Brave new year
In recent weeks a number of artists in their thirties have told me of the gnawing anxieties they have about the business in which they have chosen to spend their lives. Far from feeling a sensation of pride at belonging to an old, honourable and often heroic profession, they are conscious that creeping cynicism rules their realm today. What is supposed to be the most go-ahead art college in the land, Goldsmith's, runs courses now in how to manipulate the media. Where have artistic idealism and old-fashioned honesty gone? Are they no longer thought appropriate? Has art become a business now simply for oppor- tunists, manipulators and PR men? If it has, no wonder so many worthwhile young artists feel an acute unease. How do we recognise the current climate?
Two young artists cited to me, quite independently, the televised awarding of the Turner Prize for 1994 at which Nicholas Serota and Charles Saatchi renewed their vows to carry art forward into a brave new world — of their own devising presumably — as an occasion which disturbed them particularly. I was present at the Turner Prize dinner myself, for the first time in years, and while laying no claim to any rarefied personal sensibili- ty, did feel misgivings at many of the con- versations going on around me. All seemed to be to do with money and success rather than achievement or merit. Mr Saatchi cre- ated his personal fortune, of course, in the wonderful world of publicity, where rhetoric rules, but one hoped he would leave this experience behind when dealing with a subject which remains sacred to many. In his televised talk, before which he had been referred to as 'a doyen of patrons and collectors', Saatchi made particular reference to the beneficial influence of Michael Craig-Martin — professor of fine art at Goldsmith's College, to which I have alluded already. Craig-Martin, who is said to be the most influential of the Tate Gallery's current crop of trustees, leapt to prominence as an artist some 20 years ago by exhibiting a glass of water entitled 'Oak Tree'. Unsurprisingly, he remains keen to encourage' those under his tutelage to ques- tion their own identities and orientations. In his brief speech, for which he had received professional coaching, Mr Saatchi excused recent art which might appear `tasteless, cynical and uncouth' yet averred nevertheless that in 40 or 50 years time, the Turner Prize will be seen as being one of the truer markers of professional achieve- ment.
One pitfall of our time, or so it seems to me, lies in people's growing inability to dis- tinguish between what is real and what is merely ersatz or manufactured. Nowhere is this truer than in the field of contemporary artistic reputations which are often mas- saged to giant proportions today through prestigious but pre-ordained prizes and other non-events. The sad problem with the Turner Prize is that few believe its find- ings any longer — outside its band of paid publicists, of course. Far from producing hope and encouragement, as claimed, such events often provoke debilitating disbelief among younger and less fashion-obsessed artists.
In an unfortunate article on 10 Decem- ber in the Independent Magazine Arthur Lubow described how 'England savaged R.B. Kitaj'. 'His show at the Tate Gallery this summer took a critical battering that left the American stunned and wounded. Then his wife died. "They tried to kill me", he says. "And they got her instead": For my own part, I had simply expressed such reservations as I had always held about the artist's work but what I think we witnessed over Kitaj's retrospective was the letting out of a certain amount of air from a criti- cal balloon. The climate of the 1960s, in which the artist came to fame, saw a plethora of critical gushers, desperate to embrace the new, whatever form it took. Such wheel-oilers still write but it is hardly a decent man's fault if his reputation was once over-extended a little. Someone wrote of him once as 'drawing like Degas' but I feel sure he did not notice this resemblance himself.
Happily, in the past 15 years, critical gushing has grown to be in slightly shorter supply — in this country, at least. The cli- mate has not so much hardened as melted. A giant critical blancmange has gone, leav- ing a leaner and drier palate as a conse- quence. In the long run, those who try to inflate critical reputations through hyper- bole do no one any favours. Some of what was written about Kitaj last year was unnecessarily harsh just as formerly it had been unnecessarily fulsome. This is why clear, critical arguments about merit are valuable — not least as an antidote to pub- lic relations sludge. At a funeral service I attended in Edin- burgh last month at St John Evangelist for the death of a loyal Spectator reader and friend, a priest spoke eloquently of 'the beauty of truth'. As we slide into a world fed increasingly on fudging and half-truth, hyperbole and empty rhetoric, the beauty of anything plausible tends to shine out not least for its rarity. Truth was something People looked for traditionally in major art in all its forms and it has certainly become no less valuable with the passing of time. If truth is beautiful, so the whole apparatus of modern publicity is ugly — when seen for what it is. Indeed, it is the latter's disfigur- ing effect on art which destroys belief in our young artists, ushering in cynicism and despair.