Trends Market Maastricht United Kingdom

Out with the old, in with the newest

Is the cult of contemporary banishing older art to the Dark Ages?

Bored by Old Masters?

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.

More from The Art Newspaper


19 Mar 13
14:40 CET


Lecturers in older periods of world art must indeed feel isolated. One could take this discussion in all sorts of directions as to why, but one culprit is the notion of art as evolutionary and progressive which dominated 20th century thinking on the visual arts, especially with the huge number of developments over the century. In truth, art evolves with the culture it is part of over time. New aesthetics emerge, flourish and then die, just as in music. For example, who but a few listen to Ragtime anymore, but does that make Scott Joplin a dud? Is the Baroque any more or less meaningful or brilliant than a Gothic cathedral or Eutruscan sculpture or prehistoric cave paintings? Of course not. They all represent the pinnacle of an aesthetic and philosophical movement as expressed through its most brilliant minds and skilled craftspeople. We are lucky in this age to be able to enjoy them all.

18 Mar 13
2:32 CET


Your logic! "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?" take, Beyond the impotence of the individual artists´s hand, what can contemporary "forms of art" that recite nothing, narrate nothing, have to offer nothing when the language for these forms of self- money transformation speculation and self transcendence increasingly requires a massive unsustainable act of anty cultural propaganda to be sold? Sir, the Greco Roman Mythology and phylosophy and the Judeo Christianity is the building matter of the reason of West's culture and mentality, and of great many of world's cultured population. You cannot throw it away! Or we perish, if you do so. Is that what you want?

14 Mar 13
19:44 CET


Hilarious. You have it all wrong. People are realizing that modern art means absolutely nothing and anyone can actually say they are an artist. My take is that the old masters, according to Sothebys, are spiraling out of control. Less supply equals more demand. In turn, when in the future people look at all the junk produced today, they will wonder what happened to our society and how they could ever call the stuff we think is art today anything but the junk it is.

14 Mar 13
17:58 CET


Nice analysis. Been wondering why my taste for the 'new' has declined. Morandi says more to me than latest LES thingie. Touch & paint handling survive after all. Cool to see the UK quote. Thanks.

Submit a comment

All comments are moderated. If you would like your comment to be approved, please use your real name, not a pseudonym. We ask for your email address in case we wish to contact you - it will not be made public and we do not use it for any other purpose.


Want to write a longer comment to this article? Email


Share this