Letter from London

Letter from London | The Secret History

Jacopo Comin, aka Tintoretto, 'The Stealing of the Body of St Mark' (1562-66) and 'The Last Supper' (1592-94) at the Venice Biennale (image courtesy Phaidon)

Academic specialization is bad for art, and has led to a situation in which contemporary art seems more unmoored from its past than at any other moment in history. This obviously isn’t the case in literature or film, and certainly not in music, the latter of which seems (pleasurably, sometimes) stuck in a feedback loop that kicked off sometime in the late 60s. (In his book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past, Simon Reynolds suggests that 1968, contemporary art’s much fawned-over annus mirabilis, was also the year pop definitively began to eat itself). It would be unimaginable for a young musician not to have listened to Elvis, the Beatles and the Stones, as it would for a young writer not to have read Joyce, George Eliot and Shakespeare, or a young filmmaker not to have watched Godard, Hitchcock and Truffaut. These are pretty much randomly chosen; there are many more that would form part of a general cultural education. And yet in art, as in no other cultural discipline, you can become a successful artist by pretending it all started as recently as Warhol.

The art world is historically polarized down to the last detail: unlike in film criticism, whose catholic approach has led to some of the best writing on culture of our time, you won’t find many art critics willing or able to review both, say, the new exhibition of treasures from Afghanistan at the British Museum as well as the latest contemporary art show at the Whitechapel. Or, rather, you will, but these critics occupy a distinctly marginal position within the contemporary art world as a whole. (See James Elkins’s discussion, in his book What Happened to Art Criticism?, of the sniffy October panel discussion for proof of that).

Head of one of the Kings of Judah at Adam McEwen's 'Fresh Hell', Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2010

Contemporary art can sometimes feel like a completely new thing. It’s surprising, sometimes, to realise it’s only the latest way of thinking visually we’ve been able to come up with. Paranoiac art historians, eager to stress the academic credentials of a subject once thought ‘soft’ (Calvin Tomkins’ 2001 profile of Kirk Varnedoe for The New Yorker outlines the anxiety of the male art historian nervous about the feminizing influence of all those pretty pictures) hide in the murky maze of research, safe in their bastions of specialization. This is not to suggest that academic art history has had a pernicious influence on the way art is shown and seen; the benefits of the subject are obvious and need not be discussed. Rather, that an overly historicist approach, born of a fear of not being taken seriously, has placed art-historical artifacts into distinct compartments, and that compartmentalization threatens to cut contemporary art from its moorings and push it away from the centre of culture, like an enormous yacht gently turning in the middle of the ocean.

There are hopeful signs of change, though. Bice Curiger’s ILLUMInations installation at the Venice Biennale juxtaposed contemporary works of art with three paintings by Tintoretto, an approach that, while snide in other hands (both Goshka Macuga and Mark Leckey recently used original Henry Moore sculptures as part of their installations, somewhat sarcastically), appears to have been mostly well received. The Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London is about to open a joint show of Cy Twombly and Poussin, a pairing that seems both self-evident and surprising. And the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the ‘troubled’ venue wedged between Trafalgar Square and Buckingham Palace, has relaunched itself with its first solo exhibition, by Pablo Bronstein. In his drawings, furniture designs and performances, Bronstein forcibly brings together the Regency style of the Nash terrace in which the ICA resides with a less-loved post-modernist architectural language. The juxtaposition is at once witty and strange: a piece of Georgian metamorphic furniture is topped with Philip Johnson’s AT&T pediment; a Piranesian drawing shows squiggly eighteenth-century workers erecting the Paternoster Square column, a faux-classical monument built in 2000. And yet unlike an artist like Yinka Shonibare, whose culture-clash installations don’t reward repeat viewing, Bronstein’s work is both satire and homage, never quite privileging his own historical perspective, running historical languages together to make something that looks a bit like a proposal for what happens next.

A yacht in Venice. (Photo Courtesy of The Yachts of Seabourn)

  1. Adrian Duran says:


    Check into the British Pavilion’s exhibitions at the Biennale, ca. 1948-50s. They juxtaposed contemporary and historical art all the time, with great insight and wisdom. It’s a little-known precedent for the Tintoretto move this year.

    And one wonders if the Tintoretto inclusion was such a splash because many have never actually given his work any of their time. Contemporary art can be as isolated as any of the rest of us, often worse because of the insistent need to stay current.

    Another nice article.


  2. Tom Juneau says:

    Yes BUT BUT BUT…
    Don’t you think that your point about film criticism is incisive in unlocking the real reason for this disjuncture? Film is both a recent invention, and invention of the age of MASS communication. So it’s self reference is determinedly generational.

    Other art forms must fit this mould. So for example more people see a Poussin every second today than saw the same painting over an entire century for the first few centuries of its existence. I would guess. That changes everything.

    So now art history is just a reference like any other for the contemporary artist. It’s just a case of each artist choosing what type of geek he or she wants to be. Sci-fi / porn / art history.

  3. Ben Street says:

    Adrian – I didn’t know about that. I’ll look it up. As regards the ‘isolation’ you talk about, it’s worth reading Jerry Saltz’s new piece in NY Magazine, in which he discusses the extremely limited range of reference exhibited today by a lot of young artists – perhaps in thrall to their tutors?


    Tom – 1. Film (I’d argue) has a similar, if massively protracted, historical narrative to art (Western art, I mean – it has its classical, modernist and post-modernist phases), and it’s interesting and even a bit disturbing to see a lack of historical sense in the contemporary art world where it would be naturally expected in the film, music, literary or architectural worlds.

    2. You’re right about the ‘reference’ point too – although I have no idea when, or why, this fissure emerged. It’s not necessarily about culling references from art history as much as being self-aware about the continuity of the past – something somehow missing from many of the mechanisms of the art world, if not from certain artists’ work.

    Thank you gentlemen.


  4. Beautiful pieces!

  5. Lisa Redlinski says:

    Maybe this isn’t worth discussing, but I wonder if specializations are bad for many of the humanities subjects, and I’m sorry to say that I worry if current academic management structures are bad for teachers and students especially in the arts? If we look at how many HEIs award academics, it’s increasingly through publishing records which feature high-ranking journals rather than than through their abilities to approach their students with flexibility, intelligence, and inspiration. The academic journals do seem, time and again, an adhere to rigorously applied academic writing styles and are usually specialized in subject matter (and so the authors then further specialize.) This isn’t, as you say above, to suggest that academic writing in the arts had a pernicious influence on art but it seems to be having one on the culture of the arts in academia and the teaching of art.
    Please forgive me if I’m totally wrong about this, I very well might be! I’m not an art librarian, but I do manage an academic library. This is a topic of discussion among some academics across the disciplines. There’s also a good book, Token Professionals and Master Critics by Sosnoski which does into this problem of academic specialization with greater detail.
    Anyway, as I said in my FB post, I had the pleasure of working at the Art, Architecture, and Film Library at the University of Illinois at Chicago for 6 years until their collection was subsumed into the main collection for cost saving purposes.

    Funny, the images that stand out strongest in my mind after having read damn near every book (and exhibition catalog, watched every film (lots of them on reels I loaded myself), along with vinyl) include Aztec vessels, Yoruban sculptures, a very pop 60s instructional ‘horizontal polka’ video, Holzer, and Waiting for Godot on vinyl. It certainly wouldn’t have allowed for a closed loop of references, and it was important to have as subject-specific collection if only because it inspired the spirit of creative serendipity. But how do you limit a collection that could expand indefinitely? I suppose, we build our own collections. Thank you for your article.

Leave a Comment