03 Nov, 2009

Contemporary artists must do better

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

London has never teemed with as many celebrated artists as it does now – but how many will we remember?

When it comes to quantity, art lovers in 21st-century Britain have got it made. The range of exhibitions and events on offer boggles the mind, the number of famous artists defies all the laws of cultural gravity. I mean, we have – how many art stars? Dozens. You might even be able to count our artist celebrities in hundreds.

In New York in the 1980s, there were probably five or six artists who were famous in this way, and that was a time and place when people thought art was turning into pop. There has simply never been a moment in modern history when a city so teemed with celebrated artists as London does now. There is a real sense in which to be an artist at all here confers a kind of fame on you.

But is there any chance of anyone in 20 years giving a flying fondu about even 5% of our famous artists? And does that matter? Presumably the answer, in many people’s eyes, is no. We don’t care if, say, Bob and Roberta Smith is going to be remembered as a significant artist – that’s for the future to fret about. Perhaps this is an apocalyptic mood, this present-mindedness: why should we care about history’s verdict on us when we suspect there won’t be much future history anyway?

Unfortunately, I like the good, the great, the exceptional. I’m not that interested in so-so art; it doesn’t do it for me. I don’t believe it does for anyone. When people defend bad art, they are really defending the idea that quality doesn’t matter, just the fun of the art world, the buzz of the banal. But art in this century is as capable of greatness as it was in any other time and place.

Dull, conservative prejudice has no part in this debate. Art does not have to be “figurative” (how I hate that word) to be serious. The most profound paintings of the last century were abstract. In our time, the most worthwhile artists are probably Cy Twombly, Anselm Kiefer, Richard Serra, Lucian Freud and Sebastião Salgado.

None of them is a conservative throwback. All are radical. But the gulf between such artists and most of the stars we bang on about is colossal. Come on – we all know that, right? So why don’t we demand better? We are a corrupt people, apparently, involved in a collective lie.

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