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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

By Ben Lewis   June 2010

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

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…

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