Kazuo Shiraga, Chijusei Shizenhaku (1961), oil on canvas. Gutai artists sometimes applied paint to the canvas with their bodies.
I doubt it was only me wandering around Frieze Art Fair last week with Grayson Perry’s words ringing in my ears. In his first Reith lecture, titled “Democracy Has Bad Taste,” the Turner prize-winning potter delivered a frank, if unsurprising breakdown of the art world. This world, said Perry, was often a “closed circle of the artist, the dealer, the collector.” Closed, that is, from the public. Popularity is very nice, he suggested, but certainly not essential to an artist’s success.
Many disgruntled protectors of artistic integrity, who eye Perry with a suspicion reserved for double agents, have channeled his remarks to reassert that contemporary art has been captured by a clique of trendy sophisticates, bent on stamping-out any traditional notions of beauty or aesthetic reward. Talent and skill, they protest, has been relegated beneath the latest irony.
I can agree, to an extent, that a small body of opinion has acquired a disproportionate voice in the art world. However, this year’s Frieze shows their effect to be marginal in the context of the global market. In my eyes at least, the gimmicky or pretentious is plainly exposed beside the majority of art that remains, well, artistic. That is, regardless of how modern its means are, it continues to recognize that there is such a thing as beauty.
But the real question, provocatively framed by Perry but never answered, is whether artistic beauty itself has anything to do with popular taste. For it seems to stem, at least in part, from that other set of artists, dealers, and collectors who form the even more firmly closed circle of tradition. In the rarefied air of the Frieze Masters tent, I met with someone who can fairly claim to be at the centre of this circle, and who feels that there is more to it.
Axel Vervoordt, Antwerp-based dealer in fine arts, antiques and interiors, has built a name on taste, and now lends it to an empire of commerce and patronage. With mythical beginnings in the restoration of a medieval passage in Antwerp in 1968, Vervoordt has spread his “sense of distilled harmony” through castles, country houses, and biennales the world over.
At first appearance, with fine clothes and a jet-setting tan, Vervoordt fits the mould of an illustrious art dealer to the point of caricature. But a boyish exuberance soon bursts out of this exterior. He speaks enthusiastically about authenticity, timelessness, East and West, yin and yang. He sees himself as a mentor, referring me to his writings, leaning over the coffee table and tapping my notebook with an emphatic figure to make sure I get his point. He makes me stand before Anish Kapoor’s 1993 sculpture, “Void,” to experience “the pregnant possibilities of the void.”
This is a central obsession, and the theme explored across time and space in his show. As well as Kapoor, Vervoordt’s modern works include the yawning shapes and swollen contours of the Gutai movement from post-war Japan, a perforated canvas by the father of Spacialism, Lucio Fontana, and a poised kinetic sculpture by George Rickey. These works are contrasted with artefacts from the ancient world–a chic Egyptian cat, a duck from Mesopotamia–which create their own void through “the aura of an object, that freezes a second.”
Despite the air of high culture and refinement that surrounds his elegantly spaced objets d’art, the modern art he displays has a sharp, acerbic tendency that would easily pass for contemporary. Indeed, Gutai was influential to our expanded notions of artistic beauty today. The movement was founded by Yoshihara Jiro in 1954, and operated as a cohesive avant-garde in the town of Ashiya, in Western Japan, until 1972. Gutai means “embodiment,” and its artists rejected pictorial representation as illusory, emphasising instead “the characteristics of the material.” They tried to connect with the physicality of their work, dressing themselves as sculptures or pressing paint onto canvases with their bodies.
Such artistic innovation is often accompanied by claims of a more democratic art. However, despite its attempts to abandon “counterfeit objects on the altars, in the palaces, in the salons and the antique shops,” this is precisely where Gutai has ended up–within the closed circle of good taste. I pointed out that there was irony in re-erecting the boundaries which such movements had tried above all to overcome. Vervoordt responded that the social and political context of a work is ultimately transient; its spiritual value allows it to remain contemporary, like his artifacts.
So, while a work of art’s survival depends on whether it can appeal to later generations of artists and collectors, Vervoordt insists that the qualities which allow it to do so–such as the “void” he so admires–can be communicated to anyone. While such a pure view of beauty is attractive, particularly when faced with works such as those in Vervoordt’s display, the fact remains that if you spend more time looking at art or even making it, your taste is likely to change. That is what sometimes separates what the art world produces, cherishes, and spends vast sums of money on from what might be deemed popular.
We should not let the opinions of others shape our responses, though. It is still up to us to decide whether something speaks to us or not at any given time. And, I think, we should be glad when we don’t appreciate art immediately. Judgments may or may not change with time, but you would hope those who dedicate their lives to art can come up with something better than just aiming to please.