Sunday, 3 November 2013

Are we living in the end-times of art?

John Martin : The Great Day of His Wrath : 1853
I've been following Grayson Perry's series of lectures on Radio 4 - he is the 2013 Reith lecturer. His take on art in the present is witty, entertaining and erudite, and I thoroughly recommend listening to the whole series. I do take exception on one point, though, and I'm surprised he made the assertion in the first place. It is that (and he did repeat it at least twice in the third lecture of the series) we are "in the end-times of art". That is, if I understand correctly, that as we live in an age where everything can be considered as art, there must then be nothing more to be discovered. Since Duchamp declared that found objects were as much art as paint placed painstakingly on canvas, there is no further scope for novelty or shock value.

I have myself thought before that there must no longer be a way in which a new art 'school' or 'movement' could develop to surprise the art world and delight the dealers and collectors in the way that say, impressionism did in the 19th century or pop art did in the 1960s, but then the 'lowbrow art' movement came along and proved me wrong. (Yes, I know it's generally considered to have stemmed from the 70's, but I would contend that what artists like Audrey Kawasaki and Mark Ryland are doing now really constitutes a new thing in itself). Not to everyone's taste but of course, isn't that the point of a new movement? I know that movements are not exactly what Grayson had in mind, but the point is that it shows there is still scope for change and novelty.

So do we live in an age where art is static, in the sense that everything has been done, or more accurately, is being done? - where we poor derided painters must live side by side with people who balance stones, exhibit vacuum cleaners, pile up naked people for photos, detune old t.v. sets to show nothing but static and, dare we say it, throw pots, and everyone calls it art? Well, yes and no. Just because everything can potentially be considered as art doesn't mean it always will be. To prove a scientific hypothesis (and I think the assertion that art has nowhere to go may indeed be considered an unproven hypothesis) is very difficult. The only way to do it is to demonstrate that logically, no alternative is possible. To disprove it, on the other hand, is easy. One must simply demonstrate a single alternative scenario. So...

Hypothesis: "We are living in the end-times of art"
Supporting reasoning: As anything may now be considered as art, no further development is possible.
Antithesis: What is considered as art is a product of social reasoning.  Everything is art only because we (the artists, the dealers, the collectors, and the general public) say so. If we change our minds, then a urinal or a pile of bricks lose their artistic significance, and art becomes what we say it is now.

Allow me then, to introduce the new movement of Restrictionism. In the future, not everything will be considered art. Art will consist of only what I say is art, and I say that this week, only hand-thrown pots will be true art, and all else is dross. Reductio ad absurdum, quod erat demonstrandem. Now is the time to invest in Grayson Perry!

Of course, art does not only consist of what one person decides is art - it is necessary to reach a consensus. The point is, though, that the consensus changes over time. That everything may be considered art now, at this time, in this century, is as transitory a phenomenon as any other previous restricted movement. In this case, the restriction is in that innocuous word 'everything'.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to paint some irrelevant pictures, with oil paints, on canvas... and make a video... and install an 'intervention' to bemuse the public. After all, you never know what might be the next big thing in the art world.

(You can also read Vivi-Mari's take on this year's Reith lectures here.)