How Contemporary Art Lost Its Glamour
Suddenly, the press dares to criticise contemporary art. A number of coinciding events seem to have focussed a new, less reverential attitude towards the spin of the art world. Damien Hirst’s retrospective at the Tate and Anish Kapoor’s tower for the Olympics have borne the brunt of criticism in London. Not that these two do not invite harsh criticism in themselves, but last year they did not get it and now they do. The same strange thing happened in the USA, over Maurizio Cattelan’s exhibition at the Guggenheim — last year a darling, this year a dud. Familiar artists with familiar styles; and these projects were years in the planning, so we could hardly have been shocked by them. I suspect they are picked on, now, as examples of something which once commanded timid respect, but with which we have lost patience. It is not Hirst and Kapoor, or Cattelan who have changed; it is we ourselves. We have not been disappointed; we have become disillusioned. But how? And why now?
Significantly, the most pointed criticism has been directed less at the art than the art market. Hari Kunzru, in the Guardian, looked at Damien Hirst’s use of the market as an essential subject in his art, then suggested that Hirst’s reputation depends on his having “single-handedly remade the global art market in his image”. Felix Salmon, for Reuters, amended Kunzru’s argument: “Hirst … has moved himself out of the art market and into the consumption-goods market: he manufactures art works, sets the prices for them, and sells them to anybody willing to buy them. Once you have bought a Hirst, you then exhibit it as a way of displaying your wealth and, um, taste.”
Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit, commissioned for the Olympic Park, provoked a different debate, over the state’s irresponsibility in sponsoring art so inflated by fashion and so unappealing to the populace. Libby Purves, in The Times, called the tower “a twisted red object … painfully visible from the Stratford train for weeks. It is Britain’s biggest public sculpture, cost £22.7 million, of which you and I paid more than £3 million.”