The dustbin of art history

Prospect Magazine

The dustbin of art history


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 decadence

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.

Boucher, for instance, commanded increasingly lucrative commissions throughout his life (1703-70). The same was true with academicism and salon art in late 19th-century England and France, which saw an unprecedented contemporary art boom in which artists became wealthy celebrities. The French academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) told a colleague, “every minute of mine costs 100 francs.” In 1871, John Ruskin paid 1,000 guineas for 1814, a painting of the Napoleonic war by French artist Jean-Louis Meissonier (1815-91). In 1877, Ruskin sold it for six times the sum he paid. By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, however, both Meissonier’s reputation and market value had crashed.

There is a pattern typical of these end-phase periods, when an artistic movement ossifies. At such times there is exaggeration and multiplication instead of development. A once new armoury of artistic concepts, processes, techniques and themes becomes an archive of formulae, quotations or paraphrasings, ultimately assuming the mode of self-parody.

Over the last decade, not only conceptualism—perhaps the dominant movement of the past three decades—but the entire modernist project has been going through a similar process. Of course, some important and inspired artists have made important and inspired work in recent years—from famous photographers like Andreas Gursky and painters like Luc Tuymans to lesser-known video artists like Lindsay Seers and Anri Sala. But there is something more fundamentally wrong with much of this century’s famous art than its absurd market value.

I believe that this decline shares four aesthetic and ideological characteristics with the end-phases of previous grand styles: formulae for the creation of art; a narcissistic, self-reinforcing cult that elevates art and the artist over actual subjects and ideas; the return of sentiment; and the alibi of cynicism.

Four decadent “late phases” of great art styles. 1. Mannerism: Susanna and the Elders (16th century) by Alessandro Allori

Mannerism: Susanna and the Elders (16th century) by Alessandro Allori

The most immediately visible parallels with the end-phases of the styles of the 16th, 18th and 19th centuries—mannerism, rococo and academic painting—lie in the transformation of artistic forms into formulae. Today, the iconic processes of modernist movements, once specific to a group of artists or to their inventor, are used as templates to generate product lines. Photorealism, for example, was once an episode in the art history of the 1970s: now scores of artists have photorealist “lines.” Hirst makes photorealist paintings of his pills (and the birth of his child); Marc Quinn does photorealist tropical flowers; Mustafa Hulusi does photorealist flowers too; Jeff Koons makes photorealist paintings of wrapping paper, while the Indian contemporary artist Subodh Gupta does Indian pots and pans photorealist style, to mention only a few.

Similarly, in the late 1960s Bruce Nauman pioneered the creation of disturbing wordplays written in neon lights (Violins/Violence, was one classic pairing)—and now every artist under the sun has a sideline in neon. Just to mention a few Brits: Tracey Emin writes messages of love in neon, Shezad Dawood sets Arabic words in neon amid trees, while Martin Creed has a neon slogan on the front of the Tate Britain right now: “Everything is going to be alright.” Other over-used minimalist forms include the grid, the series, mirrors and the cube or geometric solid. In painting, the brushstroke-with-drips has become a similarly omnipresent device.

The ascendency of the formula has had further consequences. Thirty years ago, an artist developed his or her own style over the course of a career. Now, too many artists construct their oeuvres by selecting styles from modernism, to which they can add their own tweaks and twists. Once again, Hirst is a good example, with his own takes on abstract painting, vitrines and readymades, grids and the aforementioned photorealism. The artist’s signature style may become a branded look whose “development” means its application to diverse subjects. The “style” of Subodh Gupta is Indian cooking utensils. He began by laying out his tiffin pots and pans in sleek minimalist rows on shelves, then welded them in dynamic loops and used them, like Lego, to make enormous skulls and the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion.

Unsurprisingly—logically, even—near-plagiarism is rife and little remarked-on within this art culture. The most extreme example I have seen in recent times is Ai Weiwei’s huge bicycle sculpture Forever Bicycles (2003), where the concept is virtually indistinguishable, except in its scale, from Gabriel Orozco’s 1994 Four Bicycles (There Is Always One Direction).

An array of phoney art theories, grouped under the idea of postmodernism, have evolved to mask this process. In the age of postmodernism, we are told, originality is over, appropriation is in, style is dead, pluralism is the order of the day. Yet this is true of the end-phase for any great movement. Under mannerism, quotation from previous masters replaced invention, and realism was transposed into decoration. Typically, the rippling musculature that Michelangelo and Leonardo studied from live models and dissections now became a dappled pattern of ripples on the surface of bodies.

2. Rococo’s “heavenly soft porn” replaced baroque’s classical values: The Toilet of Venus (1751) by François Boucher

Rococo’s “heavenly soft porn” replaced baroque’s classical values: The Toilet of Venus (1751) by François Boucher

Quotation leads us into the second disappointing characteristic of our art: its narcissism and self-advertisement. Later 19th-century neoclassicism was a hermetic art about art—Bouguereau paintings were full of figures lifted from Michelangelo and Botticelli, positioned in an idealised classical world whose sources lay entirely in the realm of art and archaeology. Similarly, far too much contemporary art today is about art. In Turner Prize-winner Mark Leckey’s Made in ’Eaven (2004), the camera rotates around a sculpture of Jeff Koon’s shiny Rabbit (1986), capturing the reflections of Leckey’s apartment in the sculpture. The graffiti artist Banksy has made portraits of Kate Moss in the style of Warhol’s Marilyn and his Campbell’s Soup Cans spraycan stencil. The American-born, London-based artist Peter Coffin has made a series of freestanding silhouettes that reproduce in 2D the outlines of works by Alberto Giacometti, Max Ernst, Jean Dubuffet, Robert Indiana, Yves Klein and Jeff Koons. The list goes on.

The proliferation of the readymade has played its own part in this self-absorption. In the hands of Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Joseph Beuys, the readymade was a means of redefining the creation and perception of the work of art. An object could be used to subvert fundamental definitions of art (Duchamp’s famous urinal), explore the unconscious (Man Ray) or be deployed for symbolic purposes (Beuys).

Today, however, the readymade becomes an expression of the view that all human experience can become “art” the moment an artist displays it as such. Rirkrit Tiravanija puts a reconstruction of his apartment in a gallery; Richard Prince photographs cigarette adverts and frames them; Carsten Höller builds big theme-park-style slides in Tate Modern. Despite postmodernist pledges to debunk the mythology of the artist, artists appear to me to have become more mythologised than ever thanks to this kind of imperial ambition.

3. Salon or “academic” art, the ossification of neoclassical style: Day (detail, 1881) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Salon or “academic” art, the ossification of neoclassical style: Day (detail, 1881) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

The shininess of art today—the commercialism of contemporary artists, the celebratory tone and mass production of work—are legitimated by curator-critics as a reaction against the drily intellectual years of conceptualism, when art was a scribble on a piece of graph paper. But what a small and conservative act of rebellion this glossiness is. Art has become small, superficial and self-indulgent in its emotional range: sentimental rather than truly intellectual or moving.

The styles of minimalism and conceptualism, for instance, originally served the purpose of expanding the definition of the art object: they sought to overcome sculptural and pictorial conventions and to explore visual perception. A sculpture could be laid out on the floor, like Carl Andre’s bricks. It could express the simplest empty spaces, like Donald Judd’s boxes, or scare you with its apparent precariousness, like Richard Serra’s sheets of steel. An abstract monochrome painting, like those of Ellsworth Kelly, would overturn centuries of assumptions by discarding the frame or setting the picture at a diagonal angle.

Now, these styles are applied to sentimental ends. Like rococo’s pastoral scenes, Hirst’s monochrome butterfly paintings purvey a pretty and frivolous aesthetic. His Modern Medicine series, of prescription drugs in cabinets, presents contemporary versions of the paintings of the muses to be found in the salons—vague paeans to the power of art. Tracey Emin’s casts of children’s mittens and coats, exhibited in public locations at the 2008 Folkestone Triennial, Takashi Murakami’s cute Japanese cartoon characters, and Jeff Koons’s enormous balloon dogs operate in the same dewy-eyed register as Bouguereau’s images of children nursed by their mothers and surrounded by cherubs. Once again, these works of art are not necessarily “bad”—neither are the paintings of Bouguereau and Boucher—but they are kitsch.

4. Postmodernism, the grave of the modernist project: Second Mission Project ko2 (1999) by Takashi Murakami

Postmodernism, the grave of the modernist project: Second Mission Project ko2 (1999) by Takashi Murakami

Contemporary artists and their curators and theorists concede many of these faults, but invoke in their defence a critical attitude towards their material. Yes, Koons’s shiny balloon dog is kitsch—but it thereby subverts hierarchies of taste in art. Yes, Hirst’s gold-plated cabinets containing grids of industrial diamonds are glossily vacuous, but they are a critique of the society that admires them. Other artists have made works about their own shortcomings. One of Maurizio Cattelan’s brilliant early works, in 1993, was the installation of a live donkey and a chandelier in a New York gallery, to thematise his inability to come up with a good idea. The German artist Martin Kippenberger (1953-97) spent much of his (now acclaimed) career making art that described his frustrating quest to make important works of art. A surprisingly honest sense of failure, hopelessness and a bankruptcy of ideas are fundamental components of this end-phase of modernism.

Rococo and academicism also witnessed this kind of confessionalism. One of Boucher’s better paintings is of his most important patron, Madame de Pompadour at her Toilette (1756). The mistress of Louis XV sits in front of her mirror applying the white powder and rouge that was de rigueur at court. But this is not just a court portrait. Boucher was often criticised for painting women who had already “painted” themselves with make-up and for his use of unnatural pinks and violets. In this work, however, he embraces this critique by painting the making-up. In a further twist, Madame de Pompadour is depicted looking at her reflection, and holding her powder brush as if she is an artist painting a self-portrait. Here is art celebrating its own superficiality. In doing so, it absorbs any criticism made against it, like Warhol’s celebrities—or Hirst’s Golden Calf, which ironises the adulation and criticism his art receives.

Whose reputation will survive?

Shortly after the end of the 19th century, the market in academic painting collapsed. Instead of commanding thousands of pounds (the equivalent of millions today) works could be bought for a couple of hundred. Some collectors had already turned to the “alternative” art scene of the day—Édouard Manet, Gustave Courbet, Edgar Degas and the impressionists. The work of these artists was exhibited and collected at the time—if not on the same scale or accompanied by the same hype as the salon artists. But unlike the salon artists, the reputations of these “alternative” artists survive to this day.

There have been inspired and important artists at work during the last ten years, just as there were in the late 19th century. But in order clearly to see what is in front of our eyes, we must acknowledge that much of the last decade’s most famous work has been unimaginative, repetitious, formulaic, cynical, mercenary. Why wait for future generations to dismiss this art of celebrity, grandiosity and big money? To paraphrase Trotsky, let us turn to these artists, their billionaire patrons and toadying curators and say: “You are pitiful, isolated individuals. You are bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of art history!”

  1. June 5, 2010


    If you visit the great museums of the world, drop by the galleries of “post-modern” and contemporary art: most are empty of viewers. Visit the galleries of the old masters, the moderns, impressionists, and the like and those galleries are generally crowded. Contemporary art, on the whole, is extremely devoid of anything: thought, feeling, experience, ideas, etc. Boring to look at or even contemplate, such art attracts no onlookers.

  2. June 6, 2010

    Andrew c

    While I agree with the thesis – there really isn’t anything much new in an art-gallery that isn’t bettered on a thousand semi-amateur photoshop sites – hasn’t there been a bit of a crush of art critics over the past 15 years trying to stake out a ground as ‘the one who predicted the end’ at exactly the right time. Obviously all previous critics have been wrong as Hirst continues to make out like a Goldman Sachs executive. But isn’t this shallow, eye on the gallery (haha) self-conscious performance part of the same bankrupt milieu?

    Or maybe Koon’s cynicism has iinfected everybody equally, and we’ll never see the end when it comes as it may not come from inside Art.

  3. June 7, 2010

    Steve Sailer

    Does anybody other than the English still really care about contemporary art? For example, here in Los Angeles, where there are a huge number of aesthetically gifted people (due to the lucrative movie/TV industry), the local Museum of Contemporary Art teeters on the edge of bankruptcy, and few seem to mind.

    My sense is that the English got in late on the game of contemporary art, so they aren’t as bored yet as Americans.

  4. June 7, 2010

    Gerrard Barnes

    The educated English middle classes have become too diffident and decline to express their feelings about the widespread exhibition of incomprehensible contemporary art. It is time for a revolution in manners and artistic taste. People have a lingering hunch that something odd has been happening in the visual arts, for a long time and with funding from public sources, but they can’t or don’t dare to speak up. The art world keeps churning out eccentricity, incoherency and intangibility in the absence of intelligent organized protest. Many years ago there was a Real Ale movement that demanded better quality beer from the breweries.Stop pulling a fast one, the campaigners said. I am minded to say that the time is ripe for the formation of a Real Art movement with the slogan: Bring back real art.

  5. June 7, 2010

    Ed Beaugard

    Funny, a Brit complaining about bad art, when the Brits have never been able to paint that well in the first place, excepting Francis Bacon, Turner and a few others.
    The art world today is very similar to academic economics, which is completely dominated by the neo-classical school. This school assumes away the possibility of prolonged economic slump in its “theories”. This makes all of academic economics entirely useless, as Robert Skidelsky has pointed out very eloquently over the past few years. And yet, academic economics is “thriving”, plenty of jobs out there for economists trained this way, lots of conferences, etc.
    My point is:
    Both academic economics and the art world are “theory” dominated, entirely self-referential and absolutely certain in the rightness of what they’re doing. Much like the global-warming hysterics come to think of it, another field dominated by “theories”, i.e. mathematical models
    that pretend to predict what will happen to the climate in 100 years when they can’t predict with any certainty whatever the weather for a particular day one year in the future.

  6. June 7, 2010

    Russ Thayer

    Money people are conditioned by their own presumptions to accept cost as a measure of value, which has been taken full advantage of by the side-show Bobs that manage the contemporary art market. The hook is that the aesthetic/cultural cluelessness of these marks in transformed into an aura of savvy by the elite, lucre feuled environment in which the commodities are sold…and still, they don’t get it. Amazing!

  7. June 7, 2010


    And the worst of these is cynicism. Much art is execrable today (see because of a lost of meaning. Nowhere is this shown more clearly to be true than in J. Donald Walters’s books The Artist as a Channel, and Out of the Labyrinth. The late Lord Clark said of \Channel\ that he found himself \much in agreement with it.\ And, well, there you go – artists who rediscover meaning will do different art. Ideas matter; false ideas are ugly.

  8. June 7, 2010

    Russ Thayer

    addendum: Of course, Mr. Lewis’ other examples of decadence have a quality, absent from most contemporary art, that will sustain them, and that is a high level of craftsmanship. The lack of this attribute, more than banal content, is what made Hirst’s stuff look so bad.

  9. June 7, 2010

    Louis Torres

    None of the past or present modernist, postmodernist, or “contemporary” figures cited by Ben Lewis are artists—not by any objective definition of the term “art,” that is. Most are outright charlatans. (Duchamp, in fact, denied that his “readymades” were art.)

    Gerrard Barnes (June 7) rightly observes that the artworld “keeps churning out eccentricity, incoherency and intangibility in the absence of intelligent organized protest.” He calls for the formation of a “Real Art movement.”

    There is such a movement as it happens, though it is not organized and is ignored by critics. In painting it is known as “classical realism.”

    For more information, readers may be interested in seeing “What About the Other Face of Contemporary Art?” (Aristos, June 2008)

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts) and Co-Author, ‘What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand’ (2000)

  10. June 7, 2010

    Michael Gildea

    A better trick than throwing down the \D\ word would be to tease out from tomorrow’s dustbin today the insights or tropes that will reappear reshapen in the art of the next wave or generation or style. If I may, the plagarism and narcissism playing out today would be admirable – indeed for younger artists expected – under the classical or neo-classical academic model. The difference is the scale and the locale.
    Perhaps contemporary art appears boring and devoid of (whatever) in a gallery environment because it doesn’t want to be there… BTW, J.L. David, an 1789 revolutionary if any, wanted to apprentice with Boucher.

  11. June 8, 2010

    David Wilson

    Dead right Ben, about the progress of art-styles, but the problem today is that while Boucher’s paintings are no doubt ‘decadent’ [whatever that really means] they are still nice things to have around, which probably won’t be true of Damien’ shark or the Chapman bros stuff, or Tracey’s bed etc. [Long time since Europe Express, it's great to see you still on form]

  12. June 8, 2010

    kevin claughton

    excellent and timely comment on the current art situation.
    It seems that the need for “safe” investment, combined with a globalization of art education and criticism, has resulted in the banality of much current work. In combination with emphasis on the dollar values and celebrity culture, contemporary art to a certain degree has descended into forgettable “concepts”, shallow social comment, or specific installations for “destination” art galleries.
    Whether or not the public is drawn to the familiar image and technical qualities of earlier painting styles is not really important, as intellectual creativity, with a matching quality of execution, is still recognized, in no matter what media. Unfortunately, one has to look harder through the massive volume of “stuff” out there. Perhaps the most creative artists are working outside the “fine art” establishment. History has shown that significant social changes or events, inspiring artistic experimentation and associated critical analysis, will build from a temporary decadence something new, incorporating ideas that are unknown or overlooked at the time.

  13. June 8, 2010


    No-one really believes any more in these crusty, enormously generalizing and vague periodizations based on the biological metaphor of growth, maturity and decline, and applied retrospectively and normatively: the term ‘rococo’, for example, is already anachronistic, for it was coined as an insult in the studio of the neoclassicist David; and what we understand as ‘neoclassicism’ today was largely shaped by the work of 20th-century scholars. Meanwhile much of sentiment arises in reaction to much of what was later considered ‘rococo’ (Greuze, for example), and becomes important to neoclassicism. As for formulae and marketing, they have been around in the modern sense since at least the Renaissance; surely the ‘baroque’ Bernini, a marketing genius, \commanded lucrative commissions\ just as the ‘rococo’ Boucher. Whatever the shape of the contemporary art world, this retrospective, normative historical revision does not help our understanding of it.

  14. June 8, 2010


    Yes, obviously a cast of a pair of mittens is of less artistic merit than a pallet of bricks… When exactly was this golden age, when modernism was not a conceptual house of cards?

    • November 15, 2012

      michael vandy

      Ha ha ha… My thought exactly. I love it when critics rip the VERY contemporary stuff, and then contrast it with the ORIGINAL contemporary stuff of 20 years ago. Fact is, it is all terrible for the same freakin’ reasons. Give me a break.

  15. June 8, 2010

    Caio Fernandes

    this is a briliant text .
    thank you very much for saying this .

  16. June 8, 2010

    ryan mitchell

    I think this owes far too much, to Kuspits Dialectic of Decadence, even your target of Hirst’s is the same. In line with that you cannot expect the artist to be demurge in a postmodern godless world.
    As well to pick and choose your moments from art history to make a critical statement is no different than the purposes of appropriation, used to make a critical statement, neither works that well in the end.
    Its also a mistake to see Post modernism as a stylistic choice rather than a social- philosophical problem to navigate through in broader culture.

  17. June 8, 2010

    Michael Gildea

    @ Aquaplant and Ryan Mitchell:
    Spot on! Even back in the day my lecturers cautioned against Wofflin’s terms but encouraged review of his insights. This argument squishes everyone into a very tight (and presumably decadent) corset.

  18. June 9, 2010

    Jenifer Vogt

    Ben Lewis, the first-time I saw your documentary Art Safari, I said to myself, “Is this guy an idiot, or what?!” Putting on a big head to attract Cattelan, bearing multiple rejections from Calle, getting tattoed next to a pig?!

    However, finally, I realized (with a great burst of glee) that you’re doing to the artists what they themselves are doing to the public. Ah-ha! Not so quick on the uptake am I.

    That’s when I really began to appreciate your genius and became a devoted fan of what you bring to the current interpretation, and chronicle, of the contemporary art market.

    Bravo here! I couldn’t agree more on the 4 characteristics described herein. However, the dustbin is not some future depository, but rather the collective, idealogical mindset of a public far-to-eager to embrace the shock of the “new” without any knowledge of the old.

  19. June 9, 2010

    Samuel Buckett

    I’m always cheered up by anything that shows we are at the end of things. What strikes me about the art establishment, from what little I see of it, is its intellectual bankruptcy, stupidity even. I loved what Fiona Rae says about her choice of one work for the RA’s summer exhibition:

    “I have no idea what is going on and what the different elements are – whether I’m looking at a severed head, or a cut-out love heart; or whether the happy bluebird is about to be mashed into a mysterious little blue ball like those hovering above the running figure (whose genitalia appear to be on her trousers)…”


  20. June 10, 2010

    glenn benge

    The summarizing overview of recent art is enjoyable in Weber’s article, and I personally find Hirst’s works execrable. Nonetheless, formulae mark art works done before a decline: try reading Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man without its geometric and mathematical elements, or his Last Supper fresco, where the Christ is contained within an equilateral triangle, and His head is placed at the vanishing point of the perspective scheme, symbolically making Him the center of the world/cosmos. Allori’s Susannah and the Elders, illustrated twice, wittily shows a complicitous rather than abused Susannah, who seems to accept both the genteel advance of the male who regards her face (and mind), and the leering caricature of the carnal admirer who is about to bite her rib. Rembrandt’s psychological version of the theme emphasizes repressed desires and deep guilt instead. The patron’s taste is operating here, as is the taste of an age. Art is often about other art, as is seen in Michelangelo’s enormous indebtedness to Donatello. Perhaps a look into the heroic oeuvre of Anselm Kiefer, a contemporary artist, his allegories and anti-academic techniques, would mitigate the endtime of art thesis here. And I happen to enjoy Koons and Murakami…

  21. June 12, 2010

    Bruce Walters

    I teach in an art department at a state university and I have found that the brightest and most forward thinking students have gravitated towards graphic design. There is more energy and innovation in animation, the internet and in print than to be found in the ‘important” galleries. Seriously, I have also found more exciting and relevant work in regional galleries.

    There are, of course, excellent major gallery artist -Keifer’s name was brought up in an earlier reply- yet, collectively, I don’t see much impact by the major galleries in any meaningful way. You know they are irrelevant when their only buzz seems to the quantity of money spent or some social line crossed.

  22. June 14, 2010


    Sharks and skulls and defaecating seagulls! If this is art,then the worlds not smart?

  23. June 19, 2010

    Barry Larking

    A wearily familiar complaint about ‘art’ – familiar if you are over forty five and have survived (as many commenting have not) creative studies courses which teach writing without the necessary corollary of how to construct a sentence.

    Mr Lewis suggests the ‘current art market’ is finished and wants to cheer but does not quite manage to do so. Partly this is because he is inside it and like any passenger (or fellow traveller) has an interest on where he will end up.

    One glaring absence in his piece is the idea of history as economics; even his parting shot of a quote from the mass murderer Trotsky (how intellectuals love murderers who write!) does not quite hit its marx … There has never been an art market like the one which exists today nor a level of involvement and rapid spread of information with which to compare. This has come about due to economic reforms in modern times. Before the last World War (1939-45; 1942-45 if you are American) there were about two or three middling art shows a year in London, including the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Outside of London it was even worse. Nothing like the spread of galleries and opportunities to see art today – taken for granted today – existed. Significantly, it was Maynard Keynes (1883-1946) the great economist, who founded the Arts Council of Great Britain post-War, not artists. This has been something of a job creation scheme and there are as a consequence many more Ben Lewis’ earning a crust trailing about the ever more numerous galleries. Ellsworth Kelly in Middlesbrough anyone?

    The function of art has also changed. The Rococo and the salon artists Mr Lewis execrates were the product – literally – of elite class interests. Eventually, the chiefly metropolitan masses excluded from the ‘art world’ retaliated. To the unforgiving dilettantes the masses have, as always, ‘spoiled everything’.

    Various phenomena are folded together in Lewis’ piece which are in fact separate and separable. He attacks the wallpaper but ignores the architecture. He deplores the paucity of modern art but is also confused by it’s variety. One thing – particularly the cult of celebrity – is falsely paralleled with longevity. Not just in visual arts are careers short-lived. Most novelists disappear without trace and many ‘best sellers’ are obscure after all but a decade or so except to Bibliophiles. Much music has been played once and forgot. With so much post-Industrial Revolution artistic production this is inevitable; it is also new, in the sense that there are more people involved and entirely new audiences to which this ephemeral art caters. It is also very much less than clear cut in terms of allegiance to an aesthetic dominance. The force of Mr Lewis’ argument relies upon a strict interpretation of centuries of visual artistic production imposed at the close of the 19th century by scholars who wanted to create order out of perceived chaos. Rococo and Baroque were two such overlapping ‘movements’ set up as foils for differences which people might well have not judged or cared about much beforehand. Giving manageability to contrasts is the result. It also created the erroneous idea in many minds that there was a category of beings called ‘artists’; similarly equipped and set firmly into a comprehensible profession, like academic art historians, funnily enough.

    Rococo is dismissed along with the magical and unique Wallace Collection, struggling along with much else to maintain itself in a special niche. Watteau (1684-1721) was a Rococo artist and some of his loveliest works can be seen at the Wallace and in a way appropriate to their haunting character. Depth is there, in abundance, special in the whole of western painting. Mozart too, could be dismissed for exactly the same failures of seriousness levelled at Boucher – both were dazzling purveyor’s of guilt-free pleasure. But then, what would you rather do? Look at Watteau or Jacques Louis David? No contest.

    Instead of mincing over his words and defining categories of failures (placing something in a category is no argument) Mr Lewis might celebrate something oddly appropriate about the current art world: it’s a free for all.

  24. June 20, 2010


    this is a long and scholarly article explaining why the king has no clothes, but not for the first time. However, it only takes one small boy to see that the king has no clothes, no more.

    What should be a matter of concern is that public money is being squandered on purchasing this garbage ‘for the nation’ and that teachers are being paid to teach this garbage so in fact there is a unique problem to the modern situation: putative artists who could not paid sculp or draw if their lives depended on it.

  25. June 28, 2010

    william Coulthard

    I remmember back in collage in the late seventies the critic Peter Fuller would come up from London and start asking questions, should art students abandon the life room entirely ? the arguements that followed were basically split along painting and sculpture,the later being a traditional northerners. Back then student ideas were encouraged to be thought threw fully and most notions were quickly thrown in the garbage. however since then I have seen people become famous for the same things we dismissed as cheap,glossy and unchallenging. I believe the end of modernism is apparent , it is only in its last dying throws,that in itself is a beautiful thing to see. Artists who can not draw are like musicians who can ply or writers who cant spell.

  26. June 28, 2010


    At one time aspiring artist went to art school to learn their craft with the dream of expressing something within themselves in the language of their time. How passé. Contemporary art is best taught in business school with the goal of parlaying novelty into riches. Poor Bernie Madoff, today in jail, when with his skill he could have opened an art gallery and ripped-off millions while at the same time being lionized in the art fashion magazines.

  27. July 8, 2010

    paul gardner

    A brilliant piece by Ben Lewis.

  28. July 14, 2010


    ryan mitchell says:

    ‘Its )also) a mistake to see Post modernism as a stylistic choice rather than a social- philosophical problem to navigate through in broader culture.’

    Too right. This article relies upon the same bombastic and frivolous speculation which it is claiming to despise- presenting thinly researched arguments without the necessary foray into the social politics which inform the sentiments.

    The art ‘world’ you describe, a playground for rich business men filled with wall adornments made by puppets of a self reflexive system which is somehow harming all of society is a seriously outdated argument. That artistic model is only the tip of the ice-berg of a myriad of communities operating on different economies, motivations and private relationships, all for differing ends.

    Why don’t you brush journalism with the same brush you’re pointing at art.

    • November 15, 2012

      michael vandy

      I’ve noticed several comments here that attack the author for somehow using the same methods or thought processes that are used by the artists he critiques. But even if true… what does that? The key difference is that I can actually understand what the writer is saying… I can comprehend the abstract notions he has in mind. He has succeeded. Contemporary art… presumably using the same methods and thought processes… fails miserably to convey anything but disgust. So… either writing and art operate by different principles… or the author is NOT employing the same methods and thought processes.

  29. September 6, 2010

    david derner

    article spot on except the comparison with boucher…probably the greatest draftsman of the 18th century…my opinion…lots of fluff granted but capable of producing a masterpiece almost at will…a boucher will always command my attention wherever i see one because im willing to forget my own age and value system for a moment and enjoy a master who truly enjoyed the hours spent in his studio…the consummate artist…love the derrieres…and the drapery…a master of foreshortening…love him…beautifully decadent…hirst a pimple on his ass surely…

  30. December 3, 2010

    Maddy Pallington

    Another circlejerk on contemporary art. I don’t mind criticism and I agree with some of the things Lewis and commenters said. But the reactionism disgusts me. Yeah, let’s go back to classical realism, graphical design is cool, let art be something enjoyable and comfortable, something middle-class semi-intellectuals can put in their living rooms. Just go out and see an exhibition in a really independent art gallery. Not all of the works will be “good” or “original”, some of them will be outright “bad”. But in some of them, you will see someone communicating with you – that is if you are someone open to communication – maybe in a sincere and simple way or in a provocative way or something else. Communication, that is the important thing. Just forget about what is art, what is it worth. It is all meaningless, in the end, everything is. And this (I’m not implying anything, just wanted to point out some similarities):

  31. May 24, 2011


    It’s obvious what belongs in a fine art gallery and what does not. Boucher and Rembrandt capture the beauty of life and womanhood. Murakami’s painting/sculpture just embodies the disgusting nature of the modern world.

  32. September 2, 2011

    Richard Young

    Whether modern contemporary art is good or bad is our own perception. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I am a big Bouguereau fan and whilst I am a figurative Artist, I don’t qualify to clean his brushes. Unfortunately, I get neither excited nor inspired by Mr Hirst’s shock and awe creations. Having said that, Warhol, Dali, Matisse and Picasso, were truly inspirational to many modern Artists and products.
    Nice healthy debate… :)

  33. September 9, 2011

    Jose Lourenco

    Good. Lewis’ piece takes our aesthetic reasoning (!) on a pleasant journey. Which is art in itself. We can then sit down and dismantle his theories, but as a verbal artist he has presented his work. Knowing the human spirit, art though jaded today will burst into bloom tomorrow. Art will continue its quest. We look forward to new ways of seeing.

  34. April 6, 2012

    Tim Holmes

    Very astute! What we art fans lack generally is the courage of our own convictions. Just as no one person’s heart is any more valid than another’s, there are no “art experts” (though of course some have better familiarity with the components of art).

    Each person’s esthetic, refined or not, is a true expression of their unique sensibility in the world. It is when we look to others to define what is “good” that we derail. Of course the big money will create the loudest noise, so those who benefit most from the system will end up having determined what is the “best” art.

    In the end finding good art is like finding a good spouse- don’t let anyone else do your choosing for you!! If you don’t agree, try poking some holes in this relational definition of art:

  35. April 10, 2012

    Matthew O'Connell

    Contemporary art is self-absorbed and full of weak and meaningless ideas; A real reflection of the times we live in. Like politics, the world of art needs a new direction that provides meaning and the rediscovery of a sense of purpose and commitment to something greater than itself. Since religion no longer holds that role, we need to establish a new sense of the sacred, outside of spiritual concerns, where the past and the future do exist and living solely for the present moment is recognized as irresponsible and childish. By the way music is in a similar spot.

  36. April 21, 2012

    Floyd Alsbach

    Thank you Ben Lewis! Finally someone found the rope, grabbed it in both hands and pulled hard, tolling the death knell of \Contemporary\ art. At last the long reign of celebratory stupidity is finally over. Wonder how long it will take for the collectors to catch on?

  37. April 23, 2012


    Brilliant. Just brilliant. A critique, by the way, that can be applied equally accurately to the woeful postmodern experiments in theatre and literature.

  38. April 30, 2012

    Andrew Werby

    It’s so easy to dismiss the creative processes of thousands of dedicated artists, working at their own expense to bring something new to the world under difficult circumstances. It’s all very simple, if you’re willing to take the media stereotype of the artist at face value and never look beyond the over-hyped branded merchandise put out by art factories like Damian Hirst’s, Murkarimi’s, and Koons’. But while sweeping all this stuff into the dustbin of history, it might behoove us to look a bit more deeply into the amazing outpouring of creative spirit we’re experiencing in the Internet Era. As the means of production – digital photograpy, streaming video, rapid prototyping – devolve to the populace, people at large are increasingly able to record their own take on things and share it, which is the primary impulse of art.

    This article supposes that Modernism is or was a coherent movement, that somehow its original spirit was lost, and what’s come since is just a pale shadow of the giants that paved the way. I would contend that Modernism was less a formula for how to make art in a certain way, and more a blanket permission to make art in any way an artist should see fit. Inevitably, that has led to a situation where various groups of people who might arguably be engaged in art-making have wandered off in different directions, none of them acknowledging that their own path is anything but the only true direction.

    But the fragmentation of contemporary art is its saving grace, in my opinion. Everyone can do his her or its own thing. It’s like art through a fly’s eye – if you see something you don’t like, just shift to the next gallery – there’s bound to be something different, and ultimately, there’s something for everyone. But it takes some searching to find it. If you never look further than the Big Names thrown up by the media, but then throw up your hands and bemoan the “decadence” of all today’s art, you’re selling yourself short.

    Unlike, say Ancient Egyptian art, which maintained an amazing continuity over thousands of years, contemporary art is not a single project – it’s an explosion in every direction. That’s why this article rings false to me. The author is over-fond of grand generalizations, which lead him to tediously familiar conclusions. How many times do we need to be told that the emperor has no clothes? There are thousands of artists who work passionately and sincerely at their work with little hope of making it big – they aren’t all sheep or charlatans, even though the current structure of the art world rewards the loudest, not the best.

    Art’s real problem is that people in general have stopped caring much about it, and that artists, who are the only people left who still care about art, have stopped caring what people in general think. The rich, who are the only ones left in a position to support art with their purchases, rarely have better taste than their poorer compatriots, and don’t have any confidence in the tastes they’ve got. So they rely on their advisors to pick out art for them, who play it safe, so they assume that they’re getting what they paid for. The small roster of Big Names, who are so easy to poke fun at for their decadence or whatever, is what we get as a result. But the fact that they haven’t made anything great lately doesn’t mean great art isn’t being made. One hint: if you don’t like what’s being touted as “fine art”, try slumming a bit, and consorting with the crafts. I went to the SOFA exhibit in NY last week, and was both enlightened and humbled by some of the work on display:

    Andrew Werby

  39. November 16, 2013


    Contemporary art is the art of the now – and like yesterday’s papers it is quickly overtaken by the new contemporary art which is swiftly relegated it to the dustbin of ‘contemporary’ art. As for the well-known art we see in reproductions – surely it just ensures that too much of the art’s value is tied to the name of the artist on the price tag and how well known he is. Painterly skill, light, colour and meaning, all interplay with our own personal response to a painting and whether it resonates in a pleasing way. Or as most art buyers would say ‘I like what I like’ regardless of who says something should be more highly rated, or have higher status for whatever reason.

  40. April 16, 2014

    Timothy Kerofsky

    To me art is not just painting, sculpture, photography, dance or music.
    Art is all of life; how we life life, how we see the beauty in nature, and in all things.
    Art is a part of all of us; we just have to learn to perceive it.

Leave a comment

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Ben Lewis

Ben Lewis
Ben Lewis is a documentary filmmaker and art critic 

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