Art in the Abstract Age

Throughout history Humankind has evolved by imitating the example of the natural world, and the belief that innovations based on natural strategies are inherently more efficient and effective has served us well. It’s known today as Biomimetics and in science, medicine, and engineering we rely on it every day. But will that always be the case? Many believe that the 21st century will see our final emancipation from Mother Earth as if in discovering the Higgs boson the Large Hadron Collider has finally broken the cord. Isn’t this the Technological Age, after all? In some ways, yes – but in others it might be as well described as the Abstract Age.

Working in the realm of wild abstraction is probably essential if you’re on a voyage of discovery at the cutting edge of particle physics, but I think an obsession with the eccentric has stunted and diminished art and now threatens to do the same in the wider world. Today we have denigrated the traditional and elevated the offbeat to the point where millions of people thought making an idiotic TV personality president of the most powerful nation on Earth was a good idea. That said, Donald Trump’s famous disregard for facts makes him the ideal leader in the Abstract Age. Children in America have long been told that anyone can become president and now perhaps for the first time they can truly believe it! At a time when racism, sexism, and homophobia are less tolerated than at any previous moment in human history America elected the most racist, sexist, and homophobic leader it has had since Andrew Jackson. But this is the Abstract Age – and this kind of thing happens.

Maybe in the Abstract Age anything really is possible if – as we are always being told – we just want it enough. But isn’t this the same cruel lie that has left half of the adult population under 25 queuing outside the NEC waiting to have their big dream shattered by a small man in stacked heels? Or could it be true that the only reason every kid with two left feet isn’t playing for Chelsea is because they just didn’t want it enough. The other day it occurred to me how much I really wanted to be an internationally renowned neurosurgeon and so, buoyed by the possibility, I immediately emailed the Mayo Clinic offering to perform an auditory brainstem implant. Disappointingly I’m still yet to receive a reply. Maybe I just didn’t want it enough. After all, whilst my surgical career has been held back by my complete lack of understanding, training, skills, and natural ability many abstract artists have thrived in the Modern Art world despite possessing similar limitations. Rothko, Pollock, and Klein – now they all obviously wanted it enough.

When that imp of the perverse Marcel Duchamp famously gave birth to Postmodernism in a urinal he unwittingly ushered in a century of art by and for the cynical. And that, as it turned out, is okay because in the Abstract Age artists – like presidents – no longer need worry about being any good, just iconoclastic.

But each Age to its own. In the 18th century the art-hording Georgian aristocracy bought their Italian Old Masters, in the 19th century the art-loving Victorian Middle Classes bought their British landscapes, and in the 20th century the artless Oligarchs began buying Pop Art, Primitivism, and Abstract Expressionism; art made especially for the appreciation of people without an artistically inclined bone in their bodies.

A reactionary antiquarian like me may believe the painting and sculpture of the past century to be the most puerile, repetitive, and downright dull period in the history of art but no one can knock its commercial and critical success. From Andy Warhol to Ai Weiwei, for the past fifty years the international art market has been a brilliantly orchestrated confidence trick dominated by vainglorious graphic designers and window dressers with delusions of grandeur – and they have all made fortunes.

No wonder then that producers of almost every conceivable commodity have followed their lead, deliberately diluting their wares in order to appeal to the greatest number of potential buyers. Brewers now make flavourless ‘lite’ beer for people who don’t really like beer, film studios make insipid superhero movies for infantile adults who otherwise wouldn’t go to the cinema, and in ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ TV producers have been so kind as to make comedy for people with no sense of humour, so why shouldn’t Jeff Koons make art that everyone can ‘get’, principally because there is nothing to get.

Marcel Duchamp is oft quoted as saying “anything is Art if the artist says it is”, but despite all the evidence to the contrary in this the Abstract Age I still believe that the opposite is true; anything can only be called Art when someone else says it is.