There is a pattern typical of these end-phase periods, when an artistic movement ossifies. At such times there is exaggeration and multiplication instead of development. A once new armoury of artistic concepts, processes, techniques and themes becomes an archive of formulae, quotations or paraphrasings, ultimately assuming the mode of self-parody.
Over the last decade, not only conceptualism—perhaps the dominant movement of the past three decades—but the entire modernist project has been going through a similar process. Of course, some important and inspired artists have made important and inspired work in recent years—from famous photographers like Andreas Gursky and painters like Luc Tuymans to lesser-known video artists like Lindsay Seers and Anri Sala. But there is something more fundamentally wrong with much of this century’s famous art than its absurd market value.
I believe that this decline shares four aesthetic and ideological characteristics with the end-phases of previous grand styles: formulae for the creation of art; a narcissistic, self-reinforcing cult that elevates art and the artist over actual subjects and ideas; the return of sentiment; and the alibi of cynicism.
But in order clearly to see what is in front of our eyes, we must acknowledge that much of the last decade’s most famous work has been unimaginative, repetitious, formulaic, cynical, mercenary. Why wait for future generations to dismiss this art of celebrity, grandiosity and big money? To paraphrase Trotsky, let us turn to these artists, their billionaire patrons and toadying curators and say: “You are pitiful, isolated individuals. You are bankrupts. Your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on—into the dustbin of art history!”
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Why is so much contemporary art awful? We’re living through the death throes of the modernist project—and this isn’t the first time that greatness has collapsed into decadence