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Modern art – monument or mockery?

When Rachel Whiteread’s sculpture Monument (Plate I) was installed on the empty fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square on 4 June 2001, the response reported in, and offered by, British national newspapers the next day was entirely predictable. Like the two previous temporary incumbents of this site (works by contemporary artists Mark Wallinger and Bill Woodrow), Monument – a clear resin cast of the plinth itself, inverted and set on top of it – was immediately pilloried: condemned as ‘banal’, ‘gimmicky’, and ‘meaningless’ by the Daily Mail, and disparagingly likened to a fish tank and a bathroom cubicle by members of the public, according to the Times. Some newspapers also quoted the supportive – but also vague and defensive – comments of members of the cultural establishment. The then Culture Secretary Chris Smith, Director of Tate Modern Lars Nittve, and the Tate’s Director of Programmes Sandy Nairne praised Monument variously as ‘beautiful’, ‘intelligent’, and ‘dazzling’ in its simplicity and conceptual clarity. They made no effort, though, to answer the condemnations. Nor did they point to the meanings about monuments and their purposes that Whiteread’s piece had provocatively suggested by echoing and inverting the plinth itself.

Such a mismatch between the public’s language of ridicule and establishment apologetics has, of course, been characteristic of the relation between modern art and its popular audience for longer now than anyone can remember. Recent instances such as Tracey Emin’s My Bed and Gavin Turk’s bin bags merely reprise the ‘scandals’ of previous generations, of which the fuss over the Tate’s purchase in 1976 of Carl André’s stack of firebricks entitled Equivalent VIII (1966) – or, to go further back, Marcel Duchamp’s submission of a urinal to a New York sculpture exhibition in 1918 – are perhaps the most notorious. Yet judging by the growth in the number of visitors to exhibitions and museums of modern art, its popularity has never been greater. Between 1996 and 2000 the number of visitors to the Tate’s annual Turner Prize exhibition, for instance, more than doubled, while a Matisse-Picasso exhibition broke Tate’s records, and the opening of Tate Modern itself in May 2000 was the big success story of the millennium year. New art museums and galleries are opening everywhere to much acclaim, and with equally impressive visitor numbers.

Why this contradiction? Why on the one hand is there such bewilderment at, even contempt for, every latest publicly unveiled example of ‘modern art’, and on the other such a growing interest in the subject and the experience of it? These questions are central to these papers the primary purpose of which is to interrogate the idea of modern art – to explore why this art was made, what it means, and what makes it modern. And they lead on to others. Not all art that’s been made in the last hundred years or so is accepted as modern.

We need to explore the complex question of how the art that is selected as such, and that has until the late 20th century been defined as ‘modernist’, relates to the dynamic cultural, social, economic, and political changes in the Western world that have been experienced as ‘modernity’ for the last 150 years. What has made a work of art qualify as modernist (or fail to)? According to whom, and just how has this selection been made? Does it continue to be so (what’s the relation between modern and contemporary art)? And whose modernity does it represent, or respond to? Finally, the buzzword ‘postmodernism’: what does this mean for art? Is ‘postmodernist’ art no longer modern, or just no longer modernist – in either case, why, and what does this claim mean, both for art and for the idea of ‘the modern’?

As soon as we begin to explore this set of questions, one thing immediately becomes clear: the public’s bewilderment at modern art has been a constant throughout the last 150 years – ever since ‘avant-garde’ artists started to challenge traditional art practices in a self-conscious and radical way. Indeed the two terms are almost interchangeable: ‘modern art’ is, by definition, ‘avant-garde’ in its qualities, aspirations, and associations, while what ‘the avant-garde’ makes is, necessarily, ‘modern art’. This connection, then, is crucial, and it is therefore worth taking, as our starting point for this exploration, the question of the origins and meaning of ‘the avant-garde’. The first aspect of this term that we might notice is the way, in common usage, it slips between adjective and noun – as in the italicized sentence above, in which the adjective ‘avant-garde’ refers to qualities, and the noun ‘the avant-garde’ to a notional community of self-consciously aesthetically radical artists.

Distinguishing between these two will help us to understand the term better, because historically (to put it most simply) the adjective preceded the noun. That is to say, the qualities and aspirations of art that we call ‘avant-garde’ – art that sought to say something new in its time, to acknowledge the implications of new visual media, to stake a claim for aesthetic autonomy, or to challenge prevailing values – emerged, in the mid-19th century, before there were enough aesthetically radical artists to make up a community. That community itself emerged around the turn of the 20th century, and this is the moment when the word ‘avant-garde’ first became associated with new art, by its critics and supporters alike. The community quickly became a frame of reference for that art, its very existence influencing, in ways we shall examine, the forms that it took and what its meanings were taken to be.

The reasons why some artists began to have ‘avant-garde’ aspirations in the mid-19th century are complex. Summarizing broadly, we can say that the development of capitalism in modern Western societies over the course of that century, and the steady encroachment of commercial values upon all aspects of the cultural practices of those societies, provoked some artists to seek to escape the conventions, the commodification, and the complacencies of an ‘establishment’ art in which those values were inscribed. Writers such as Baudelaire and Flaubert, and painters such as Manet, found their very existence as members of a materialistic, status-seeking bourgeoisie problematic – their distaste for such values not only isolating them from existing social and artistic institutions but also generating a deeply felt sense of psychic alienation. This double alienation, it has been argued, was the well-spring of avant-gardism. Yet there were other factors. It is no coincidence that these three individuals were French, for while France was not the only rapidly modernizing Western society, Paris was regarded as the cultural capital of Europe, with an unrivalled cultural bureaucracy, art schools, and career structure. Aspirant artists and writers flocked to the city from all over the world in the hope of grasping the glittering prizes it promised. Most were unsuccessful, finding their paths to fame choked by their own numbers and obstructed by protocols of privilege. So they sought alternative channels of advancement, exhibiting together in informal groupings, networking between their multiplying café-based milieux to promote, compare, and contest new ideas and practices, about which they wrote in a proliferating range of ephemeral little magazines, with consequences that we shall explore later for this hive of activity was where both avant-garde art and the avant-garde community – and thus, ‘modern art’ – had their origin.

Yet the alienation the avant-garde felt was not a one-way experience. Fundamental to the bewilderment that underpins much public response to modern art is a suspicion of its sincerity, of the viewer being ‘conned’ or being found wanting – of this art being made by artists hungry for notoriety and sold through dealers whose main interest is in making money – a suspicion that is only heightened by revelations of the role of conspicuous art dealers and/or collectors such as Charles Saatchi in its promotion and display. And it is no coincidence either that the modern art market that emerged around the turn of the 20th century did so alongside avant-garde art and the avant-garde formation, indeed as a major support of both, or that this market should have been led by venture capitalists. The motors for its emergence, however, were not central to the growth of Western capitalism itself: individualism and the rage for the new. Artistic individualism, in particular, was a quality increasingly cherished as bureaucratic and commercial structures and relations came to govern more and more areas of social life; artistic creativity became emblematic of higher values – ‘the soul of a soulless society’, to adapt Marx’s epithet on religion – even for the bourgeoisie who were the chief architects of that society; and ‘genius’ became its supreme accolade. This development was registered in the market for modern art, in a shift in the attention of that market, after the mid-19th century, away from finished canvases (exhibited in their thousands at annual public exhibitions) to artistic careers in themselves: in the mid-1860s the Parisian dealer Durand-Ruel bought the entire contents of painter Theodore Rousseau’s studio – preparatory sketches, studies for paintings, and all, since even such jottings were the traces of that artist’s creativity. The more idiosyncratic (or ‘avant-garde’) the work produced, perhaps the more unfettered that creativity and the individualism it expressed; at least the possibility was worth betting on, for Durand-Ruel’s investment turned out eventually to be shrewd, and he was followed quite soon by increasing numbers of dealers and collectors who sought out and backed promising unknowns, thereby demonstrating not only their faith in genius but also their own individual discernment in recognizing it. Such were the activities and interests through which a cultural space was created for Picasso – the typical modern artist of genius – eventually to fill. Somebody had to, after all, as I shall argue later.

From the start of the 20th century, then, the notion and the community of the ‘avant-garde’ artist sustained art practices whose self-conscious transgressions of prevailing assumptions of what was aesthetically, morally, or politically acceptable were at the same time a guarantor of the individualism that was fundamental to modern Western ideology. In their different ways, artists such as Van Gogh, Picasso, and, later, Jackson Pollock enacted the individualism that all aspired to, plumbing those depths of human subjectivity that were beyond the reach of capitalist social relations – confirming what the philosopher Herbert Marcuse called the ‘affirmative’ character of culture in general, by at once consoling us for, and making good, the limitations of these relations. It has been this self-image as heroic explorers of the boundaries, the new and the overlooked aspects of human experience, on behalf of everyone that has characterized the avant-gardism of modern artists (and has fuelled the explicitly oppositional politics of many). But it has also placed them, and the art they have produced, in a triple paradox. First, because the starting point for many of these explorations has been a questioning of the materials, conventions, and skills of art practice itself. This questioning has been conducted via a range of gestures that has run from the iconoclastic, such as Picasso’s use of newspaper and wallpaper, old tin cans, and other junk to make his collages and sculptures; through the provocative, as in Pollock’s abandonment of paintbrushes, oils, and painterly dexterity for the crudeness of household enamel poured straight from the tin; or Warhol’s deadpan adoption, in his soup can prints and brillo box sculptures, of the impersonal techniques of advertisement billboards and packaging; to the blatantly challenging, such as Duchamp’s nomination of a urinal (and, more recently and exotically, Hirst’s nomination of a dead shark) as a work of art. And this questioning has posed an affront to established values, unerringly alienating that ‘everyone’ in whose name it was, purportedly, undertaken. Indeed, in the case of the surrealists, this paradox was posed in its extreme form, since such affront was precisely what a surrealist image or gesture was intended to achieve: for it was only through the ‘convulsive beauty’ of their shocking, irrational actions or juxtapositions that the complacent tyranny of ‘reason’ could be challenged – and the floodgates opened to those unconscious drives whose acknowledgement and assimilation alone could make modern human beings whole.

A second paradox: in the case of the surrealists and other self-consciously ‘avant-garde’ groups, the esoteric nature of the ideas and knowledge to which they often appealed, and the ‘difficulty’ of the images and objects they made – the resistance of an abstract painting by Mondrian, say, or a minimalist object by Morris to any easy interpretation; their refusal to offer any obvious ‘meaning’ – carried inescapable associations of a cultural elitism that fatally undercut any claims to populism the artists themselves might have mounted. It is true that much avant-gardist behaviour was public in character. The issuing of manifestos, which was one of its most notorious and influential innovations, and the mounting of provocative exhibitions (the Dada and surrealist artists excelled inthis) were aggressive promotional strategies aimed at the general public. Marinetti’s ‘Founding Manifesto of Futurism’ was published in February 1909 on the front page, no less, of Le Figaro, one of Paris’s leading daily papers of the time. But its real audience was private, and restricted. Those who had access to the meanings of its art were inevitably few, and they came largely from the milieux within which this art was generated. Moreover, while the network of modern art’s aficionados grew steadily through the 20th century, so too did its aloofness and exclusivity, for the investment of such patrons was as much in that art’s association with qualities of independence of taste and individualism, as in its future monetary value. As the American mid-20th-century critic Clement Greenberg put it, avant-garde art was, from its first appearance, connected to its patrons by ‘an umbilical cord of gold’. How this relationship (and the ways in which artists negotiated it) shaped the character of modern art – and whether it will continue to do so – are questions we shall explore later.

A third paradox is that the self-image of the modern artist as cultural hero, acting on behalf of society to guarantee our individualism and renew its means of expression, is one whose gendered character has excluded one half of that society from its own ranks. As art historian Carol Duncan observed 30 years ago, the behaviour, art practices, and creations of early 20th-century vanguard artists were grounded in a widespread culture of

masculinism: from the prevalence of the female nude as subject in painting and sculpture, via the socially regressive sexual relations that typified a ‘bohemian’ lifestyle in which women were mistresses and muses but rarely equals, to the aggressively attention-seeking, self-promoting tactics that the furtherance of an avant-garde career entailed, ‘modern art’ and the modern artist were so defined as to exclude women artists. There were exceptions, of course, but not many, and the century-long struggle of women to win equality with, and independence from, men in modern Western societies was also waged to some effect – but not much, as we shall see – in the arena of modern art, over the next 50 years. The efforts of the women’s movement in the USA and Europe in the 1970s and thereafter have, however, gained considerable ground for women in the art world, and (thanks in part to the work of Duncan and other feminist historians and critics, such as Linda Nochlin in the USA and Griselda Pollock in Britain) the work of women artists past and present is now becoming more visible. How that greater visibility has altered, if at all, the self- and public image of the modern artist is another question to return to.

Inseparable from the individualism of the modern artist has also, of course, been ‘his’ originality: as with the term ‘avant-garde’, to be modern, art has to be original in some respect. Over the century and a half since the emergence of modern art this originality, and the drive for it, have, however, been at once an expression of the independence of what has come to be called modernist art from establishment or mainstream culture – indeed, for many, of its opposition to that culture – and one of the main motors of cultural ‘Modernization’ in Western capitalist societies. It is, again, no coincidence that the decade before the First World War saw the consolidation both of the formation of the avant-garde and of the advertising industry in most of these societies. French art critic Camille Mauclair explicitly linked the two in a 1909 essay, charging the ‘prejudice of novelty’ for many of modernity’s ills, and finding the same use of promotional hyperbole in the marketing of new art and new appliances. He might have mentioned too the growing two-way traffic, between art and advertising, in new visual techniques and languages, such as photomontage and graphic design; certainly a decade later these crossovers were commonplace, and avant-garde artists across Europe, from Sonia Delaunay in Paris to Alexandr Rodchenko in Moscow, worked simultaneously in both fields.

Yet if modern art and modern consumer products were both marketed by similar means, this was initially much more successful in the latter case than in the former. In the 30 years from 1900 that saw revolutions in the technologies of the design and production of consumer goods, and in the means of creation of demand for them, avant-garde art remained on the cultural margins; its unorthodoxies remained beyond the pale of mainstream taste. This too was soon to change, however. The social base of modern art began to broaden at about the same time as its cultural headquarters moved across the Atlantic, from Paris to New York, in a development for which the consolidation of the USA’s economic and political hegemony and the threat from Hitler that drove avant-garde artists from Europe shared much responsibility.

The foundation in 1929 of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, largely with Rockefeller money, was the fairly modest first indicator of this broadening, and the steady growth in that institution’s cultural assets, prestige, and influence over the subsequent three-quarters of a century has both registered the gradual assimilation of modern art into the leisure – and, more recently, entertainment – industries of Western societies, and provided a model for other museums in many of these. In recent years ‘modern’ art has not just come in from the cold, but – as the proliferation of those museums and the rise in their attendance figures that I noted earlier testify, and the celebrity status bestowed on individual artists (such as, for now, Tracey Emin) underlines – it has been fully assimilated into what the cultural critic Guy Debord called ‘the society of the spectacle’.

Perhaps, though, I should say ‘reassimilated’. Because, as I noted, ‘modern art’ began partly as a reaction against that very collapse of arts values into spectacle and commerce that characterized 19th century academicism. Perhaps the founding moment of modern art was the 1863 Salon des Refusés in Paris, when a selection of the paintings that had been rejected by that year’s jury for the official exhibition, or Salon, of new ‘establishment’ art was allowed an alternative Salon of its own – and the public, of course, a clear licence to indulge in uproarious and ribald ridicule of ‘bad’ art. The ‘star’ of this alternative exhibition, drawing by all accounts bigger crowds and more mockery than any other exhibit, was Edouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe [The Picnic Luncheon]. Exploring why it was, and what this implies for the assumptions of its first viewers about art and their relation to it, will help to clarify the qualities that made (and perhaps still make) art ‘modern’. First, we can imagine how the contemporaneity of the scene – the modern clothes of the men, the familiar picnic ingredients – might have seemed to those viewers to ‘send up’, even as it situated itself within, the tradition of such men-with-nude-women paintings. Even though old masters such as (say) Giorgione or Raphael, whose works in the Louvre might have been familiar to this audience, also painted their male figures in contemporary dress, that dress was no longer contemporary for these mid-19th-century Parisian viewers, for whom such paintings carried the aura of old master art, and to attempt to ‘update’ the tradition in this way might have seemed nonsensical, and suggested incompetence on Manet’s part. Equally disconcerting, perhaps, was the woman’s gaze: directed out of the picture and at the viewer, it both ruptures the illusion of the scene she is in, and addresses (and thus accentuates) the subjectivity ofthe viewer. This fatally undercuts any narrative conviction that the scene might have carried, leaving that viewer both more self-conscious and uncertain about what the picture ‘means’ – and when we notice the little goldfinch hovering at the top centre of the picture, the assumption that the leading male figure’s pointing finger is a gesture related to what he is (presumably) saying is countered by the possibility that he is instead holding this finger out for the bird to perch on. Absurd though it is, this ridiculous alternative is enough to collapse still further the narrative conviction, and correspondingly to heighten the sense that the painting mocks both old master art and its audience. And as if such undermining of conventions of pictorial staging and narrative weren’t enough, the absence of convincing modelling of the figures (of the nude woman in particular, who seems inappropriately flat and bright, as in a flash photograph), and the inconsistencies of scale and perspective between the foreground group and the woman in the background, call attention to the materiality of the painted surface, and to the devices and conventions of illusionism itself. For a mid-19th-century audience, this too would have signified incompetence on Manet’s part; yet troublingly for such an audience, there’s sufficient evidence of competence to unsettle this assumption – and to heighten still further the sense of mockery.

Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe managed to call into question all of the assumptions that underpinned the enjoyment of art by its Parisian public in 1863; or to put it another way, it failed to meet the established criteria for an acceptable picture, in ways that were either laughable or offensive. No wonder it was ridiculed by its first audience. But from our perspective, those assumptions and criteria are not so certain as they were: in a world whose visual culture is no longer dominated by painted images, in which the cultural hierarchy that placed pictures at its apex is under siege, if not fatally undermined, by the diversions of an endlessly expanding range of commercial popular visual media, it seems reasonable to propose, as Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe seems to, that the specificities of painting – as a medium, as a practice, as a visual experience – need to be taken into account in any representation of the visible world that it offers. For Manet perhaps first, but for generations of artists after him, the recognition that a picture was not a window onto that world but a constructed image of it, one that used devices and conventions of representation whose meanings were no longer as secure as they were once thought to be, would be the prerequisite of any attempt to say, in paint, something worth saying about the modern world – of any work, that is, that laid claim to the term ‘modernist’.

Which brings us, perhaps, back to Rachel Whiteread and her Monument. It’s possible to see the comments of the Daily Mail and the members of the public it quoted as standing in the same relation to this sculpture as Manet’s audience stood to the Déjeuner sur l’Herbe. We could see them, that is, as bringing to their interpretations of the work assumptions about what a monument should look like, that Monument fails to meet – and which, like Manet’s painting, it calls into question on a number of levels, by putting ‘monumentality’ itself into the equation. But this would be to assume, in turn, that nothing has changed since Manet. I think it has, and that things are more complex than this equivalence between then and now would suggest.


  • Professor Doctor Natasha Staller



(2) Modern Art

The History of Modern Art

Modern Art Documentary ~ A Complete Guide

Modern Art

What Is Modern Art?

Georges Seurat


Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte

Tracking the avant-garde Origins and attitudes

 Origins and attitudes

When Emperor of France Napoleon III set up the ‘alternative’ Salon of rejected artworks, the ‘Salon des Refusés’, in Paris in 1863 he was, in effect, belatedly acknowledging a social and aesthetic development that was already underway: the accelerating increase in the number of artists wishing to make a career in his capital, and needing to exhibit in the annual Salons as a means to that end, and the proliferation of aesthetic interests that they were displaying in their works (the majority of which were failing, evidently, to impress the Salon jurors). This development was paralleled across Europe, as one feature of a widespread rise in the status and profile of the cultural professions, but it was in Paris, with its unrivalled artistic reputation and prestigious cultural institutions, that it was most acute. Aspirant artists flocked to the city from all over the world, especially after the collapse of Napoleon’s empire in 1870, the establishment of the Third Republic that followed, and the reforms of the state’s apparatus of cultural regulation and control that it introduced – as a part of which, artistic education was overhauled, and censorship and licensing of the press and the entertainment industries were loosened. By the turn of the 20th century, it has been estimated, the number of artists in France (most of whom were in Paris) had nearly doubled, and that of journalists and ‘men of letters’ had trebled.

But many of the newcomers found themselves deceived by the new Republic’s promises of equality of access to fame and fortune, and their paths to career advancement obstructed by the realities of class hierarchies and professional protocols. It took more than a few new pieces of legislation, they discovered, to change the settled customs, privileges, and prejudices of generations. Thrown back on their own devices, they instead created new means of support for themselves and outlets for their work outside the mainstream of academically sanctioned art, in and around the newly liberated sectors of journalism and entertainment. Private art academies mushroomed, initially complementing (and preparing their clients for) the state art schools, but eventually taking their place; artists’ groups used cafés and cabarets as their bases, exhibiting their work in them, as well as in the offices of the proliferating ‘little magazines’. There were nearly 200 such magazines circulating in Paris on the eve of the First World War - publications whose writers made their names in these seething milieux by reviewing the new art that they incubated. Within a generation - by the time of the First World War – Paris had spawned a counter-culture whose vitality and hectic networking was registered in the scores of artistic and literary ‘isms’ that it generated. These ‘isms’ functioned as aesthetic trademarks, unrecognised (indeed ridiculed) in the mainstream, but sanctioned by this emergent ‘avant-garde’. The term was claimed by its members at that time - who borrowed its implications of advanced status, of being ‘ahead of the game’, from an original military usage that had already been broadened into political discourse - as a means of compensating themselves for the social and cultural marginalisation that they were experiencing.

Shut out of the mainstream and its material rewards, many self-styled avant-garde artists also channeled their idealism not only into experimentation with their chosen medium and its possible new modes and meanings – a matter to which I shall return – but into a belief that art had a public role to play, that it could be lifted from the status of trivial and anecdotal entertainment to which it had sunk in the Salons. Indeed, this commitment to a public art was integral to the founding gesture of avant-gardism: the launch of ‘neo-impressionism’ in 1886. Its members had been among those who had in 1884 created the Society of Independent Artists, the main purpose of which was to hold an annual exhibition in Paris each spring that would be unjuried, and open to all. The ‘Indépendants’ was, as a result, quickly to become the showcase for the most adventurous art of the next quarter-century. Two years later the leading painter in the group, Georges Seurat, exhibited his huge picture A Sunday at La Grande Jatte (Plate II), alongside smaller works painted in the same ‘pointilliste’ style by half a dozen other artists, in what was to be the last impressionist group exhibition. Inescapably public both in scale (no drawing-room could hold it) and in subject matter (a cross-section of Paris’s contemporary inhabitants at leisure on one of the city’s favorite river islands), its stiff formality, considered compositional geometries, painstakingly systematic brushwork – and it's more than a hint of caricature – marked it off from the work of the older impressionists. The painting thus declared itself and was taken as, the ‘manifesto’ of a new approach to art, one that sat astride two of the paradoxes I outlined earlier. For it was both a clear return to traditional values in painting that both Salon artists’ anecdotalism and the informalities of the impressionists’ pictures had discarded, and a new departure in painting technique whose machine-like regularity of brushwork and pedantic separation of colours seemed to ape, absurdly, modern mass production and scientific knowledge - thus, a picture whose supposedly public, even populist, mode of address seemed, to a contemporary audience, fatally undercut by its specialist and perhaps mocking novelties of style. Like Manet’s Picnic Luncheon of 20 years earlier, but now from a declared ‘neo’ position, it managed to alienate and to register alienation, at the same time.

The early years of the avant-garde established the key features of modern art and its relation to the public. But the emergence of that avant-garde was not confined to Paris. In every major city across Europe, and to an extent in the USA as well, similar communities of anti-academic artists sprang up in the years before 1914, like mushrooms overnight – the by-product, as it were, of the process of social and cultural ‘modernization’ in the advanced capitalist countries of the Western world. By 1914 there were such communities in every major city from New York to Moscow, from Rome to Stockholm; a book published in 1974 simply listing the modern art exhibitions held in these cities between 1900 and 1916 filled two volumes. Artists and artworks, and their associated art critics and collectors, crisscrossed the continent, and increasingly the Atlantic, comparing and disseminating their ideas, producing not only an alternative ‘art world’, but one that came steadily to dislodge from its position of pre-eminence an art world centered on Salons and other official art institutions. And at its centre, generated by and generating it, were two driving forces. The first of these was a spirit of competitive innovation - a rage for the new, even – that was expressed not only in art practices and experimentation with expressive means, but also in strategies of organization and promotion: the ‘isms’ that proliferated so bewilderingly; the manifestos, events, and provocations that have come to be synonymous with ‘avant-garde’ behaviour. The second was a spirit of internationalism that sat uneasily with (and sometimes acted to mitigate) the rampant nationalism of the time – for the members of this community, their sense of national identity was qualified in complex and often contradictory ways by their avant-gardist affiliations. Between 1912 and 1914 the avant-gardism of the Italian futurists led by Marinetti, and in England the vorticists led by Wyndham Lewis, exemplified this contradiction: each group outdid the other, not only in its aggressive self-promotion and declaration of commitment to the modern world of steel machines but also in its patriotic attachment to traditional national values.

For many artists, these affiliations and their implications so outweighed the appeal of nationalism, in those years of catastrophic conflict between nation-states, that they found expression in outright opposition to the social order that had brought the world to war. Thus artists of the international ‘Dada’ movement (the meaning of the name is uncertain, and may be an imitation of a baby’s babble) sought in different ways to mock, outrage, or vilify bourgeois society into its grave. In Zurich and Paris, Hugo Ball, Emmy Hemmings, Tristan Tzara, and others attempted this with cabaret performances and art exhibitions in which chance, absurdity, profanity, insulting and even assaulting the audience were key devices. In Berlin, George Grosz, John Heartfield, and others worked with the political Left, producing artworks, cartoons, and propaganda material that sharply satirised post-1918 German society. Less overtly political but also subversive, Marcel Duchamp in New York conducted a virtually solo campaign of calling into question the status of art and its relation to language, and the role of the artist, nominating a series of ‘ready-mades’ as art. The first of these, the Bottlerack ‘made’ in Paris in 1914, was followed by, among others, a coat-rack nailed to the floor entitled Trap, and a urinal entitled Fountain (this last was entered – and refused by the jury - for a New York avant-garde art exhibition).

Artists in other ‘isms’ were equally subversive. In Paris from the mid-1920s, artists of the surrealist movement, founded by poet and essayist André Breton, took the antisocial gestures of the Dadaists and built on them a set of principles that directly challenged the suffocating ‘rationality’ of bourgeois society. Their art would be the means to break open its grip on the human imagination, liberate desire, and make us whole again; any object, text, or image that - wittingly or unwittingly – served to assist in this was celebrated for its ‘convulsive beauty’ (Figure 2). In Mexico, former adepts of advanced Parisian picture-making such as Diego Rivera, returning from Europe to find a revolution had occurred while he was away, abandoned the complexity and sophistication of cubism in favour of a revival of narrative fresco painting, putting modernism to the work of marshalling uplifting images for an illiterate peasantry. And in Moscow and St Petersburg the constructivists, fired by the aesthetic revolution of cubism and the iconoclasm of futurism, and driven by hatred of the conservative Tsarist regime, readily identified with the political revolution of the Bolsheviks and sought both to express its Utopian ambitions in their art and to adapt their artistic practices to the task of building the new society. Art, even avant-garde art, was bourgeois and redundant in their new Soviet Republic, and so, led by the example of Vladimir Tatlin, ‘constructivism’ became ‘productivism’: instead of making paintings and sculptures, its adherents made prototypes for useful clothing, furniture, ceramics, and textiles. Most ambitious of all their efforts was Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International of 1920.

Intended as colossal steel and glass building, spiralling higher than the Eiffel Tower, that would have contained the legislature, executive, and commissariat of the new government all in one and would have projected the news on the night sky with its searchlights, the project never made it past the model stage. Nor, in the desperate circumstances of post-revolutionary, civil-war-riven, half-starving Soviet Russia, did it ever have a chance of doing so. But even as a model, Tatlin’s Monument was such a potent symbol of avant-gardist Utopianism that it became instantly notorious, and has remained so into the present.

The accumulation of such initiatives, and the dissemination of their example around the increasingly self-supporting circuits of the avant-garde network through the middle years of the 20th century, helped shape an identity for the avant-garde artist as culturally independent, politically as well as aesthetically radical, and socially rebellious. And they shaped his or her art into a weapon for critiquing the dominant visual codes of modern capitalist society. So that by the mid-1980s, critic and art historian Benjamin Buchloh could define, and celebrate, avant-garde art-making as:

a continually renewed struggle over the definition of cultural meaning, the discovery and representation of new audiences, and the development of new strategies to counteract and develop resistance against the tendency of the ideological apparatuses of the culture industry to occupy and to control all practices and all spaces of representation.

This definition raises some important questions. To what degree are that identity and this role mythic in nature – to what extent, that is, (and in what ways) have the many and varied lived experiences, and aesthetic positions, of anti- or un-academic artists been simplified, for society’s own purposes, into a history of heroic cultural struggle? To what extent do the spaces still exist from which the practices that Buchloh celebrated can mount the resistance he describes? These are questions too complex for this book fully to resolve – but we need to explore their ramifications if we are to understand how (and why) modern art and its meanings are produced. On the one hand, many artists within the avant-garde community (or rather communities, in their different cities) in the middle years of the last century did pick up the mantle of resistance to capitalist culture and its ‘apparatuses’ from the productivists, Dadaists, surrealists, and their generation. Following such examples, they devised strategies to contest the turning of art into a gallery-based commodity, its institutionalisation by increasingly powerful museums such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA); its exclusion, as ‘high’ culture, from the vitality of a burgeoning popular and commercial ‘low’ culture. In the mid-1950s USA, for example, Robert Rauschenberg and others mocked both rampant consumerism and ‘high’ art by making use of unusual materials, including a stuffed goat and rubber tyres in  ‘assemblages’ that not only picked up where Picasso’s little constructions made of junk materials had left off, but also anticipated Damien Hirst’s most notorious ensembles. Claes Oldenburg rented a shop in 1960 in the down-at heel lower East Side in Manhattan, where he offered for sale little paster-and-chicken-wire mock-ups of sandwiches, shoes, and other goods (nobody bought a thing), and staged performances or ‘happenings’ that were equally unsaleable. Late in the decade Robert Smithson, Richard Long, Michael Heizer, and others on both sides of the Atlantic expanded the field of art quite literally (and some of them sought to escape the constraints of the gallery) by making huge earthwork sculptures, or sculptures from natural materials that came to hand in hard-to-reach places. Through the 1970s such departures from, and challenges to, the institutional and market norms of art became, in the work of some artists, explicitly political. In Britain, Stuart Brisley and, in Germany, Joseph Beuys performed actions or staged events that sometimes mocked social and aesthetic conventions, and sometimes bitterly lampooned them. Beuys once gave an art history lecture to a dead hare cradled in his lap, and on another occasion lived for days in a bare room with a coyote, while Brisley’s performances included sitting on a theatre stage swallowing litres of water while a throne was built around him, and then spewing the water out to the strains of the National Anthem, as a symbolic attack on class structure and the monarchy. As the women’s movement gained momentum in the same decade, increasing numbers of women artists, as well as art historians and critics, challenged the masculinism of avant-garde culture, and beyond it the injustices of patriarchy. In a series of wall-length, frieze-like paintings on paper made through the 1970s, New York artist Nancy Spero recovered and celebrated an almost-lost genealogy of female goddesses, alternating texts connotative of ‘female’ and ‘male’ speech with repeated images of goddess figures, suggesting an equivalence between embodied female identity and female writing. In the same decade another New Yorker, Carolee Schneemann, developed a style of performance art that celebrated the active female body, in a challenge to the conventional representation of this in art as passive. In her 1975 piece Interior Scroll she stood naked before her audience, gradually unravelling a scroll from her vagina, and reading from this a critique of her work by a ‘structuralist filmmaker’ as too personal and cluttered with emotion.

Alongside the feminists, other politically radical artists made work that openly criticised the policies of art museums. None did so more directly and confrontationally than German artist Hans Haacke, in a series of documentary ‘installations’ in which he laid out the results of research he had conducted into aspects of the museums who had invited him to exhibit – material that tended to look embarrassingly like those museums’ ‘dirty linen’. In the case of the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1970, the dirty linen that Haacke uncovered concerned the slum tenements owned by one of the museum’s trustees; in response the Guggenheim cancelled the show, a move that backfired badly, as it led to charges of censorship, which generated much publicity of the wrong kind (as well as further spotlighting the behaviour of its slum-landlord trustee). On the other hand, such oppositional gestures, however varied and inventive they were, could not halt the steady process of the cooption of the avant-garde, and of the art it produced, by those same mainstream forces that it opposed. Ironically, the Guggenheim cancellation did Haacke no harm at all: he found himself invited to conduct similar research by other museums, who presumably calculated that the possibility of him discovering shady dealings in their pasts was outweighed by the publicity surrounding the subsequent controversy – there being in the end, it is widely asserted, no such thing as bad publicity. So Haacke built a career on what might be called ‘muck-raking’ exhibitions - which did shed light on the dubious past practices and politics of specific museums, but whose political message was blunted, if not completely obscured, by the ways in which his work was ‘framed’ by those museums, and by the reputation for even-handedness that they gained in commissioning him in the first place. Such co-option, as this must surely be called, was by no means unique to Haacke. For, despite the avant-garde’s cultural and social marginalisation, those very motors that were driving its activities – the rage for the new and internationalism – were also driving modern, consumerist capitalism. As this consumerism was progressively extended through the mid-20th century, so the avant-garde became what one art historian has called the ‘research and development arm’ of the culture industry at consumerism’s centre. The massive expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in New York over the half-century from its beginnings as the showcase of a couple of private art collections, into the most important collection of modern art in the world and the unrivalled arbiter of cultural taste, is indicative of this co-option.


(3) Modern Art

Selling art: 17 top tips from the experts

How to Buy and Sell Modern Art

Selling Modern Art



Marcel Duchamp, Bottlerack (1914)

Selling modern art

When Napoleon III set up that ‘Salon des Refusés’ in 1863, perhaps he did wish to reinforce the standards of the Salon jury, and thus of the academic system that regulated such careers, by holding up its rejects to public ridicule. This, at least, is how his gesture was interpreted for many years, by art historians for whom the opposition between ‘good’ avant-garde art and ‘bad’ academic art has been a cornerstone of that narrative of modernism’s heroic independence which still dominates popular understanding of modern art’s history. But recent research has shown it to be more likely that the Emperor wanted to shake the Académie out of its complacency, and to give some encouragement to a broad spectrum of artists, by putting on such a rival display, a gesture in keeping with his general aim of encouraging entrepreneurship in all sectors of the economy, not least the cultural. Alongside his decision to set up the alternative Salon, Napoleon took measures to weaken the Académie’s hold over art education, and to boost the status of design and the decorative arts. As Nick Green and other art historians have shown, his reasoning seems to have been that if a greater variety of artistic practices could be allowed to flourish, they would be able to meet the demands of an increasingly varied and expanding middle-class clientele with a multiplicity of pictorial and sculptural styles and products.

If this was Napoleon’s aim, it didn’t work out as he might have hoped – at least not immediately, since the combined resistance of the art hierarchy and the conservative tastes of that clientele put a banana-skin under the rival Salon. But that very conservatism, in the context of an expanding middle class, also left spaces, and provided opportunities, for art dealers with both flair and means to take risks on new artists. Paul Durand-Ruel was the most famous of the first of these, buying and supporting the impressionists through good times and bad from the 1870s, until the arrival of wealthy nouveau-riche patrons from the United States 20 years later secured his investment. His example was followed by a thin but widening stream of younger men, among whom were Ambroise Vollard and Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler - and one woman, Berthe Weill. Weill’s feisty support of the new young artists she showed in her tiny Montmartre gallery in the early 1900s earned her the appreciative, punning nickname of ‘la petite merveille’ [the little marvel], but it was Kahnweiler above all who brought new ideas and strategies to the business of selling new art when he opened his gallery in 1907. Setting himself up ambitiously in the most expensive district of the Paris art world, Kahnweiler introduced contracts that tied ‘his’ artists exclusively to his gallery, and promoted them assiduously through that mushrooming Europe-wide avant-garde network I have outlined, cultivating  a small but select group of discerning ‘advanced’ collectors.

The collectors, of course, were the key; without a willingness to speculate, on the part of enough people with sufficient money to do so, the new market would not have emerged. But the speculative opportunities grew more obvious with each decade. In 1904 a group of ten middle-class Parisian men formed a society to invest a small sum (3,000 francs) each year for ten years in the art of young unknowns, agreeing to sell their collection in 1914. They called themselves the Société de la Peau de l’Ours [Skin of the Bear Society], after a fable by La Fontaine in which two hunters sell the skin of a bear before trying - and failing - to capture the animal; thereby acknowledging their own speculative motives, and even enjoying the risk they were taking with their money. The sale in 1914 realized well over 100,000 francs; and it demonstrated that contemporary art could make its collectors money. But money was not the only motive. As I have suggested, the discernment that collecting cutting-edge art required (or appeared to, as its dealers were quick to underline) reflected flatteringly on the collector and, costing less than the work of established artists, indicated his or her possession of as much independence of taste as disposable income. Even during the years of the First World War, there were enough (mostly US) would-be patrons of new art keen to acquire the reflected aura of individualism to sustain the art activities of non-combatant avant-gardes. After the War, the release onto the market of the huge cubist collections of Kahnweiler and Wilhelm Uhde that had been sequestered as enemy property (both were German) depressed the prices of these pictures drastically, to the despair of the artists who had created them. But

it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, for they were snapped  up for a song by a rising new generation of collectors, who thus found themselves owners of scores of works by Picasso, Braque, Gris, and Léger. In the meantime, certain collectors were deciding to take what seems, in retrospect, to have been the inevitable next step, and to found a museum (as opposed to a gallery) that would display their art – and thus their taste – to the public. The Museum of Modern Art was established, in 1929 in a house in mid-town Manhattan, for this purpose. It was the only public collection anywhere in the world devoted exclusively to modern art. Its trustees appointed as the Museum’s first curator a young art historian, Alfred H. Barr, Jr, who brought with him not only a scholarly education but also an eye trained to make clear distinctions of both form and value. The appointment was shrewd, for this combination of qualities enabled Barr to undertake, by means of a series of themed exhibitions, the ambitious project of laying down a historical narrative of modernism that placed the Museum’s collection at its centre. These both consecrated its artistic values and secured its position as arbiter of what was not just good or bad, but the most important art of the century. Some of Barr’s exhibitions were such landmarks that they set the terms by which modern art was understood, and reshaped its chaotic eventfulness as a linear ‘development’, for the next half-century. The exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art of 1936 had a catalogue which has hardly been out of print since, and whose frontispiece diagram mapping that narrative (Figure 6) has been as reproduced as most of its exhibits.

Barr’s appointment was also timely, for it came at the same time as the Wall Street Crash. Although art collectors seem not to have suffered greatly financially, the art market slumped until the mid-1930s. In this context the construction of a history for modern art, and of a canon (or roll-call) of the ‘great’ modern artists, was an invaluable bulwark against the loss of speculative confidence. Coincident, too, with the early years of MoMA was the growing threat of war in Europe. The greater familiarity with contemporary European art that Barr’s exhibitions fostered was further enhanced up for a song by a rising new generation of collectors, who thus found themselves owners of scores of works by Picasso, Braque, Gris, and Léger. In the meantime, certain collectors were deciding to take what seems, in retrospect, to have been the inevitable next step, and to found a museum (as opposed to a gallery) that would display their art - and thus their taste - to the public. The Museum of Modern Art was established, in 1929 in a house in mid-town Manhattan, for this purpose. It was the only public collection anywhere in the world devoted exclusively to modern art. Its trustees appointed as the Museum’s first curator a young art historian, Alfred H. Barr, Jr, who brought with him not only a scholarly education but also an eye trained to make clear distinctions of both form and value. The appointment was shrewd, for this combination of qualities enabled Barr to undertake, by means of a series of themed exhibitions, the ambitious project of laying down a historical narrative of modernism that placed the Museum’s collection at its centre. These both consecrated its artistic values and secured its position as arbiter of what was not just good or bad, but the most important art of the century. Some of Barr’s exhibitions were such landmarks that they set the terms by which modern art was understood, and reshaped its chaotic eventfulness as a linear ‘development’, for the next half-century. The exhibition Cubism and Abstract Art of 1936 had a catalogue which has hardly been out of print since, and whose frontispiece diagram mapping that narrative has been as reproduced as most of its exhibits.

Barr’s appointment was also timely, for it came at the same time as the Wall Street Crash. Although art collectors seem not to have suffered greatly financially, the art market slumped until the mid-1930s. In this context the construction of a history for modern art, and of a canon (or roll-call) of the ‘great’ modern artists, was an invaluable bulwark against the loss of speculative confidence. Coincident, too, with the early years of MoMA was the growing threat of war in Europe. The greater familiarity with contemporary European art that Barr’s exhibitions fostered was further enhanced contemporary art galleries – as long as they were underwritten by patrons rich enough to absorb some early losses. The Guggenheim family, stupendously wealthy thanks to mining interests, held some of these: Solomon Guggenheim established in 1937 the Museum of Non-Objective Art that still bears his name (and whose recent challenge to MoMA’s hegemony we shall explore later). In 1942 Peggy Guggenheim opened her Art of This Century gallery on 57th Street, showcasing work not only by the European émigrés but, alongside it, that by young New York artists too. By the time it closed in 1947 (and Peggy had moved to Venice, to start afresh there), Art of This Century had launched the careers of most of the pioneers of Abstract

Expressionism, and had been followed by other contemporary galleries, whose dealers - Sam Kootz from 1945, Betty Parsons from 1946 - supported (and often subsidized) the work of the rising young generation of New York’s newly international avant-garde.

The Abstract Expressionist movement was the first fully fledged artistic product of this avant-garde, and the process of its emergence and consolidation established, at the same time, New York’s leadership of the international modern art world with MoMA as its headquarters. The city’s art market by then had sufficient critical mass, in terms of the number of its dealers and its seriously wealthy collectors, and an associated corps of art critics – informed, ambitious writers (and sometimes artists) reviewing exhibitions, staking out positions, shaping the tastes of their assorted publics. The movement they fostered became known as the New York School. Some of these critics, above all Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, became as celebrated as the artists they wrote about, and (in ways we shall explore) perhaps even more influential. Underwriting their growing confidence and combativeness was a strengthening alignment between their cultural values and those represented as characteristically American in the postwar, Cold War world. No longer - it appeared - the standard-bearers of an oppositional aesthetics or politics, the paintings of the Abstract Expressionists were paraded around the world as exemplars of the creative freedoms that were denied to artists in the Communist countries under Soviet rule. MoMA set up an International Program of Circulating Exhibitions in 1952, working, often with government agencies, to disseminate the work of the New York avant-garde, in shows such as The New American Painting, which toured Europe (and came to the Tate Gallery) in 1959. A far cry, this, from 1863 and the Salon des Refusés. Perhaps the apotheosis of the New York avant-garde formation and market came, though, in the next decade, as a succeeding generation of artists, dealers, critics, and collectors acknowledged the cultural authority of Abstract Expressionism in the time-honored way, by overturning its precepts and abandoning its altars in favor of other religions. Pop art’s (often ironic) celebration of the vitality of consumerist culture attracted new dealers like Leo Castelli and Ivan Karp, and new collectors such as Robert and Ethel Scull, and Emily and Burton Tremaine, whose voracious and well-publicized collecting activities - and, perhaps as significantly, their ostentatious unloading of their collections in the salerooms a decade later - enhanced the reputation of the New York market as much as they enriched its leading providers. When minimalist and conceptual artists made work, and followed strategies, in the late 1960s and through the 1970s that implicitly or explicitly critiqued the co modification of contemporary art that Pop and its handlers seemed to relish, these same dealers and collectors were happy to fund them – Scull backing the Green Gallery, showcase of minimalism, and Castelli adding Morris and Judd, its leading lights, to his stable, even though the anonymous, boxy, untitled objects that these artists made seemed light years away from the Pop exuberance that both the dealer and the collector had previously favored.

Nevertheless, minimalist and conceptualist art proved harder to sell. Both ‘isms’ burst onto the art scene in the mid-1960s to critical acclaim, and the artists involved carried avant-garde authority - they were among the first whose art education was university- based, and they wrote a lot about their own work. But it was, when all was said and done, not so much fun as painting and pop, and quite a number of major collectors gave up buying in the 1970s, causing the collapse of some galleries (such as Bykert in New York, which had focused on minimalism). Not surprisingly, therefore, leading players in the market sought to turn the tide, and within a few years they had done so: the early 1980s saw a return not only to conventional fine art media but to figuration too. ‘Neo-Expressionism’ was a loose and journalistic label for a group of painters working in a diverse range of figurative styles, whose rapid and simultaneous rise to prominence on both sides of the Atlantic - in Italy, Germany, and the USA – pointed more directly to the power of dealer cartels to control the contemporary art market than to any profound or widespread change in avant-gardism thinking (although the ‘retro’ preoccupations and pastiche manner that several of them shared had all the hallmarks of the postmodernism then becoming a buzzword). New names became familiar almost overnight – such as those of Sandro Chia and Francesco Clemente from Italy; Georg Baselitz, Rainer Fetting, and Anselm Kiefer from Germany; David Salle and, above all, Julian Schnabel from the United States. Alongside them, new dealers gained rapid prominence: among them Sperone West water Fischer, launched in Manhattan’s SoHo by associates of Castelli from Frankfurt and Milan, and whose trilingual masthead epitomized the internationalism of this market-created art; and Mary Boone, who had worked for Bykert before setting up on her own, promoting Salle and Schnabel with such success that by 1982 she was being proclaimed (ahead - naturally - of her artists) as ‘the new queen of the art scene’ by New York Magazine. The work of these artists, and equally of these dealers, was consecrated, after a fashion, by a major show at the Royal Academy in London in 1981. A New Spirit in Painting, cleverly titled to disguise its eclectic mix of blue-chip, early-century moderns, elderly make-weights, and the Neo-Expressionist ‘transavantgarde’ (as they were now termed), at once confirmed the ascendancy of neo- conservative attitudes in the art world in the wake of the political victories of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and turned around the genteelly declining fortunes of its host institution.

Perhaps equally important for the future of the art market, however, was its ‘making’ of the collection of Charles Saatchi, who had been investing in many of the artists represented in the exhibition, and who obtained a strategic position in that market over the next few years, publishing a glossy four-volume catalogue of his collection, The Art of Our Time, in 1984, and a year later opening his own huge exhibition gallery to show it, in Boundary Road, London. Although ostensibly a collector rather than a dealer, Saatchi had mixed business with pleasure ever since starting both his advertising agency (with his brother Maurice) and his art buying in the early 1970s, and by 1978 Saatchi & Saatchi the agency was reporting art sales of £380,000 for the year. At the start of the 1990s the precipitate expansion of the agency plunged it into debt, compelling Charles to sell art in large quantities - which he did just before the art market crashed: the sale of 200 works brought £23 million against an outlay of £8 million. Ironically, it was this sharp fall in art prices, coincident with the recession of the early 1990s that further (if indirectly) strengthened Saatchi’s strategic position in the market. He had exercised considerable ‘leverage’ on this market twice in the previous decade, in 1982 notoriously lending the Tate Gallery almost all of the exhibits in a show that it mounted of Julian Schnabel’s painting – a gesture of acclaim by a major international public gallery that substantially enhanced the market value of these works – and a few years later unloading all of his many Sandro Chia paintings in a single sale that had a disastrous effect on Chia’s prices. The immediate effect of the early 1990s recession was to unravel, to some degree, the international contemporary art network - in Britain, at least, where Saatchi is based, it was to ‘reconfigure’ British art to domestic concerns, and to foster the emergence of a more localized network of smaller galleries and warehouses, in London and other cities, where ‘cutting-edge’ art was shown. Saatchi’s response was, uniquely for a collector on his scale, to acquaint himself with this emergent network, and, perhaps with an advertising professional’s ‘nose’ for a fresh scent, to pursue and purchase the edgy new art that was appearing across it: the work of young unknowns such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, and Gavin Turk. The rest, of course, is history of sorts: the Royal Academy’s Sensation exhibition in 1997 of this collection, and its establishment of the ‘young British artists’, or ‘yBas’, as a media phenomenon, and in some cases as art celebrities; the opening in April 2003 of the Saatchi Gallery, showcasing this work, in the prime tourist location (if awkward exhibition spaces) of the former Greater London Council building on the South Bank opposite the Houses of Parliament.

Indeed the location of the Saatchi Gallery was also a tacit acknowledgement of (and perhaps challenge to) the resurgence of the public art museum, epitomized by the colossal Tate Modern in the former Bank side power station just downriver from it. Although not too much distinction should be made between the public and private sectors of the art world - as art historian Chin-Tao Wu has shown, the two commingle closely, and the boards of trustees of the former are packed with the leading players in the latter (or their relatives) - it is the extraordinary flourishing of modern art museums across the globe in the last decade that has been the most spectacular feature of this art scene, eclipsing even the activities of collectors like Saatchi in its impact both on art’s audiences and on its economics. To name but a few examples: the Guggenheim at Bilbao, designed by Canadian architect Frank Gehry and opened in 1997, is perhaps the most renowned, but it was preceded in 1996 by Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer’s equally stunning art museum for  Rio de Janeiro. Tate Modern, refurbished by the Swiss partnership of Herzog and de Meuron, opened in 2000, and was matched in 2004 by a much-expanded MoMA New York, the work of the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi. The global character of this development is striking, but equally significant are two other features. In every case – as with the first of these ‘postmodern’ museums, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, and opened in 1977 - the museum itself is its own primary exhibit, not only supplanting the art in its collection as the main reason for visiting it, but upstaging that art with its scale and/or visual exuberance. Moreover, viewing the collection is understood, by these museums, as only one among several experiences they are now expected to offer. Others include those of shopping for books on, reproductions of, or merchandise decorated with the art in their galleries, and enjoying up market food in their cafés and restaurants. More and more, public modern art museums are thus being reconfigured as sites for consumption. (And with good reason: the MoMA’s store, across from the museum, now makes seven times the sales per square foot of the average US shopping mall.)




(4) Modern Art

Avant-Garde Art



Harold Garde

The avant-garde today: dead or alive?

 If modern art has become thus ‘commodified’ – co-opted by a culture whose driving force is the making and spending of money – does this mean that the ‘avant-garde’ as such is no more, and that itsevolution into the research and development arm of the culture industry is complete? Not altogether: in three ways, and for three reasons, the term continues to mean something. First, if in the weakest sense, because in practical terms the sector of the art world to which the history of the 20th-century avant-garde gave rise – that of self-declaredly autonomous, experimental, self-referential art-making – still exists, with its specialist galleries, specialist magazines, and their still-impenetrable language, even if these are increasingly suffused by commercial values, as the Armani adverts in Tate magazine or Ernst & Young’s sponsorship of blockbuster exhibitions testify.

True, to claim avant-garde status for this market sector as such in any but the most neutrally descriptive sense is to travesty the meaning and the history of the term. Indeed, it has been noted by several cultural commentators that the co-option of the avant-garde by the market has achieved, but in dystopian fashion, that Utopian aim of the original avant-gardes to bring art back into social life. But the contemporary art world is not monolithic; some sectors of it are more autonomous than others, and some of the motivations that shaped avant-gardism as an ideology are still driving the making of ‘cutting-edge’ art. The idea that they were ‘ahead’ of mainstream society and its art (the original implication of the military metaphor) was always, for un- or anti-academic artists, partly a means of compensating for their marginalization and partly an expression of their commitment to a set of specialist, independent, and increasingly self-referential artistic practices. And this idea still holds: the art celebrities of the yBas aside, most of the graduates who emerge from art schools across the world every year with the ambition and means to continue to make art still experience the same marginalization, and share the same commitment. Few will succeed in financial terms, able to support their art practice from sponsorship or sales of its products alone, but the specialist training in working with particular materials, skills, and ways of thinking that a fine art – like any vocational – education has given them will (given that ambition and means) continue to shape their work, and the rich history of this specialism will underwrite their belief in its significance. We shall explore in the next chapter the complex set of aesthetic ideas and artistic ‘isms’ through which this commitment to making modern art has been expressed through the last hundred years. The fashion for ‘isms’ seems finally to have passed, but the exploration of possible new means and spaces of representation, inside and outside the culture industry, is likely to carry on.

There is, moreover, evidence of real and continued – if much diminished – opposition, of the kind that Benjamin Buchloh was celebrating in that remark I quoted earlier, to the tendency of the ideological apparatuses of this culture industry to ‘occupy and to control’ those means and spaces of representation. Although both the confident belief in the success of their resistance to capitalist culture, and the sense of participation in a broader movement of social and political emancipation, that fuelled the early 20th-century avant-gardes have withered along with the notion of a ‘public sphere’ of collective actions and identities in the harsh climate of recent and contemporary neo-liberalism, artists working in a wide variety of media and from a range of positions, many of them in collaborative projects, continue to contest the hegemony of market values and the institutionalization of art practices. Michael Landy’s 2001 performance work Breakdown, in which he methodically destroyed all of his material possessions, is a telling recent example. In Britain, that localized network of little galleries, warehouses, and other informal or ‘unconsecrated’ art sites, in London and other cities, that emerged in the early 1990s included artist-run collectives. These sought to evade the smooth but icy tentacles of bureaucratized museum curators surfing the cutting edge for material for high-concept exhibitions by showing their own work, much of it too ephemeral and too edgy for such purposes.

Most prominent among them was BANK, a London-based group of artists who mounted exhibitions with titles such as Cocaine Orgasm, accompanying them with promotional material that combined slapstick and anti-art-world polemic in equal measure. A proposal BANK made in 2000 was that of ‘closing down all public art galleries and redistributing public funds to individual artists’ – to cut out ‘curators, and status-mongers, and bureaucrats, and money-men and managers’. Other groups included Locus + , a Newcastle-based organization that commissioned predominantly time-based and site-specific work, and Nosepaint, another London collective that for three years in the 1990s ran monthly events involving over 300 artists’ installations and performances. For all the inventiveness of such groups, and their resourcefulness in operating on minimal funds, their avant-gardism has been caught between the market and marginality. As art historian

Jonathan Vickery notes, BANK’s argument can be read, paradoxically, as an argument for privatisation: public money fuelling the careers of private (and unaccountable) individuals, who will, no doubt – even if unintentionally – construct small networks of power and exclusion for their own personal gain and ensure the problems of funding on a macroeconomic scale are reproduced at micro level Indeed, nothing in its strategy or posturing prevented Saatchi from cherry-picking BANK artists for his collection. On the other hand, while time-based and site-specific work such as Nosepaint’s has a clear line of descent from the radical art of the 1970s, it is also a product of a location on the margins of the art world: while the authors of Occupational Hazard, a valuable collection of writings on this ephemeral activity, celebrate Nosepaint events as ‘a cross between a night-club and an art space [at which] people could listen, look and participate in art, certainly, but also drink, eat, dance and have a good time’, this is a position, and a disposition, that risks collapsing critical art practice into mere carnival.

It does seem that, for the concept of an avant-garde within contemporary art, the game is nearly up. There is perhaps no longer any art able to identify and occupy spaces within the Western art world, and from them to deploy, in Buchloh’s words, ‘new strategies to counteract and develop resistance’ to the controlling orthodoxies of the culture industry – the dominant visual codes of advertising, television, and Hollywood films. Given the saturation of our lives by their images, and the habits of sophisticated reading of these that we have acquired, any spaces from which they might be called into question seem all but closed up. But there are other factors than the avant-gardist inheritance of modern artists to consider, and other models of critical practice than that provided by the formation of the avant-garde. So I shall regard the jury is still out, on this question.



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