The Flat-Footed Nihilism of Contemporary British Art by Janet Daley

Janet Daley

The Flat-Footed Nihilism of Contemporary British Art


No-one who has had any prolonged contact with the visual arts in this country could have failed to be aware of a profound anti-intellectualism and professional xenophobia which distinguishes the British artist from his European and American counterparts. This insistence on an inalienable distinction between the practice of art and any ideas which might be had about it, varies in intensity from dyspeptic irritability with any would-be theoretical distractions, to full-blown paranoia about the encroachment of academic concerns. Distrust of theoretical or interpretative activity has been institutionalized (as opposed to caused) by the art schools, in which the teaching of art historical and critical issues is handled with surgical separateness from studio practice.

It is only in Britain that such an isolation of the visual arts from wider intellectual activity is maintained. Over the last two centuries the great artistic movements of continental painting have had close ties with their analogous literary and philosophical schools: romanticism, neo-classicism, naturalism, symbolism, surrealism, constructivism, expressionism, realism, futurism and early avant-garde anti-art can all be seen as playing their parts in a wider cultural mood or self-conscious movement. Painters often combined with their poet, playwright or novelist counterparts to produce manifestoes. Their contributions to café theorising and salon revolutions are well documented in many nineteenth and twentieth century diaries. Periods of great social and cultural crisis or change were committed to history in the literature and journalism of the time while the literati themselves were being depicted by their artist comrades. But in Britain during the corresponding years, painting and sculpture went their own way. Constable and Turner, the two singularly great figures of early modern British art, can be interpreted as bearing some relationship to romantic poetry but they certainly were not aligned, not self-consciously in league, with any corresponding literary movement. Victorian portraiture and salon painting (now coming in for something of a reappraisal in the backlash against abstraction) lived its own aristocratic existence; apparently oblivious to the novels of radical social protest which were coming to dominate literary concerns. There were, indeed, minor painters who depicted scenes of nineteenth century poverty and industrial working conditions but they too, oddly enough, seem to have worked in isolation and not in deliberate partnership with radical intellectuals of the time. (The Pre-Raphaelites were something of an exception to this rule and this is one more factor which serves to distinguish them as the great eccentrics of modern British art history.)

The distillation of this historical tendency in contemporary consequences results in a bizarre impoverishment of artistic content. British art, which was historically at its best (although its best was almost always inferior to continental contemporaries) when depicting landscape, or people in domestic settings – when being, in other words, straightforwardly empirical – is least equipped to deal with an art in which content is lost or obscured. Its response to the late twentieth century has been to diverge into two camps, one relying on ludicrously over-inflated pseudo-intellectualism (thereby providing an excruciatingly embarrassing glimpse of the gauche amateurishness of art school intellectual aspirations) and the other defiantly trivial and mundane, substituting an obsession with material itself for genuine artistic content.

British avant-garde art of the sixties and seventies, with its fifth form scientificism, garbled pop-metaphysics or politically illiterate radicalism was a grotesque essay in intellectual naiveté. Its most significant feature, for all its academic pretensions, was its singular failure to emerge from its own closed world to make any genuine alliance with other cultural circles. Although it dabbled in philosophy, experimental theatre, mathematics and concrete poetry, no alliances with professional practitioners of those disciplines was ever seriously broached. (This is, perhaps, simply a function of perennial British amateurism and arguably not a foible unique to visual artists.)

It is my passionately held conviction that British art has suffered appallingly from its own intellectual vacuousness and introversion. For whatever reason, perhaps the profound literariness of the dominant culture and its consequent trivialising of the visual, painting and sculpture in Britain have failed to take part in the mainstream of intellectual life. Their hived-off existence has meant they have received none of the enriching subtlety which can be imparted to the content of art by participation in greater cultural concerns.

Introversion in the arts, taken to its logical conclusion, results in the sort of degeneration which we can observe in recent British abstraction: painting which is perversely self-limiting autistic notation; sculpture which is not even so much about itself (whatever that could mean) as about what it is made of. Uninitiated visitors to successive Hayward Annual Exhibitions will have been exposed to a bewildering array of progressively more unintelligible hieroglyphs counterpointed by sculptural objects which seem to celebrate only the fact that one formless thing can be juxtaposed against another equally formless thing. This is the apotheosis of an art tradition which is anti-idea and anti-historical, which takes mindlessness as a virtue.

It is anti-intellectualism which accounts for the hostility met by the recent move towards figurative painting in this country. The ugliest pejorative in art school (and many art critical) circles is ‘literary’ which is rained freely on any painting with allusions to a world of cultural reference outside of painting itself. Until recently, the very notion of thematic or narrative elements in painting would have provoked bilious outrage in orthodox artistic circles, and there are still a great many art schools in which students are bullied out of such concerns. A Manichean dualism between visual and mental, between sensory experience (which is the province of painting and sculpture) and the life of rationality is taken as given and British art withers in the rarefied, inaccessible atmosphere in which it voluntarily encloses itself. The last 100 years of its history are pitiful by comparison with its more cerebral continental counterparts (and of the most important artists working here at the moment, it is noteworthy how many of them are not English, i.e. Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, R. B. Kitaj) and still it resists any possible contamination, any sapping of its specialised energies by the seductions of intellectual adventure.

Those outstanding empiricist virtues of British artists – lucidity and acuteness of observation – have analogues in our modern literature and philosophy. There is common ground between the great figurative painting tradition of Britain and wider cultural proclivities. But the capacity to observe with clarity is of no application in an art without representational content. For abstraction to be credible, it must have a supra-rational or metaphysical base and metaphysics is not the strong point of British intellectual life. It is human scale and rational intercourse at which we excel and a distaste for the cosmic does not lie happily with abstraction: it reduces it to pattern-making or trivial retinal sensation. But the failure to grasp the sense in which. abstraction is somehow inimical to the most characteristic strengths of British art, is symptomatic of a great failure of historical understanding. Instead of appreciating the fact that abstraction requires intellectual feats verging on the hyperbolic to maintain its veracity, British abstractionists systematise their native resistance to ideas into a mute insistence that the art work is only about itself (or its material), and, further, that this flat-footed nihilism is the essence of abstraction. Only through an integration into the historical understanding of their culture can the visual arts find their own strengths and through dialogue with ideas, some viable content.

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