The decline of art
In the city of Rubens – Antwerp Belgium – the work of that great master abounds in churches, public buildings and in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts where, in a dedicated hall, his finest pieces overwhelm the vast space. When looking at these giant glowing works of masterful composition, painterly craft and intelligent concept, I am sure that no Joe Public was ever moved to say disparagingly; ‘I could do that!’ These works inspire a sense of awe and wonder at what we humans are capable of achieving. When you walk away from them you are filled with a purpose to try a little harder.
Antwerp also claims to have discovered the – I quote from the blurb in one of the catalogues in the Xeno gallery – most famous female artist of all time, Marlene Dumas. The Xeno gallery is just across the road from the Royal museum; here fifteen Dumas works hang in a much publicized exhibition. Small paintings, modest in colour use and niggardly in craft. At the opening I watch the faces of the public viewing the work, they are blank masks, and no word is spoken. Is this a sign of silent reverie in the presence of greatness? Or simply one of complete incomprehension and the fear of seeming stupid if an opinion expressed might stand in opposition to the great reputation of this artist.
The images on display are of blotted vaginae in raw umber and blue, a bad copy of a Man Ray eye, portraits that are vaguely reminiscent of Marlene Monroe, a set of pouty lips and a portrait of her mother that sends me suddenly into “Physco” the scene where we finally discover the secret of the woman in the rocking chair. The craft of the work is questionable and the composition limited to placing a fuzzy object more or less in the middle of the canvas. As the intellectual concept behind the work is always more difficult to fathom, I leave the gallery to try to find the meaning behind it all. Here is where contemporary art leads the public on a merry chase of the said and unsaid, by using mangled philosophies – expressed in words with far too many syllables – to describe meaning that is not there. My conclusion is that Dumas is in favor of the accidental in art. Sounds very philosophical but accidents happen; to leave the spill of coffee on the table claiming that it enhances the room is absurd, but in contemporary art this thinking is elevated to greatness. It is also said she understands and paints the human condition with the sparse brushwork of a master. With this background information I decide to give Marlene Dumas’s art a second viewing.
In an empty gallery I open my mind to the experience I meditate quietly, surreptitiously glancing at the images out of the corner of my eye to try and catch that fleeting magic that defines a master piece. I employ every method of looking that I can think of to try and find some sense of achievement in these pieces but the magic eludes me. All the while I have in the back of my mind the knowledge that the public was proven wrong in rejecting a host of artists that presented a new way of seeing in the past, and I could be missing something quite fundamental. But then I console myself with the fact that we – Mr and Mrs Joe Public – have also made vast advancements in our way of seeing the world and with the endless stream of visual stimulation that we are accustomed to processing every day I feel quite confident in expressing my opinion about the works of Ms Dumas.
The Dumas world is inhabited by sad somewhat scary individuals. Why is sad and suicidal so much more sexy in the art world than happy and joyous? Is it that the art dealers are just so numb to joy that they find it repulsive, or could it be that as soon as a thing evokes a happy emotion it could conceivable been seen as decorative, and that of course will never do. Personally give me happy and joyous any day and if the piece makes the room look pretty (I can just see the critics wincing at that word) so much the better. The Dumas works are relentlessly ugly and evoke only the feeling that the artist must be very sad or very bored .The accidental in her art seems to me to be reactive in that she splots paint about and then looks back and says; ooh that looks sort of like a Man Ray eye I’ll put that in my next exhibition. Compare this to Rubens who set out with a brilliant concept in mind and then was able to consciously sketch and compose and finally through the expert application of paint to imbue the concept with vigour and life. I am sure that within this process there were fortuitous moments when a small quirk of paint on canvas suddenly created the magic that makes a masterpiece. These moments are a gift; not the whole basis of an art form and in the case of Dumas they don’t bring magic but disaster. Dumas’s works inspire only irritation that I again took the time to come downtown to view them. To all the Dumas fans, you go roll about in the sludgy browns and blues of Dumas despair but spare me the eulogies; the woman needs help.
I try to imagine what Rubens would have made of the Dumas exhibition. It is a difficult task, especially if one were to try to explain to him that for the sake of the advancement of art we have dismissed his style in favour of that of Ms Dumas. I think the man would have me committed. I wonder also what he would have made of the constant comparisons that are made between him and the other superstar of the contemporary art world. Damien Hirst. Critics try to justify the fact that Mr Hirst never actually paints the paintings he puts his name to by comparing him to Rubens. Rubens was known to also use assistants in producing his works. But when one digs further and finds that Hirst uses assistants to glue dead butterflies onto boards painted in flat enamel colours, or to paint dots on boards ; producing an endless repetition of the same but slightly different thing, as compared to Rubens using highly skilled artists – masters in their own right – to help with specific areas of vast works, that took years to complete; and if one then stood in front of the original works of both artists one would surely have to be completely blind or somewhat addled not to find any comparison between the two men totally inappropriate.
But the comparison serves to underline how far we have regressed in thinking and craft. Today using assistants to produce endless coloured dots on board with the exulted claim that the same colour is never used twice, is presented as great art. To make the achievement of not using the same colour twice a measure of great artistic talent neatly illustrates the state of contemporary art. An act of insignificance that deserves the insult of; I can do that. But of course Mr Hirst has a point when he says ; perhaps you can do that but only mine – even if I don’t paint them myself – are worth 600 000 pnds. The blame for this state of affairs has got to rest squarely on the shoulders of the rich. How stupid are these people . I can only imagine it is because today the rich are the Paris Hiltons of the world, these are the light brained twits who fall for the Damien Hirst scam and drag the whole concept of art into the worst neighbourhood of the capitalist state.
What Damien Hirst is, is glittering mirror ball of everything that art has become in the last few decades, the making of money in which- lets give credit where credit is due – he does indeed stand at the pinnacle of the contemporary art world. A world where beauty and intellect have been disregarded in favour of the art of selling the emperors cloths at great price. But in order to justify this state of affairs there is a great wringing of hands and deep anguished discussion of whether Mr Hirst is an artist and whether ‘his’ creations will be considered great art tomorrow or the next day.
To my mind this addresses the wrong thing. Damien Hirst is the artwork, but not one of his own creation. He is the pinnacle of the creative abilities of the salesmen and woman who control the world of contemporary art. To end the discussion of where the art of Damien Hirst lies I would suggest that he be carefully preserved and floated precisely at the centre of a giant tank of acid green formaldehyde as a symbol of the perversity of the art world today. And hey Damien, as we all know you are not so good at thinking up your own ideas have this one, it’s on me.