Category: Postmodernism-Remodernism

Carpenter wins Turner Prize

This year’s prestigious Turner Prize for artistic achievement was awarded to Simon Starling, who successfully dismantled a rotten old wood boat shed he found located on a river bank, constructed its pieces into a boat in which he sailed down the river - and then reconstructed the boat back into a shed. Starling, who fancies himself an “Installation artist,” claims his Shedboatshed is “the physical manifestation of a thought process.” On Monday January 5th, 2006, the London Tate Britain acknowledged the artistic genius and his masterpiece, presenting Starling with its highest prize - and a check for $43,000.

This might indicate progress for the Tate, who last year awarded their 2004 prize to Jeremy Deller, an “artist” who admits not being able to draw or paint. Deller won the Turner Prize for a video he made documenting his travels in Texas - while at least Starling actually crafted something with his hands. Since the Tate judges have mistaken an amateur video film maker and a hobbyist carpenter for professional artists, it makes me wonder if perhaps the judges have been indulging a bit too much in the product manufactured by the official sponsors of the Turner Prize - Gordon’s Gin.

Writing for The Guardian, Stuart Jeffries asked Starling, “Is what you make art?” The Turner Prize winner responded with, “Maybe it isn’t… it’s art because I trained as an artist.” So then, the only difference between Starling and the men who recently re-roofed my house is the lack of formal arts training possessed by the construction workers? If they only had such training they could couple it with a sense of visionary hucksterism, submit their Roof Re-roof construction job to the besotted judges at the Tate, and then enjoy new careers as installation artists. Apparently it doesn’t take much to impress the gaggle of gin-soaked postmodernists at the Tate, who praised Starling for his “unique ability to create poetic narratives which draw together a wide range of cultural, political and historical narratives.”

Meanwhile, in the reality based arts community, the Stuckists held a demonstration outside the award proceedings to protest the sham. The Times of London quoted Charles Thomson, co-founder of the Stuckist movement, as saying; “There are plenty of hobbyists happily occupying themselves in the garden shed doing equally ingenious but ultimately futile enterprises, building Canterbury Cathedral out of matchsticks for example. It’s the sort of thing I had to do when I was in the Scouts. Starling should get his Craft Badge, first class, but not the Turner Prize.”

Basquiat the Horrible

Here in Los Angeles the banners advertising the Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibition at the Museum Of Contemporary Art (MOCA) have been ubiquitous. That no one knows how to pronounce the name of the deceased artist only adds to the carefully manufactured aura of mystique that surrounds his legacy. I’ve heard “Bäs k-ät”, “Bas-kee-ah” and several malformed variants - but no matter, we all know who is being spoken of. Now that the MOCA exhibit is closed and everyone in the postmodernist peanut gallery has heaped praise upon the deceased, it’s my turn to say a few words. Art world elites and critics have crowned Basquiat as one of the “most important artists of the 20th Century,” and so you better go along with the crowd if you don’t want to be seen as utterly clueless and hopelessly old fashioned - even if you can’t pronounce the artist’s name. Before you begin hurling invective at me for daring to say “the Emperor has no clothes,” at least let me explain why I find Basquiat’s works insufferable and inadequate.

Self-portrait by Basquiat, 1982

Self-portrait by Basquiat, 1982

I must first point out that my critique of Basquiat is not based upon a Euro-centric view of art and culture. I have learned from and extolled the genius of African American artists ever since I was a teenager in the 1960’s, and I wouldn’t be the artist I am today had it not been for the influences of some extremely talented Black artists.

I won’t mention the opinions expressed by those on the philistine right, who broadly and regularly condemn modern art. They have a great aversion towards the work of Basquiat, and I have nothing in common with their point of view. In part my critique is aimed at the liberal arts community, who essentially created Basquiat.

That the artist became successful in a lily white art world might have more to do with the attitudes of gallery owners, critics, and collectors (who, let’s be honest - are largely white males), than to the actual talent possessed by the artist. With all of the amazing Black/Latino artists in the United States, how is it that Basquiat has become the sole exemplar and super-star?

Born in Brooklyn of Puerto Rican and Haitian parents, Basquiat started his artistic career as a tagger, spray-painting graffiti images on buildings under the moniker of SAMO (”Same Old Shit”.) There were taggers in Brooklyn with much more skill and talent than Basquiat, but they were not to be graced with pop idol status by the art world. Basquiat’s skills in draftsmanship were virtually non-existent, and never exceeded a halting and nervous stick figure style - but elite art opinion has done away with drawing ability as a prerequisite to being an artist. Basquiat’s untrained and unskilled hand was and is heralded as an authentic voice tapping into African roots - as if African art is primitive and naïve. SAMO was a frank and honest nickname that described what Basquiat was doing, and he should have kept the alias as it so aptly made clear what he was all about - namely, celebrity. But the exigencies of fame and notoriety can be cruel, and one must be properly packaged to be a success, so “SAMO” fell by the wayside and “Basquiat” became his professional name.

In 1983 the former SAMO would meet Andy Warhol, and Basquiat’s entry into elite art circles and history became assured. He had been productive for only eight years when his heroin addiction caught up with him; he overdosed and died at the age of twenty-seven in 1988. That he was little more than a drug addled street artist without training and possessing just a modicum of talent would not be a hindrance to advancement in today’s art world, quite the contrary.

I’m well aware of the need African Americans have for a positive role model in the field of art, and for an artistic expression that reflects their life experience and speaks directly and honestly to them. But Basquiat is not that role model and his confused postmodernist smudges and scribbles are a sham. If we were talking about music, Basquiat would be closer to Snoop Dog than to Winton Marsales. I accept Basquiat’s body of work for what it is, what I can’t tolerate is the grotesque hype that surrounds it. I don’t find Basquiat’s better pieces entirely unpleasing or uninteresting, but Basquiat’s tragic voice was a reflection of the times - disjointed, incoherent, shattered and babbling. His visual language was gibberish to match the inanities of the Reagan years - but I see no genius in that. We are offered Basquiat’s example as a standard to aspire to, but by whom, and does anyone honestly believe there is no better model to emulate? The larger questions are, who gets to appoint the leading lights of the art world, and why do we fawn over them so unquestioningly?

It was of course Andy Warhol who said “Good business is the best art,” a thought that expresses the very antitheses of what I think art is about, but perfectly explains Basquiat’s enormous success; it should go without saying that the collaborative works between Warhol and Basquiat were certainly good business.

The New York Times Magazine; "New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist."

The New York Times Magazine, 1985.

In 1985 The New York Times Magazine featured Basquiat on its cover with the headline, “New Art, New Money: The Marketing of an American Artist.”

That the traveling Basquiat exhibition and its attendant website is sponsored by the JP Morgan Chase Bank, says just about everything that needs to be said. From its origins as one of the original robber baron companies that monopolized American railroads, steel production and banking, right up to its present role as one of the world’s globalized financial institutions with well over a trillion dollars in assets, JP Morgan Chase Bank can make or break anyone or anything it so desires.

Interestingly enough, one could once find on the JP Morgan sponsored website, the following proclamation concerning Basquiat’s work; “There is no single, fixed interpretation of any of his paintings or drawings.” Which is just the type of art the trillionaire class likes to promote.

The Tate Rave!

The Tate Britain website allows users to “create” and name their own art collections from among the online art works the museum has on display. Users are invited to compile their own personalized collections, which are then displayed on the Tate website. Some clever Stuckist saboteur made proper use of this invite by uploading a sarcastic critique at the Tate’s expense. The Stuckist mischief has to do with the Tate purchasing for a hefty sum, an artwork from postmodernist artist Chris Ofili. The controversy lies in the fact that Ofili is also a trustee of the Tate, and at the time of the Tate’s acquisition of his art work - was urging other professional artists to donate their works to the museum for free.

Alluding to the controversy surrounding the Tate, the Stuckist prankster name a satirical collection, The Expensive Work of a Serving Trustee Collection, and left the following question as a caption; “Which of the 6 is the expensive work bought from serving Tate trustee Chris Ofili while he was urging other artists to donate their work to the Tate?” The mocking question is accompanied by six images from the Tate collection - five of them classic oil paintings by renowned masters, and one excrement covered painting by Chris Ofili. I wonder how long it will be before the Tate notices and removes the offending Stuckist gag. If you’re quick you may get to see the stunt before the censors take it down!

Meanwhile, Charlotte Higgins, arts correspondent for The Guardian newspaper of London, wrote a September 12th article for the paper titled, Taking the Tate into the Future. After reading Higgin’s piece the first thing that came to my mind was the chilling NO FUTURE refrain from a certain Sex Pistols song. A glowing account of the Tate Modern’s sorry current direction, the article was full of praise for its present director, Sir Nicholas Serota - referred to as “the undisputed titan of British art.” It should go without saying the story did not mention the Chris Ofili debacle.

Higgins mentions that Serota “plans a radical unseating of painting and sculpture from the positions as the ‘king and queen’ of art,” and quotes the director as saying the Tate will be remade to present “graphics, film, photography and performance.” Frankly I’m troubled by Serota’s ideas concerning what an art museum should be. Higgins quotes him as saying “Artists are reflecting on the culture around them - club culture, or whatever it is - and the institution needs to reflect that in the way it shows, presents and buys art.” Excuse me but, the Ofili affair was enough of an outrage, a shady example of how the Tate “buys” art. Now we are expected to accept a museum being filled with artifacts representing “club culture.” Supposedly this will make the Tate a living, relevant institution. Why not just pack up the art works, put them in storage, and open the Tate Rave? Considering how the museum is currently being run - that may not be such a bad idea.

A Minor Footnote In History

Thanks to the prevailing postmodern idiocy that rules the world of art, I sometimes hesitate to tell people that I’m an artist. What might they think? That I create paintings like “performance artist”, Keith Boadwee, who squats over his canvases and “paints” by emptying his bowels of egg tempura enemas? In 1995, Ace Contemporary Exhibitions of Los Angeles presented a series of 50 such paintings by Boadwee, which included a video documentation of the process as part of the exhibit. In addition, Boadwee employed projectile vomiting of tempura paint to create his artworks. He was also graced with an exhibit at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), not for his enema paintings, but for his self-portraits. The MOCA exhibit consisted of stylized pictures of Boadwee’s anus in multiple colors from which various objects protruded. I don’t mean to pick on Boadwee, I have no personal animosity towards him. I mention him only because his example abundantly illustrates the sham that is modern art. A hand in glove relationship between snobbish art critics, morally impoverished collectors and intellectually corrupt museum and gallery staff, have not just assured such garbage a place in the art world - they have transformed the rubbish into a new standard of excellence.

In steps the latest postmodernist outrage. The aforementioned high and mighty effete critics have lately been touting the young “rebels” of the contemporary Chinese art scene. These “hot” new artists are being feted by museums and galleries across the world, and snatched up left and right by avaricious collectors. One such discerning fellow is Uli Sigg, a multi-millionaire businessman and former Swiss diplomat who has amassed what some have called “an unrivalled range of contemporary Chinese art.” Sigg purchased an “artwork” by Xiao Yu several years ago at the Venice Biennale, and recently loaned the coveted masterwork to the Bern Museum of Fine Art in Switzerland. It is one of three hundred or so works from Sigg’s personal collection to be presented at the Bern in an exhibit of contemporary Chinese art running until October 16th, 2005.

The Bern Museum, Mr. Sigg, and the fawning art critics were apparently flabbergasted when Xiao Yu’s “artwork” was met by howls of outrage from angry museum goers. A flood of calls from incensed patrons shocked the Bern, but it was the threat of legal action that sent them scattering. A 29-year-old Swiss visitor to the exhibit filed a complaint with the authorities against the museum for “disturbing the peace of the dead.” The furious uproar combined with the possibility of a court case, caused the museum to remove the offending “artwork” from the exhibition. Bernard Fibicher, curator at the Bern, released a short statement that in part read, “We have decided to withdraw this work from the exhibition because we are no longer able to handle the amount of interest it is generating.”

What caused so much controversy? Xiao Yu had sewn the head of a human fetus to the headless body of a dead seagull - placing the monstrosity into a clear viewing container filled with formaldehyde. The museum catalog thoughtfully explained the work of genius was meant to “provoke the viewer into reflecting on the absurdity of life.” In actually it only provoked viewers to reflect upon the absurdity and utter madness of the contemporary art world - where the most vulgar and boorish acts of self-promotion, or the most outlandish eyesores will be elevated to fine art. There are some art critics who will defend this twisted taxidermy from a demented individual, but their days are numbered. The ossified art establishment is crumbling, and soon its jesters and speculators will become a minor footnote in history.

Stuckists at CBGB’s

In the mid-1970’s punk rock was born in a dank little New York nightclub called CBGB’s. It all started when rockers like Television, the Ramones and Patti Smith launched a frontal assault on the monolith of corporate rock ‘n roll. Now another artistic revolt, Remodernism, is about to widen its offensive from the birthplace of punk. For the month of August, CBGB’s Gallery 313 will present Addressing The Shadow And Making Friends With Wild Dogs: Remodernism - the first art exhibition in America featuring work from all of the Stuckist and Remodernist groups. The Stuckists not only struggle to place figurative painting back on center stage in the world of art (an endeavor I philosophically and materially support), they’re also determined to undermine the dominant “postmodernist” school of art and its institutions - an undertaking I also champion. The Stuckists insist it’s not painting that’s become passé - it’s the lifeless and socially detached world of postmodernist art that has become outmoded. While the work of the current crop of Stuckist artists may not be to everyone’s liking, they represent a vanguard that has breached the walls of modern art, opening the way for a return to realistic painting based on contemporary experience.

On July 27th, 2005, the Tate Galleries of London rejected a gift of 160 paintings from the Stuckists valued at £500,000 (around $800,000). Director of the Tate, Sir Nicholas Serota, said “We do not feel that the work is of sufficient quality in terms of accomplishment, innovation or originality of thought to warrant preservation in perpetuity in the national collection.” Which is an interesting proclamation considering the Tate just spent £23,000 (around $39,000), to purchase for their permanent collection 30 grams of canned faeces by Italian conceptualist, Piero Manzoni. At any rate, if you’re more interested in seeing paintings than tinned merde, visit CBGB’s for what may be the rock club’s very last event. Remodernism: from August 3rd, to August 29th, 2005. The Opening Reception is Aug., 3rd, from 5:30 to 8:30 pm. Phone: 212-677-0455. Gallery 313 is located at 313 Bowery NYC. Click here for directions and a map.

Art: Obey Your Thirst

American conceptual artist, Wayne Hill, had his artwork stolen and drunk. His piece - a clear plastic bottle filled with water and situated on a pedestal, was priced at $69,700 (£40,000). Shown at an arts festival in Devon, England, the work was apparently misidentified by some thirsty person as being - a clear plastic bottle filled with water situated on pedestal. Mr. Hill’s artwork had the implausible title of Weapon of Mass Destruction, and he claims the clear plastic bottle was filled with melted ice from Antarctica. Hill alleges his artwork took a year to create, and that its function was to confront people with the quickly thinning Antarctic ice sheet. “The concept is to take something as dangerous as that and to bring it immediately into somebody’s presence”, he said. According to Hill, his Object d’ Art was earning quite a reputation, and it was scheduled for other exhibitions later in the year, that is… until some parched character gulped it down. It’s a shame really, that people can’t tell the difference between an ordinary bottle of water and a bottle of water that’s been elevated to high-art. That being the case, Hill might as well continue his sham by visiting a local convenience store to pick up another clear plastic water bottle. But he better hurry, the weather’s been rather warm, and the art may be out of stock.

The Downward Spiral

Does art have actual social worth and significance, or is it just another commodity to be bought and sold by the wealthy? My beliefs place me in the former camp, as I loath the very idea that something as magical, spiritual and ephemeral as art - could or should be controlled, influenced or marginalized by market forces. However, there are many who hold a contrary point of view. To such people artworks are simply good investments that enhance one’s social status. The clash of these two perspectives creates just one of the many frameworks where all art is made political.

In the trendy art world of today, Art Basel is the epitome of the art as commodity camp. Celebrating its 36th year, the international art fair concluded on June 20th, 2005, after exhibiting works by 3,000 artists from more than 800 galleries. Like a swarm of locust, over 50,000 collectors, dealers, and curators descended upon the medieval city of Basel in a feeding frenzy of acquisition and deal making. Clearly driven by greed, buyers were desperate to purchase works from the next crop of “art stars” while prices were still low. Innumerable sales were made just hours after the fair opened, with entire bodies of work snatched up by avaricious collectors. And what did these movers and shakers in the art world spend their money on? Switzerland

Well, one of the most sought after works was by video artist, Mark Wallinger. This leading light in new media created a video titled, Sleeper, which is nothing more than the artist wondering around the empty galleries of Germany’s Neue Nationalgalerie at night dressed in a bear suite. Someone lacking judgment has actually priced this work of genius at $100,000 and it’s being held off the market so that it can be included in a museum collection.

Then there was The Lovers, the latest video wall installation from superstar Bill Viola. The video merely displays two people embracing in a torrent of water, but it sells for $180,000. However, Mr. Viola’s work comes in an “edition” of twelve, each going for the aforementioned price. The grueling and labor intensive process of duplicating his magnum opus by pressing the record button on the video machine must have been awfully demanding work.

Ever feel like you've been cheated? Motti’s bar of soap photographed by REUTERS/Siggi Bucher

However, nothing quite compared to the masterwork created by Gianni Motti, whose grand artwork become the focus of the art fair; receiving international attention; selling to a collector for a hefty price; and assuring the artist a place in the pantheon of immortals. Motti’s artwork… a bar of soap, was mounted on black velour under a square Plexiglas shield where it was stared at by art lovers and photographed by hordes of paparazzi. The extraordinary little bar of soap sold for 15,000 Euros, or $18,000.

The artist alleges the bar of soap was rendered from Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s liposuctioned fat, but he offers absolutely no evidence to verify his claim. Whether Motti can prove his assertion or not still leaves us with an act of crude hucksterism perpetrated in the name of art - which pretty much sums up the general theme presented at Art Basel Switzerland.

Also in late June, at the prestigious London auction house of Bonhams, the art world continued its downward spiral when a painting by a chimpanzee was snapped up for $26,250. It should come as no surprise that the artwork by Congo the chimp fetched more money than works by lesser artists also on the auction block… artists like Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Fernand Leger, and Andy Warhol. The primate’s painting was snatched up by Howard Hong, an American collector who describes himself as an “enthusiast of modern and contemporary painting.”

Mr. Hong was prepared to pay up to $50,000 for the chimpanzee masterpiece - which he compared to the early work of Kandinsky. The savvy art collector disclosed he was motivated to purchase the simian tour de force, because in his words, Congo was “the ultimate chimp of the art world.” But I think that might be a title best shared by a number of artists, collectors, curators, and critics in the realm of contemporary art.

The Biennale: “Dearth in Venice”

The 51st Venice Biennale opened on June 12th, 2005, and artists, patrons, curators, collectors and the general public will view the latest in contemporary art until the festival closes in November. It’s been said that this biennale has abandoned the display of gimmicky artworks designed to shock in favor of more subdued statements, and that this year’s festival is a triumph for women - but I see little evidence of these allegations. It has been asserted that this biennale is less political than previous ones, even as Bush’s State Department appointed Ed Ruscha as America’s “official representative”. While it’s true that not a single artist bothered to make even a token statement on the inferno that is the Iraq war… real world politics were made manifest in other ways.

Having visited Venice I can attest to the beauty of this metropolis built upon the sea. The richness of the city’s Byzantine and Renaissance architectural styles is overwhelming, and its hundreds of palaces, churches and public buildings present the works of the matchless Venetian school of painters. The artists of Venice helped to establish oil paint as a medium in artistic production, and as I strolled through the city’s ancient galleries gazing upon master works by Giovanni Bellini, Jacapo Tintoretto and Titian I was left with the impression that the city well represents the highest achievements of Western art. Which is part of my displeasure at seeing the former bastion of the renaissance transformed into a roosting place for flocks of wealthy art patrons, dealers, and other buzzards looking for the latest postmodern “masterpiece” to add to their collections.

My feelings regarding the biennale are shared by Guardian art critic, Jonathan Jones, who eloquently tells the tale of woe in his piece entitled, Dearth in Venice. The Venice Biennale has more resemblance to a gated community for art snobs than a true public celebration of art.

The kingpin of that gated community would have to be Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft. Allen moored his yacht off of Venice’s famous Grand Canal along with the numerous yachts belonging to his fellow fat cats. But at 413-feet-long and equipped with a screening room, swimming pool, an art gallery housing his private collection, and a helicopter, Allen’s colossal yacht dwarfed not only the tiny picturesque gondolas - but the yachts of the other captains of industry as well. Allen’s private cruiser is aptly named The Octopus, and its tentacles reach around the world. While Mr. Allen whooped it up with his billionaire buddies at the biennale, Microsoft launched a new China-based Internet portal in Beiijing.

A collaborative project with the authoritarian regime, MSN’s system bars people from using the following words in its search engine… “democracy”, “freedom”, “human rights”, “demonstration” and “Taiwan Independence.” The money made from this contemptible deal will no doubt help Mr. Allen snatch up some hot new art at the biennale - or at least make it possible for him to obtain another yacht. The ostentatious flaunting of wealth seems to be the spirit of the Venice Biennale, and one of the first things visitors see when entering the grounds are banners from American artist Barbara Kruger, which read “Money”, “Power”, and “You make history when you do business.”

The sad thing about Kruger’s postmodernist diktats in the context of this particular setting, is that they have absolutely no sense of irony, sarcasm or even humor. They have no power in the land of the money bags. They are more confirmation than critique.

A chandelier made of tampons

As I’ve already noted, the 51st Venice Biennale is being touted as a breakthrough for women, and those who make this assertion point to the Spanish curators Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez, who are the first women to have ever organized the event in its 110-year history. That they filled the curatorial positions of this most vaunted festival is notable - but a breakthrough?

They recommended that the aforementioned Barbara Kruger receive a Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award for her contentious photomontage works, but what else is there to show for their appointment? We are offered an installation by American artist Jennifer Allora that features a life-sized realistic hippopotamus made of mud, upon which a real woman sits and reads while occasionally whistling. There’s the conceptual art of Portugese artist, Joana Vasconcelos, who created a chandelier made of tampons entitled The Bride.

Guerilla Girls concept of high art

And last but not least, the Guerilla Girls exhibited their so-called pop art posters, one of which is pure text and reads “Less than three percent of artists in the modern art sections are women, but 83 percent of the nudes are female.” Now that’s fine as an agitational slogan designed to advance the cause of feminism (which I’m all for), but it’s lousy art. The Birth of Feminism poster from the Guerilla Girls looks like any other advertisement for the latest inane Hollywood jiggle fest, except we are to believe that this particular poster carries with it a subversive feminist subtext.

The Guerilla Girls are most likely elated over having succeeded at turning a monotonous advertising agency style poster into “high art”… but how a Photoshop manipulated image of scantily clad bikini bimbos advances feminism or qualifies as fine art escapes me. I’ll take Mary Cassatt or Frida Kahlo over the Guerilla Girls any time. Aside from these few examples, the curators exercised caution in pushing a feminine perspective - so much for the great advances of women artists.

Suffice it to say, the Venice Biennale places great attention on conceptual and installation works, with traditional painting given only marginal consideration. Commenting on the event, Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, was quoted in the New York Times as saying “The art world is in a transitional moment, with so many new people coming in to it, it all hasn’t settled yet.” Which I suppose is the polite way of saying the art world is out of control, makes no sense, and is in a complete state of disarray and chaos.

I’ve always maintained that great art springs from chaotic times… but you’ll have to look beyond the pavilions of the Venice Biennale to find it.

Today’s Painting: Reaction or Revolution?

Postmodernist artists have nothing to say… and they will find the most annoyingly bothersome ways not to say it. As a figurative painter with a firm commitment to a new social realism, I’ve long opposed the stranglehold of postmodernism and its attendant philosophy which asserts anything can be art. This way of thinking arrogantly proclaims painting to be dead - and craft, beauty and meaning in art to be obsolete. Painting we are told, is from a bygone era, out of vogue and irrelevant in today’s context, - while conceptual, performance, installation and video artworks receive ceaseless endorsements from art world elites and their sycophants.

Centuries of art discipline, practice, and knowledge have simply been judged passé and discarded. Moreover, the reign of postmodern art has effectively stripped artists of their ability to communicate with a mass audience on any meaningful level, reducing the power of art to an incomprehensible babble. No matter how much postmodernist David Byrne may extol the presentation software PowerPoint as the new artistic medium for the 21st century… I still prefer the warmth, sensuality, directness and humanity of a good oil painting.

Martin Creed's masterwork

The vaunted Tate Museum of Britain is one institution that has contributed heavily to the buttressing of postmodern shock art. Its prestigious Turner Prize is bestowed annually to the winner of a competition where only the most “gifted” artists participate. The winner receives 25,000 pounds ($45,000), and the award is a great distinction for artists working in the UK. More importantly, the event helps to set international trends in the art world. Past recipients have included: Chris Ofili (1998), who won for his elephant dung paintings; Martin Creed (2001), who won for simply manipulating the museum’s light fixtures to go on an off in an empty gallery room; and Damien Hirst (1995), who won for pickling a large shark in formaldehyde. Last year’s 2004 winner, Jeremy Deller, was given the award for his video installation Memory Bucket, a documentation of Deller’s travels through George W. Bush’s home state of Texas. Deller admitted that he can’t draw or paint… which of course made him the perfect candidate for Britain’s greatest art prize. In the last five years, not a single painter has been chosen to participate in the competition. Ironically, the Turner prize is named after one of Britain’s most famous painters, the Romantic landscape artist, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851).

Photo Reuters/Courtesy of Gillian Carnegie, Courtesy of Cabinet/HO

Given the recent history of the Turner prize, and the quality of candidates placed on the “shortlist” as competitors, it was a surprise to receive the announcement that on June 2nd, Gillian Carnegie was nominated for the 2005 Turner Prize. Known for her traditional style oil landscapes, still lifes and portraiture, she is the first painter to have been allowed entry into the competition in some years. Carnegie’s painting, Fleurs de huile (shown here - oil on board, dated 2001), will be one of the artist’s works to be shown in the Turner competition. This seems to indicate a change in direction for the elite art world… but what direction? For years the Stuckist art group in London has engaged in aggressive campaigning against the excesses of the contemporary art world. They’ve held demonstrations outside the Tate Gallery at each of the last six Turner prize events, denouncing the winning artists as frauds. After reading the Stuckist Manifestos you’ll understand why the postmodernist screed that “there are no more art movements” is a lie. Having befriended Charles Thomson, the co-founder of the Stuckist movement, I sought his opinion regarding the nomination of Carnegie for the Turner. What follows is Thomson’s opinion piece written exclusively for my web log, titled Stuckism and the Revival of Painting in the Art Establishment.

“Six years ago, in January 1999, I launched the Stuckists group with Billy Childish (who has since left), inviting 11 other artists to join us. Since then we have written ten manifestos, staged dozens of shows, put forward a candidate in the General Election, reported Charles Saatchi to the Office of Fair Trading, given innumerable quotes to the media, been featured internationally in newspapers and on radio and television, grown into a worldwide movement of over 114 companion groups in 29 countries, and, last but not least, demonstrated for six consecutive years (initially in clown costume) on the steps of the Tate Gallery against the Turner Prize.

For me there was one major catalyst to start such an enterprise, namely the marginalisation of painting as an art form in an art world dominated by an entrenched, multi-million pound, self-serving, elitist establishment of collectors, critics, curators, gallerists and artists, whose values (if one can call them that) were based on the vacuous practice generally termed ‘conceptual art’, which is striking for its lack of concepts and its contempt for artistic values.

Its contemporary figurehead was ‘Brit Art’. It was also connected with ‘Brit Pop’, ‘Cool Britannia’ and some kind of sense that this country was rather more important than it really is (Iraq has demonstrated quite clearly which country is the important one). Thus in some curious way, even people who were instinctively averse to Brit Art’s penchant for dead sheep and embroidered tents, accorded it some unspoken respect as waving the flag.

The Stuckists didn’t. We rechristened it ‘Brit shit’, and declared not only was painting the radical way forward in art today, but conceptualism wasn’t even art in the first place. The reaction was severe. Mostly those we censured exercised considerable effort (and at times censorship) to pretend we didn’t exist – and when comment came, publicly or more often privately, we were seen as out of touch, hopelessly naïve, reactionary and a lost cause with ludicrous ideas that were going nowhere.

Six years later, Charles Saatchi, the Emperor of Brit Art, has promoted (albeit unwittingly – and dropped her as soon as he found out) an ex Stuckist as his new art star, and launched The Triumph of Painting, declaring – with the actual word we had previously employed ourselves – that painting was the most ‘vital’ art form (NB not equally, but most). Damien Hirst is (or at least his assistants are) painting pictures. Tracey Emin is painting pictures (having previously destroyed all her paintings). And contrary to all expectations, this year’s Turner Prize includes a bog standard ‘traditional’ painter (though the Tate is still trying, against all common sense, to claim she is somehow ‘questioning’ the medium to spare their blushes).

The art world has gone topsy-turvy. It is in fact adopting the Stuckist position which opposed it so vehemently and which it so contemptuously rejected about two minutes previously. In an even more consummate sleight-of-hand, it has moved into this position without the slightest acknowledgement that its leaders are not leading at all, but running breathlessly behind. The Stuckists are still being ignored – for the opposite reason to before – not now because the Stuckist ethos is against the art establishment ethos, but because the Stuckist ethos is the only one left to the art establishment to find a way of moving forward. It is not an easy trick to acknowledge the existence of the Stuckists without also being forced to acknowledge that we were right all along.

It may come as a surprise that this is no surprise. We predicted it six years ago, and Billy Childish in particular was emphatic that this was exactly what would happen. But Stuckism has already moved on, and the art establishment, equally predictably, has only got a bastardized assimilation of it. To promote painting against conceptualism is a clear and easy message to make, and one that suits the black and white confrontational nature of mass media sound-bite mentality. We were always aware (though mostly it seemed others were not aware that we were aware) that ‘painting’ in itself is no answer. Saatchi’s Triumph of Painting, with its mostly gross and superficial imagery, proves this conclusively and ought to be retitled The Lack of Triumph of Crap Painting.

Painting is a visual language. In itself the language is meaningless. It is only its employment for meaningful communication that validates its use. The next stage is not the triumph of painting per se. It can only be the triumph of worthwhile and meaningful painting. Ironically it can only be the triumph of painting which is anchored in a powerful conceptual structure – albeit allied with a genuine emotional engagement. Painting that does not derive from this amalgam is as useless and transient as the throwaway art which it is now purporting to supercede. That, I am afraid, is why I am more dismayed by the new status of painting than I was by the dominance of conceptualism. At least before, the demarcation was clear, and the issues apparent. Now they are being blurred in a way which allows the current art establishment its favourite resource, namely missing the point completely.

To put an academic painting derived from worn-out and clichéd ideas into a supposedly radical prize is so absurd that we might take it as a huge joke, did we not know the deadly seriousness that pervades the offices of the Tate. It is of course radical within the confines of the Turner Prize, but if that is really the parameter that prevails, then I am rendered speechless by such a narrow vista. Beyond the Pimlico enclave, such paintings are two a penny, and, furthermore, done with more accomplishment in the genre by many people. This is not the way forward for painting. It is truly reactionary. It is in as rarefied a world as the specious novelties it is beginning to replace. It has no life. It has no ideas. It has no emotion, daring or perception. It is truly stuck.”