A struggle for the very soul of art can be found in my in-box today, both involve the name “Turner.”
The Turner Prize is the High Church of arch conceptual art, a postmodernist playground. This year’s exhibit of shortlisted works has just opened at the Tate:
- The Turner Prize, derided by critics as a farce, has been won in the past by pickled sheep and elephant dung. This year it could be the turn of pornography.
The works submitted by the shortlist of four provoked a protest outside the Tate Britain museum by traditional artists.
“The Turner Prize is a national joke. It is the Emperor’s new clothes,” complained Charles Thomson of the “pro-painting, anti-conceptual art” Stuckist movement.
Among the leading contenders for Turner 2002 is Fiona Banner who graphically wrote out the plot of porn movie “Arsewoman in Wonderland” in lurid pink words on a giant canvas.
“My response to the film was very emotional. It was intimate yet distant, seductive, yet sometimes repulsive,” the artist said of the painting that comes with a health warning.
Exhibition creator Katharine Stout, showing reporters round the exhibition Tuesday, said: “Visitors will be warned there is explicit language. If they don’t want to read it, they don’t have to.”
Fiercely defending the shortlist against accusations that the exhibits were pretentious and mediocre, she said: “I think contemporary art in Britain is among the best in the world.”
The exhibition is invariably an enormous success, attracting up 70,000 visitors a year. This year’s prize will be presented on December 8.
….Pop superstar Madonna swore live on television last year when presenting the prize to conceptual artist Martin Creed who won with his creation of a bare room with a light that switches on and off.
Tracey Emin won fame in 1999 with her unmade bed surrounded by soiled underpants, condoms and champagne corks.
In 1998, avant-garde artist Chris Ofili won with a Virgin Mary made from elephant dung.
In 1995, Damien Hirst won with a sheep pickled in formaldehyde. Artist Tony Kaye once tried to submit a homeless steel worker as his entry for the competition.
The Turner is about art that is startling, provocative, starkly mental in its appeal – art that is clever above all.
Coming from the opposite direction is this email:
- There is an emerging new movement in the arts – a “Realist” movement – that threatens to bury the avant garde. We are an important part of this new movement and I am writing to draw your attention to both our recently launched website “NewKlasiscal” – whose aim is to provide a platform for a new generation of “realist” painters, poets, composers and architects and an article by one of our community, the poet and philosopher Frederick Turner entitled “The Coming Arts Renaissance.”
The main stream media will not acknowledge or publicly our efforts or that of the new movement, as it represents conflicting views with the establishment line, so we are looking to our friends on the net to spread the word about our new initiative and key events as they develop. The first of which is due in late November entitled “Rebel Angels” – an audio visual cyber exhibition of living painters Self Portraits.
This is what Turner has to say:
- Charles Jencks, the postmodern critic, recently began an article with the words “Beauty is back.” It was a belated comment, but better late than never. There is a fresh wind sweeping through the arts. It is happening across the globe and in a hundred different corners of the arts and culture.
This essay will look mainly at American and some European examples, but with the internet a significant new element has been introduced, and whereas it took the Renaissance perhaps three hundred years to diffuse throughout Europe, and the Romantic movement a hundred years to diffuse through the West, it need take only a decade or two for the whole world to wake up to the change that is happening in the cultural climate.
What makes this movement revolutionary is that it is a counter-revolution, a revolution against the ugliness and moral chaos – and wretched intellectual silliness of the contemporary arts scene. Everybody now knows of the sawn-up human heads and elephant dung and genitalia and self-mutilation of the angry wing of contemporary art. We know also the blank canvases, the slinkies dropped from pianos, the “installations”, the meaningless scatterings of words and boxy architectural gulags of the silly wing of it: the John Cages, the John Ashberys, the Jeff Koonses, the Mies van der Rohes, the Warhols.
But there was purpose behind the anger and the flip irony-nothing less than the undermining of western civilization. This was the party line, and artists would not get their work hung in galleries, poets would not be published, architects would not get commissions, and composers would not get performed if they violated it. The idea was to replace the support that artists got from the “complacent” middle class with state support through grants and tax-based patronage, and to that end a government arts bureaucracy would be created, imbued with avant garde ideology, to ensure the orderly flow of money. Rebellion would be institutionalized – there would be a continuous cultural revolution, that would make the world safe for all the things – sexual adventures, envy of the rich, violence, self-destructive hedonism, dishonest personal and public behavior, intellectual snobbery, and moral superiority – that one used to be ashamed of. Once the moral, intellectual, and aesthetic structures of civil society were broken down, the way would be open for the establishment of an immortal state cultural bureaucracy, with secure livings for all its members.
The one thing that one was not allowed to rebel against in Modernist and Postmodernist orthodoxy was the tradition of rebellion itself, the basic rule that whatever art one makes must help to bring down the bourgeois market society that supports the arts. The artist’s heroic role was to insult the poor mugsies who go to galleries and read poetry and attend concerts. However, the new classicism has resolved to violate this Prime Directive.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 have brought upon us all a realization that conceptual art, incomprehensible “l.a.n.g.u.a.g.e p.o.e.t.r.y”, avant-garde performance art, plotless fiction, tuneless music, and inhuman postmodern architecture are not going to be able to deal with the real evil of the world. Only in the great artistic traditions of humankind will we find adequate means of expression. The new movement in the arts, as if it anticipated the need for them, has been busy recovering those traditions.
Who are the new classicists? A strange clan of independent minds, often cheerfully in disagreement with each other, without membership cards and sometimes with large reputations that they have put on the line? As The Utne Reader (a leading avant garde journal) ruefully expressed it, there is
“a classical revival that threatens to bury the avant garde.”
To understand what the new classicism is up to, we must first recognize the broad outlines of what happened to the arts in the twentieth century, through a hundred years of modernism followed by its postscript, postmodernism. In poetry, rhyme and meter were rejected, as well as the power of storytelling and even the structure of argument and logic. Even in fiction, plotting was demoted to popular entertainment, and for a while, the “plot less novel” of Alain Robbe-Grillet and William Burroughs was all the rage. In painting and sculpture, any reference to the real human figure and real landscapes was often discarded, together with the traditional techniques of drawing, perspective, and so on that make possible that marvelous imitation of the inner and outer worlds. In music, melody and tonality became old-fashioned, and the twelve tone row and atonality reigned supreme in “serious” composition. In theater, Brecht told playwrights to avoid the dear old corny devices of acting, the conventions of comedy and tragedy that allow an audience to recognize and identify with a character.
Playwrights aimed at the “alienation effect” and attacked the audience in the theater of cruelty. In architecture, as Tom Wolfe has pointed out, the Bauhaus aspired to a kind of building that was functional for machines but not for human beings. In all the arts there was a rejection of transcendental morality, a hostility to any reference of a spiritual world, an angry denigration of American and European history, and a contempt for the classical Western values.
New classical artists realized that Ezra Pound’s modernist slogan “make it new” had led to an artistic arms race in which each new shocking novelty could only bounce the rubble of an already devastated culture; the only new thing left to do was, of course, the good old thing. New classicists are aiming to restore the pleasure of the arts.
One way of defining the new movement is in terms of a return to traditional forms, genres, and techniques in the arts.
In “serious” music there is a recovery of the deep pan-human roots of melody, a renewed interest in worldwide folk music, a focus on the immediacy of performance, improvisation, and the context of audience and performer, and a disillusionment with Schoenberg¹s theories of seriality and the twelve tone row, with the atonality of Stockhausen and his followers.
In architecture and landscape design there is a renewed attention to the classical languages of building, ornament, fittingness to the environment and humane proportion.
In visual arts there is a return to representation, to landscape and the figure, a rejection of the modernist authority of abstraction, and a turn away from the idea of art as the ideological enemy of ordinary human life.
In poetry there is a wave of renewed interest in poetic meter, rhyme, and clear storytelling, a questioning of the role of poetry as therapeutic private expression, and a return to the great public themes of enduring human interest.
In theater there is a renewal of the audience’s ability to feel concern about the fate of the characters.
In fiction there has been a swing toward storytelling and “moral fiction”, identifiable characters and plot and theme and setting…..
I have a fondness for “clever” art – my mind enjoys being tickled by an idea made real in an often absurd form. But I am also sympathetic to the notion that art should be mean more in its execution than in its conception, and “cleverness” yields little or no spiritual succor.
I am eager to see the “Rebel Angels” exhibit mentioned in the NewKlassical email and see how it stacks up against the works exhibited for the Turner Prize at the Tate. I see it as axiomatic that art designed to shock and provoke – as its highest aesthetic – is doomed to a reductive spiral of diminishing returns, but I’m not sure that a great leap forward into the past is the answer either.