on November 26, 2003
might be how some people might see the content of this book's argument. I would have to disagree with them. This is an unusual book, cutting in its honesty and rationality. Written by one of the most vocal and learned critics today, this book argues for something which concerns the life of art and the place of art in life. At some point in his very active career as curator, critic, and museum director, Spalding decided that he had had enough -- enough of trying to the clothes the Emperor was emphatically NOT wearing. In this book he addresses the question of why he has never met anyone who could, with genuine enthusiam and love, say to him, "You simply MUST see this" about contemporary art. What is behind the alienation of art from life? Why has art become so solipsistic? So onanistic?
Just because he wants to see less offensive material in art, Spalding is not therefore out to argue for something underhahdedly smarmy and specious, like the importance of art's being earnest or being accessible to "the people." Spalding is by and large impartial in his attitude toward what art used to be, did, and can still do. In other words, he accepts art's aristocratic alliance as a matter of historical fact. He also accepts the break with tradition that modern art had to accomplish in order to open new horizons. Spalding is neither a condescending snob nor a churlish champion of the hoi poloi, but he presents the situation of today's art as one that has no voice, and no language, to speak to anyone (high or low) but only to its deaf self and a handful of self-appointed members of the pointlessly esoteric priesthood.
Spalding has been around a while and has seen much of the making of modern art on both sides of the Atlantic and now tells the story of how, and when (1937) the eclipse of art in our time began so as to put us in total darkness today. But the story he tells is not all gloom and doom. He does not deny that there is great art in our time. But the main focus of his argument is that art has today become, for the most part, something akin to an abomination, and a very tedious and depressing one at that. "What is there to really get out of looking at a rotting cow head being eaten by a swarm of flies?" he asks rhetorically, referring to what the Tate Modern bought having declared it a significant work of art.
If Spalding seems the odd man out in the art establishment, he probably is. Spalding's stance is simply that of a thinking man who still believes that art's core values are tied to its ability to communicate something about that by which human beings are oriented and reoriented, if strangely, unto some plane of experience most of us feel is higher and more vibrantly life-affirming.
Spalding apparently lacks humor, patience, or artistic acumen, but he just cannot be convinced that human excrement packaged in tin cans is art. And perhaps that's where and how he stands apart from his colleagues at prestigious museums who think nothing of spending $20,000+ for such cans putatively filled with some artist's own excrement. (Not that they ever verified the content.)
His argument will have some people throwing eggs and tomatoes at him -- real or cyber -- for not appreciating the spirit of contemporary art. But Spalding presents a very cogent picture of why and how the eclipse -- or a series of eclipses in learning, language, content, and discipline -- came to be historically, and how that eclipse has come to benight art's original and engendering powers.
Spalding's vision of art is wide enough, I think, to encompass any medium and style of expression. What he is asking for in art is intelligence. Not cleverness, but intelligence, a show of reflection and care.
What he is arguing against is pseudo-intelligence, pseudo-spirituality, and contrived ideas about creativity. Spalding's argument is not against any particular artists' work but against the entire structure of Byzantine politics and machinations behind the tyranny of art world's decision-making process.
His plea is one that would have art itself "function" creatively, not just made in the name of anything-goes. Spalding's general definition of art by way of an attitude is that art is a compression, not just expression, of intelligence, love, observation, insight, reflection, care, and reconfiguration of vital human experience so as to deliver us ultimatley to that realm whose name is now considered taboo to mention: beauty and grace.
Spalding's brief analysis of the history of art education in Britain, of Marcel Duchamp's role in the (d)evolution of modern art, and of the reasons behind the rise of Jackson Pollack in the identity-desperate postwar US, and comparison of Pollack's work with that of Edward Hopper are very illuminating even as he tracks the eclipse of art.
In Romania a man who had committed suicide by hanging himself in the sculpture garden section of a public park was left hanging for nearly two years because everybody thought it was a "work of art." If you think you too might have walked past a dead man thinking it was art just because it was in a "art" park, then this is a book for you. Highly recommended.