If high art is the new religion, then we had better watch outby Ben Pimlott / February 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
High art is more visible than ever before. Even the aggressively philistine would have difficulty missing the bombardment of arts programmes, the classic novel re-makes on television, the advertisements on London buses which play games with images from art. Every driver on the road to Scotland knows Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North, every commuter confronts a poem on the tube; even the most dedicated sun-and-sangria seeker can expect his or her hotel bedroom to be decorated with images from the Prado. It was not always so. In the proletarian world examined by Richard Hoggart, in The Uses of Literacy, more than 40 years ago, ordinary people had a place in their lives for “Art”-but it was a peripheral one. “Whilst they are enjoying [Art],” wrote Hoggart, “people submit themselves… but at the back of their mind, they know it is not ‘real’; ‘real’ life goes on elsewhere.” Today, with bits of high art everywhere, it is different. Everyone in Britain recognises a Van Gogh, a Munch, a Picasso, a Warhol-even if they cannot name the artist. Such images are part of the universal visual currency just as the language of Shakespeare is part of everyday speech. They are all around us, like the wallpaper of experience. Many modern wallpapers, indeed, have high art motifs. In the first half of the 20th century, high art belonged not so much to the upper middle class, as to a Bloomsbury demi-monde section of it, so that serious interest in the arts was not quite respectable. In the second half of this century, widening affluence, proliferating commercial display and conspicuous consumption have spread the most obvious symbols of high art across the nation’s consciousness. It is true that gallery and classical-concert visiting remain minority pursuits. It is also true that in 1994, 21 per cent of people in Britain claimed to have visited a museum or art gallery at least once in the last quarter. It may once have been true that high art was a conversation within the small elite of the self-consciously cultivated. It is much less true today. If high art is a conversation, it has become one which millions of people listen in on, even if they do not actively participate. But there is more to it than this. It is not just that people are more surrounded and affected by the arts than at any time since before the industrial revolution, or that an increasing number take an active interest in the arts. High art has also replaced the high altar in the lives of many people-the reverence that was once accorded to religious ceremonies and religious objects has been transferred, in more secular societies, on to artistic events and creations. People behave in art galleries much as they used to behave in church. I was recently visiting a gallery with my family, and my wife was explaining the history and symbolism of a painting to our son. A smartly dressed woman came up and asked whether she would please mind speaking in a whisper, and preferably not at all. It was inappropriate, she said politely, but reprovingly, to speak aloud in such a place. Hushed voices, sombre faces, a kind of awe at being in the presence of holiness. All these add up to an appreciation-unknown to the great houses and palaces in which works of art once hung-that might be regarded as spiritual or superstitious, rather than merely aesthetic. You could say that unique works of art have acquired the social significance, as well as the financial value, of pieces of the true cross. Because of this transcendent aspect to high art, it has a closer bond with the universalism of popular culture than with the particularisms of national heritage. For good art-lasting art-is not about heritage. Good art is about today and tomorrow, about honest appraisals of reality, about looking at the world in a different, sceptical way. Above all, the arts (the visual arts at least) are about impact and celebrity. “Are you a great artist?” Damien Hirst was recently asked. “I think that will be decided by people who haven’t been born yet,” he said. “But I think I’m a good artist. I think I ask the important questions. I think I’ve made important things.” “But what is a good artist?” the questioner persisted. “Good art,” said Hirst, “creeps up behind you and smacks you on the head… like a good film.” Whether that is true or not, what ensures that Hirst is important, and perhaps what helps to make him good, is his celebrity, the reality that he has been discussed, admired, envied, imitated. As with Duchamp’s urinal, the issue is not merit but impact. What was true of Dada and the Surrealists was also true of 1960s Pop Art: the artistic value of Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein may continue to be debated, but it is now beside the point. The proof of their importance lies in their familiarity, in the games advertisers play with their images and the echoes of their jokes in the imagery and humour of designers and film-makers, and indeed, in the work of contemporary artists. One of the objectives-perhaps the objective-of the Surrealists was to shock, and they succeeded. The ability to shock is one to be prized. It is related to the ability to amuse and requires conventions to be upset, and values to be disturbed. It is a feature of the 21st century that the truly shocking has become difficult to achieve. The recent “Sensation” exhibition at the Royal Academy tried hard, with its image of Myra Hindley in toddler handprints, its rotting pig’s head, its sculpted children with erect penises instead of noses. Brian Sewell fulminated. But what struck me about the crowds at the RA was their good-humoured curiosity. It was a successful show and will probably have a lasting impact. I make no judgement on the artistic merit of the works. But I was entertained, and believe Charles Saatchi has made a good investment. But I wonder about the loss, in much contemporary art, of a humanist dimension. Recently I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Looking at works by Rembrandt and Vermeer, I was painfully struck by the contrast. I feel a bond with portraiture. I am a biographer, and am aware both of the limitation and the scope provided by the exercise of looking obsessively at one individual. The limitation is that you are restricted by what you see: a portrait or a biography that is unrecognisable does not pass muster. But there is also a scope provided by the use of the individual as a vehicle for observing and discovering a wider aspect of the human condition. In biography, your subject is both the most important thing about your book, and the least. The same is true of portraiture, where it is quite common to know the name of the painter, but not the sitter. Observing the emotional precision, the care and sensitivity of the Flemish school, I was conscious of a lack of these things in most current works. It was not that the 16th-century or 17th-century work-the product of a tiny community of a few thousand burghers-was necessarily superior to the works which have arisen from a contemporary popular culture participated in by millions. It was the way the portrayal of the human figure, and the human face, was used by the Flemish school to express human understanding and belief, an outlook that inspires faith in the individual and the species. I do not think it is the fault of artists that such things are often missing today. There is a sense in which a painter is driven by events: an artist has to do what an artist has to do. It is a reflection on our times. But if that is so, watch out for the 21st century.