Philip Hensher: Why big isn't always beautiful

The Week In Culture

Friday 20 February 2009 01:00

An art form is often in trouble, historians tell us, when its products start to get bigger and bigger. The history paintings of the late 18th century, or the epic catastrophes of John Martin in the 19th are signs of decadence. The monstrosities of late Romantic music have only quite recently started to come back into fashion – the colossal orchestras and bloated structures of Reger and Richard Strauss led, inevitably, to a reaction in favour of concision and delicacy.

Some artists can handle massiveness. But most can't, and their technical failings are ruthlessly exposed by the larger scale. The 18th century artist James Barry, a wonderful and extraordinary painter on a smaller scale, was fatally drawn to the enormous, and anyone wanting a good laugh may be recommended to have a look at his Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida in Manchester, or his huge allegorical canvases for the Society of Arts in London.

Walking around two anthology shows recently, I wondered how future generations will look at the visual arts in 2009. The Tate's triennial exhibition seemed full of one gigantic thing after another – reconstructions of whole rooms, magnifications of accordions to human-size, 15ft mushroom clouds made out of pots and pans, and, above all, created environments for people to walk through.

At the Saatchi Gallery's latest exhibition, New Art from the Middle East, a whole room is full of hundreds of praying figures. The paintings and photographs are mostly enormous, and even when it ventures into miniature constructions, as in a model of a Palestinian village by Wafa Hourani, the work is conducted on a large scale overall.

What's going on here? Where are the small-scale, intimate artists? Is there anyone whose burning ambition is for something other than erecting a 160ft horse in Ebbsfleet (and in that case, why not 16ft, or even 1,600ft?) Almost every piece of new work to be seen in museums nowadays seems to have been conceived for a museum, and to grab the attention of the viewer as soon as he glimpses it – it is, very often, not just enormous, but brightly coloured or shiny. How long the attention is kept doesn't seem to concern these artists. And the idea of making anything for a private context, which someone might actually want to pay for and live with, has been delegated to a vast army of second-raters.

The idea of the heroically gigantic has been on the rise for a long time, and much contemporary art appears not to have advanced a great deal since Klaes Oldenburg's huge versions of ordinary domestic objects in the Sixties. I guess the idea of huge, museum-specific art was given its largest gesture of approval in this country when the Tate Modern opened. Its enormous main hall seems to everyone to be a magnificent space.

What future generations will wonder about is the apparent assumption that every important artist's ambitions will focus on the gigantic. Certainly, there have been very good artists who work on their own comfortable scale, who, upon being invited to fill the Turbine Hall, instantly looked uncomfortable – take Anish Kapoor and Louise Bourgeois for example. The fact that they couldn't work on so gigantic a scale doesn't diminish them as artists, though perhaps we might think less of them for having accepted a commission they might have known wouldn't suit them. After all, it would be very surprising if Lucian Freud or Howard Hodgkin found a way to work on a truly colossal scale. But that doesn't affect our sense of their particular greatness.

Among young artists, I have to say, I find an overvaluing of size. Where are the Paul Klees of that generation – Klee, who never painted anything larger than four feet in any direction? Is there anyone at work today who is a tenth as powerful, impressive or as memorable as Klee is? There is a consolation, however. There is a violent reaction coming against all this gigantism, as sure as Christmas.

Trip at the last hurdle

The first volume of Samuel Beckett's letters arrive, published by Cambridge University Press, and a dauntingly scholarly array they prove. Scholars have been working on them for more than 20 years, providing thorough and scrupulous footnoting to Old Sam's juvenile learning. It represents the sort of scholarly enterprise that isn't supposed to happen any more. This, it practically trumpets, is the ne plus ultra of learning and literary detection.

Imagine the editors' feelings, therefore, when the final copy arrives, and the puff on the cover – "the only writer who can sum up the agonies and ecstasies of the 20th century... amazing treasure trove..." is, apparently, penned by one Jean-Michel Rabaté, who is said to work at the University of "Pennsyvania". Oh dear. Misprints are always unfortunate, but this one – well, 20 years of getting your outfit together, and then at the last moment, it's as if someone has dropped egg down your front.

My sympathy goes out to the comedian Lee Hurst (right). Believing that a mobile phone that was following him round the stage in Guildford was filming him, he seized the object and destroyed it. He has just been convicted of causing criminal damage and fined £182, and says that he does not regret what he did at all.

I don't blame him. Though the audience member claims that he was merely texting during the event, nobody can doubt that filming live stage events, to be placed later on websites such as YouTube, is on the increase. I've just looked, and footage of a stage work of mine, I believe illegally filmed, is to be found there. Why should I, or Lee Hurst, or anyone else, allow his work to be published in this way? If every such performance found itself freely available on the internet, then why should anyone go to the expense of creating these works in the first place?

The problem lies with a general belief that all entertainment these days should be free. It's a wonderful idea that books, poems, performances, music, e tutti quanti, should be distributed completely free of charge and without any kind of limitations. I don't expect Lee Hurst needs us to send him contributions towards his £182 fine, but if things continue like this, comedians in the future very well might do.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments