Pictures of nothing and very like

John Moores Exhibition 2016

Most of Europe’s countries are either bankrupt or in economic meltdown, their infrastructure crumbling and public services reduced; the Middle East and Levant are in post-apocalyptic ruin, in part the result of lies told in our own Parliament; an exodus of desperate humanity is seeking refuge from a criminal death-cult; innocents are being slaughtered in streets all over Europe by brainwashed looneys; across the globe are pockets of strategically induced and entirely avoidable famine; infant mortality in parts of Africa is at worse levels than in Georgian Britain; meanwhile, at home we have thousands of steelworkers needlessly losing their jobs; pension pots of the poorest being robbed wholesale by bloated ocean-going bellies; armies of formerly skilled artisans reduced to wearing hairnets in order to package fatty swill fuelling an obesity epidemic; we have a political élite who are out of touch with what voters think and who award themselves large pay increases and eyewatering expenses and property perks; we are returning to the bad old days of increasing numbers sleeping rough on the streets; we have an education system – 13 years of free, full-time tuition – which is the envy of the Third World but at the end of which a large proportion of our children still can’t read, write or speak their own language properly; pension companies and fat cats steal our money and get away with it, their bosses paying themselves 130 times what their average worker earns; we stand watching powerlessly as an age of repellent inequality in finance, housing and opportunity runs out of control; a materially obsessed populace is beset by mass addictions to alcohol, shopping and virtual reality; our highly educated young adults, already burdened with colossal debts before they’ve done a day’s work, can’t find anywhere decent, affordable or secure to live, public housing for some irrational reason having been killed off; we have profitable companies who employ a disgraceful but fashionable new form of exploitation called ‘internship’, slavery by any other name; and many adults can’t even afford to live on their minimum wages because of engineered restrictions placed on the hours they are allowed to work. 

If ever there were importunate subjects and narratives for visual artists to address surely it is now. But where are the Hogarths, Herkomers, Fildes, Greens, Dorés, Millais’, Bretons, Bastien-Lepages, L’Hermittes, Holls, Caton-Woodvilles, Sickerts, Dixes, Groszs and Kitchen-Sinkers of today? Of all the places they really ought to be, they are not to be found in Liverpool. As far as the latest John Moores (Walker Art Gallery until November 27th) is concerned the world outside might as well not exist.

What then are the painters in this exhibition up to? With the exception of three of the 54 works (selected from 2,500 entries) they are concerned with aspects of painting itself. They seem exclusively devoted to navel-gazing irrelevance, and in some instances even seem deranged by it. Encouraged by post-modernism, coercive institutions, weak museums and the debased state of art education, they have been reduced to paranoia to the extent of painting pictures of nothing. And so inadequately limited has been their expensive further education that even if they wanted to they own no means of communicating to others.

All the painters in the John Moores can come up with is variants of the following drivel, and I quote from the catalogue:

“My paintings are visual fictions with concrete reality.”

“I shift from one painting to another, experimenting playfully with mark making.”

“My practice is to construct paintings that fix colour and form in various, tense economies.”

“As I work, a painting’s alchemical make up, and the substance and process, is reflected in sync with my ideas and experiences.”

“My work revolves around the merging of private and public spaces.” 

“My practice explores perceptions of pictorial space and the extent to which figuration can be used as a tool for pictorial enquiries.”

“As a painter, I enjoy the problem of using two dimensions to convey an experience of time and space in the physical world.”

“My works are explorations of the art world.”

“My current paintings are an exploration of the intangible within the human condition.”

“My practice takes up aspects of inherently human activity that begin with the hand.”

“In my interrogations of the technical problems of the medium, I frequently conceive of painting as a two-dimensional stage space that curtails fictive distance as it represents it.”

The judges are no better. Here is Ansel Krut, who used to be a serious painter, describing the winner (above): “The painting uses an almost minimal vocabulary to open up a world of great sympathetic imagination. It touches on the nature of silence, on distance and on exclusion. But most importantly, it touches on the privileges of looking.” Ansel, old chap, you’ve caught the disease. Who seriously gives tuppence for “the privileges of looking”, whatever they might be? I spent six years at some of the best universities in the world in order to have not the faintest idea what you’re on about. Who have you written this crap for? People are they? How many? Three?

The catalogue introduction is the work of another judge, one Richard Davey, an art critic who is also a priest. Suffice to say what he has written will be incomprehensible to his parishioners, if he has any left. As far as State Art is concerned priests make perfect critics. They already believe a pile of fantastical tripe so it’s no real sweat to convince themselves – by using the religious blind faith State Art always demands of its adherents – that incompetent daubing irrelevant to everything except itself is highly significant. The winner’s work is described by Davey in that phrase beloved of desperate State Art hacks – “deceptively simple”. That one always makes me laugh. Believe me there is nothing deceptive about this picture. There are no hidden depths, veiled revelations or secret corners. Pure and simple it is simple. What you see is all there is. There is nothing of life here. It was born quite dead.

Artists have been hand-picked for their credulity in having fallen for the irrelevant precepts of an incompetent art education. Surely a good artist is by definition someone who communicates, not just to three others in the know but to everyone. They should consider it their duty to be involving, otherwise what’s the point? These painters don’t seem to realise that they’ve been thoroughly cheated by charlatans.

Being part of the Establishment, State Art has taught and encouraged those in its seminaries to surrender the right to be important and to make lasting work. This disgraceful orthodoxy has condemned its painters to be fashionable for seconds but irrelevant in perpetuity. Fine art ‘university’ education is the most outrageous  failure, but it is a disaster we seem incapable of escaping.

For what it’s worth the thoughtful pictures are Steph Goodger’s crude efforts based on famous 1871 photographs of Parisian communards ranged in tiers of coffins, a subject with obvious modern echoes; a decent enough account by Mandy Payne of a concrete landing on a grim housing estate; and a Polaroid-size monochrome by Nicholas Middleton showing a group of people staring into a tunnel used as a fly-tipping site. These works all committed the sin of having a subject other than what happens if you subject paint to this, that or the other means of application. They weren’t great paintings but their authors were at least making some effort to refer to life.

I’m the sort of non-academic simpleton dismissed as unsophisticated and disadvantaged by those who select and show this sort of stuff. They tell me that I’m not looking hard enough or often enough, and that I’m not ‘poetic’ or ‘sympathetic’. In truth my failing is to like pictures that are beautifully painted and which move me about failings and fragilities,  love, tenderness and fear, death too, and which open my eyes and senses to things I haven’t seen or felt. Why should anyone give a toss about how paint behaves under this or that condition, any more than if a great writer uses two, three or all eight fingers to type with? Such matters are an impertinence. We’ve now had more than a generation of this stagnation and it’s become boring beyond endurance.

The John Moores is what you get if you don’t teach people to look beyond themselves and the insularity of Serota’s frightened and petrified art world. It’s also what you get if you allow an important prize to be kidnapped by an intolerant doctrine like State Art.

May I suggest that in 2018 the prejudging of the John Moores be conducted exclusively online by a programme which automatically eliminates entrants using any of the following words; ‘exploring’, ‘exploiting’, ‘challenging’, ‘testing’, ‘examining’, experimenting’ – and especially if these precede ‘notions’, ‘practices’, ‘aspects’ or ‘theories’. No accomplished artist ever used any of these descriptions because genuine artistic intelligence precludes such nonsense.An extraordinary paradox in recent art, including the paintings featured in the current John Moores, is that the Left staunchly defends allegedly ‘progressive’ artists who paint nothing comprehensible or recognisable. As art has travelled further away from appreciation by the masses (a phenomenon first noticed by a troubled William Coldstream in the mid-1930s), so the Left has supported more avidly art’s increased exclusiveness. Don’t you find that odd?