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eclipse of art

Post #77 • August 7, 2003, 7:59 AM

I read Julian Spalding’s The Eclipse of Art: Tackling the Crisis in Art Today on the plane going out to San Diego last month, and found in it a sound argument. He notes that the art world is in a period of eclipse of language (here he means foundational skills), learning, content, and judgement, and calls for support of art which heralds the passing of these eclipses. I found it similar in some ways to Suzi Gablik’s Has Modernism Failed?, which (if a ten-year-old memory of reading it serves me) called for a similar revitalization of art, albeit through mechanisms of social function that are alien to how art has been handled by society over the last 150 years, and are ultimately utopian and useless. Spalding’s suggestions, by contrast, have faith in art’s power as art. He notes accurately that great numbers of artists have not subscribed to the dominant values of contemporary art-making (shock is good, tradition is bad, etc.) and are continuing to labor away. While Eclipse is critical about the art world as it stands, it doesn’t call for an attack on it; even while lamenting current art affairs, Spalding sees their passing and replacement with happier times as inevitable.

Since it is such a reasonable argument, I suppose it was equally inevitable that someone would compare Spalding to Hitler. Waldemar Januszczak, quoted in the Guardian, said that Eclipse was

“an unusually awful art book… a bog of inaccuracies, assumptions, prejudice and melodrama [created by an] aesthetic unabomber”. For example, Spalding writes that Marc Quinn’s head made of blood was accidentally defrosted and melted away. “No it didn’t… I saw it with my own eyes a couple of weeks ago.” And the “preposterous” central proposition that modern art “isn’t just going through a bad patch but entering an eclipse” – arrived at when Spalding saw a solar eclipse in Cornwall – reminded Januszczak “of Hitler’s decision to start the Nazi party when sitting alone on a Bavarian mountain top, feeling ecstatic”.

The Quinn head he saw must have been a replacement – the one that melted made headlines the world over. But who is this guy? A vituperative critic with a tin eye (he called Howard Hodgkin “the Walt Disney of British Abstraction”) and a tendency to think of Nazis when he sees something he doesn’t like. A little poking around on the Internet turned up something he had written about British dog breeders:

If the Nazis were doing this to people, we’d be calling it eugenics, but when the British do it to their dogs, it’s just a bit of fun and out come the marquees.

It’s a pattern.

Spalding made an interesting point while defending himself in Spiked (thank you, ArtsJournal):

The battles of modern art were fought within the world of art, not outside it, as they are today. Matisse could coin the term ‘cubism’ to express his contempt for what Picasso and Braque were doing, but this didn’t mean he was immediately banished to join the philistines outside the magic circle of art. The radical and the traditional were all part of one activity, they shared the same language – the creation of art. Today it is very different. If you criticise Beuys or Andre, Hirst or Emin, you’re immediately dismissed as old and reactionary, as I know to my cost.

Sounds familiar.

I recommend Eclipse highly. I also recommend the United Kingdom, which has better arts covergage in better newspapers, nastier critics, and braver champions of common sense.

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