The triumph of avant-garde lite

Edward Lucie-Smith charts the decline of contemporary art from Modernism and the avant garde


to being a mere epiphenomenon of the fashion industry

Ten days or so ago, before beginning to write this, I was idly browsing a slightly out-of-date copy of the Evening Standard Magazine. Anything to avoid the toil of having to write something myself. Faute de mieux, my eye fell on a piece that was

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ostensibly about the demise of the so-called ‘It-Bag’ – something about as far from my own usual range of interests as one can conveniently get.

It began as follows: “As I google_ad_width = 970; navigated the giant Carsten Holler mushroom sculptures and the sleeping security guard who may or may not have been a work of art at the VIP preview of Frieze art fair earlier this month, my focus drifted from the exhibits to the people standing studiously in front of them. Take away the art and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were at London Fashion Week – every

turn revealed a glossy gallerist or collector with a Céline coat draped over her shoulders, power-walking the halls in Chanel trainers. There’s a reason that Alexander McQueen and Gucci are both sponsors of the fair. Designer


stores report bigger sales during Frieze week than at any other time of year (even Christmas). Now in its 11th year, Frieze has evolved into and unbeatable style barometer.”

This paragraph crystallized a thought that had been already hovering in my mind for some time.

The fact is that there works by better-known artists who were her contemporaries – Johns, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Gonzalez-Torres, Keith Haring and Anselm Kiefer among others. MOMA celebrates this process as follows:

“Though her “repetitions” may appear to be simply mimetic exercises in proto-appropriation, Sturtevant is better understood as an artist who adopted style as her medium and took the art of her time as a loose score to be enacted and reinterpreted. Far more than mere copies, /* xin-1 */ her versions of Johns’s flags, Warhol’s flowers, and

Joseph Beuys’s fat chair are studies in the action of art that expose aspects of

its making, reception, circulation, and canonization.”

It would be hard to devise a more comprehensive and emphatic endorsement of today’s mandarin culture.

The fashonistas and the mandarins are allied. What they promote is a kind of art that assumes the trappings of ‘traditional avant-gardism’ (an oxymoron if ever there was one), but which in fact runs away from real innovation just as fast at its pattering little paws will carry it.

A process of this kind is not entirely new. If one looks at Chinese literati culture for example, one sees how Chinese ink painting ossified, after the fall of the Ming dynasty, into endless paraphrases of older masters. What counted was not the google_ad_slot = "7160667483"; image actually created, but the nuances of style, the echoes of what had google_ad_height = 90; gone before.

What the MOMA statement quoted above assumes is that the ideal spectator will already be immersed in the previous history of ‘approved’ /* xin2 */ avant-garde art. He or she will be google_ad_width = 970; able to read, not only the actual text presented, but also the sub-text that lies beneath it. It is, for instance, noticeable that the numerous artists Sturtevant has chosen //--> to paraphrase have no stylistic relationship. What they do have in common is, yes, their gender (Sturtevant is taking them on as the

of culture.” Now the lay person is asked a different question: “Are you one of us or one of them? Chav or non-chav? Elite or hoi-polloi? If you want to be on-message, you’d better step up


quick and join us.”

Responses to this challenge are further complicated by the degree to which what is supposedly avant-garde has become embedded in the mechanisms of today’s official culture.

This culture, in the western European

democracies at least, and also (with certain

often, we now transfer this belief

from the object to the personality responsible for producing the object. This has been developed to the point where celebrated artists are regarded as the equivalents of primitive shamans – Joseph Beuys and, more recently, Marina Abramovic are cases in

fact that the knee-jerk reactions that the pioneer Modernists relied on to make their points for them are harder and harder to evoke. The same buttons have been pushed too often.

Basically once

art loosened its age-old ties with religion, and at the same time increasingly ceased to be

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opposition to
the message, were the first steps towards eventual acceptance and celebrity. If one looks at the development of the /* 9-970x90 */ 20th century avant gardes (in the plural), one sees that this was largely cyclic. A tendency