Head to head: Hit the canvas

Does art mean anything any more? On the eve of the Venice Biennale, the ICA's Emma Dexter argues abstractions with 'Art Review' editor David Lee
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Pro-contemporary art

"Contemporary art is going everywhere all the time. It is like a nucleus that is exploding. On one level you've got a painting revival, and on another level you've got a whole group of artists in America and in Europe who are infiltrating systems, setting up banks and agencies, and other people working on the Internet. Next week's Venice Biennale is a bit like a trade show for contemporary art. I think Gary Hume [representing Britain] is a strong contender for the Biennale prize. In some ways, he is one of the most popular of the Young British Artists. It's a combination of the visual pleasure of his works and of quite an easy, light subject-matter, but there's also something quite brooding. And there's also the whole art-theoretical discourse that you can go into about the works' relationship to modernism, about the way they act as a mirror so that you are constantly aware of yourself in relation to the image.

Contemporary art is such a broad field you really can't generalise about it. I think it's a cliche, but it's probably true, that you can characterise the YBAs, or the people who have become known as that, as having quite a pop content and form, which is part of the reason it has been taken up by the mass market, and by newspapers and style magazines. I think it's more user-friendly than past art and reaches parts that previous artists would never have dreamed of. The Myra Hindley piece in Sensation, for example, ended up being discussed around every tea table in the land.

Compared with the Eighties, there is so much more hunger and understanding, interest and openness about the possibility of how art can actually talk about people's lives. In a way it's this wonderful rollercoaster we're on, and we don't know where it's going."

Emma Dexter is exhibitions organiser at the Institute of Contemporary Art, The Mall, London SW1

Anti-contemporary art

"Not all contemporary art is produced by attention-seeking buffoons, although the public might be forgiven for thinking it is. Unfortunately, it is the masters and mistresses of self-promotion, with their Himalayan arrogance, who monopolise visual arts coverage. Like the social realist hacks under Stalinism, these happy few artists are lavishly promoted by the State. Indeed, the clammy relationship between State funding and certain privileged corners of the private sector will be exposed in the future for what it is, corrupt and corrupting.

The institutionalising by the State of certain types of so-called 'cutting- edge' contemporary art has done nothing for the promotion of art to the population at large; instead it has merely hardened suspicions and encouraged derision. Of course, when work is about nothing as, for example, is the case with all abstract painting, anything can be claimed for it and herein lies the great confidence trick. In their desperation to find significance in works where none resides, establishment critics and cliques resort to venturing laughably far-fetched explanations or simply write unintelligible bollocks. This desperate situation will lead, in a week's time, to a banal painter of no discernible ability or conviction - Gary Hume - receiving pounds 250,000 British Council backing when he represents Britain at the Venice Biennale.

To me, it is shocking that at this last breath of the most violent and disgusting of all centuries, those visual artists promoted by the State, like Hume, have no profound or moving visual insights to offer and no means of communicating them if they had. The future for those seeking pleasure from visual art is grim."

David Lee is editor of the monthly 'Art Review' magazine

Interviews by Kate Mikhail