ONLINE ONLY: Radical Chic and the Corruption of Art

Critics may be heralding the end of contemporary art as we know it, but nothing will change as long as artists worry about how fashionable, rather than how good, their work is

Jacob Willer


There is excitement about an apparent reaction against the “art world”. But an art public so eager for change, for anything different, might become reckless. In such times, any news may be taken for good news. My article “How Contemporary Art Lost its Glamour” (Standpoint, November), which highlighted a change in journalistic attitudes towards the art world over the past year, found itself re-posted all over the internet, and in some unlikely places. The debate around it was confused, in part because its publication happened to coincide exactly with a lot of other very relevant, very negative, art-world news. The situation is more developed now, so I can more precisely identify the problem. And I can update the argument with an analysis of those articles published simultaneously with mine which presented themselves as attacks on the art world, so as to clarify exactly what sort of strange occurrence we are witnessing.

Sarah Thornton, author of Seven Days in the Art World, dramatically announced her withdrawal from the art world with an article in TAR magazine titled ‘Top 10 reasons not to write about the art market’. She objects to the unsavoury sort of people she has had to deal with in the art world, their lack of taste and their dubious sort of business. Her eighth reason not to write about the art market is: “It implies that money is the most important thing about art.” Dave Hickey, “the Doyen of American critics” according to the Observer, gave that paper an interview in which he called the art world “stupid and nasty”. “I’m an intellectual and I don’t care if I’m not invited to the party,” he said. “I quit.” Intellectual or not, the fuss he makes hints that he might care a bit. He grumbles about modern art buyers. “They’re in the hedge fund business, so they drop their windfall profits into art. It’s just not serious.” 

This sounds a lot like Saatchi’s hilariously brazen article in the Guardian excusing himself from the art world. But Saatchi wrote it fully 11 months before, because he is smarter than the others. As I had suggested would be likely, Saatchi saw it all coming. Take care not to applaud these new pieties though, however worthy they may now seem. Neither Saatchi nor Thornton nor Hickey (once also a dealer specialising in Pop Art, before he rose to be a doyen of critics) can represent a reaction against the art world because they are ultimate art world insiders.

Thornton gets annoyed “when one of Urs Fischer’s worst works (a candle sculpture depicting collector Peter Brant from 2010) makes $1.3m while Sherrie Levine’s classic bronze urinal, titled “Fountain (After Marcel Duchamp)” (1991), doesn’t even crack a million”. She is lost so deep in the art world that, in her own rant about money distorting the value of art, she can complain when yet another urinal fails to make $1 million at auction. It is not the sort of failure to upset your everyday art-lover, and it is exactly the sort of failure that will give the faintest hope to those art-lovers who patiently await a real reaction against the art world.

Hickey laments that in London everyone wants to talk about Damien Hirst.  “I’m just not interested in him. Never have been. But I’m interested in Gary Hume and [sic] written about him quite a few times.” Hume over Hirst — the intellectual’s choice. To the art world outsider, of course, this is simply preferring one shade of shallowness to another, and probably only because this new shade is very slightly less ubiquitous.

To find that the vision of a Thornton or a Hickey cannot extend beyond the art world’s most inner walls is to understand that their like would simply not be capable of participating in any meaningful attack on the art world’s outer fortifications — they are not reacting against the corruption of the art world, they are just quibbling over their place in it.

Thornton’s last reason for not writing on the art market: “The pay is appalling. If you understand the art market well enough to write about it with any degree of intelligence, then you know more than most of the art advisors out there.” True, but it is still an envious snipe at the new breed of art world insiders who have quickly become more important than the critics. And a hurt Hickey said:  “Art editors and critics — people like me — have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It’s not worth my time.” Snobbery is poking through the bitterness. Critics were supposed to justify modern artworks with pseudo-academic jargon; the trashier the art, and the less perceptible its merits, the more essential the critics’ role ought to have become. But the critics now find themselves much less needed, after the emergence of a new sort of art buyer who is happiest to buy the trashiest thing (the art adviser is mostly there to warn about investment potential, not taste). For this reason I would not call Thornton’s or Hickey’s outburst cynical (it is harder to avoid the conclusion that Saatchi’s was). They are upset, not really by the quality of art in the market — as we can see from their preferences — but by their increasing lack of influence on the market as critics/taste-makers. They have lost their role.

The real proof that their objections are not cynically contrived is their obvious devotion to “radical chic”. It is the most interesting, and the most pathetically revealing, aspect of their expressed attitudes. It is also, of course, the source of their snobbery. Radical chic commands that they disdain any cause as soon as it should receive general, and especially commercial, acceptance; radical chic is reserved only for those in the know, the rebellious vanguard, the romantic and noble outsiders. So I am sure that Thornton and Hickey would be horrified to find themselves described as insiders. But insiders they are, by definition; radical chic by now rules the art world, it is the only route to success. Every art world insider must believe himself to be an outsider of superior principles (with the rare ability to recognise when a urinal is “classic”) — if he didn’t he would never have been invited inside! They are not kids, the Thorntons and the Hickeys,  yet they are obsessed by cool — they cannot bear to be near an art that has lost it. Thornton’s fifth reason: “Oligarchs and dictators are not cool.” She is right. She accepts that “Russian, Arab, and Chinese collectors bring liquidity to the art world”, but we all know there is nothing chic about them. Hickey, reminiscing about the 1960s, had not realised that art was a “bourgeois” activity. “I used to sell hippy art…” He boasts that he came into art because of sex and drugs and radical artists “ferocious” about their work. In my earlier article I tried to explain how disturbing this transformation of the artist from bohemian to businessman would be to the radical, ‘progressive’ psyche that dominates in arty circles, but I am not sure I gave the point enough emphasis.

The art world was interesting to the Thorntons, and even more to the Hickeys, as an upper tier of radical chic. With their expert knowledge of the arbitrary rules, and arbitrarily changing tastes of cool, they were positioned to dictate to the clique. But with the spectacular arrival of the Russians, Arabs, and Chinese in the art world, coolness is no longer the first thing — these new players haven’t the slightest understanding of the spiritual significance of “bohemia” in the decadent Western mind (a nice irony, considering that Thornton complained of having to write about “paintings by white American men more than is warranted”). A bohemian elite would subvert all values; absurd taste would become sophisticated taste for those in the know, in order to bemuse everyone else. But that process is terminated in the art world by these newly powerful players who so eagerly buy the bohemian product out of straightforwardly bad taste. Unfortunately for the art world insiders,  there is nothing at all ironic about these buyers’ tolerance for vulgarity. The bohemian artists then discover that material success — money — can compensate satisfactorily for their personal loss of radical chic. For the experts though, the critics and curators, there is no compensation, only doom.

Will Gompertz, BBC Arts Editor and a former Director at the Tate, had an article in the Times about overrated contemporary art in British public collections. He anonymously interviewed a number of curators who apparently believed that their own superior judgments have been constrained by the power of investors. One of them told him that “very shiny, very expensive art is normally very bad”.  All he really meant was that shiny expensive art grew uncool (because vulgarity became vulgar again). To such an art world insider, uncool and bad are the same thing. In my earlier piece, I wrote: “The aesthetic of superficiality, of shallow shiny rich, is dead and rotting… Now art seems ugly because it is expensive; before, it seemed beautiful, or at least fascinating, because expensive.” I wonder if this curator found the shiny expensive art so bad five years ago.

Nowadays so much of this shiny expensive art languishes in public collections. And that is another reason why it has grown so unfashionable. Finally the art world insiders have realised — even if the rest of us realised years or decades ago — that nothing sponsored by the state is likely to be so radical. Gompertz (who worked at the Tate) has called for an exhibition of ‘bad art’ to be mounted from the collections of MoMa, or the Tate, or the Pompidou, in order to provoke debate about public spending on art. But there is so much bad art to choose from! And, surely, the current displays of those museums make the point well enough, without even trying to.

Gompertz writes: “Never has so much expensive art been made, bought and sold, nor so little discourse applied to its merits.” Yes, it is certainly time for proper discussion to discern some criteria for the judgment of art and decide on the real purpose of our modern museums. But this cannot be done until quality is untangled from cool. As we can see from the words of Thornton and Hickey, that untangling is most unlikely to be achieved by art world insiders, when their first interest in art so often turns out to be radical chic.

Gompertz hopes that “this is the start of something that breaks the system”. He thinks that the art world has grown stale with state art, as it had in nineteenth-century Paris before the Impressionists. “We need artists to work outside the establishment”, he argues. “We, the public, are the losers, provided as we are with only a partial view of contemporary art…” Absolutely. But there are and always have been plenty of artists working outside of the establishment. Even if sometimes their works belong to public collections, they are never hung, and their names remain known only to those who knew them personally — they are the legions of artists made invisible over the last century by radical chic. About this current crisis in taste, Gompertz writes: “Money, as ever, is at the root of the problem.” Too much money is certainly making contemporary art uncool, but contemporary art’s uncoolness is not our greatest problem, if it is a problem at all. And money is always only money. You can bet that money will be at the root of the solution to art’s problems too. Radical chic really is at the root of the problem — it might even be the whole problem. It is radical chic, much more than money, that gives us such a partial view of contemporary art. The money only followed the glamour (then ruined it). Gompertz, so as not to be too gloomy, named Ai Wei Wei and Peter Doig as important artists working now. These are huge names raising millions for the auction houses and exhibiting only in the grandest modern museums. Peter Doig probably is the best of the gang of artists endorsed by those auctioneers and curators, the only artists to whom the general art public is ever introduced. But that is not to say, necessarily, that he is very good at all.

Gompertz wants new artists to start “challenging preconceptions instead of reinforcing them”. The first preconception to challenge is that it is art’s job to challenge preconceptions. This is pure radical chic — subvert, épater le bourgeois. I prefer an art that does not bother over such temporal trivialities, an art free of all such spiteful motives. An art which endeavours instead to open out into worlds of subtle feeling, being generous and not quarrelsome. But we come to a strange point. Because what could be more radical, now, than that? What would be more radical than artists aspiring to be diligent, humble craftsmen, in order to delight their audience?

However,  it is not an idea that will gain currency any time soon. The response to my article happened to be so energetic only because I used the word ‘cool’. Many people seemed to be angry that I dared to make declarations about what is or isn’t cool, and others seemed just to be excited by the prospect of a change in fashion. Evidently, ‘cool’ is still extremely important. The modern art public are still a largely fashionable lot. That is why my analysis of the desperate excuses of art world insiders became muddled up with Hickey, another art world insider making desperate excuses. Hickey concludes, sadly, that the art world has grown too large and that it lacks discretion. In other words, the art world has lost its cool — cool always has to be exclusive. Here is his response to the coming catastrophe of art world de-cooling:  ”Winners win, losers lose. Shoot the wounded, save yourself. Those are the rules.” That is exactly what Hickey is doing: saving himself. I had written of Saatchi: “He declares himself out before the others — the only way to stay cool.”

Hickey got there too, and declared himself out — almost a year later but still before most. We should be prepared for more such tirades, but we must not confuse them with a genuine reaction against the art world. These outbursts are an interesting phenomenon. But they are little more than the noise of a violent change in fashion. It is the art world crying out for a new style of presentation, but not for a new art.

The Art Newspaper recently published a story with the headline: “Brand names slip as market starts to correct”. But what sort of correction? The piece reported that “artists and collectors are reacting against the carefree works that were popular during the raging noughties”. Alex Rotter, the Head of Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s New York, explained the market’s turn by saying that “we’ve all become more serious because of what’s happened to the world, politically and economically”. But if their new seriousness would be characterised by the right sort of “classic bronze” urinal breaking the million-dollar mark, then be sure that very little has changed. Nor will it change, until there are enough people working around art who are so radical that they can reject radical chic. They will have to set about distinguishing the truly good from the merely cool; that is to say, they will have to dismiss a whole century’s worth of “important” iterations of a urinal.


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