The best of British junk

Inconsequential and vacuous, Cathy Wilkes is the perfect representative for Britain at the Venice Biennale

Art
“Untitled”, 2019, by Cathy Wilkes, installed in the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale (Photo: Cristiano Corte © British Council. Courtesy of the Artist, The Modern Institute/Toby Webster Ltd, Glasgow and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels.)

This year Cathy Wilkes is representing Great Britain at the Venice Biennale. Since the announcement, art lovers have been abuzz with excitement, school pupils have been discussing favourite Wilkes pieces, and undergraduates have been celebrating recognition of Wilkes’s unique contribution to sculpture. No, of course they haven’t. Virtually no one in the general population knows Wilkes, despite the fact—and I had to be reminded of this—that she was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2008. Some in the British art world know the name but few could describe her art.

On at least two occasions I have viewed installations by Wilkes yet I have absolutely no memory of what I saw. As an art critic, it is my job to look at art, memorise and assess it, then describe it in writing. Yet I have no visual memory of Wilkes’s art. It is as if instead of entering a gallery I had entered an operating theatre and undergone general anaesthetic. Only after checking photographs can I vaguely recall her approach, which is to make assemblages of junk and plaster casts and scatter them about display spaces. (It is an approach that was already passé when I encountered it while studying art at Goldsmiths College in the early 1990s.) In the hands of a satirist, it would be a cutting parody of banality and pretention. Yet Wilkes is representing Britain in Venice,  following in the footsteps of Moore, Hepworth, Bacon, Freud and Sutherland.   

Why should I have so thoroughly blanked on Wilkes’s art? In fact, why have I walked through many exhibitions of new art in the last decade and remembered nothing? To blame contemporary art as forgettable is not accurate. There seems to be a recent trend that is generating this amnesiac art. The YBAs (Young British Artists) who were collected and promoted by Charles Saatchi in the 1990s—and exhibited at the Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997—cribbed ideas and imagery from American art of the 1970s and 1980s. Combining pre-existing art with popular culture and techniques of advertising, the YBAs produced pithy art. Little of it had worth and it was largely plagiaristic and parasitic in nature, but it was at least memorable. Like or dislike the art of Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread and the Chapman brothers, you could remember and describe it. They knew their success depending upon catching the eye and establishing a brand identity.

That blend of savviness and cynicism is almost completely (and deliberately) absent from recent British art. Without checking, name five winners of the Turner Prize over the last 15 years. Even art professionals would struggle to do that. There is a reason new art is so forgettable. Artists are skipping between fields of art: presenting films, installations, sculpture and photographs as the mood takes them. Well, Picasso also worked in many areas. Yet he developed distinctive styles. Drawings, prints, sculptures and paintings by Picasso share themes, styles and imagery. Many current artists hate the idea of developing a distinctive style and they deliberately create work as heterogeneous as possible. Why?

If you study postmodernism, the prevalent intellectual strand in higher education and the outlook that most curators of current art subscribe to, you will notice a deep and abiding fear of aesthetics. Anything that could lead viewers to assessing art by its visual qualities is antithetical to contemporary art as promoted by the Tate, Arts Council, British Council and other state organisations. There are two reasons.

First, according to postmodernists, there is a theoretical problem with judging art visually. They deny any immutable universal values which could be used to form objective standards. Postmodernists also seek to undermine hierarchies and agreed criteria of judgment because they consider any consensus to be imposition of power and unjustifiable in ethical terms. Postmodernists have an ingrained distrust of discussion that relies on assessing worth because it necessarily involves use of value hierarchies. Any form of discrimination (which is essentially informed judgment on value) is abhorrent to postmodernists. The hypocrisy and absurdity of this position is obvious: deciding that all value judgments are exclusive and discriminatory and thus invalid is in itself a value judgment.

Second, there is a self-serving motive to avoiding aesthetics. If grounds for discussion of visual appearance of art cannot be established then no one can ever criticise art in a reasonably authoritative manner. Therefore no critic, artist or even well-versed layperson can point out that an art work is inept or dull. Today’s artists are thusinsulated from criticism and intelligent assessment because the basis of all art—its visual appearance—is beyond discussion. Beauty, competence, skill and affect all become redundant measures. If viewers could sweep aside self-protective theories of art theory, they would find postmodernist art largely worthless because its makers eschew aesthetic qualities.

Young artists avoid any signature style by making conceptual art (where visual properties of art are unimportant) or have their pieces made by assistants or specialists. Many British art students have been taught to hate and fear art as a visual medium by tutors who cannot draw or paint and who believe true artists are intellectuals not craftsmen. British postmodernism has gone beyond the glib self-promotion of the YBAs and developed to a stage where art is dour, neutral, evasive and visually null. Making art unremarkable is a deliberate strategy designed to protect artists (and their supporters) from criticism.

At the most prestigious international art biennale in the world, the British pavilion will host work by an artist who makes art designed to be inconsequential, unassertive and forgettable. The selection of Wilkes embodies the sour pessimism that postmodernist curators feel towards both art and society. They consider aesthetics a parlour game played by the privileged. They hate Western culture and want to efface the very notion of exceptional individuals making contributions of beauty and insight for the benefit of everyone.

Cathy Wilkes is the perfect artist to represent Great Britain in 2019.