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)

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