BOOKS / In the frame: Race, sex and gender in contemporary art

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The Independent Culture
MUSEUMS, cemeteries] . . . Identical, surely, in the sinister promiscuity of so many bodies unknown to one another. Museums: public dormitories where one lies forever beside hated or unknown beings. Museums: absurb abbatoirs of painters and sculptors ferociously macerating each other with colour-blows and line-blows, the length of the fought-over walls . . .

This broadside from the First Futurist Manifesto of 1909 might, as Edward Lucie-Smith says in Race, Sex and Gender in Contemporary Art (Art Book International), be as revealing about the displays in the museums of 80-odd years ago as about the radicalism of the Futurists. You don't have to go back nearly that far to remember when most galleries and museums were dusty, suffocating and alienating, whatever goodies were to be discovered inside. By the mid-Sixties, though, things had changed drastically for the so-called avant garde, as well as for the public; by then, Lucie-Smith says, museums 'provided avant-garde artists with their most effective platform', and 'the kind of work (they) produced was predicated on the existence of a museum space ready and willing to receive it'.

This state of things is so familiar that it has ceased to seem strange. Anyone who likes contemporary art is pleased that adventurous work should be on public display pretty much as a matter of course. But it is paradoxical, really, that (if Lucie-Smith is right) the self-designated avant garde should be so completely, and contentedly, the housepet of official and commercial institutions - and that those institutions should have an interest in encouraging that kind of work, as part of their raison d'etre. Taken to the extreme, this would mean that there can really be no such thing as a counter-culture, an anti-establishment, when one of chief characteristics of the 'dominant ' culture is to be bendy enough to accommodate all comers.

Lucie-Smith's book, which is ostensibly about contemporary art that comes at an oblique angle to the mainstream, for reasons of racial, sexual or gender 'difference', in fact ends up outlining, rather than discrete groupings, precisely this process of integration. The book begins with his claim that the rise to prominence of minority cultures is 'the most significant development in the art world' since the mid-1980s. In 10 sections - the obvious ones such as 'Minority sexuality' and 'Feminist art', as well as regional divides - he takes the general reader by the hand, very nicely and enjoyably, for a brisk tour through the history and development of the art in question, and the main arguments surrounding it. There's nothing to strain the grey cells unduly, and he valiantly avoids jargon. He is at his best (and, probably, happiest) when abroad: in talking about modern Africa and Asia, for instance, or Aboriginal and Maori art. The chapter called 'Art as a Substitute Religion', which ought to be where things start warming up, is brief and disappointing - although he does discuss the way museums have changed from places of entertainment or education into secular temples, with the power to transform their contents.

That is not to say that Lucie-Smith shirks the theoretical. He starts, boldly enough, with the need for avant-garde art to validate itself by being 'transgressive': 'Since other markers of artistic merit - such as quality of workmanship - are now largely disregarded, the issue of priority, generally judged by the extent to which the work of art seems out of step with other works of the same epoch, has become very important. The paradox is that the work of art is no longer seen as something which truly represents its time and is important to it, unless it challenges the norms of that time.'

It is obvious that minority art fits the bill here, better than any other; what is striking, too, is the extent to which society's norms can be challenged by artists, with impunity. Society likes it. Transgress all you want, it seems to say: we'll put you in a museum and come to see you. That's what artists are for. And if you substituted the word 'book' for 'work of art' in the quote above, it would be equally true. Exactly this enthusiastic validating of (in fact, hot competition for) anything that comes with minority credentials happens with writing too - and the 'minority' label sticks tight, despite that fact that such work is arguably easier to publish, promote and sell than that of, say, white, middle-class, southern heterosexuals. In other words, the same process, not only of outsiders coming in from the cold (which is already miles out of date, as a notion), but of 'outsiders' being the inside, applies again. And a discussion of minority art and writing turns into one about museums and publishing houses. This is the Nineties.

(Photograph omitted)