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 /* xin-1 */ 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slightly out-of-date copy of the Evening Standard Magazine.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 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 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

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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 is no real visual arts avant-garde any more, despite all the strenuous efforts being made by those who see themselves as the guardians and prophets of contemporary culture to persuade us to the contrary.

Serendipity has google_ad_height = 90; it that The Museum of Modern Art in /* 9-970x90 */ New York is currently celebrating the activity of a woman artist,

previously unknown to me, who worked under the name of Sturtevant
(American 1924-2014). The MOMA press release proclaims that this retrospective show “identifi[es] her as a pioneering and pivotal figure in the history of modern and post modern art.”

What did Sturtevant do? Essentially she made versions of works by better-known artists who were her

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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, 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,

as the sacred art of the Middle Ages was made accessible to every worshipper. This offers a telling contrast to the private, conspiratorial rituals of the early years of the Modern Movement, when experimental

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art was in retreat, both voluntarily and involuntarily, from

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the glare of
publicity offered by the official Salons of the same epoch. In fact, it was the brutally hostile Entartete Kunst

exhibition organized by the Nazi regime in Munich in 1937 that finally brought Modernism in art to a wider public. One million people attended the show in the course of its first six weeks. It is safe to guess that the

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attendees represented a much wider social spread, in terms of both class and education, than any audience Modernist work had attracted src="//pagead2.googlesyndication.com/pagead/show_ads.js"> previously.

What is different now, from the situation in the Christian Middle Ages, is the lack of a secure, firmly held belief system about what art is, and what it is supposed to do within the social context. We still, however, retain a curious, atavistic attachment to the idea that art is a charismatic product,

with a mysterious impact on our psyches. Very 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 point.

This lack of a belief system has had a powerful and often catastrophic impact on public art. For example, even now we instinctively expect public sculptures to convey some kind of message, other than a purely aesthetic one. Yet the message, in new monuments of this kind, commonly seems so shallow and clichéd that it doesn’t have any effect. Purely abstract public sculptures – ‘art about art’ – usually fail even more catastrophically. They become simply large-scale open-air ornaments, pretty enough in their way, but with little, or even no, emotional impact. Hence the appearance, in common parlance, of the derogatory google_ad_width = 970; term “plop sculpture”, implying that the artwork in

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question is not much higher in status than a

and