I’ve been crying a lot recently. Maybe it’s my advancing years making me more sentimental; that has to be a factor. What certainly hasn’t helped is listening to the new Siavash Amini album Tar. The killer combination of melancholy and a dark, dark romanticism from an extremely talented musician (and pals) just does it every time. So much so that writing a coherent review is nigh on impossible. I just well up. So instead, I’ve written a rant.
This is a bit on the long-winded side. If you can’t be bothered to read it, I don’t blame you. So, spoiler alert, this album is awesome. Buy it now.
Contemporary art is rubbish. Often literally. Take the work by arch contemporistas Sara Goldschmied and Eleonora Chiari whose installation ‘Where Shall We Go Dancing Tonight?’ at the Museion in Bolzano was summarily swept away by the cleaners the morning after the preview evening. The work was a comment on the corruption of 1980s Italy and tried to evoke a decadence inspired by Paolo Sorrentino’s film ‘Il Divo’. To the early-morning cleaners it was merely a lot of empty wine bottles, streamers and confetti strewn on the floor. Maybe you could see the action of the cleaners as vindication of the work’s vitality and power and that the cleaners, lacking the intellectual chops required in the Contemporary art world, simply did not get it. On the other hand, maybe they had what seems so unimportant these days, an actual aesthetic appreciation, and decided enough was enough and voted with the brooms and bin-liners. What if the curator (normally misused term of the decade but in this case I mean it) had pointed out to them that this was an important Art Work, had demonstrated this to them by showing them the price tag, would they have gone about their nocturnal tidyings more reverentially? I like to hope not.
A similar fate has befallen works by Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Grayson Perry announced in the Reith Lectures, the BBC’s annual flagship series, that 90% of contemporary art is rubbish. Yet everyone knows their names. Still lambasted in the popular, anti-intellectual, anti-arts, press, prices for their work continue to soar and exhibitions of Contemporary art see lines of time-sensitive ticket holders still queuing and craning to see the works. Coverage of the Turner Prize grows every year. They appear not only on Arts & Culture shows but also are regulars on popular panel shows such as Newsnight and QI. Yet more popular culture is not immune. Public works of art that have appeared on London’s Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth project have pretty universally been conceptual — dismissed, derided and heralded in equal measure. The irony is of course that the fourth plinth is deliberately empty of substantial substance and will remain so until the Queen dies, when, after a short reverential period, a statue of Her Maj is installed. People will love it.
There’s a massive contradiction here. Contemporary art, art that requires at best a primarily intellectual rather than aesthetic response, and, at its most inexcusable, has no message at all other than its controversy, size or ridiculousness, has become the public face of modern art. Easily attacked and those attacks equally easily dismissed by The Curators as the bleating of the uneducated “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like” brigade. Yet its popularity and influence grows and its position as THE modern art movement entrenches. Why?
Maybe it’s because Contemporary Art is for people with no art.
In my youth, Art Appreciation was a subject that could be studied and learnt. You could learn to appreciate and understand not just the pretty and representational but the vulgar, the upsetting, the abstract, the modern. Hell, you could even grow to like them. And I did. But what was underlying all this was the understanding that the old “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” concept is wrong. Instead we were told that we needed a set of aesthetic standards so we could determine the quality, and therefore the worthiness, of art. And that this set of standards, through being taught, was pretty universal amongst the increasingly insular and elitist art world. We had ‘taste’.
The problem with this is that it plays down the importance of the issue of how you ‘respond’ when you look at art (or read a book, or listen to music.) There’s nothing wrong with spending time and understanding the work, appreciating the technique, putting it in a historical and cultural perspective and understanding it on a more intellectual level, but to ignore how something makes you feel, especially when you first encounter it in a fully engaged manner, is madness. To lose this emotional response through analysis is tragic.
When I was young and full of ‘taste’, I went to the first major retrospective of Andy Warhol at the Tate. Among the Marilyn diptychs, the Campbell Soups and Silver Car Crashes were his piles of cereal packets and his Brillo box stuff and it was the first time I’d seen the ephemera of modern life presented as art. And then there were the films. And the Factory. And ‘The Scene’ with artists, intellectuals, hangers-on and wealthy patrons all waiting for their 15 minutes of fame. The Artist himself. All presented as Art. It didn’t compute. It seemed a slap in the face to my tasteful education and, what’s more, people who hadn’t learnt taste loved it. I was in shock.
I’d seen ordinary things made art by their inclusion in a gallery space before. Marchel Duchamp’s Urinal Fountain thing for example (incidentally a work that was also consigned to the bin) but this was Modern, this was Now. And I dug it!
Thanks to John Berger’s TV show ‘Ways of Seeing’, I got that the modern means of artistic production and of artistic reproduction had destroyed the aesthetic, cultural, and political authority of art as “For the first time ever, images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free”, and as such were lacking the aura of the original work of art. And I understood Warhol as a reaction to this devaluation – the Artist fighting back, redefining what can be called art and how that art is made. And that’s when the rot set in.
Intellectualising art rather than responding emotionally.
For Contemporary art, it was a short skip and a jump from here to production lines. The idea became more important than the actual execution. The art itself became mass-producible, or temporary, or a moment in time, or throwaway. We’re back to rubbish. Add in one-off large-scale shock pieces for rock’n’roll notoriety and you get priceless yet valueless.
Contemporary art became art about the easy concept or gimmick, the 15 minute artist, the commercial. By the ease. For something originally so intrinsically antagonistic and justified by the ‘intellectual’ process behind it (although by now usually retrospectively), it became anti-art, anti-art-expert, commodity commercial. And it got simpler.
Rock replaced jazz.
But does getting a bunch of fawning acolytes to dribble paint on a spinning disc constitute art? Bollocks it does, Damien.
I heard somewhere that the rise of Contemporary art is the “triumph of the one liner”, that the essence of contemporary art is a “smart, precise, quickly absorbed conceptual masterstroke.” It addresses the speed and distraction of contemporary life. The simplicity has become the secret of its success. You can grasp this art so quickly – Gormley’s huge statues or beach figures. What about Koon’s shiny balloon dogs? So easily enjoyed, not as boring old high culture but as entertainment. Remember Holler’s massive slides at the Tate Modern turbine hall? It terrified me but was massively popular (especially with my kids). Gone are the hours of investment needed. It’s spectacle. You can ‘get’ it in ten minutes. Or at least have a fun afternoon.
Pop replacing rock. EDM replacing hip-hop.
Art has lost its soul. Art became intellectual-lite or simply entertainment for a world that is too busy to look and too distracted to feel. It’s art for people who can’t be bothered with art.
So….where to look for real contemporary art in this world of mechanical and now digital reproduction. Art for art. Personal and emotional. Work that stands analysis yet also defies it. Proper art.
Music for one. Not the sugar-coated, recipe-driven world of pneumatically enhanced, vacuous instant hit type music but the experimental. The low-key. The almost anonymous.
Music that is exemplified by ‘Tar’ by Siavash Amini.
Here is a work that provokes an emotional, almost visceral, response. It captivates, manipulates and dumps you emotionally battered on the floor. Yet it does so without gimmick, without tricks but just by dint of its art. Yes, you can analyse it, take it apart, try and understand it. You can appreciate the techniques involved – the huge musical ability demonstrated. You can, given the will and patience, find out about the artist, try and understand what has gone into the making of such powerful music. You can try and read into it (what you imagine to be) the artist’s experience. You can, and I think you should.
But it won’t help you fully appreciate this album. Simply put, like all real art, its power lies beyond the sum of its parts, as fantastic as they are. It lies in its pure emotional power, its Art. And this is Great Art. And you have to respond.
And if you disagree, it’s because you have no ‘taste.’
Released by the awesome Hallow Ground label on LP & CD. Available to order from all good stockists.