The extreme unsubversiveness of modern art

(Thoughts arising from visiting the Dali/Duchamp exhibition at the Royal Academy, then reading books about Surrealism, Dali and Duchamp.)

Straw men

I helped my son study for his philosophy A-level and one of the many interesting aspects was a handout his teachers gave him detailing 20 or so common fallacious arguments. The straw man fallacy is where you attribute to your opponent simplistic arguments which they don’t actually hold, in order to look good by easily demolishing them. You dodge their difficult questions by claiming they’ve asked easy ones which you can just blow over. You erect a straw man which is all-too-easy to demolish.

I have that straw man feeling when I read almost any critical book or exhibition guide about modern art. So many of them start from the premise that modern art ‘challenges’, ‘questions’, ‘subverts’ or ‘interrogates’ all our assumptions about art, the role of art, the future of art, the role of the artist and so on and so on.

But modern art doesn’t subvert anything, and no intelligent person thinks it does. Any educated person should know that Marcel Duchamp took a common-or-garden public urinal, signed it and put it in a Dada art exhibition in 1917. It was, in fact, ignored for a long time, but interest revived after the Second World War, and Duchamp’s select array of ‘anti-art’ activities and ‘provocations’ was widely copied in the let-it-all-hang-out 1960s – so much so that he found himself being hailed, right at the end of his life, as the godfather of conceptual art, arguably the leading art movement of our times.

So daring, darling

But every time I read another guide beginning to talk about the subversiveness, the revolutionariness and so on of the art under discussion, I am oppressed by how old so much of this art is and how old the entire idea of art being ‘subversive’ is.

It was 56 years ago that Piero Manzoni made cans of his own faeces and declared them art. Not just that, but sold them to Tate, which now proudly displays them with a po-faced explanatory label.

At the time Manzoni pointed out that by canning and arting it, he had made his shit worth more than its weight in gold. Of course it has shot up in value in the past decades, so a tin of Italian shit would nowadays buy you a swanky London house. Is this still ‘shocking’ and ‘subversive’? Maybe, to people who hadn’t heard about it before, but nowadays you quickly assimilate it and file it under ‘one more shocking piece of modern art’, along with thousands of other examples.

So: Are we shocked any longer by Duchamp putting a toilet, a bottle rack or a bicycle wheel on a stool into an art gallery? God, of course not! The 1960s took all his ideas, and the Surrealists’ and avant-garde 1920s composers, and took them much much further.

Yves Klein got naked women to cover themselves in blue paint and roll on canvases and called it art, Richard Long took photos of circles of rocks he’d built in the desert and called it art, Christo wrapped the Bundestag in foil and called it art, Carl André sold Tate a bunch of bricks and called it art. Countless ‘happenings’ where everyone got naked and danced to avant-garde music was art. Andy Warhol mass produced posters and called them art, Dali signed blank paper and called it art, Jasper Johns painted the American flag and called it art, Jackson POllock spattered oil paint over enormous canvases and called it art.

All this happened 40, 50, 60 years ago. The Duchamp urinal was 100 years ago this year. It is an antique. It is old news and the ‘issues’ it raised are dead and buried, too.

This kind of conceptual art is:

1. Potentially limitless. New examples of ‘schocking’ and ‘subversive’ conceptual art can go on being devised forever, vide Tracey Emin’s unmade bed (1998) or Martin Creed’s empty room with a light switching on and off every five seconds (2000). But just how ‘subversive’ are they? Both of these examples won the Turner Prize and were bought by Tate. Tracey’s bed is now a modern ‘classic’.

2. Completely assimilated in all histories of art, taught to Junior school kids, and covered in GCSE and A-level art courses as routinely as Rembrandt and Michelangelo. My daughter was taught about the urinal. There’s a BBC Bitesize web page about it. There are countless t-shirts, cartoons and merchandise showing its entire assimilation into contemporary culture.

Something taught to a country’s school children is not subversive; it is the opposite of subversive. In fact it is the working definition of a society’s current, fully accepted and State-sanctioned values.

Tate modern killed subversive art

You only have to visit London’s Tate Modern to see how thoroughly assimilated the entire tradition of ‘revolutionary’ and ‘subversive’ art has become.

This huge building is is stuffed with works in this lineage, with galleries devoted to Arte Povera (off-cuts of felt hanging from the wall), minimalism (Robert Morris’s cubes of reflecting glass), with Joseph Beuys’s sledges carrying rolls of felt and flashlamps, and the enormously popular annual display they have in the main atrium: a huge crack in the floor of the entrance hall, the floor covered with porcelain sunflower seeds, enormous helter skelters, a massive ‘sun’ illuminating the space with yellow light. Etc.

Here is a photo of Ai Weiwei smashing a vase, there are some fluorescent tubes modelled into various shapes by Dan Flavin, and on the wall a video of Gilbert and George getting pissed.

All this is not only not subverting or undermining anything, it has not only been totally assimilated, but it is actively celebrated and promoted. Nearly 6 million visitors went to Tate Modern in 2016, making it the third most popular visitor attraction in London. Nobody is ‘troubled’, ‘challenged’, ‘subverted’, ‘shocked’ or ‘horrified’ by modern art; it is taught to school trips of children, marketed in every form you can imagine, and the subject of coach parties of pensioners. The members restaurant is a prime location for ladies who lunch.

Modern art is the most opposite entity to ‘subversion’ that I can imagine, as I reflect for the umpteenth time, as I push past the coach party of retired ladies from Burnley who have come down to see the exhibition of that famous ‘subversive’ and ‘revolutionary’, Marcel Duchamp at the Royal Academy.

(I got into quite a long chat with a retired lady from Nottingham who’d come all the way to London, with her husband, just to see it. She didn’t look shocked or subverted; the opposite; she was thrilled to see so many famous and classic ‘works of art’ in the flesh.)

The exhibition shop as death of subversion, birth of merchandise

By far the most ‘subversive’ part of any art exhibition is the exhibition shop, which is always placed at the exit of the show so you can’t avoid it.

These gallery shops comprehensively destroy any claims modern art could possibly have to be subversive and shocking. Here, the most ‘shocking’ examples of ‘revolutionary’ art have been adapted into fridge magnets, luxury books and catalogues, t-shirts, hats and handbags, jewellery, plates and mugs, table mats and coasters, shortbread tins, glasses cases, oyster card holders, posters, prints and postcards, shopping bags, lamp shades, wraps, rings and ear-rings, cushions and throws – all to buy and own and give as gifts, to prop on the mantlepiece, place on the coffee table, hang on the wall.

The sheer breadth of merchandise available at modern art exhibitions often makes me feel like I’m in John Lewis or Heal’s interior furnishing departments, browsing among bijou objects to brighten up the landing or hang in the loo next to the Vermeer print and the Dufy poster.

Why do art curators continue to deceive themselves and us?

So why do critics and curators keep on insisting, in show after show, in book after book, in dissertation after dissertation, that the art they’re discussing is ‘subversive’, ‘challenging’, ‘revolutionary’ and all the rest of it?

1. The need for academics to write

Well, they have to live. They have to have careers. They have to write something. They have to justify their jobs. They have to justify their profession as something which contributes to society, moves things forward, changes things. I began an English Literature PhD and was informed that in America about 100,000 PhDs on English Literature are published every year. PhD candidates and their supervisors are really scrabbling around to find new subjects, or new light to shed on old subjects, any subjects.

And casting your subject as forceful, vital, subversive and revolutionary adds significance and vitality to any writing.

2. It is the rhetoric of the age

Ironically and paradoxically, as society has become more right-wing, reactionary, and less meritocratic; as wealth has been redirected away from the squeezed lower and middle classes towards a global elite of the mega-rich, the tone of cultural rhetoric has become more universally revolutionary. Any of the twentieth century greats – Matisse, Picasso, Pollock, you name them – all of them have been presented as ‘revolutionaries’ subverting this, that or the other in recent art exhibitions of their work I’ve attended.

And the entire history of modern art is presented as a succession of revolutionary movements – as you can see from the huge timeline of modern art movements painted along the entire wall on the second floor of Tate Modern.

Possibly – probably – in their day, this was true. Cubism shocked the traditional art world. Pollock puzzled American art connoisseurs until he had been explained, mediated and assimilated. The Young British Artists exhibition ‘shocked’ and ‘scandalised’ philistine idiots as recently as 1997.

But now Tracey Emin is a national treasure and you can’t move for the cross-dressing ceramicist Grayson Perry winning prizes, delivering lectures, fronting BBC documentaries. Am I shocked by Jackson Pollock’s splatter paintings? Or Picasso putting both eyes on the same side of the nose? No.

3. Feeling like a revolutionary

I can imagine there is quite a lot of psychological pleasure to be gained by thinking that you are riding on the coat-tails of revolutionaries. Golly. That makes you a little bit of a revolutionary too. There must be quite a lot of psychological gratification to be derived from thinking you are working in the company of radicals and subversives — instead of being a civil servant-style functionary who goes into work every day like the rest of us and stares at a computer screen. It makes you stand out. It makes you special.

I recently read Czesław Miłosz’s classic The Captive Mind which goes into great detail about the psychological rewards to be gained from joining the Communist party in Eastern Europe – specifically Poland – after the Second World War. There were lots of motivations, but one of them was feeling that you were on the right side of history, on the side of the angels and against the stuffy, boring bourgeoisie.

That psychological appeal – of being on the side of the ‘radical’ and the ‘subversive’ and ‘challenging’ social norms – hasn’t gone away. Each new generation of art curators and critics discovers it all over again at art school.

4. Triumph of the rich

But this is 2017. The rich have won. The notion of a really coherent anti-capitalist ideology died with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Since then all political parties throughout the industrialised world have been various shades of liberalism masking the triumph of unfettered capitalism.

And this isn’t the result of some evil scheme by a cabal of wicked men. Global consumer capitalism has triumphed because it is what everyone wants. Everyone wants a car, a TV and a fridge, and if you’ve got a fridge, you need fridge magnets. If you’ve got walls you need something to hang on them. Which is where modern art comes in. To decorate, entertain, distract, inform and amuse our modern consumer lifestyles.

5. Modern art as fashion item for the super-rich

Some time ago (a generation ago? or right back to the post-war period?) modern art became fashionable for the rich to collect, specially rich Americans (it is no coincidence that Duchamp based himself in New York and that his key works are in a museum in Philadelphia).

That in itself undermines modern art’s claims to subvert anything – the fact that more often than not it was sponsored and only came into existence because of the active support of the rich: Duchamp was supported by the millionaire collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg who acquired 85 per cent of his output.

This alone shows that any ‘subverting’ that was going on in modern art didn’t in the least threaten the economic or cultural world in which these multi-millionaires moved; it was just ‘the latest thing, darling’, the latest fashion item from France, ‘soooooooooooo daring and chic, darling!’

Here is Marcel Duchamp’s major puzzling and ‘subversive’ work of art – The Bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even – on the front cover of Vogue magazine back in 1945.

Cover of Vogue (1945) Model posing with Marcel Duchamp's The Large Glass, photographed by Erwin Blumenfeld

Cover of Vogue (1945) Model posing with Marcel Duchamp’s The Large Glass, photographed by Erwin Blumenfeld

6. The grotesque over-valuations of modern art

This trend – the intimate relationship between modern ‘subversive’ art and people with more money that we can imagine – has gone into hyper-drive over the past 25 years (since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in fact) as a new super-rich global elite has emerged which likes to invest in modern art alongside oil wells, property in London and the rest of its portfolio.

Hence the really remarkable prices which ‘classic’ modern art sells for nowadays. Here’s a list of the top ten most valuable paintings sold on the open market.

  1. Interchange Willem de Kooning (1955) – $300 million
  2. The Card Players by Paul Cézanne (1892) – $266 million
  3. Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) (1892) by Paul Gauguin $210 million
  4. Number 17A by Jackson Pollock (1948) – $200 million
  5. No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red) by Mark Rothko (1951) – $188 million
  6. Pendant portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit by Rembrandt (1634) – $180 million
  7. Les Femmes d’Alger (‘Version O’) by Pablo Picasso (1955) – $181.2 million
  8. Nu Couché by Modigliani (1917/18) – $172.2 million
  9. No. 5, 1948 by Jackson Pollock (1948) – $166.3 million
  10. Masterpiece by Roy Lichtenstein (1962) $165 million

(Source: Wikipedia)

Surely the ‘shocking’ thing about these works is not at all ‘the revolutionary refusal of the figurative tradition’ or ‘the exploration of the picture plane as an object in itself’ – it is the amount of money paid for them.

Note the artists and dates. Rembrandt is the only Old Master on the list; all the rest are ‘modern’ works and half of them are the work of post-war Abstract Expressionists – Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning – once ridiculed and scorned for their meaningless splats, now commanding the highest prices in art history.

You can invoke art theorists from Plato to Ruskin declaring that Art is the gateway to transcendent value of the soul or imagination; you can invoke all those ‘revolutionary’ manifestos declaring that Art is going to transform society – and, certainly all these theories and ideas help to understand how and why the art of their day was produced…

But to understand what Art means today, in 2017, you must fully take into account that Art is now a commodity traded by Russian billionaires and Arab investment funds (numbers 2 and 3 were sold to Qatar; numbers 1 and 4 to an American hedge fund manager; number 5 to a Russian oligarch; number 8 to a Chinese billionaire).

The taboo sub-text of modern Art isn’t Freudian secrets or anti-patriarchal subversion or post-colonial ‘interrogation of the imperial narrative’ – it is that Art has been bought lock, stock and two smoking barrels by the rich.

Feminist and black art

The effective defeat of modern art as a ‘radical’ political activity goes some way to explaining why art criticism – like progressive politics generally – has retreated into ‘identity politics’. Here it is on safer ground (sort of).

If it can’t change or subvert a society which has completely bought into consumer capitalism, which is in thrall to neo-liberal economic theory and which is run by vast, uncontrollable financial force fields working between America, the Gulf, Russia and China – well, it is on firmer ground when it addresses the historic wrongs done to black people and women.

If curators and critics are on a hiding to nothing describing as ‘world changing’ art which has, in our time, become a glorified investment vehicle for Yankee hedge fund managers and Chinese billionaires, they can still let rip with all the revolutionary rhetoric they want when it comes to exhibitions about women or black artists.

Here, the universal curatorial nostalgie pour le revolution is, for once, partly justified.

You can almost feel the relief in the curator catalogues, prose and wall labels about exhibitions of women or black artists or empire, because they are dealing with ideas which are still live issues. If all calls for a socialist revolution, for the overthrow of capitalism, are dead in the water (and look it and feel it and sound it), feminist artists can still be presented as genuine ‘revolutionaries’ in an ongoing struggle. And black artists, like the excellent Kara Walker, invoke social issues which really are still live, problematic and troubling.

So black and feminist criticism is where the revolutionary spirit – completely crushed and obliterated in wider industrial societies – has gone to hide and recuperate. This explains the its prevalence in the safe and privileged space of the academy and art gallery – and its vehemence. White male artists have given up even pretending they are ‘revolutionary’ (Damien Hirst, Anthony Gormley), but black and women artists (and their critics and curators) can still recite the old formulas, the old catch-phrases, about ‘subverting the patriarchy’ and ‘challenging institutional racism’, in the naive and optimistic belief that Art is still capable of changing anything.

The very social and political visibility of issues around racism and feminism means that artists working in these areas can still invoke the rhetoric of challenge and subversion which long ago gave up the ghost in the wider art world – and are certainly dead and buried when it comes to any discussion of the ‘revolutionariness’ of ‘mainstream’ 20th century art.

The curricularisation of radical feminist and black art

That said, is there the risk that ‘radical’ feminist art and ‘challenging’ black art is itself being assimilated – it’s just that nobody’s told the artists (or their curators)?

Every year Black History Month comes around and we have modern artists creating ‘challenging’ works around slavery, shackles, manacles, horrible pictures of lynching and torture. And this race-based or post-colonial attitude has broadened out into extended critiques of the British Empire.

Thus at Bristol Art Gallery recently I saw an exhibition about Empire Through the Lens. A year or so ago Tate Britain hosted a big exhibition about the British Empire. You will not be surprised that in both these shows, and countless others across the land, the message was and is rammed home that the British Empire was a cruel, ruthless and barbaric institution based on centuries of inhuman slavery.

Every exhibition about women artists nowadays has to include as many references as possible to the way they had to struggle against institutional sexism, against being banned from art school, excluded from the life drawing classes, forbidden from exhibiting, shunned by male artists and gallerists and collectors, and so on. Almost all women artists turn out to be strong, independent minded, arguing for equality in works which ‘challenge the patriarchy’ and ‘question heteronormative assumptions’, and raise ‘issues of gender, identity and sexuality’.

These have become the art critical clichés of our time. Walk into any art gallery in London, Bristol, Barcelona and New York (the extent of my travels in recent years) and read exactly the same opinions about exactly the same issues.

Both my kids were taught about slavery at school. It is pretty much all they know about the British Empire (when tested, neither of them knew who Nelson was or why there’s a statue to him in Trafalgar Square, but they both knew all about the Atlantic Slave Trade and why slavery was so wicked).

My daughter was taught feminism as part of her Sociology, Geography (population control), Biology (contraception), English Literature and Religious Studies GCSEs, and is continuing to learn about feminist theory in her Sociology and Psychology A-Levels.

Among the university educated (50% of the population) and the young, among bien-pensant Liberals of all ages, these ‘radical’, ‘challenging’ views are the intellectual truisms, clichés, stock opinions and banalities of our time. There is nothing ‘challenging’ or ‘subversive’ about them.

Imagine you get a promotional email from an art gallery announcing that:

A female artist is exhibiting her recent works about feminism and the patriarchy.

A black artist is exhibiting his recent works protesting against slavery.

Do you react with amazement? Do you spit your coffee out with astonishment? Or do you think, ‘Yeah, more of the same?’ The formal technique may be interesting and arresting (like Kara Walker’s black silhouettes), but the content… the ‘ideas’…?

The meaning of real ‘subversion’ and ‘challenge’

What would be subversive and genuinely shocking in this context, would be works that questioned or denied feminism and black rights. Imagine if an artist set out to make works of art which claimed that women really are second class citizens or blacks really are inferior to whites. Can you imagine the worldwide outcry. Twitter would explode. They would never work again or be able to leave the house. Even writing it here, as a purely hypothetical idea, makes me nervous.

Ideas like that really would shock and scandalise the art world. But it would be so genuinely dangerous to the artist – it would end their career to be branded misogynist or racist – that no one dare do it, even as a joke. I’m not saying they should. I’m just highlighting the fact that the supposedly ‘subversive’ and ‘revolutionary’ and ‘challenging’ mindset of the current art world has hardened and fossilised into a self-policing ideology which itself cannot be questioned or challenged or subverted.

Back on planet earth

Meanwhile, despite the outpourings of revolutionary art and radical rhetoric from a thousand art curators and scholars, the rich just carry on getting obscenely richer, and the poor getting screwed by the policies of Donald Trump and Theresa May. Nothing changes.

In fact – contrary to all the rhetoric about the radical empowering and subversive impact etc etc of contemporary Art – things outside the studio and the gallery have demonstrably got worse, a lot worse, in recent years.

If subversive political cartoons, challenging journalism, confrontational art, disruptive art installations, innovative art videos, radical paintings, petitions or outcries changed anything – don’t you think Donald Trump would have melted by now?

Instead of which, I am starting to read articles about his chances of winning a second term.

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. De Juan Jose

     /  November 14, 2017

    Really enjoyed this summary of some of the opinions you have expressed in many other reviews. I was commenting with someone that true revolutionary art today would be the art that puts the the artist/preformer/writer in danger. For example by promoting homosexual tolerance in Saudi Arabia or defending imperialism or many of the other wrongs that we have come to accept as such. It’s worth noting how frequently fashion ads on TV use the world “revolution” and its imagery or how people embrace symbols of protest when the risk is minimal.


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