1989 was a fine year. Not perhaps as erotique as its 20-year predecessor (© Jane Birkin & Serge Gainsbourg), but an interesting one nevertheless, and most remarkable for the fall of the Berlin Wall in the November. That wasn’t the trigger for any major art movements, but it’s as good a starting point as any and, if a week is a long time in politics (© Harold Wilson), 26 years is a very long time in terms of contemporary art.
This is an entertaining and well thought-out narrative that knits together, as far as is possible, the many strands that make up the work of the last quarter-century. It is, says the blurb, “a reassessment of art’s place in society and the financial value that should be placed on it”. The period, it adds, “has seen a complete untethering of what art can be”. Well, the vision that Kelly Grovier conjures up in the first paragraph of his introduction will be either iconic or nightmarish according to your taste. It also suggests, I think, a willingness not to take a subject that could get very hipsterishly beardy too seriously. Navel-gazing is never attractive in an art critic.
Such an upheaval as the book predicates is a lot to cover in 224 pages and this is a brave and largely successful attempt. The blurb (always the first place to go for what the publisher thinks a book is about) tells me that this is part of Thames & Hudson’s World of Art series. This is, I think, a hint not to look for too much depth, but rather to regard it as a primer, and it’s none the worse for that. Sometimes you long for an overview and this is a pretty majestic one.
As well as a consistent narrative and a fair amount of text (squeezed in by small, but not unreadable type), the book is filled with illustrations – some 220 of them – as it should be. 200 seems to be a magic number here, as it’s also the number of artists featured. These range from Jeff Koons and Banksy to Christo and Cornelia Parker. Ai Wei Wei crops up in the first illustrations, the sequence Dropping A Han Dynasty Urn, one of the first acts of art as vandalism (or is it?). Immediately, your definition of art is challenged.
I’ll admit that I’m a bit bothered by the concern with the financial value of art. I know we have to consider it, and that the right name can demand millions but, in the end, shouldn’t the critic look at it for its own sake? And anyway, who’s right, you, me or Brian Sewell (of blessed memory)? Maybe it’s the buyer, but we all know they have more money than taste.
Enjoy this. You’re supposed to.
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