Out with the old, in with the newest
Is the cult of contemporary banishing older art to the Dark Ages?
By Satish Padiyar. Focus, Issue 244, March 2013
Published online: 13 March 2013
Modernity is our Antiquity.” The art historian T.J. Clark’s provocative dictum, coined at the turn of the 21st century, should cause us to worry: are large swathes of art before the era of Western Modernism being lost to our comprehension? If Modernity is our Antiquity, this is to assert that Cézanne and Picasso have now become our true Classics, but also leads us to deplore the propelling of all art before them into what becomes a Dark Age; its obscure hieroglyphic signs communicative only to the scholarly few. There are clear indications that such a transformation is happening. The increasing gulf between the financial returns, and therefore demand, of moderately successful Old Master sales, and the ceiling-shattering Modern and contemporary sales in international auction houses, goes hand-in-hand with the scholarly study of older art fast becoming a minority interest within the discipline of art history. Where I teach, at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, there is no longer a chair in the art of Classical Antiquity. Meanwhile, the definition of 20th-century Modernism is being expanded to include Eastern European and Russian Modernisms.
The underlying condition of this widespread gradual demotion of older (pre-20th-century) art is the apparently irreversible rise of the value of the contemporary in our age. The prevailing consumer choice of the contemporary—among dealers, collectors, art historians and students of art history—is producing a reassuringly hermetic art world of its own, which also threatens to ghettoise those who would resist it: are we contemporary or Old Master? In or out?
At the same time, the very categories of contemporary and Old Master are in fact fluid and open to redefinition rather than dogmatic and descriptive. We are constantly negotiating them. What, for example, does one make of the astounding prices paid at the post-war and contemporary auctions last year—a small drip painting by Jackson Pollock, No. 4, 1951, 1951, sold for $40m at Sotheby’s New York in November while Mark Rothko’s No. 1 (Royal Red and Blue), 1954, sold for $75m at the same sale—when those works may be described as older contemporary or as the Old Masters of the future (while Picasso and Cézanne become Classical Modern)? There may be an aura to the contemporary, defined against everything prior to watershed Modernity, but continuing to operate at its heart are residues of the values of endurance and longevity, as if contemporary art must borrow some of its aura from the withering Old Masters.
Cause or effect?
But why is the taste for Old Masters withering? In some ways, it is easier to list the effects of this decline rather than identify its causes (it is easier still to confuse cause and effect). Among the effects there is the cult of contemporary itself, which involves a rapid migration away from the study of older art and a rise in emerging scholarly specialists in the contemporary, as well as a move from collecting older art to newer. There is the expectation amongst graduate students of art history that the contemporary sector affords more opportunities for work in the cultural industries. And there is the increasing coverage of contemporary art and contemporary art institutions in art publications (including this one). All in all, this could produce an image of a widespread consensus on the current taste for the contemporary—one that is surely worthy of debate, rather than repeated endorsement.
The causes of the gradual abandonment of the study of older art are deep, and even chronic. A major shift in the public taste for art must follow the irreversible ways we live now. Early education no longer teaches the words that may induce us into the image. Beyond the genius of the individual artist’s hand, what can older forms of art that recite the Greek and Roman mythologies, or that narrate the Christian Passion, have to offer when the language for these forms of self-transformation and self-transcendence increasingly requires a massive act of cultural translation in order to be understood?
The cult of contemporaneity rises out of the felt social experience of new lives that are predicated on change, instantaneity and novelty, while many of the fundamental older forms of social binding and human togetherness are no longer operative or well functioning. If church attendance, family structure, social and political stability are eroded, or drastically experienced as “other”, then the older forms of art that picture these lost worlds and once rendered them enduring, daily lose their meaning.
In addition, the forced movements of peoples across international borders and the mass displacement and migration of our time essentially corrode common beliefs in the sanctity and certainty of nationalisms. In connoisseurship and art history, these nationalisms have their cognates in the study of national schools, and so the very categories through which we study an older art, and our ways of demarcating it, begin to seem antiquated and to feel unreal.
Finally, and perhaps most radically of all, the communications revolution, which bites into the daily activities of scholarly research (through, for example, the digitisation of scholarly resources) and the art market (online bidding at international auction houses is set to rise), virtualises our formerly rooted art objects, or casts the virtual, ephemeral and fast-paced, in the form of contemporary performance, video or film, as the experience of the real.
Yet how much has really changed? Or, more precisely, is changing? Is the rise and rise of contemporary itself all that new? “Modern art flourished as never before, and the market in Old Masters collapsed.” This is Francis Haskell writing not of today but of 1840s Britain. “These years of feverish railway speculation, appalling famine and political disturbances were golden ones for the connoisseur… frenzied propaganda to persuade the new rich to invest their money in contemporary pictures; a succession of forgery scandals much publicised in the Art-Journal and similar papers to frighten the public off so-called Old Masters… all these had their effect.” Our taste for the contemporary may yet turn and turn about.
The writer is a lecturer in 19th-century art at the Courtauld Institute of Art
To read more from the special report on past masters in our March issue, pick up a copy on newsstands or subscribe to our digital or print editions.
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