Entry from December 10, 2009

Great news, everybody! According to Alastair Sooke, writing in the Daily Telegraph of London, “art is beautiful again.” He was led to this conclusion by the award of this year’s Turner Prize for artists under 50 to a 49-year-old Scot named Richard Wright, whose winning entry consisted of an elaborate and undoubtedly handsome design in gold leaf “like a bolt of the finest damask wallpaper” on the wall of the Tate Britain gallery — a work of art which will be painted over when the exhibition of the other short-listed candidates’ work is taken down. “A glorious, eminently civilised work,” writes Mr Sooke of the piece in question,

it looks gossamer-delicate, as though it has been woven out of sunbeams. For anyone who thinks that contemporary art is nothing but the dreck and detritus of perverted imaginations, Wright”s painting provides a beautifully lucid counter- argument. It speaks of the exaltation of the human spirit, of our finer instincts and loftier ambitions, of the ability of the soul to soar and sing. It heralds nothing less than the return of beauty to modern art.

Doubtless Mr Wright’s famous victory is the more to be welcomed for having been up against the work of Lucy Skaer, which “includes a sperm whale’s skull and 26 skittle-like objects modelled from compressed coal dust after Brancusi’s Bird in Space sculptures” and Roger Hiorns, who is said to have “atomised a passenger jet engine into a troubling but beautiful heap of dust in various shades of grey.”And this is kid stuff by comparison to the entry of Enrico David which “comes closest to the familiar Turner Prize shock tactics with an installation that nods at children’s toys, gay sex, Kenneth Williams and the erotic possibilities of builders’ behinds.” In such a context, who, without any vested interest in the art-as-junk and art-as-shock conceptualists, would not welcome a “return of beauty to modern art”?

Certainly I would, if I thought that Mr Wright’s opus did indeed herald such a thing. But although I agree that — on the basis of the photographs, anyway — his work could be described as beautiful, I can’t help harboring the suspicion that it is not likely to work out quite as Mr Sooke and I would both wish it to do. If, as Lionel Trilling wrote, the intersection of literature and politics is “the bloody crossroads,” then the intersection of art and publicity is the crossroads where suicides and treasure are buried and only to be approached with extreme caution. The Turner Prize has always involved marketing shock to sell junk as art, and it has now shocked once again by refusing to shock — than which, in the context of the international art market today, nothing could be more shocking.

In other words, at the risk of sounding cynical, I wonder if Mr Wright isn’t just another in the long line of shrewd self-publicists who have won the prize by correctly judging what sort of work is most likely to make news? This year, that has proven to be a retro bit of interior design that has the added attraction, so far as the media are concerned, of being unavailable for purchase. As Mr Wright himself told The Times of London, “The most important thing is that the paintings are painted over. . . This work is not for the future. It’s for now. If something is really important enough it will survive.” Or, as Rachel Campbell-Johnston puts it: “Wright suggests that we question the power of capitalist markets, perhaps. His murals cannot be owned.” The paradox of the art so unshocking that it shocks is thus repeated in that of the work so uncommercial that it creates a huge commercial demand. “I’d like him to do my living room,” The Times reports one excited art-consumer’s saying on seeing Mr Wright’s act of beauty at the Tate.

To the shock, then, that the work should be unashamedly pretty we may add the shock that it should not be shocking as well as the additional and perhaps greatest shock of all, namely the suspicion that it is a bit of glorified interior decorating. Not that I have anything against interior decorating any more than I do beauty in art. But something tells me that we won’t be returning to Leonardo or Rembrandt — or even Picasso or Mondrian — the next time the Turner is up for grabs.

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