Can you pick 100 works of art that define our time?by Sebastian Smee / November 14, 2013 / Leave a comment
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…