December 05, 2007
It was a sunny day like any other in London, and if you believe this you will renew your subscription to The New Criterion. The truth is, I had not spent any time here for the better part of three years, and after the lackadaisically African, insular and solar, tranquillity of Sicily the steam-powered novelty of the metropolis was all but rending me in twain. Like a modern-day Tarzan, of a Sunday I sought refuge in Regent’s Park, only to find myself surrounded by some of the fifty thousand people streaming through Frieze, “the world’s largest contemporary art fair,” as a vicious-looking stable lad at the entrance to the labyrinthine complex of tents confided in a Cockney baritone, “after Basel, tha’ is.” It was the last day of the exhibition for the 151 art galleries participating in the extravaganza. Obediently, like a provincial gull taken in by a circus poster advertising the world’s second-stupidest man, I bought myself a ticket.
Some of Dostoevsky’s most radical works, including Notes from the Underground and Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, were suggested by the publicity that European industrial expositions, such as Crystal Palace, were then receiving. The gull’s consolation prize, as I walked through the maze of tents, was the awareness that here was a moment in the development of Western culture in every way as pivotal as the Paris Universal Exposition, and that London was once again the tabernacle of progress, that is to say, of the abstraction in which men believe in so far as they equate their faith in it with reason.
My stupefaction by London had had an underlying theme, which can be summed up as the realisation that the art of representing women in Western culture, central from at least the Renaissance to the novels of the nineteenth century, has been replaced by the art of adorning them: by makeup, hairdressing and dressmaking, by the cosmetics industry and by the incalculable myriad enterprises that, like the artists’ workshops of old, strive to elevate their craft to a position of predominance. “To be adored, she must be adorned,” wrote Baudelaire. Already in 1867, the Magasin des Demoiselles – with a frankness that brings to mind Feuerbach’s dictum that nowadays “truth is considered profane and only illusion is sacred” – described the Paris Exposition, intended by its organisers as an overview of man’s technological achievement since the wheel, as “consecrated” to fabrics, clothing, ornaments and perfumes.
Today, the world market for conventional works of art is dwarfed by the cosmetics industry alone, though lipsticks and creams are a mere bagatelle when one considers the whole panoply of unconventional, contemporary, living arts that go into the making of the modern European woman, who has turned every provincial town centre into a caricature of the Faubourg St Honoré and has set for the global manufacturing industry the course of all future development. The international auction houses, whose performance is a good indication of the vitality of the art market, sold €7 billion worth of paintings and sculptures last year, most of them by other than living artists. By contrast, just the European market for cosmetics has been valued by the European Commission at €100 billion, while since 1958 the industry as a whole has grown at the average annual rate of 4% as compared with 2.8% for all manufacturing.
In short, I was entering Frieze with the conviction that what I was about to see was a displaced art, an art that has been rendered all but irrelevant, an art as marginal to the modern epoch as the art of baliage was to the Renaissance. To be sure, Venetian women had special crownless hats in which they took the sun on their rooftop altane to make their hair blonder, but it would be absurd to suppose that the manufacturer of these devices ever played a social role in some way commensurate to that of the painter of church frescos. Today, it is the New York visagiste’s styles of painting, or the Rio plastic surgeon’s sculptures, that are at the cutting edge of creativity and at the very pinnacle of social importance in our most serene global republic.
What I saw on that Sunday afternoon confirmed my intuition that the epochal significance of Frieze and other such expositions is that they have no significance: no impact on how people think or feel, no effect on their ambitions and frustrations, no relevance to the dozen ways in which the clockwork of Western society calculates. As visitors left the tents to roam through the park, their uplifted hands—which had been marked with invisible ink in case they wished to return to the fair—reminded me of worshipers in the queue for Holy Communion. The Christian church may be dying, but their interest in art appeared, if anything, more perfunctory than a Milanese banker’s minute of contemplation in the Duomo. Why look at the nude by X, their eyes seemed to say, when there is a much bigger one advertising a brassiere on the hoarding in Piccadilly Circus? What’s the big deal about the face in the sculpture by Y, when my sister-in-law had just had hers done and it looks every inch as chiselled?
The creative aims of the dying art on display, as though exactly with these disillusioning juxtapositions in mind, have been adjusted accordingly. The overall result is nothing if not reminiscent of a Marxist’s critique of religion, in which words like befuddle, mumbo jumbo, absurd, sweet dulcimer, ritual, irrational, hypocrisy and of course exploitation are relied upon to sustain the familiar argument that faith is the humbling of the masses by a ruling social elite. As I say, of faith in the power of art there was no more than a mustard seed’s worth at Frieze; yet equally, just as the Marxist would level his heaviest blows upon the institutions of a religion rather than the religion’s founding message, I would argue that the whole organum of contemporary art represented at Frieze has been designed in order to befuddle, to humiliate and to exploit. Had I the authority of the Inquisition, I would frogmarch a contemporary commentator on religion like Christopher Hitchens through all 151 of its galleries, in leg irons of course, to make the man understand what hypocrisy really is.
The works may be abstract, I noted, but the grub is as concrete as it comes. London’s renowned Le Caprice, “proud to support contemporary art by being at Frieze Art Fair for the fifth year,” lurked in the intestine depths of the labyrinth, with Braised Ham Hock with Parsley and Caper Sauce, Rump of Lamb with Autumn Squash, Pancetta & Sage, and of course Yellow-Fin Tuna with Spiced Lentils & Rocket on the menu, routinely followed by Scandinavian Iced Berries with Hot White Chocolate Sauce “or simply a glass” of chilled Château Partarrieu. Just metres away, monsters multiplied, homunculi coupled, lemurs growled and incubi vied for column inches with succubi in a grandiose panorama of deliberately indigestible, thoughtfully unappetising, maliciously repulsive foolishness. Had it been more homogenous, it might have resembled a museum of the circus. But as heterogeneity was among its vaunted achievements, it looked instead like the higgledy-piggledy display of specimen jars in which curiosities, meaning physiological aberrations of various kinds, used to be exhibited at fairgrounds until more humane laws forbade it.
A pair of Siamese twins in formaldehyde, provided the liquid was a shocking pink and the infants were joined together in some particularly disturbing manner, would have made for a suitable exhibit in one of the tents, as doubtless would the picture, foreshadowed in the story by Saki, of the hyenas dying in Trafalgar Square. Geeks, freaks, hairless dwarves, chess-playing automatons and sword-swallowing monkeys were at a premium, as they might be in swinging Westphalia in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War. Zany was the byword, with its corollaries of crazy, weird and spooky, while the attitude of the spectators, or rather of the gawkers, could be described as a mild yearning for one of life’s minor miracles, such as a smirk or a guffaw.
Philosophically, it was all about wishful thinking by syllogism. “Art is innovation,” ran the tacit argument. “If form is old hat, then deformity is cutting edge. Since nature is not art, perversion must qualify. Given that beauty is the stuff of women’s magazines and the makeup counter at Harrods, by definition ugliness has aesthetic value. If a Chanel lipstick is made with the precision of a gunlock, a Breguet tells the time long after Pushkin is dead and the silks of Hermès have a broader palette than Renoir’s, then the avant-garde way forward is in the direction of ineptitude, crayon and loo paper.” Such syllogism is reactionary, that is to say revolutionary. It is the insurrection of the faithless against the essential asymmetry of life. And, as with most revolutions, its real aims are the Braised Ham Hock and the chilled Sauternes.
It is all as it should be, however, in the historical home of the Industrial Revolution. Like religion, art began as metaphor. The materialist upheaval so weighted its main term that the metaphor became inutile, for why should a workman gaze at an image of the Virgin on a square of canvas when he can have the Virgin appear to him on the television screen in the privacy of his front parlour and speak to him in the words of a Hollywood script? Clearly, even nineteenth-century still photography, to say nothing of modern life-size plasma screens with their promise of interactive pornography, loads the dice of metaphor in favour of pseudo-reality to such a shameless degree that art cannot but lose. Why should a contemporary Pygmalion bother sculpting his Galatea? If he has money enough for plastic surgeons, makeup artists and dress designers, any juvenile unfortunate from the modern Haymarket of Eastern Europe will readily oblige him by coming to life. And if he doesn’t, he can always rent The Story of O.
Perhaps apocryphally, a reactionary by the name of Hitler once pronounced that colour film is the way of the future. Pseudo-reality would have been much broader and more accurate, but in any case the fulfilment of this apocalyptic prophecy, if Frieze is any indication, is at hand. The faithless Renaissance of our time is a utopia of material luxury, wherein the simulacrum of physical pleasure, as Guy Debord wrote in The Society of the Spectacle, is “a visual deception produced by mass media technologies.” Hence the revolutionary pseudo-art in Regent’s Park, and the dying hyenas that are its sole aesthetic hereditament.