08 Oct, 2009

Art’s shock of the new will never die

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

Avant-garde art has been obsessed for centuries in pursuing the shock of the new, but events like Frieze art fair can still surprise us from the cutting edge

We’re in the season of the new. As the Turner Prize exhibition opens, and Regent’s Park squirrels quake at the imminent arrival of the Frieze art fair, it seems that art’s rage for revolution is as passionate as it was 100 years ago when Picasso was dismantling reality. If there’s one thing history has taught us, it is that only a fool pronounces the obituary of the avant garde.

In the 1980s, there were fools galore. It seemed obvious to most pundits that “modernism” was over and avant-gardism – the idea of art as radical dissent, utopian imagination, and terrifying novelty – lay in the grave with Manet. When, by the later 80s, artists again started acting like they were an avant garde – disorienting spectators with a lake of black oil, and soon after that a concrete house – theorists reached for elaborate terms like “neo-avant garde” to understand what was going on.

And here we are, years after such debates themselves became history. Art has triumphed over handwringing, moralising thinkers. Love ’em or loathe ’em, those artists keep on coming: the avant garde is apparently inexhaustible and unquenchable. As a Frankensteinian synthesis of Margaret Thatcher and Robert Hughes might say, the shock of the new will never die.

Why were critics like Hughes, who thought modernism a dead duck by the 70s, so wrong? Because they failed to see history in the long term. If you tell the history of modern art from, say, Cézanne to Hirst, you will clearly tell a tale of decline. But look at this in a wider perspective, and you see that the new is nothing new. Giorgio Vasari’s book The Lives of the Artists, published in 1550, is a remorseless story of one modernist movement succeeding another – that is how contemporaries saw the Renaissance. Go further back, and you have gothic triumphing over romanesque.

When you go along to this autumn’s avant-garde events, it may be tempting to picture yourself as part of the history of modern art: part of the excitement is, surely, to feel as if today’s London resembles Andy Warhol’s New York or even Manet’s Paris. But actually, the story goes much further back. Western art has been obsessed with the shock of the new for at least 900 years. When we walk around Frieze art fair, we do not only resemble collectors visiting Warhol’s Factory or flâneurs at a Paris salon. We also emulate 13th-century monks looking at the latest thing in stained glass.

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