Friday 22 April 2011

'The art history we deserve'

Jonathan Jones recently argued in the Guardian that just as Jackson Pollock compelled American art historians to look back over their early 20th century artists and refashion them from provincial talents or local manifestations of international trends into 'part of a proud national art history', a similar thing is currently happening in Britain:

It seems we choose the art history we want, or need. Since Damien Hirst broke the ice at the start of the 1990s, British artists have succeeded and become fashionable at home and abroad. The generation who grew up with this art have now had time to do their PhDs and become curators or lecturers, and the official picture of Britain's art history is changing before our eyes.

Thus the Guggenheim in Venice is doing British Vorticism, the Royal Academy recently celebrated 20th century British sculpture, and Tate Britain is excavating the British art scene from 1900-1990.

However, Jones argues - a small number of exceptions aside - British art from 1900-1940 doesn't deserve to be resuscitated in this fashion:

Phooey, I say. British art in the first half of the 20th century has never been underestimated. It has been accurately seen for what it was, a backwater. Of course there are fascinating figures, like Sickert and Epstein. After the second world war it all gets much more dynamic in the age of Francis Bacon and Richard Hamilton. But come on. Bigging up British modernism from the 1900s to 1940s is a fool's game. You can get carried away by any art. But it does not matter how many Henry Moore statues are exhibited, they still look tame as soon as they are set next to a Picasso.
Which can't help but make you think: what hope New Zealand art from the same period?

In other art history reading: Holland Cotter in the New York Times asks who's going to pay attention to pre-contemporary art - especially non-Western art - now that 80% of applicants to American art history programmes declare contemporary art as their field of choice?*

*Anecdotal figure

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