Critiquing Contemporary Art

*Judges from ‘Work of Art’ image per Bravo TV

Those with a long association with Lesley Kehoe Galleries will be familiar with our emphasis on beauty and lack of patience with much of the over-intellectualized concept-driven work that struts the stage of the contemporary art world.  When, I have wondered, will the artificial and speculative marketing of ideas made concrete in the unimaginably crude trumped up as art be called into question…when will that innocent challenge the crowd with ‘but he’s not wearing any clothes’? It seems that the challenge has commenced, and not just amongst we of the conservative ‘rank and file’ who don’t really understand!

Renowned international collector of art Charles Saatchi recently made some apposite remarks on the contemporary art world. In refreshingly forthright language in the Guardian (full article), Saatchi calls into question the credentials of the ‘uber-dealers’ and their rich clientele questioning whether there is any genuine interest or understanding of art: “ If I stop being on good behaviour for a moment, my dark little secret is that I don’t actually believe many people in the art world have much feeling for art and simply cannot tell a good artist from a weak one, until the artist has enjoyed the validation of others – a received pronunciation. For professional curators, selecting specific paintings for an exhibition is a daunting prospect, far too revealing a demonstration of their lack of what we in the trade call “an eye”. They prefer to exhibit videos, and those incomprehensible post-conceptual installations and photo-text panels, for the approval of their equally insecure and myopic peers. This “conceptualised” work has been regurgitated remorselessly since the 1960s, over and over and over again.”

Similar sentiments were expressed in the last few days by Australian artist Ronald Millar in The Age Canvas section ‘ Critics should not be too arrogant…’ (read full article). Responding to Age critic’s Robert Nelson’s recent critique of a Roar group exhibition as concept deficient and having nothing to say, Millar defends the visual as a language independent of, and not translatable to, the social, political and theoretical: “ Since words are easier for most academic historians and theorists to understand than images, endless revivals of watered-down last century conceptual art still dominate the current scene.”

In support of the visual and the spiritual solace of the beautiful, I was reminded of comments made by the internationally renowned Australian photographic artist Bill Henson at a public lecture earlier this year ‘Contemporary Art and the public arena’ .(View on Slow TV) Henson used the word ‘rapture’- when was the last time you heard that word, or the emotional context it suggests, in relation to art?- suggesting that we all seek rapture in our lives and it is the role of the public arts institution to provide physical and spiritual space for each of us to engage directly and intimately with works of art.  I venture to suggest that it is the physical and spiritual beauty of the works of Maio Motoko that is creating such a sensation.

Most recently, Australia’s greatest living artist, John Olsen, pondered regretfully the decline of painting and the rise of contemporary art like installations, videos, conceptual and performance art: “To me there’s no nourishment in this style of work”…it’s put best in that “marvellous book The Horse’s Mouth…’like farting Annie Laurie through a keyhole. It may be clever but is it worth the trouble?’ Where is the achievement?” (Read full article)

Were I to echo the words of Charles Saatchi above – my dark little secret when not on best behaviour- I have to confess that this trend of extravagant and conspicuous purchasing of  ‘brand’ artists validated by others has seeped into the Japanese art world.  At a recent Bonhams sale in London, an item by 19th century lacquer artist Shibata Zeshin, catalogued as an inro,  but actually a tonkotsu or tobacco container, reached a record price of 265,250GBP.  The work featured in the Charles Greenfield Collection catalogue sale in 1990 with a reputed price of 60,000GBP. The recent sale price more than doubled a previous record price established earlier this year in May for an inro by the same artist, also from the Greenfield Collection. Zeshin is without doubt the leading lacquer artist of the 19th century and both his technical and artistic prowess are indisputable. His works have always been highly sought after in the West, more so than in Japan until relatively recently, and are included in most significant holdings of Japanese art in public institutions worldwide.

I would, however, question whether the work justifies the price achieved. To quote Saatchi again, do the buyers “…simply enjoy having easily recognised, big-brand name (objects), bought ostentatiously in auction rooms at eye-catching prices, to decorate their several homes, floating and otherwise, in an instant demonstration of drop-dead cool and wealth.”