Why is so much contemporary art awful? We’re living through the death throes of the modernist project—and this isn’t the first time that greatness has collapsed into decadenceby Ben Lewis / May 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
The paintings in Damien Hirst’s exhibition at the Wallace Collection last October were execrable. Most critics fulminated that these works of art should never have been hung in close proximity to masterpieces by Poussin and Rembrandt. My visit to the show was brief. But as I made my way hastily to the exit—down the grand staircase past vast pompous canvases of sunrise and sunset by the 18th-century French painter François Boucher, full of pink putti and topless girls in diaphanous dresses—I realised that those critics were wrong. The Wallace, famous for its collection of French rococo, was actually the perfect setting for Hirst’s exhibition, titled “No Love Lost, Blue Paintings.”
For there are compelling parallels between much of the contemporary art of the last two decades—not only the work of the expensive artists who made the headlines like Hirst, Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami, but also many of the conceptual artists patronised by public galleries—and French rococo, a movement that extolled frivolity, luxury and dilettantism, patronised by a corrupt and decadent ancien régime. Boucher’s art represented the degradation of the baroque school’s classical and Christian values into a heavenly zone of soft porn, shorn of danger, conflict and moral purpose. Similarly, Hirst’s work represents the degeneration of the modernist project from its mission to sweep away art’s “bourgeois relics” into a set of eye-pleasing and sentimental visual tropes.
Rococo ended in the revolution of 1789, with the bloody end of a political and economic system. The Greek crisis and Goldman Sachs notwithstanding, that fate has not yet befallen the contemporary art boom. Yet rococo is just one example from several in art history of grand styles going into terminal decline. Another came at the end of the 19th century, when romanticism and neoclassicism degenerated into academicism and salon art. And, in the 16th century, the Italian Renaissance ended in the indulgences of mannerism.
This kind of art is not all “bad.” A late style may dazzle us with its beauty, amaze us with its scale, impress us with its craftsmanship, charm us with its wit, or stun us with its excess and opulence. It always trumpets the spirit of its age—and is often highly valued by many critics in its own day.