Having a pop at the absurdities of contemporary art has long been a sport beloved of elements of the press, and it has often been enjoyably and wittily played. The Sun, for example, had great fun in 2001, when Martin Creed won the Turner prize, inviting readers to suggest their own ideas to add to Mr Creed’s scrunched-up paper, Blu-Tack, and lights switching on and off. The British love to puncture anything with a whiff of pretension. Not taking oneself too seriously is regarded as a precious national virtue.
Yet the tone of rightwing attacks on contemporary art has sharpened this year in the wake of the Brexit vote, as the critic JJ Charlesworth pointed out in ArtReview magazine. Michael Gove tweeted on the night of the Turner prize that the works were mere “modish crap” celebrating “ugliness, nihilism and narcissism – the tragic emptiness of now”. He later complained that the “last thing you should try to do if you want to win the Turner is apply oil to a canvas in a manner which is any way representational of man or nature”. He must have missed recent Turner shortlists that have featured figurative work by painters including Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and George Shaw, as well as Paul Noble, who makes exquisitely detailed drawings.
The accusation lurking in the wings is that contemporary art is a complicated con visited on the public by a fanatical set of EU-loving, liberal-elite curators headed by Sir Nicholas Serota, who have set about suppressing floral paintings (former Turner nominee, and sometime flower painter Gillian Carnegie, clearly having slipped through the net).
An analogy was more explicitly drawn by a writer in the Express: “Like EU bureaucrats in denial about Brexit, [curators] fail to acknowledge the disconnect between artists and their audience, blaming ignorance or prejudice for a lack of appreciation.” A strange kind of disconnect, this, that sees almost 5 million visitors a year pour into Tate Modern, and a young wave of contemporary art galleries around Britain, like the Hepworth in Wakefield and Turner Contemporary in Margate, connecting their local communities to the work of artists like never before.
The Daily Mail wrote disparagingly of “those wandering round the Tate [Turner prize show] treating it all immensely seriously, taking photographs with their mobile telephones and narrowing their eyes in a show of intellectual involvement”. Just possibly, those visitors were not in fact faking their interest, but were actually curious and involved. Even if gullible Tate Britain visitors are not to be trusted, perhaps the market, so admired on the right, ought to be – in which case it should be noted that the Turner prize winner Helen Marten is as successful commercially as she is critically.
As for the liberal elite, ask Turner-nominated Michael Dean, who describes his childhood on a Newcastle Upon Tyne estate as “sub-proletarian”. When he made a work partly consisting of £20,435 in pennies (1p below the official poverty line for a family of four) he knows precisely whereof he speaks.
Not all art made now is good; certainly, art of the past should not be flung aside in a relentless search for the next thing. Galleries are not foolproof selectors of the work that will survive. There are toilers on the margins whose work will not get the recognition it deserves, maybe ever. But to suggest that the entire contemporary art world is a conspiracy is, like most conspiracy theories, daft.