Gasp - is contemporary British art actually any good?

May 27 2011

Image of Gasp - is contemporary British art actually any good?

Picture: Pushkin Museum, Moscow

Jonathan Jones in The Guardian dares to ask, and makes the comparison with French art at the turn of the 19th Century:

How many great works of art can we actually count that our age will bequeath posterity? Where are our Sunflowers, our apples [Cezanne] and our dancers [Degas].

There is a pitiful gulf between noise and achievement in contemporary British art. Of course, we have some good artists, some very good artists, and maybe a couple of great ones. But the vast majority of exhibitions are slight and huge numbers of artists are "farting around", as I observed of Mark Leckey the other day. I did not mean to imply he is the only bad artist. In fact, truly honest art criticism in Britain today would mostly consist of reviews like that one.

Look – as I say – do the maths. You must know how many, or rather how few, artists it is possible to truly love, how small the selection of artworks that really make an impact is. Now pick up any art magazine and sample the latest haul of significant, new, radical, cool artists: it seems there never has been and never will be an age when artists of real value proliferate so readily. Therefore, by plain logic and common sense, a vast proportion of the art we hear so much about in Britain today must be rubbish. It's that simple.

I've never been one to deride contemporary art - I think a lot of it really is excellent. But there can be no doubt at all that the prices paid for most of it are over-inflated.

Long-term, the true value of art is best established after the hype has died down. Museum collections around the world are full of once-contemporary pieces bought at the height of the primary market - but which are now worth a fraction of what was paid.

Equally, there are just as many pictures that could have been bought for nothing when painted, but which are now worth millions. Van Gogh's Red Vineyard (above), supposedly the only painting he ever sold, was bought for just 400 francs in 1890 (about $1000-1500 today). 

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