Edward Lucie-Smith Bids A Final Farewell To The Avant-Garde

Teo Robinson

The contemporary art world seems an increasingly strange place to be. It’s a realm where many of the people you meet – not so much the artists themselves, but the commentators, the organisers, the would-be movers-and-shakers – seem hubristically sure of themselves, but where none of the signposts agree. They are all pointing in different directions.

On the one hand, you have a crazy, volatile market, which seems to be the last bastion of completely unregulated capitalism. In the big auction rooms, huge sums of money change hands in a matter of moments. Very often, though the sales are held very much in public, both consignors and buyers (particularly the latter) are hidden in a thick fog of mystery.

At the very top of the market there are a small number of artists whose work reliably fetches colossal sums – seven figures and more per item, paid in pounds sterling or dollars US. Under this, but still fetching pretty big money, there is a more volatile sector, where prices are often, as the cliché puts it ‘up like a rocket, and down like the stick.’ Very rarely a new name claws its way into the very top rank. A recent example of a surge in value of this kind is offered by the work of the American graffiti artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, born in December 1960, dead of a drug overdose in August 1988.

Basquiat is/was both typical and atypical of this top-of-the market sector. Typical because he is dead, Atypical because his period of artistic activity was so recent. Nevertheless, he was not active at a time that can be claimed as ‘right now’. As I write this, he is nearly thirty years gone. Not contemporary in the absolute sense of the adjective.

Basquiat Boom Exhibition At The Barbican 2017

The sector that contains the big names, the financial absolutes that reliably bring in huge sums, is currently being squeezed. Major Old Master paintings are now very rare on the market. Major Impressionist and turn-of-the-20th century masterpieces are rapidly becoming so. There is more supply of work by major 20th-century artists who managed to live a bit longer, but most of these, too, are now dead – Picasso, Bacon, Willem de Kooning. Not lost bur gone before. Just like the recently canonised Jean-Michel. It may be almost the only thing he specifically has in common with them.

The expensive artists who have the good fortune to be still alive are rare indeed, and nearly all are now very senior. After them comes – what?

The question becomes more relevant because it is noticeable that, in the big auction rooms, the hugely rich collectors pursuing trophy art are not themselves Westerners. The huge bid that sealed Basquiat’s recent entrance into the pantheon of seven-figure prices was made by a Japanese collector. Figures from recent Christie’s and Sotheby’s trophy sales in New York indicate that slightly more than 40% of the very big winning bids came from Far Eastern sources.

Alongside this frantic circus of buying and selling there exists what is, at first sight, a very different world. It is that of the major public institutions that house collections and make exhibitions of modern and contemporary art, and democratically make that art available to the public gaze. Sometimes for free, but not invariably so. If you are at the bottom of the social heap, £15 or £20 for an exhibition entrance fee may well be beyond your financial reach. If you don’t live in a big city, with a major public gallery or galleries ready to hand, contemporary art also may be beyond your reach in a purely geographical sense.

This geographical disadvantage does not obstruct an interest in contemporary literature to the same extent, and, thanks to electronic means of transmission, it constitutes much less of a barrier if your passion is contemporary music, though in that case, you may miss out on the thrill of live performance.

Modigliani Tate Modern
Modigliani Tate Modern 2017-2018

There is also the fact that much of what is offered as being ‘modern’ with a small ‘m’ – that is to say as being undoubtedly art of our own epoch – is often not in fact very close in time to us. The social norms have changed. A rampant individualist such as Modigliani, famous in his date for beating up his girl-friends, apparently indifferent to the World War raging in close proximity to his Paris studio, could not, one suspects, exist in the art world we have today. This despite the fact that he is at the moment the subject of a major retrospective at Tate Modern. In more than one sense, the great Modi is nearly a hundred years gone. We wouldn’t tolerate him now.

Basquiat, dead for nearly three decades, is acceptable as a true contemporary largely because of the ongoing fashion for graffiti art. A recent composition by Banksy, perhaps the best-known graffiti artist active today, offers a shrewd comment on this. A drawing of his adorns an outside wall of the Barbican Centre here in London, which until recently housed a major Basquiat retrospective exhibition. It shows a central figure in Basquiat’s own typical pseudo-African style being molested by two police people (one male, one female). These subsidiary figures are depicted in monochrome and in a much more photorealistic way than the personage they molest. In fact, they look like the photo illustrations you’d find splashed across the news pages of one of today’s tabloids. The jolting stylistic disconnect makes a point about the gap between the kind of artistic world Basquiat inhabited and the one we have bow,

In the heavens above this ill-matched group, there hovers a celestial being, skeletonised, with lightning flashes for legs and bearing a crown. The intended allegory is clear. Basquiat is a martyr to art, now being canonised. Like the major Christian martyrs, he has become suitably remote.

If one looks at the art that is truly an inescapably of the moment, as represented in recent shows at great London institutions, one finds some tendencies, sometimes linked, at other times strangely divorced.

There is, for example, self-congratulatory populism, of the kind exemplified by the collection of swings now occupying Tate Modern’s largest exhibition space – you see them immediately you get in, through either of the two main entrances. There’s no doubt, if you visit on a busy weekend that you’ll see them drawing a crowd, and much of this crowd consists of family groups – parents and their kids, enjoying a day out, protected from anything that London’s uncertain weather can throw at them.

There is a mixture of cultures visible at this event, as well as a spectrum of different generations. Islamic families, for instance, recognizable at a glance because the women and girls are wearing hijabs. A weekend visit to Tate Modern now offers a snapshot view of the multicultural nature of contemporary British society. The sole doubt is to how much this participatory spectacle can be made to fit any usual definition of visual art. In a suburban playground, it wouldn’t be art. Here, because of the context, one supposes that what one sees in this area of Tate Modern, and maybe even chooses to participate in, must be elevated to that condition.

This populism offers a contrast to the elitism that still ruled the British contemporary art world in the late 1970s and in the 1980s, the hey-day of Conceptual Art. Conceptual Art downgraded the value of what was there to be seen, and privileged interpretation, which meant that it also privileged language over images. In the 1990s, the web brutally reversed this.

Strenuous efforts are still being made in some parts of the art world to maintain the hegemony of the Concept. Professional interpreters have a lot invested in its superiority to anything you may actually have presented to your own eyes, with or without explanations of what you are looking at, but this struggle increasingly seems as if it is being waged in vain.

The rise of the web – a triumph of contemporary technology – has upended the world of contemporary art in more ways than one. From the very beginning of the Modern Movement, but ever-increasingly as once-rebellious Modernism bonded with the world of official culture, innovatory art has relied on a regiment of explainers. You couldn’t just skitter into some gallery, preferably an officially provided one, and take a look. Let me be frank – as the author of fairly numerous books on aspects of recent art, I too have played my part in this.

Explanations concerning new art have typically, and especially where they emanate from official sources, been delivered top down. You don’t have to look very far to see that many of the supposed movers-and-shakers in the art world we have now would like to keep things that way.

One feature of communication through the web constantly challenges this set of preconceptions. As a form of communication, always provided that you have access to the technology, the web is as much lateral as it is hierarchical. Members of a particular generation, or just those who are obsessive about a particular body of subject-matter, find it easier and easier to reach out to one another – to exchange views and form both intellectual and practical alliances. They don’t need to be instructed from on high, and they become impatient when this is attempted.

An example of this paradigmatic shift in the contemporary art world has been the stealthy rise of the often derided Stuckist art group, founded in Britain in 1999, to promote figurative painting as opposed to conceptual art. Stuckism has since then been the subject of just one major survey show in a leading British institution. Entitled The Stuckists Punk Victorian – a title that alluded to Stuckism’s character as a radically ‘retro’ impulse, parallel to that of the Pre-Raphaelites in the 19th-century British art world – the event was held at the Walker Art Gallery Liverpool in 2006. The exhibition was so successful its run had to be extended.

Damien Hirst
Damien Hirst 2012 Survey Tate Modern

Stuckism has always been given short shrift in its native country. In 2009, for example, the Stuckists were denounced as “the enemies of art” by Jonathan Jones, the sometimes-respected art critic of The Guardian newspaper, who was once very much a friend of Conceptual Art. Yet, as Wikipedia tells one, by May 2017 the initial group, which originally consisted of just 13 British artists, some without any professional training, had expanded to become a worldwide art movement, with 236 groups in 52 countries. The much-lauded YBAs – Younger British Artists – of the 1990s, whose membership included Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and the Chapman brothers, have no doubt had much greater financial success, but also significantly less international outreach. The influence of the YBAs is now visibly waning, as survivors mutate into being MABAs (Middle-Aged British Artists), while that of Stuckism as a movement shows no sign of abating. The professional, officially-sanctioned art-explainers find it hard to come to terms with this.

This, however, is a comparatively minor issue. The main effect of the growth of the web, where contemporary art – its reception and development – have been concerned, has been much more drastic than this.

Until very recently, the whole concept of avant-gardism, as participating artists, and the pundits who supported and interpreted their work understood it, was caught up in a single metaphor – that of a force that went combatively in advance of the culture from which it emanated and moved that culture forward, willy-nilly. Western European culture (a phrase that also came to embrace North American culture) was regarded as an entity from which more or less everything radically new and challenging in the arts was going to emanate. Practitioners from outside were accepted – the Afro-Cuban Wifredo Lam’s acceptance by the Surrealist Group in Paris is an example – but they did not alter the basic structure of events.

The one possible exception was certain developments in Latin American art, but even these, despite the nostalgia felt by some Latin American artists for long vanished Pre-Columbian cultures, remained tied to what was happening in the European sphere. Diego Rivera might renounce Paris, but what he had learned in Paris remained with him.

Now that structure has drastically changed. Thanks very largely to the revolution in communication brought about by the web, the world of the visual arts is plural to the degree that never was the case before.

A problem, however, is the propensity of Western commentators to promote so-called ‘dissident’ artists from non-Western cultures as proofs of continuing Western cultural superiority. A current case in point is the situation of Ai Weiwei, the contemporary Chinese artist who is currently best known in the West.

Ai is not in any sense a negligible figure. It is, to tackle a specific point, untrue to say that, as some committed Western sinologists have been known to claim, that he has no presence or impact in his own country. It is clear, for example, that he has a considerable following on Weibo, the Chinese-character equivalent of Twitter. He now, however, no longer resides in China, but lives and works in Germany. His work often offers a sharp critique of official Chinese attitudes, offered from outside.

Nevertheless, had he remained in China, it would still be impossible to claim that his work lies at the very centre of the story of how Chinese art has developed since it shook off the last vestiges of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. There are too many divergences.

Chinese art, as practised within the country itself, remains very specifically national in several different ways. One important aspect is the vigorous survival of Chinese ink painting. Another aspect is that it remains wedded to a very traditional structure of art academies, rooted in imperial times. Leading art schools in China, chief among them the Central Academy located in Beijing, and the perhaps more liberal China Academy headquartered in Hangzhou, but with additional campuses in other locations, retain a very specific division between ink-painting and Western-style painting, the latter using materials associated with the long development of Western art from the Renaissance onwards. On to this there have been grafted aspects of Western academic practice.

The result has been the growth in China of a very rich and various contemporary art world, with artists who produce work that is recognisably part of a Chinese tradition that stretches back unbroken for more than a thousand years, at least to the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when China (at a time when Europe was plunged in what we now call the Dark Ages) was the seat of an extremely wealthy and sophisticated empire, which produced great poets, such as Li Bai (701-762), otherwise known as Li Po, as well as great artists.

One relevant peculiarity of much Chinese art is its relationship with the Chinese written script. In traditional forms of Chinese art, words, often each represented by a single character, in itself, a stylised representation of something seen, are never fully divided from pictorial representation. This means that there is no rigid distinction between art which fashionable Western criticism would see as virtuously ‘Conceptual’, and what it might dismiss as unimaginatively pictorial.

Iran is another country with a vigorous contemporary art world that is either ignored or misunderstood in the West. The Iranian artists who attract Western attention are almost invariably exiles, though some of these – those closest to the situation in Iran as it now exists, now live and work in the Gulf Emirates, to and from which communication with Iran is still relatively easy.

It is understandable that some of the art now being produced in Iran since the fall of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution that followed remains pre-occupied with issues that do not much interest Western critics. There is still, for instance, a strong echo of the catastrophic and bloody Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, conducted at a period when the United States was still friendly with the now-vanished regime of Saddam Hussein. Since the end of the Iranian monarchy, the United States has been in any case on bad terms with Iran’s new religious rulers, and this has impeded any free flow of cultural information.

One of the most striking features of contemporary Iranian culture, as it is now, nearly forty years after the fall of the Shah, is the conservatism of rural areas as compared with the sophistication of Tehran, also, to a somewhat lesser degree, as compared with the sophistication of Isfahan and Shiraz, both of which possess major art schools and large numbers of resident artists. Western commentators have little idea about this division.

Iranian contemporary artists, like Chinese contemporary artists, remain very conscious of their country’s long cultural history. This stretches back, without a break, to a distant pre-Islamic epoch, symbolised by the stories to be found in the Shahnameh (Book of Kings) written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi between c. 977 and 1010 CE. These stories told the mythical and historical past of the Persian Empire from the creation of the world until the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century.

Among the surprises offered by Iranian art today is nevertheless not its conservatism but its radicalism. A major example is the very large number of active women artists, and the strongly feminist strain to be found in their work. In fact, feminism features a great deal more strongly in Iranian contemporary art than it does in contemporary Chinese art. In Chinese art, leading female artists are few and far between. Most of those who exist tend to be based outside of Mainland China – for example, in Taiwan. This, though women in charge of major business enterprises, flourish in China, as they also do in Iran. Iranian feminist art nevertheless differs markedly from North American feminism. There is, for example, a fairly constant reference to the great Persian poets of the past, chief among them Rumi (born 1207 – the date is sometimes given as 1204), and Hafez (born c. 1310).

It was Rumi who wrote:
Love is the One who masters all things;
I am mastered totally by Love.
By my passion of love for Love
I have ground sweet as sugar.

You won’t find much of that kind of thing in American feminist art, but you will in Iranian equivalents.

The situation concerning Western coverage of and attitudes towards contemporary art in Russia, as it is now evolving in the post-Soviet period, is also in some respects similar to attitudes concerning coverage of contemporary artistic manifestations in China and Iran, though in other respects different and more complex, the differences been highlighted by the complexity of the Russian relationship with the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

During the last decade of the Soviet Union, what was labelled ‘perestroika art’ aroused a good deal of excitement and comment, usually favourable, among qualified Western critics. By qualified, I mean largely either Russian expatriates, or else British, Russian-speaking experts on Soviet cultural affairs. Since the Soviet Union fell in 1991, this excitement has died down. Many leading dissidents or ‘non-conformists’, seeking greener pastures in the West, moved out of Russia. The leading figures who remained seemed to be in constant conflict with one another so that no major post-Communist tendencies were immediately apparent.

It is evident that, if one looks at Russian web-sites belonging both to major public galleries, such as those of the Hermitage and the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg or the Tretyakov and Pushkin Museums in Moscow, also at the web-sites of quite a number of Russian commercial galleries in both of these major cities, that artistic activity in Russian has not ceased to exist. The problem is that it has taken forms that do not necessarily excite Western approval.

In the early period of post-Communism, a good deal of influence was exercised by the Neo-Academist Movement founded in St Petersburg in 1989 by Timur Novikov (1958-2002). Ivar A. Stodolsky, in an article published online by Springer Science-Business Media in July 2011, proposes what he calls ‘three major shifts’: “From the politicized late-Brezhnev-ite early 1980s to the apolitical radicalism of Novikov’s New Artists; from this anarchistic underground, through the perestroika era, to the playful ‘classicism’ of the New Academy of Fine Arts in the 1990s, and from this postmodern international orientation to an arch-reactionary, neo-imperial posturing at the turn of the 2000s.”

This seems convincing enough but does not embrace all the changes that have manifested themselves in Russian art during the past quarter-of-a-century.

If one looks, for example, at the winners of the Kandinsky Prize, founded in 2007, which is one of the two or three most important Russian national awards in the field of contemporary art, with an award for ‘Project of the Year’ worth 1,800,000 roubles, and a further award for ‘Young Artist of the Year’ (aged under 35) worth 450,000 roubles, one sees a wide variety of different impulses at work. Recent winners of the ‘Young Artist’ award can have had little or no experience of life under the Soviet system, though some, sure enough, display a characteristic Russian nationalism.

Russian art has become much more regionally diversified than it was during the Soviet period. The first Triennial of new Russian art, held in 2017 at the leading Moscow gallery Garage, featured, in addition to artists from Moscow and St Petersburg, others from Grozny, Kazan, Omsk, Kaliningrad, Sochi, Yekaterinburg and Krasnodar. The means of expression were equally various, not merely painting and sculpture, but performance art, installation and video.

These are just three examples of artistic cultures related to, but now also often quite widely diverging from, what is happening in the visual arts in Western Europe and in North America. Other instances can be found – in South Korea, in Japan, and in the somewhat chaotic but vigorous visual arts culture of modern India. The west is no longer reliably at the cultural centre, though Western critics tend to fantasize that this continues to be the case.

What one sees very clearly, if one looks at what has happened in Chinese art since the end of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, is not merely vigorous growth, and an interest in innovation, but a proud consciousness of China’s unbroken cultural tradition, stretching back as far the Shang Dynasty, which ruled China from c. 1766 BCE to c. 1046 BCE.

If one looks at what has happened in Iranian art since the Islamic Revolution, which brought down the regime of the Shah in 1979, one sees something similar. Iranian art today is far from being purely and doggedly Islamic. It looks back to Darius and the Achaemenids, and perhaps even more directly to the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi between c. 977 CE and 1010 CE. It also tends to refer very specifically to the bitter Iran-Iraq War, which ran from 1980 to 1988.

The back story of today’s Russian art is less long sustained. Essentially it begins with Peter the Great, then, more specifically, with the group that shortly after its birth came to be called the Peredvzizhniki (Itinerants or Wanderers). It originated in 1863 with a group of rebellious Imperial Academy students, tired of the sterility of official art. Its most famous member was Ilya Repin, who is regarded, Wikipedia tells one, as “having played a major role in bringing Russian art into the mainstream of European culture.”

Repin is famous for his canvas The Volga Boatmen (1873), a celebration of the dignity of labour, but also for They Did Not Expect Him (1884-8). The latter painting shows the unexpected return of a political exile to his home, to the astonishment of his unprepared family, and is as directly political as anything painted later by leading Soviet Socialist Realists, though less forcedly optimistic in tone and rather better in quality. The artist lived on until 1930 and remained respected in Russia after the Soviet regime was established, but his residence in his later years was in Finland, on the other side of the frontier created in 1918. He showed no inclination to re-establish himself in Russia.

The art of the Peredvzizhniki was from its beginnings realistic and socially concerned. The group mutated, in 1870, into the Association of Travelling Art Exhibits, whose principle aim was to make art illustrating contemporary Russian life to regions outside St Petersburg and Moscow. From 1871 to 1923 the society organised a total of 48 mobile exhibitions, which were shown not only in Russia’s two capitals, but in Kiev, Kharkov, Kazan, Oryol, Riga, and Odessa, plus other locations.

A similar impulse can be seen in Russia now, for example in the recent Triennial exhibition already mentioned (intended as the first in a series) organised by the independently owned Garage Museum in Moscow.

In contrast to this, recent exhibitions of Russian in London, at the Royal Academy and Tate Modern, organised to mark the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, seemed to demonstrate two things. One was an obvious nostalgia among the curators of these shows for a kind of art controlled by the state. Tate Modern’s exhibition Red Star Over Russia: A Revolution in Visual Culture (1905-55) did indeed cast an eye at Stalinist terror with a display of mug-shots of the ‘disappeared’ – sent to the gulag or summarily executed, or both – but seems much more interested in the vigorously self-lauding propaganda created by the Soviet regime.

Somewhat half-hearted tributes to Russian Futurism could be found in these celebratory shows, but what these acknowledgements seemed to demonstrate, without intending to do so, was that Futurism in Russia soon became a dead end. Experimental Russian artists working in Russia today often seem to go out of their way to deny any connection to Malevich and his peers. The break, they say, has been too prolonged for Futurism to have much meaning for them.

There is, however, one obvious link between early 20th century Russian Futurism and the Western visual culture of today. The propaganda posters displayed in Red Star Over Russia (which form the core of the show at Tate Modern) use a visual language that has a real kinship to modern advertising, but currently one that also has residual links to Futurist practice. The flat block I inhabit is on a no-stopping ‘red route’, lined with enormous advertising hoardings. The designs that appear on these are visibly grandchildren, if not the actual children, of the Futurist Russians and the Futurist Italians. It will be remembered, of course, that Italian Futurism ended up married, not to communism of any kind, but to Mussolini’s Fascism.


Pussy Rio
Pussy Riot Saatchi Gallery 2017

Efforts are now being made by at least one semi-official British institution to catch up with what is happening in Russia now, in the epoch, not of Stalin but Putin. The Saatchi Gallery has just offered a rumbustious show called Art Riot: Post Soviet Actionism (it closed on 31 December), with, linked to it, an installation plus performances offered by the female post-punk group called Pussy Riot, who have spent time, thanks to their outspokenness, in Russian prisons.

These offerings both focus, in their various ways, on the element of dissident extremism that continues to exist in Russian art, perhaps even in a more enhanced form, since the collapse of the Soviet regime.

Speaking of one of the artists included in Art Riot, Saatchi gallery web-site had this to say:
‘Pyotr Pavlensky practises actionism, an art form with a rich history in Russia. He calls his particular brand of actionism “political art”. Since emerging in the public eye in 2012, Pavlensky has produced a string of profound performances. Leading up to “Threat”, he sewed his mouth shut; rolled naked in barbed wire (“Carcass”); sat naked on Red Square and nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones as a metaphor for the “apathy, political indifference and fatalism” of modern Russian society (“Fixation”); set the doors of the Russian Security Services (FSB) headquarters on fire “The Burning Doors of Lybyanka” ‘

One can’t imagine a British artist, certainly not one under the protective wing of official patronage in this, his own country, carrying matters quite so far. The assumption is that while things could, of course, be better in some respects, British visual arts culture, like the rest of British culture, is jogging along in a more or less satisfactory way.

I more and more tend to wonder if this is true.

Essentially British art in its official Arts Council and museum-patronised form has been treading water since the end of the 1990s. That is, for nearly two decades now. Various escape routes have been tried. There has been a lot of ‘appropriation’, as in Mark Wallinger’s Turner Prize-winning StateBritain, a vast installation show at Tate Britain in 2007. This was a direct copy of the late Brian Haw’s protest Peace Camp in Parliament Square. Compared to the manifestations of Russian Actionism just described, it was pretty milk-and-water. And safely enclosed within an official embrace, not out there in the open, on Parliament Green, confronting the Houses of Parliament. Pavlenksy, as noted, did his stuff in Red Square, not in the Tretyakov or Pushkin Museums.

The annual Turner Prize exhibitions have in the past decade gradually been losing their lustre, and with it their hold on the media for publicity, particularly since the decision was made, on impeccably democratic grounds, to stage them outside of London on alternate recent years. Even the Stuckists have given up doing demonstrations against the Turner. As an early Stuckist manifesto declared: “The only artist who wouldn’t be in danger of winning the Turner Prize is Turner.” Schlepping off to some British provincial city to make a fuss that nobody much will notice, not even perhaps the local press, doesn’t seem worth the effort.

Various attempts have been made to get out of this bind by shifting from an emphasis on installations (safely non-commercial) and performance (ditto), to more traditional media. Thankfully this tendency seems to be coming to an end. Painting is getting a look in this year. One may wickedly guess that this is perhaps because it is considered more likely to attract an out-of-London audience. “Temper the wind to the shorn lamb,” as the Good Book has it (Psalm 6:2).

Lubaina Himid
Lubaina Himid Turner Prize winner 2017

Other now characteristic attitudes remain firmly in place. The prize exhibition for 2017 took place at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull. It’s worth quoting The Guardian (again) for an establishment view of the event:
“This year’s Turner prize makes a powerful political statement with a shortlist of artists who champion the diversity of the British art scene, the director of Tate Britain has said. Alex Farquharson, the chair of the Turner prize judging panel [also Tate Britain’s current director], said that the diverse, cross-cultural shortlist, “the most international to date”, sends an important and timely message during a period of increasing hostility towards immigrants.” In other words, forget about anything that might be considered radical in a purely artistic sense. For the public, officially supported art here in Britain, there are other considerations that now take priority, such as effective propaganda for good causes. While the causes supported by the Soviet cultural authorities during their period in power in Russia were different – though not entirely, it must be said – from the ones currently embraced here in Britain, Soviet attitudes concerning the meaning and purpose of officially supported art were in a broad sense entirely congruous with those expressed here by Mr Farquharson.

There other signs that the once-upon-a-time avant-garde, populated by doomed, live-fast, die-young rapscallions such as Modigliani and Basquiat, may now itself be on its deathbed, certainly here in Britain. One is the fact that the age limit for the Turner Prize has this year been abolished. We’re almost back to the comfortable era of Buggins’ Turn when the Prize first began be awarded – something that came to a stop with the irruption of the YBAs in the 1990s.

Lubaina Himid, winner of the most recent Turner, is 63. Phyllida Barlow, the artist who represented Britain at the recent Venice Biennale, is 73. Rose Wylie, currently the most obviously ‘emergent’ artist to have made a big hit recently in Britain, made her mark as an unknown who won the top prize in 2015 at the annual John Moores exhibition in Liverpool, followed in 2017-18 by a London retrospective at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery. She is now 83. Don’t get me wrong: these all in their different ways are excellent artists, and, because women artists have been undervalued for so long, it’s good in principle that they are receiving major recognition.

But in this self-congratulatory context, how much lasting good will it do them? Three of them together? And not a single wicked young macho in sight? Times have changed. Not necessarily for the better.

Words: Edward Lucie-Smith  Photos: P C Robinson © First Published Artlyst 2018


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