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The good, the bad and the avant-garde

The renewed debate about contemporary art is missing the point, argues Kenan Malik

Is contemporary art meaningful or is it just fit for the skip? The spit and fury of the current debate between the champions of avant-garde art and their critics has been amusing to watch.

The spark for the debate came with the decision of the Tate Gallery to put back on show Carl Andre's 'Equivalent VIII' as part of a new exhibition of minimalist art. Better known as the 'Tate bricks', 'Equivalent VIII' is a sculpture consisting of 120 fire bricks (arranged into two layers to give the work 'greater mass' according to the guide). When the Tate bought the piece back in 1972 it caused an almighty 'Is this Art?' furore.

This time criticism of Andre's work is part of a wider disquiet about the whole idea of avant-garde art. A number of recent exhibitions and awards - the prestigious Turner prize, the Barclays Young Artists competition, the Gravity and Grace retrospective of sixties and seventies sculpture at the Hayward Gallery, an exhibition of New British Artists at the Saatchi Gallery - have all drawn the wrath of more conservative critics. 'Let's return this rubbish to the dump', thundered the veteran London Evening Standard critic Brian Sewell.

The backlash against the avant garde has prompted a vigorous defence of contemporary art by critics who consider themselves the guardians of progress. 'You can't turn the clock back', argues Sarah Kent, art critic of London's Time Out magazine. True enough. Many of those throwing up their hands in horror at the state of contemporary art are the kind who believe all our problems began in the sixties - the 1860s, with Manet's exhibitions at the Paris Salon. However, the champions of the avant garde are as conservative and backward-looking as their critics. We don't have to turn the clock back to the days of Rembrandt and Michelangelo. But nor do we have to delude ourselves that just because a work of art is 'contemporary' it must be meaningful.

The problem for me with much contemporary art is not that it is 'bad', but that it simply does not function as art. To debate the worth of avant-garde figures like Damien Hirst or Sarah Lucas as artists is a bit like trying to discuss the merits of Neighbours as drama. There is simply no connection.

The basic function of art, I would argue, is to communicate. The artist takes an aspect of life and attempts to recreate it in such a way as to provide the audience with a fresh insight into their experiences. What we consider to be 'good' art are those works that manage to illuminate our experiences more profoundly. But whether we consider a work of art to be 'good' or 'bad', we must surely demand of all art that it communicate some understanding of our relationship with the external world.

Contemporary art does not set out to communicate. Take Carl Andre's 'Equivalent VIII'. What can it say to us? At best it can say, 'Make of me what you will'. What insights we might achieve are entirely dependent on what we project on to the piece. Our appreciation has nothing to do with the sculpture itself. Had there been 120 garden gnomes arranged on the floor of the Tate, the form of the piece might have been different but it could have said nothing different to the viewer - because the artist has made no attempt to speak to the viewer. It is this arbitrary nature of artistic endeavour that makes contemporary art so pitiful to me.

So arbitrary is art today that it is impossible to visit a gallery without first consulting a catalogue. Take the current exhibition of 'New British Artists' at the Saatchi Gallery in London. The catalogue is as essential to making sense of the works here as a phrase book would be to an English tourist in Paris or Rome.

One of the key pieces is a steam installation by Rose Finn-Kelcey. It looks like a huge steam press, with steam wafting between the perforated floor and a metal canopy. What are we to make of it? Better consult the catalogue. 'An almost miraculous union between technology and poetry, stasis and spontaneity, order and chaos', it explains. 'A metaphor, if you like, for a state of balance between the masculine and feminine principles.' The artist, it adds, is playing God, directing a wilful element - steam - and celebrating its glorious energy. 'Was it to appease His wrath', demands the catalogue, 'that she offered God a house?'.

Phew! John Lennon once said of the avant garde that it was French for bullshit. Whoever wrote the Saatchi catalogue has evidently managed to translate it into English.

Whether we are talking about Sarah Lucas' 'Two Eggs and a Kebab' ('demonstrates a healthy lack of pretension and pomposity that makes masculine self-aggrandizement and myth-making seem absurdly narcissistic') or Mark Wallinger's pastiche of Stubbs' racehorses (a model, apparently, both of the class system and the operations of capital), whatever meaning these works have are contained not in the works themselves, but in the catalogue. But what is the point of a work of art if we can only appreciate it once the artist has told us what we should appreciate in it?

I am not arguing that a work of art should be understood spontaneously, or that formal criticism or scholarly study have no place in appreciation. But when external commentary is all that makes a work comprehensible, it is worth asking what the purpose of the artefact is. It would have been as illuminating for me to sit at home with the catalogue as it was to walk around the Saatchi gallery.

I am not making a case here against abstract or even minimalist art. All art, after all, is an abstraction. For art to have an impact, the artist must go beyond superficial appearances and present a more profound insight. The major artists of the twentieth century have all confronted the problem of how to make sense of a world that appears increasingly fragmented through greater and greater abstraction. Joyce and Picasso, Stravinsky and Brecht - all tried to use fragmentary and abstract forms to convey a deeper understanding of the reality beneath the surface.

The problem with modern-day art is, paradoxically, that it is not abstract enough. Karl Marx once said of the nineteenth-century writer Adam Muller that his 'profundity consists in perceiving the clouds of dust on the surface and then having the presumption to assert that all this dust is really very important and mysterious'. The same could be said of today's avant garde. Unable to move beyond the superficial, the avant garde serves us up with art for art's sake, with no connection to any broader themes.

Back at the Tate, Carl Andre has another piece - '144 Magnesium Square', consisting of 144 tiles laid across the floor. I stumbled across it, literally, only realising it was there after walking right over it. Most visitors don't even know that they have stepped on an exhibit. I wonder what the catalogue has to say about that?

Steam installation by Rose Finn-Kelcey

Psycho mania

Are films getting too violent? Alka Singh enters the debate

'As these films are about men who rape, murder and rob without remorse a certain amount of hysteria about cinema reaching new extremes of violence was inevitable.' So wrote Jim Shelley in the Guardian recently, talking about films such as Reservoir Dogs, Man Bites Dog and Bad Lieutenant which, according to some critics, herald the emergence of a 'New Brutalism' in the cinema.

The way some critics write, you would imagine they had never seen a Martin Scorsese film in their lives. When it comes to the depiction of explicit, casual violence, of throwaway humour combined with a gritty realism, few directors can match Scorsese. 'New Brutalists' like Quentin Tarantino and Abel Ferrara openly acknowledge their debt to films like Mean Streets (just re-released in Britain) and Taxi Driver.

So there's nothing new about New Brutalism. So is there anything brutal about it? Well, yes these films are brutal in a literal way. But again, that's nothing we've not seen before. While the hoo-ha continues over Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, his earlier Driller Killer still awaits certification.

The new wave of films touch on well-worn themes of camaraderie, loyalty and a search for some sort of salvation, but in a context in which conventional morality is bankrupt. Any positive impulse in these films only exists in a twisted form, and ends up creating more mayhem. In Reservoir Dogs Mr White's desire to do good by the injured Mr Orange backfires and ends with everyone getting killed. Harvey Keitel's Bad Lieutenant can only express his intense confusion at the rape of a nun by committing an obscene act of his own. In this sense the films reveal a wider cynicism and withdrawal from definite statements about 'right' and 'wrong'.

In fact these films are actually quite moral in their own way. Their creation of a credible morally perverse world only reinforces the idea that certain things are morally unacceptable. And just to ensure that the message is driven home, all the baddies in all these films get killed. But these moral endings are not clear-cut enough for America in the nineties.

The controversy around these films has little to do with what happens on-screen. The real fuss is about what is happening in off-screen America. What the critics of New Brutalism fear is not so much violence on screen as moral uncertainties in society. What they want are films that are less ambiguous and more affirmative of basic American values.

Critic Michael Medved's new book, Hollywood v America, sets the tone. Medved brings Pat Buchanan's 'cultural wars' to Tinseltown, adding Hollywood to the list of conservative bogeys - such as the sixties, liberal education, single mothers, welfare programmes and blacks - supposed to have caused moral degeneracy in America. 'The ominous view of the world conveyed by popular culture', writes Medved, 'contributes powerfully to the insecurity and paranoia that in turn facilitates increased levels of criminal activity. A fearful attitude makes it far more likely that average Americans will huddle protectively in their own homes, taking no responsibility for the state of their neighbourhoods and their communities'.

Medved lets the cat out of the bag here. What he is really worried about is that middle America has nothing positive to hold on to or to aspire to. The moral certainties of the American way of life, he feels, are shakier today than ever before. And Hollywood is to blame for undermining them by producing films that seem to denigrate traditional values and mores - films like Fatal Attraction and Cape Fear.

The irony is that Hollywood itself is prey to the very fears that haunt Medved - which is why it cannot act as a guardian of the nation's morals. The fearful siege mentality of the American middle classes is now the central theme in many Hollywood films. From Fatal Attraction and Pacific Heights to Unlawful Entry and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Hollywood presents a view of America as a nightmare nation whose values are constantly threatened by unstable, unpredictable, irrational psychopaths.

Of course, Hollywood has long dealt with the theme of middle America under threat from psychopathic outsiders. Norman Bates in Psycho is only the best-known example. But these were psychos clearly outside the boundaries of decent society. Similarly, the science fiction and alien genres presented the danger as external. Through the resolution of the narrative American values and, especially, family values would be reaffirmed.

Today's psychopaths are different, not so much because they are more brutal or more violent, but because the line between who is decent and who is a psycho is more blurred. Far from being an outsider, the contemporary psycho is likely to be your nanny, your flatmate or your friendly neighbourhood cop. And far from the narrative resolving the distinction between 'good' and 'evil', in today's films the heroes often end up looking as evil as the supposed baddie (think, for example, about Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction).

The moral superiority of American middle class life and values is no longer assured. Such ambiguity in the face of an increasingly uncertain reality is too much for Medved and his fellow critics.

Rave is out, Rolf is in. Alan Renehan is down.

Is pop dead?

'Never in the history of pop music has so much bullshit been created by so few.' I am usually of the mind that musicians should stick to what they are good at and forget the polemics. But on this particular occasion Bono's comment on the recent Brit Awards is a worthy opening to an obituary for pop music.

They were all there at the Brit Awards: Genesis, Eric Clapton, Kate Bush, Annie Lennox, Mick Hucknall and, in spirit at least, the Shh!...you know who. Never mind a tribute to Ebeneezer Goode, there wasn't even a mention of any music that wasn't white, safe and boring. If you are listening to Shabba Ranks mixing up Deborah Glasgow with the vinyl master Dave Morales you would think that this was just a back-slapping session for the old school tie brigade of the majors in the record industry. Watching the Brit Awards you would never have guessed that 2-Unlimited was at Number One or that Felix's 'Don't You Want My Love' is probably as well known (and as annoying I might concede) as 'Brown Girl in the Ring' was in its day.

Today, no major label is willing to throw money at a new face or sound. Virgin has halved its number of contracts, Pop Will Eat Itself has been shown the door by RCA and Talkin' Loud has dropped Omar who, if you cast your mind back a year or two, was plugged as the new darling of the industry. Even Norman Jay has been ditched from Talkin' Loud due to orders from 'above'.

The point, it seems, is that slump Britain means not only austerity measures and redundancies. It is also reflected in (and I hate the phrase) our culture. Bankruptcies, mergers, roster-trimming are all occurring across the board in the record industry. Friends of mine have started new labels, or are in the process of doing so. But the demise of Manchester's Factory Records, the largest independent label in the country, is at the back of many people's minds. When the pillar of the 'centre of the universe' comes tumbling down few remain unaffected.

As for the major labels, who is going to invest in 'potential' when you can guarantee that rolling out the wheelchair brigade will ensure an easy payback? So we are served up with stale, crusty Rod Stewart and as many cover versions as possible. When Rolf Harris can get into the Top Ten and appear on The Word you know society is up shit creek, and when Buddy Holly zooms into Number One...well you've lost the paddle.

Cover versions and revival mania are not confined to the pop establishment. Sister Sledge, Heaven 17, Sunscream, Bizarre Inc, The Stereo MCs have all taken from or been heavily influenced by the seventies. The seventies is cool again and that, to be honest, is a nightmare. And just when you think it can't get any worse, along comes the Abba revival.

So what has happened to creativity and innovation? What has happened to rave and all that? Now, I never imagined that raving and all the offshoots from those hazy days of '88 and '89 would change the world, but I did hope it might change the content of music a little. And for a while it did seem that people getting hold of samplers, decks and other equipment would provide a lifeline into pop which was vitally needed.

But music can only reflect the ideas and aspirations of society at large. And today society is obsessed with and, to a large extent, living in the past. The latest fashion supplement from Elle is so concerned with the retro look that every section looks like it could have just emerged from a time capsule: 'hippy', 'florals', 'flares', 'stripes'. It is symptomatic of our age. Whether it's commemorations of some obscure event in Britain's history or a repeat of a naff seventies sitcom on TV, there is nothing fresh or innovative in our culture.

So why expect there to be anything fresh or innovative in music? Pop like everything else has become part of the heritage industry and survives by reselling its past. At least producer Pete Waterman is happy. Cover versions are not stale rip-offs, he says, they're 'tributes'. And recycling old dross is sound because it's 'environmentally friendly'. Only the man who brought you Kylie and Jason could have thought of that.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 54, April 1993

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