Sunday, November 08, 2009

"We are a corrupt people involved in a collective lie"

I take the title from a recent blog post by the Guardian arts critic Jonathan Jones. What he actually says is "We are a corrupt people, apparently, involved in a collective lie." I'm interested in that "apparently" surrounded on each side by a comma. It's a brilliant line, and I'll come back to it's meaning in a little while, but first that "apparently." Does he mean "we are a corrupt people apparently" or that we are "apparently involved in a collective lie" or both? It's important. The sentence, I feel should read, "Apparently, we are a corrupt people involved in a collective lie", since he's using the phrase with some irony. It would not work otherwise - for he is not talking about our politics, or our ethics, but about our art.

There's comedy in the phrase, and it's asking the unaskable question. If, (to remember Pangloss in "Candide") we are living in the best of all possible times (for art) then how come the art isn't greater than it is? And though Jones is talking about the UK contemporary art scene he could, one extrapolates, be talking of art in this country (or this English-speaking culture, to be more accurate) in its entirety. It was a question I began to ask at the recent AND Festival in Liverpool: I was intrigued by this idea of a new art that sits between cinema-digital technology-games and visual art; but does it actually exist? More importantly, is it any good? I can well believe that we are living in a golden age for technology, but does this translate to art?

To go back to Jones, it's clear that contemporary art, in the echoing chamber of the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, and in the slipstream of the YBA's, Sensation, and the Frieze fare, does exist as a phenomenal commercial success, but as an artistic success? Those agent provocateurs, Hirst and Emin, seem increasingly likely to be remembered for their historical rather than artistic role; whilst the artists that I rated highest, Gillian Wearing, Rachel Whiteread, and Anthony Gormley, are at interesting points in their careers, their best works already iconic, and part of the language, and a question remaining over whether what they do next can extend their reputations, or risk cliche.

Yet, outside of the gallery, there are few art forms that have had a renaisance over the last 20 years. Theatre's new trick, first showcased in David Hare's "The Permanent Way", - the documentary drama - seems to show that television has taken over the theatre in more ways than one; whilst it would be a brave critic who argued that the latt decade in pop music or film was up there with the highlights of the past. A cliche it maybe to laud its achievement, but the American TV drama of the The Wire, The West Wing, 24 and the Sopranos, may well be the leading cultural achievement of the last dozen years - that and reality TV, which at least has the benefit of not aspiring to high art.

For literature a close reading of the prize shortlists, whether for poetry or the novel, indicates that there has been no presiding spirit or leading group of writers; that Martin Amis and Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes remain the big hitters of fiction, and poetry hasn't had a new "star" for 20 years or more, yet literature like art, remains in a constant state of cheerleading. There have been some good books over the last decade or so, even if by long-established authors, yet it's clear that the new century, a decade in has not seen a narrative or lyrical surge to match our technological advancement. You won't read this anywhere in the critical infrastructure, which speaks of each Booker shortlist as "a very good one", or our annual poetry crop as "a very good year for poetry". The hundreds, now thousands, like myself, who've been through the creative writing courses; the every-town-has-one literary festivals; none of this seems to have created, as yet, a new golden age for literature. In fact, what seems most apparent, is the intolerance shown to voices that are not firmly in the mainstream, or writing with the values and aims of the commercial fiction writer. Here as elsewhere one can only ask. Are we a corrupt people involved in a collective lie? Apparently.

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