Books in Brief

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Art Has No History: The Making and Unmaking of Modern Art ed John Roberts, Verso pounds 13.95. Of course art has history. But who makes and unmakes this history? And if art is irretrievably shot through with history and theory, we need to re-examine the provenance of art histories as well as understand the breadth of their influence.

Written from a Marxist perspective, this challenging and often iconoclastic anthology considers the nature of this influence on the work of 10 artists, some of whom are already in the Modernist canon (Francis Picabia, Ad Reinhardt, Jasper Johns), others important contemporary artists (Victor Burgin, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Anderson).

Leftist politics may be in disarray but leftist critics can usefully address some of the questions that dominate the making of art today. For example, why don't artists paint beautiful pictures any more? Of course, there are many painters who still do. Paul Wood, in his essay on the painting of Gerhard Richter, considers the fluctuating status of painting and aesthetics in the 20th century. Painting has held a traditionally elevated place in the hierarchy of art making; perhaps as a consequence, many artists have subsequently felt restricted by the much-used language of paint. Some find that formal beauty in art provides the viewer with a deluded sense of well-being which provokes neither self-reflection nor discussion.

The intense desire to inspire debate - and how Jasper Johns achieves this with his sculpture 'Painted Bronze (Savarin)' - is considered by Fred Orton, who also questions the role of the artist. The artist has served society and culture in different ways, and though many people want to find a redemptive quality from beauty in art, there is an expectation that artists should reflect the world and help us to make sense of it. When Duchamp first showed his urinal, the artist as inventor as well as creator had arrived. Though the use of defamiliarised materials was only a part of the reason for the great discussion that ensued, spectators in the Nineties will be aware that this dislocation of the familiar has become de rigueur, presumably for the reason that it does unsettle us and make us think.

Contemporary artists are a contemplative lot. An anxiety about what art is and the weight of history and theory has induced a difficult self-consciousness. This hesistancy may partly explain why many artists have extended the resources for their work far beyond the confines of conventional fine art history to include fields as diverse as anthropology and semiotics. This has resulted in some eclectically inspired art. In todays' pluralism and diversity there is a will to reclaim a connectedness which was so often absent in the Modernist movement and its sometimes rabid quest for the new.

The art critic and historian have a lot to answer for. In this re-evaluation of traditional art history of the Modernist movement, we see how vested interests shape opinion and engender an atmosphere in which certain types of art are made. The currently blurred boundary between critic and artist (some of the contributors here are artists) allows for an exchange that is not limited to matters of aesthetic consideration, but encompasses areas that range from the gendering of identity to questions of the nature of being. Making sense of the artist/art critic dynamic goes a long way towards helping us make sense of modern and contemporary art.