Once upon a time, way back in 2002, Guardian arts writer Jonathan Jones wrote an admirably harsh review of Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi’s exhibition “The Desert Is Not Silent”. Given complex works like The Challenge (pictured above) – a tribute, the catalog said, to Papa Gaddafi’s defeat of “the powers of the new crusade” – Jones was able to accurately determine that hey, maybe these aren’t fantastic pieces of art. And holy shit, is he not going to let it go.
Now, of course, there’s no reason Saif should be a good artist. There are, statistically, very few good artists among the general populace, and I’m willing to guess that all of that small group have spent significantly more time honing their skills and engaging with theoretical discourse than Muammar Gaddafi’s son – after all, helping out around the house with dad’s tyrannical regime takes time away from other pursuits. Jones, though, is pretty sure that it’s not the lack of art school or painting experience that doomed Saif, but rather the dictating thing itself. After all, as he has explained before, “[t]he best art is born from democracy”.
It’s at that point that I have to say no. I agree, of course, that the best art for us, now, as citizens of Western democracy, is that art which has been made under a Western democracy. I think that for the same reason Martin Lawrence’s time-traveling character in the immortal film Black Knight had so much trouble communicating with the locals: I just don’t get the worries of people who don’t live roughly as I do. That said, Jones takes a different tack: in Jones’s world, the democracy’s primacy as a form of government leads directly and unavoidably to the primacy of democracy’s painting, sculpture, and performance as a form of culture:
You could argue that the amazing cultural strength of America 60 years ago, when Jackson Pollock was painting, was down to a cult of freedom. The old complaint that abstract expressionism embodied American values in the cold war misses the point; or rather it hits it ass-backwards. Did Pollock fit an American more than a Soviet view of life? Er, yeah, in the sense that his art captured the liberty and energy of living in a country where you elect your leaders and can say what you like about them. So did modern jazz. So did rock’n’roll … and so does Tracey Emin.
Not only is that logic nonsense – the best government no more necessarily makes the best art than the best hotel necessarily has the best towels – but it ignores the obvious facts of contemporary art’s general failure to fulfill society’s demands for culture. The simple unpopularity of contemporary art today – whether measured in museum attendance, art blog comments, or the pitiful number of successful artists our society can support – proves that it is not successfully representative, and I find it very, very hard to picture an art world which is democratic without simultaneously being populist.
In any case, it doesn’t seem to matter much, because despite all the lovely freedoms our artists enjoy today, Jones still isn’t happy:
Say we agree, generously, that 20 artists genuinely mattered in late 19th-century France at the dawn of modernism, one of the truly great moments of art history. Now, how many living British artists are regarded as important, unmissable, revolutionary? To judge from the bonanza of 21st-century British art touted in newspaper articles, art fairs, group shows, magazines and a host of solo shows at legions of galleries, there must be — what? — a hundred, no, more like two hundred names to conjure with.
So this must be the greatest moment ever in the story of art, a cultural golden age to put fifth-century Athens to shame.
Or could 21st-century British art possibly be overhyped?
Well, shit. Turns out for all our liberalism, the slave-owning male landowner-dominated fifth century togafest still made better art. Maybe I’m missing some nuances, but maybe, just maybe, we should revisit that “old complaint” about Pollock’s essential Americanness:
Ever since the capital of the arts switched from Paris to New York following the Second World War, the art world had, after all, been structured on the cold war division of East and West. The state-supported high art of each was a negative image of the other: if the art of the East had to conform to and represent a specific ideology and have a particular social use, then the art of the West must be apparently free of any such direction, and attain perfect uselessness. If the art of the East celebrated the achievements of humanity, and particularly of socialist Man, then the art of the West must focus on humanity’s limits, failures, and cruelties (all the while holding out the hope that art itself, in its very excavation of these troubles, may be an achievement in itself). (Julian Stallabrass)
Is Jones anything more than a pawn in this continuing culture war?