Thursday, August 21, 2008

Hype and fashion

First, there was Courbet. Now, there is Emin.

"Courbet 'paved the way for modernism in art,' Chu writes in the last sentence of her book...[Courbet] 'demonstrated that controversy need not be harmful to an artist’s reputation, as it was just another form of publicity.'

Hooray? Variations on those terms, often employing the shorthand 'hype and fashion,' pop up perennially both in conservative denunciations of new wrinkles in art and in leftish critiques of capitalist culture. Baudelaire[, by contrast]...saw that the fate of true artists would henceforth involve forms of internal exile, even in bright circles of cosmopolitan fame. That sort of compunction was lost on Courbet, and it is hard to imagine, let alone detect, in the conduct of the art world today...Dirty laundry has become the emperor’s new clothes."

-Peter Schjeldahl, "Painting by Numbers," The New Yorker, July 30, 2007

"This may explain why the [Emin retrospective at the Scottish National Galleries] is already proving hugely popular. Many visitors probably expect a voyeuristic thrill; others look forward to confessional, titillating outpourings by a damaged victim/beneficiary of dysfunctional contemporary society. That is why Emin is, after all, noteworthy. What gives her work its consequence is what she unwittingly reveals of the world we inhabit. There, celebrity is more important than real achievement, self-revelation more gripping than anything created by talent and a considerable imagination. For the artist herself, the chief purpose of art is as a means of achieving fame. God help us."

-Frank Whitford, "Fame Academician," The Sunday Times, August 10, 2008

"Hooray?," indeed.

Writing in The New Yorker in 1967, Pauline Kael hailed the arrival of "trash cinema." "Bonnie and Clyde" served as the prototype, a titillating film rife with violence and produced to appeal to viewers on a visceral level. At the time of the film's theatrical release, Kael rightly celebrated the movie as a populist challenge to critical snobbery. Late in life, however, she would bemoan the changing face of Hollywood's offerings. "When we championed trash culture we had no idea it would become the only culture," she said.

I share Kael's distaste for the typically self-conscious, intellectually defensive work of the avant garde, but Tracey Emin's crude publicity stunts are equally distasteful.

Celebrity alone is meaningless and empty...but, depressingly, it seems that just ain't actually so.

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