Meanwhile, Tracey Emin has accepted the appointment of Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy. The appointment really says more about that institution than about Emin, but it tells us that Emin, too, is anxious to position herself with craft and tradition, to move away from what was fashionable. Even the artists, now in desperate disguise, are jumping from the procession and trying to join the murmuring crowd. They have heard the music, and shivered.
And now the art world's officials are catching up; they are learning from the artists this new way to guard the new clothes. They claim that the clothes, however meagre they may seem, derive from a venerable tradition, not a vulgar fashion. Rachel Campbell-Johnston in The Times identified the new approach. "It's back to the future for culture. The 2011 Venice Biennale opened with three Tintoretto paintings . . . Cy Twombly was shown in the context of Poussin a few months ago." Tracey Emin's return to Margate was "marked by a sedate display of drawings shown alongside pieces by Rodin and Turner". And "the trendsetting Frieze [art fair] marks its tenth year by inaugurating Frieze Masters." She justifies this turn of events: "Artists who until now have charged forwards in the vanguard of fashion are starting to wonder about their place in history, not least as markets for the contemporary start to look rocky." Campbell-Johnston cannot ignore the effect of falling prices, especially on the credibility of contemporary art. But she is happiest to see this new trend mostly as a sign that the art world is growing up and developing a historical sense — for her, the artists are just seeking to define their rightful place in the story of art. She concludes that this new historical sense endows contemporary art with a "gravitas that transcends fickle fashion". That is certainly the idea. "Meanwhile the past is endowed with relevance, infused with a fresh pizzazz. Either way, it's art that is the winner." Or, perhaps, art barely comes into it. This is about safer investments; this spurious historical validation of contemporary art (Twombly and Poussin! Emin and Rodin!) must be an attempt to secure old investments now suffering, and to encourage new investments. The past is no more relevant to investment prospects, or art buyers in general, than it ever was. The reason now for distancing art from fashion is not that the audience be convinced of a new "gravitas" but that the buyers are convinced that what they buy is of permanent value. To Campbell-Johnston it means that "contemporary art is at the end of its cycle". Or is this actually contemporary art's last resort?
Of course it is amusing to watch the art world fumbling thus to repudiate itself. But this does not mean we should assume a return to saner appreciations of culture — we must remain watchful. Of Kapoor's tower, Purves wrote: "It . . . looks hideous to me: a piece of vainglorious sub-industrial steel gigantism, signifying nothing." But the tower is signifying plenty. It may well look hideous, but it is doubly hideous for what it is overtly signifying. It is just a toy version of Tatlin's Tower, the proposed headquarters for the Comintern in Petrograd (now St Petersburg). Everyone on the academic side of the art world will recognise it, and smirk. Tatlin's unbuilt designs, from 1917, have come to symbolise the dormant Marxism in modern art. I have lost count of how many models I have seen, and how many contextual exhibitions have been devoted to the tower in recent years, let alone how often it is piously mentioned in essays on "art theory".
A reverential tribute to modernist orthodoxy, in its mode of address to the art world, Kapoor's tower harks back to times before Hirst. It begs for credibility, and sophisticated money, by appealing to sentimentality over subversive politics. Before the super-rich had found an art shiny and shallow enough to help them love their bare reflection, for near on a century they had been buying into an art which, as a polished incarnation of the revolutionary spirit, agreeably distorted their reflection. The new super-rich, with the collusion of cultural authorities, use art to say, "We are who we are, and isn't it fabulous!" The old super-rich, colluding with the same authorities, used art to say, "We are not what we seem, we are righteous and ready for the struggle!" Please let us not go back there.
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