claim, speaking with conviction rather than cleverness. “Our task,” he writes in the introduction, “is to anticipate the resonance of a work forward in time, and into the unknown of history’s unfolding, while also looking backwards to an ‘ideal order’ of definitive works that have transcended the vicissitudes of the ages that provoked them.”
All of which sounds devilishly tricky. But in truth, finding work that “defines our age” is too easy. Everything can be seen as representative of the time that produced it—a plastic bag, an iPod, an ad on TV. It need not succeed aesthetically to qualify. Age-defining art can be really, really bad. And so it is here: the book is littered with crap art that somehow qualifies because Grovier, hiding behind the drift-net anonymity of his 100-strong list, thinks it might have something to say about who we are today.
There are rare artists (most recently Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons) who inveigle their way into greatness more by nailing the zeitgeist than by any evident claim to skill or originality. Their greatness is a function of how well—with what precision, flair and finesse—they skewer their historical moment; and of how connected to succeeding moments that historical moment continues to be. However cynical and glib their work can feel, Warhol and Koons were able to shout, again and again, “Touché!” In too many instances here, the sabre is blunt—the artist thwacks away at the target to no real effect. Examples? Santiago Sierra’s 245 m3, a sealed room transformed into a gas chamber by pipes connected to cars parked outside. Takashi Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki series—decorative, “superflat” (in Murakami’s parlance) cartoons in acrylic paint. Annette Messager’s Casino—a pretentious sequence of installations tenuously connected to the story of Pinocchio.
The more pressing difficulty for Grovier is that, with a few notable exceptions (Marclay’s The Clock is one), recent art has tended not to produce one-off masterpieces so much as extended bodies of work, no single instance of which is, or is even intended to be, more masterly than another. (The paintings of Gerhard Richter are the classic example.) A lack of ambition; a tendency to talk about art in communal and careerist terms (“my practice,” etc) may be part of the problem. But I think the issue is essentially spiritual. Recent art, reflecting our confused and godless times, has embraced arbitrariness. The reason Richter is the most influential artist of his era is that he gives moral weight to this spiritual apathy. He builds chance and mechanisation into his very technique (blurred photorealism alternating with abstract paintings made with a squeegee) and yet still makes heart-stoppingly beautiful paintings. Richter makes Grovier’s list, as he should. He is represented by a beautiful abstract painting—Cage 6 (an allusion to John Cage, lover of chance)—which could just as easily have been Cage 5 or Abstract Painting.
Mark Quinn, Self, 1991
Sadly, Grovier takes few risks. Almost all the artists he nominates (if not always the specific works) are recognisable to readers who have a passing familiarity with the art world. And an impressive number—including Hell by Jake and Dinos Chapman, Benefits Supervisor Sleeping by Lucian Freud and My Bed by Tracey Emin—will also be well known to a broader public. This in itself reminds us that art has been lavished with unprecedented media attention over the past two decades.
Britain, and London in particular, have been at the centre of this surge in attention, thanks largely to an alignment of more or less arbitrary phenomena that turned an island culture barely tolerant of visual art into a global capital for art. The phenomena—Charles Saatchi, Tate Modern, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, the Frieze Art Fair—are familiar, and still seemingly ubiquitous. Their dependence on Blair-era economics and on a thriving, competitive newspaper industry, however, makes their future hard to predict. Grovier’s selection has certainly been heavily inflected by the Brit Art surge. His list pretends to be international, but is heavily weighted toward British artists (about one third). Many of these artists register only dimly in the US, and not solely because of American parochialism.
Grovier’s British bias is also an aesthetic bias. It results in a preponderance of skulls, scatology, and sensationalism. The aesthetic derives most obviously from Saatchi’s galvanising 1997 “Sensation” exhibition, but it was latent before then, and has been naturalised over the years by Britain’s tabloid culture, with its native hostility toward refinement. Britain has no Felix Gonzalez-Torres, no Cy Twombly, no Ellsworth Kelly, no Matthew Barney—artists, that is to say, who combine aesthetic refinement, intellectual sophistication and palpable ambition. It is content instead to produce middling, vulgar, although energetic, talents like Jenny Saville, the Chapman Brothers, and Antony Gormley.
Without stinting on painting, which is well represented (although where is Frank Auerbach?) Grovier’s list acknowledges the eruption in artistic media over the past 50 years. Physical materials have merged with ideas, so that art today can not only be made from anything but can beanything, including an event. It can be a shared meal in an apartment (Rirkrit Tiravanija), an accumulating archive (Walid Raad), a head made of frozen blood (Marc Quinn), a configuration of suspended brass instruments (Cornelia Parker), a subway entrance leading nowhere (Martin Kippenberger), and a sprawling grotto of philosophy books, duct tape, girlie magazines, and videos showing the Lascaux cave drawings (Thomas Hirschhorn).
“To find a form that accommodates the mess,” wrote Samuel Beckett, “that is the task of the artist now.” (It’s one of a number of quotes in enlarged font that are scattered throughout the book.) But what is striking about Grovier’s list is that, although it boasts no end of forms trying to accommodate our shared, social mess, it has very few forms that try to accommodate more intimate feelings, to lend shape to the mess of interior life.
And that is a problem, because the art that stands the best chance of lasting is not necessarily the art that defines its age. It might instead be art that captures what it is like to be alive at any given time. And that feeling of aliveness might actually stand as an antidote, or even a rebuke, to the preoccupations, the cant, the neuroses of the social and political spheres. Art can expose the folly of its time by gesturing frantically at external factors—look! We live in a media-saturated culture! A violent culture! A globalised culture! Or it can try to go a little further inside things.
Looking within need not entail making small-scale, intimate works. Richard Serra’s massive steel sculpture Blind Spot, for instance, which does make the list, is electrifyingly intimate. Its massive curving forms carve out not only exterior space but emotional space. As one walks through them, they shape and heighten consciousness of the often frightening experience of occupying a standing, walking body. Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, despite its large scale, does the same, although movement here is restricted to the felt inhalations and exhalations of a woman asleep on a couch. (Grovier gropes pathetically for zeitgeistiness when he describes Freud’s painting, which was sold in 2008 by a French financier, as a “symbol for precisely the demographic of low-income individuals whose precarious futures were being exploited by unregulated banking schemes.”)
If we live in a culture obsessed with spectacles and sociability it is inevitable that some of our best art will reflect this. But I would like to have seen on Grovier’s list more works that suggest a recoil from this predicament, that are concerned, to put it simply, with human psychology and emotion. Sophie Calle, Nan Goldin, and Cindy Sherman, who make the list, all do this, in their brilliant if sometimes histrionic ways. But where are the likes of Dana Schutz, Amy Sillman and Roger Ballen? Where, while we are at it, are so many other artists who are clearly superior to many of the artists included by Grovier? Why no El Anatsui, no David Hammons, no Sheila Hicks, Mark Bradford, Sarah Sze—to cite just a few of the names who are missing.
Of course, plenty of works hint at inner psychology even as they skewer the zeitgeist. Michael Landy’s Break Down, a systematic destruction of all the artist’s belongings, performed in public in 2001, is a good example—although it does not make Grovier’s list.
But Marclay’s The Clock, a collage of snippets from film and TV that lasts precisely 24 hours, each snippet including some reference or indicator of the actual time at the moment of its projection, beats all other contenders hands down. The Clock has inspired so many different—and deeply passionate—readings because it is an experience as much as an idea. And just as the idea is many-layered, so is the experience of sitting through it. Like Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings of the late 1940s, it combines frantic energy with a quality that is strangely lyrical and calm (and even boring—especially at around 4am). It has its own, carefully constructed rhythms. It is at once ironic and earnest; both rigorously formalistic and gloriously, indulgently pop. It will last for all these reasons, but above all because it connects with truth—with the reality that the clock is always running down, yes, but that within this cruel and ineluctable system, freedom and exuberance may thrive. Marclay carves out this freedom for himself: his editing overflows with humour; it plays joyful havoc with the very system that enslaves him: Time. The Clock reminds us that masterpieces do exist, even in our decadent, bewildered era—but timeless masterpieces do not.
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