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Martin O'Neill © 1998

 

 
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The degenerate bourgeois effusions which inhabit our great art galleries should, in no way, be thought of as the real artistic legacy of our time. The art and music of 'high-culture', as a matter of course, and as we should expect as we enter the later stages of capitalism, has withered into irrelevance. Just as it discards any social function, or communicative role, so it predictably becomes the play-thing of the fickle and peripheral haute-bourgeois class - the cadres pouring out of Goldsmith's, the weakly post-modern, the decadent and bilious foam on the mighty river of international capital. If we want to look for the real artistic production of our era, then we need to understand the migration of artistic forms that the last thirty or forty years has witnessed. This essay ventures to make some preliminary suggestions about the direction in which that migration has gone, and look to identify the real art objects of our time - and what, in consequence, our descendants will take to be the true artistic legacy of the late twentieth century.

The critic and art theorist Charles Fried characterises artistic modernity as a concern for exploring the conditions of possibility of the art-form in question. This, obviously, results in a self-reflexivity in subject matter. Form becomes content. Painting moves, in its modernist phase, from its traditional wish to transcend the two-dimensionality of the artist's canvas, seeing this as a mere contingent corollary of the main business of depiction, to foregrounding this very two-dimensionality as being the essential characteristic of the activity that is painting - that is, the daubing of canvasses with paint. This process reaches its apex (nadir, perhaps?) in the work of someone like Jackson Pollock (or, to be speak more accurately, in the work of Jackson Pollock - not someone like him). Now, once you've had Pollock, and Rothko, and their remedial children - the painters of white shapes on white backgrounds, and of processions of red squares, and so on - then it becomes problematic as to where one heads next. The modernist project reaches its telos, or, more properly, its terminus. Hence, we come to post-modernism.

"Post-modernism" is a term that first gets coined with respect to architecture, in a context in which it means something, that is, the thing that happened immediately after internationalist modernism in building design . This is, incidentally, the reason why the Lloyds Building in London, and every other office-block, don't have to look like the World Trade Centre. Contemporarily, the term floats more or less free (which, I suppose, is more or less apt) and occupies a number of interesting roles- term of abuse, shibboleth, grouping category for sets of ideas associated with anti-essentialism, what the trendier academics do, methodological pluralism, philosophical pragmatism, opposition to the Enlightenment, and a myriad more. Of course, it is appropriate that the term should not be properly characterisable in an essentialist sense - it would, indeed, be a bizarre irony if it could be. In fact, in most real world discourse, there is no real distinction in usage between 'modernism' and 'post-modernism', so in a thick sense, there is no actual distinction. People will happily call Deleuze & Guattari's Qu'est-ce que la philosophie? a work of post-modernity, but one could hardly imagine a more concretely modernist title. So: to be pleasingly bowdlerizing, modernity is about po-faced self-reflexivity, whilst post-modernity is about playful self-reflexivity. One or other of them, or something very like them, is now unavoidable in artistic production: this kind of self-reflexivity has become part of us. Innocence, one lost, cannot be regained. However, whilst this makes artistic production more theoretically troublesome, it is not our core problem, merely part of its explanation.

The real problem is with regard to the stuff that goes in art galleries, and the people who produce it. What has happened is that the process by which form has become content has fed through into an degenerative, or perhaps epicyclic process, whereby terminal self-reflexivity has set in. Art, in this sense, has just stopped. Take Damien Hirst's The Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (that is, the shark suspended in vitrine), the totemistic 'art object', traditionally conceived, of the 90s in Britain. The complex theoretical ways in which it is unmitigated rubbish are manifold. Unable to directly express, or to show, its concerns - one might suppose, those of the nature of life & death, and of sculpture - it simply says them. It does no more than to quote directly from Jeff Koons' basketballs in vitrine, and its relation to the earlier work becomes a large part of own status as art-object. Koons, a joyfully self-confessing charlatan who demurs from actually manufacturing his own art-objects, and achieved notoriety for his marriage to the Hungarian-Italian porn-star and parliamentarian La Cicciolina, represents something of a reductio ad absurdum of self-reflexive (post-)modern 'gallery art'. If Pollock is the terminus, then Koons is when the train runs through its buffers, smashes into the station concourse, and demolishes John Menzies and Sock Shop. But at least he manifests his own insubstantiality and vapidity. That Hirst has to reference Koons to make his point leaves us bereft of train/terminus metaphor altogether. In Hirst's work, we don't just have form as content, or as Marshall McLuhan puts it "the medium as message", we have form as content, where that form is in turn just a quotation from an earlier form, which in turn is part of an abandonment of solid conceptions of both form and content. We have froth upon froth upon froth upon froth.

And who goes to see it? Very few people. The haute-bourgeois. Late capitalism's leisure class. And who pays for it? Charles Saatchi. A man, as I need hardly point out, who was the absurdly well-paid propaganda monger of the destructive and malevolent Thatcher governments of the last decade. So: this stuff, that goes in galleries, is about art that is about art that is about art, it is made by artists who are as self-reverential and self-obsessed in their lives as they are in their work, and who are overwhelmingly boringly bourgeois, and it is bankrolled by a minion of poverty-creating, antisocial, transnational libertarian capitalism. And I forgot to mention ... people hate this stuff, they laugh at it, they think that it's a fraud, it alienates them from anything called art. The degenerative result of the (post-)modernist drive in high ('gallery') culture is that it comes to be manufactured by the flippant and self-regarding, for the flippant and self-regarding, and is flippantly self-regarding. It's rubbish.

But art is important for the left. Art lets us think odd thoughts, look to the future, conceptualize possibilities, break free, be surprised, engaged, interested. So: the above diagnosis seems to spell bad news. But it doesn't. The real upshot of (post-) modernism is that we have to change where we look for our art, and our assumptions of who might be producing it. Because our art objects are not these 'gallery' objects (or 'gallery noises'). What have we got, then? A few candidates are obvious. Pop music, film, jazz, graffiti, clothes, body piercings, pointless travelling, all fulfil a purpose. The artists of our age are Liam Hewlitt and Quentin Tarantino, not Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread or, for that matter, the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro (what goes for 'gallery objects' goes also for 'the literary novel': for Pollock read Joyce). After these obvious new forms, we have less obvious forms of resistance - other forms of genuine artistic production that undermine, rather than toady to, the dominant bourgeois class - I have in mind things like the design of crazy-golf courses, playing computer games, deliberately rearranging of objects in shops (especially supermarkets). Two 'new forms' strike me above the others, though ... football and motorways.

First: motorways. More specifically, the M25 and the A40(M). Look at the M25: a deformed 'O', ring-fencing London, demarcating forms of space from one another, urban from rural, alpha and omega. Wonderfully, it goes nowhere. Yet it presents itself as a road. Surely this is the central post-modern object of our culture. An absurdist comment on the conditions of necessity of the existence of a thing we might call a road, a senseless sign enveloping the life-worlds of millions. What is more, it is not the product of a single indolent bourgeois, but of the concerted toil of tens of thousands of workers. Brilliant! But, it pales beside the elevated section of the A40(M) - the 'Westway'. No finer building, or piece of public sculpture (for, dear reader, it is both) has been constructed in London in the last hundred years. A playful surge through Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove, swerving joyfully towards Paddington - a muscular beast, both of the city, and acting as a conduit out of it: an arterial fixture, and a sign of beyondness, of escape. Our descendants will dance and drink and live and die on this huge, body-swerving altar of late capitalism, and will wonder at our lack of appreciation of our creation. Even now, the Westway supports, within its proud skeleton, the rich play of west-London life: night clubs, five-a-side football pitches, lock-ups, café's, all nestle under its proud form. It is of its place completely. Settled, sheltering, succouring: a man-made force of nature. This hopeful, playful glyph has more to recommend it than any of our 'gallery objects'. It is not just its physical bulk which makes the Westway too big to fit in any such 'art space': it is simply incapable of confinement, a plenum of force, energizing the city. And we made this thing. Or, rather, scores of workers did. In London, in our life times. We've probably met some of them, and not even thought of it. Our lack of appreciation, though, is a mere lag, an attachment to the old forms. It will change.

So much for motorways. Now football. Specifically: the peak of that form, the 1970 World Cup. More specifically? - The performance of Brazil. Precisely? - Pelé, maybe the truest artist of the late 20th century (maybe not, too: there's Muhammad Ali, after all). Let me talk about Pelé ... Brazil's performance in the Mexico World Cup of 1970, orchestrated by Pelé, is simply the most supercharged piece of genuine art that the post-War world has to offer. Interestingly, all of the greatest moments of that campaign are essentially non-competitive, they call into question the medium of which they are a part, whilst simultaneously transcending it. Football is about winning, about scoring goals, we might imagine. Yet, in his finest moments, Pelé gave us a whole new conceptual schema, a new set of categories, to think about what might be going on. It was in a tournament, there were 22 men on the pitch, but this was more than just football - this was something spontaneous and magical, energizing, questioning, playful, and joyous. This was big.

Let's take Brazil's first-round game against Czechoslovakia, where Pelé lobs the Czech keeper from the half-way line. This is not usually done. It isn't how you score goals. Pelé was failing to follow the rule-book. Many people will list this as the greatest goal ever scored. But it wasn't a goal. Pelé missed. The beauty of what happened makes people mis-remember it as a goal, but the ball did not go in the net. The score didn't change. Similarly, Pelé's famous dummy - many people's goal of the century, until you remember that it was a miss. The point about these moments is that they only make sense given the history and forms of football, and yet run against them. Neither were actions that should be attempted, or that would normally work - and that is precisely why they did work: new forms were being created, the old ways subverted. Pelé is the first football ironist. It is only fitting that he was involved in the two greatest defensive feats in football, both achieved against him. That is, Gordon Banks's save and Bobby Moore's tackle, both in the same England v Brazil game. There is a famous photograph of Pelé and Moore embracing after this game, grinning like holy fools. They both know that they have created something beautiful, something valuable, something bigger than either of them. This is art springing up unbidden in an area of human life where it might not be expected: something real, an antidote to the vacuous products of the bourgeois art machine.

The dialectic of modernism and acknowledgement is nowhere more perfectly dramatized than in Carlos Alberto's goal in the World Cup final, which left Brazil as final claimants of the Jules Rimet trophy, with a 4-1 victory over the Italians. This isn't art by numbers like our bourgeois Hirstian producers, this is the real thing. Pelé receives the ball from Zinho on the edge of the Italian penalty area, facing three Italian defenders. Pelé makes no move forward, but stand with the ball, seeming unconcerned, lazy, uninterested. The game, for a split second, is frozen. There is no clear way forward: indeed, as a game of football, it just, for an instant, stops. What makes football possible seems suddenly absent, roles become ill-defined, everything solid melts into air. The defenders seem confused: they're giving Pelé room, largely because it is Pelé: what's he going to do? Pelé languidly starts turning to his right, rolls the ball off into empty space. Or what seemed like empty space... From out of nowhere Carlos Alberto arrives, strikes the ball with such force that he jumps high into the air as he kicks it, the ball hits the back of the Italian net, goal, victory, reality regained, scepticism overcome. Pelé had suspended the very possibility of conducting football, had called it into question, had created a hiatus in everyone's understanding of what was going on. Scepticism looms, the situation discomposes. And then. And then. Solidarity: the situation is redeemed, transformed, made into a goal, a victory, by embracing the world again, by seeing a comrade that no-one else could see. The problematic is raised, and then dissolved: a moment of alienation, dialectically engulfed by an ebullient reconnection to a comrade, a fellow player, a member of the community. Possibilities, pasts, all merge into a moment of pure aesthetic bliss. A pass from a black man to a white man: a joyous moment of life-affirming, transformative, mestizo celebration. The best goal ever scored, no contest. And Pelé knew what was going to happen, he only looked as if he didn't. That is modern art.

The future of art lies nearer to Geoff Hurst than to Damien Hirst. The World Cup approaches. We should hope for the best.

   
   
   

 

 
   
         

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