Laura Gascoigne: Tainted by Experience – March 2017

When the former controller of BBC Radio 3 John Drummond published an autobiography in 2001, he called it ‘Tainted by Experience’ – an ironic reference to the reason given by a Birtist suit at the Beeb for his being ‘let go’ a decade earlier. I haven’t read the book, but the expression was used by William Varley in a positive sense to describe a group of mature artists showing at Northumbria University Gallery in 2011, and it stuck in my mind. As it happens, Northumbria University Gallery is now itself under new management since its director of 38 years’ standing, Mara Helen Wood, was ‘let go’ by the university executive for being similarly ‘T by E’, as reported by Varley on these pages last year.

Following the revolt of ‘the people’ against ‘the experts’ currently convulsing western democracies, we face the prospect – daunting or exhilarating, depending which side of the populist fence you’re on – of an expert-free future. If this is a revolution, as some people seem to think, then post-modern art has long been in its vanguard. Ever since Marcel Duchamp (or Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, take your pick) pissed on the art experts with link Fountain in 1917, expertise in art has been a dirty word. This causes particular problems for avant-garde painters, since paint, unlike sanitary ware, is an impressionable substance that too readily absorbs the taint of experience. As a measure of contemporary artists’ desperation, an exhibition of young Canadian painters at Pippy Houldsworth in 2008 was titled Learned Helplessness.

The fashion for bedroom painting, currently running in tandem with the fashion for lumber-room sculpture, appears to support Joseph Beuys’ egalitarian philosophy that “everyone is an artist”. Technique is not the only casualty of this ostensible democratisation; knowledge of art history is another victim. In Elizabeth Fullerton’s Artrage: The Inside Story of the Britart Revolution, Liam Gillick says of his Goldsmiths generation: “We didn’t sit around talking about El Greco… It’s as if we started without any history”. The blanking of history was about more than democratisation; it was a bid by ambitious young artists to turn over a clean sheet and astonish the world with the newness of their art.

Fifteen years after Gillick was nominated for the Turner Prize, the world is still waiting. As previous nominee Tracey Emin rightly predicted: “You’ll never get a fucking radical winning the fucking Turner Prize”. The reason is that the sheet was never clean. It wasn’t true that the yBas started without any history; they just started with a lot less of it. They referred, deferred even, to history as reverently as the German Expressionists who copied El Greco; the difference was that they refused to look further back than Duchamp. And so, in the place of newness, we got repetition. Those who fish for ideas in a small art historical pond are bound to keep catching the same old fish others have put back. I’m in perfect agreement with Roland Barthes’ claim in The Death of the Author that there’s no such thing as original creation since we all draw on a “ready-formed dictionary”, but it follows that the shorter the dictionary, the more restricted the creative scope.

Last year’s Turner Prize exhibition was admittedly an improvement, but it has long felt as if the jury is operating a points system whereby nominees are awarded marks for every reference to a post-modern forbear. Rather than democratising contemporary art, this sort of specialist reference-spotting is as much a game for an art-educated elite as identifying classical allusions once was for a cultivated audience of Renaissance humanists. What it produces is elitism on the cheap, shorn of the technical skill and aesthetic pleasure that made Renaissance art enjoyable by all audiences, educated or not. It’s an elitism dressed in sloppy paint and everyday detritus whose learned helplessness is about as convincing as Marie Antoinette’s attempt to pass for a milkmaid.